Robert Frost 1874—1963
IN 1959 LIONEL Trilling, then one of America’s most prominent literary critics, spoke at a banquet given by Henry Holt and Company on the occasion of Robert Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday. After reviewing Frost’s laudatory critical reception and nearly mythical status, Trilling startled some of his audience by commenting that he thought of Frost as “a terrifying poet.” Trilling was referring to the dark side of Frost’s poetic vision, which is skeptical, sometimes nihilistic, though more stoic than despairing, and nearly always leavened with irony, wit, or play. Frost most deliberately explores a somber view in poems like “The Most of It,” “Desert Places,” “Design,” and “Neither Out Far nor In Deep.” But his poetry cannot easily be divided into dark and light motifs. With a late couplet from In the Clearing (1962) he reminds us that “It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling / To get adapted to my kind of fooling.” Fooling—play—underlies every emotional stance in the poems, and while the consequent ambiguity sometimes underscores Frost’s skepticism it mainly serves to keep his language flexible and witty—and intense.
Several years before Trilling’s speech, Randall Jarrell in “The Other Frost” and “To the Laodiceans”—both of which appear in Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age (1953)—explored the grimmer and more challenging aspects of Frost’s poetry. Jarrell points out in “To the Laodiceans” that a great source of pleasure in Frost’s work is the range from “the most awful and most nearly unbearable parts of the poem, to the most tender, subtle, and loving,” which the poet treats with “so much humor and sadness and composure, with such plain truth” and “a joy strong enough to make us forget the limitations and excesses and baseness that these days seem unforgettable.” Understanding and appreciating its full emotional, psychological, and aesthetic range remains the pleasure and critical challenge of Frost’s work.
Most of Frost’s best-known poetry is set in the landscapes of New Hampshire and Vermont, particularly around the Deny, New Hampshire, farm where he lived for several years attempting to support his family as a chicken farmer and a part-time teacher at Pinkerton Academy. The Deny farm families provided the voices Frost would inscribe in North of Boston (1914) in poems such as “Blueberries,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Code,” and “The Mountain.” Frost was not by birth a New Englander but a Californian, and he wrote at least some of his quintessentially New England poems while living in England. These apparent anomalies should not come as a surprise: Frost approached rural New England with fresh eyes and ears. Moreover—as William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” reminds us—we must bear in mind the role that memory always plays not only in re-creating but in intensifying experience. One of Frost’s favorite New Englanders was Henry David Thoreau who, although a native of Concord and sometimes social in his way, spent his brief life estranged by intellect and sensibility from ordinary New Englanders. Despite assuming the...