At a dinner in Amherst on the day of his eightieth birthday, Frost said: ‘all I’ve wanted to do is write a few little poems it’d be hard to get rid of’. He also commented: ‘We rise out of disorder into order and the poems that I make are little bits of order. It’s as if I made a basket or a piece of pottery or a vase or something and if you suffer any sense of confusion in life the best thing you can do is make little poems. Or cigarette smoke rings. Even those have form.’
THESE NOTES ARE DESIGNED TO COMPLEMENT THE WORK ALREADY DONE IN PREPARATION FOR LEAVING CERT ENGLISH (HIGHER LEVEL). HERE YOU WILL FIND A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS. IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.
THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH MANY OF THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN FROST’S POETRY:
THE TUFT OF FLOWERS (1913)
AFTER APPLE-PICKING (1914)
OUT, OUT.. (1916)
SPRING POOLS (1928)
ACQUAINTED WITH THE NIGHT (1928)
PROVIDE, PROVIDE (1936)
Frost studied the classics, had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and was well-read in European and American literature. Romantic and Victorian poets played an important role in shaping his poetic theory.
ROMANTIC POETRY (1798 – 1832): Romantic poetry was written against a background of social, political, economic and religious change, not unlike the changes experienced by American society from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. Frost was drawn towards aspects of their poetry when formulating his own distinctive poetic style.
- Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, among other Romantic poets, believed that poetry should express the poet’s own mind, imagination and feelings. His emotions, thoughts and experiences should form the central subject in his work.
- The lyric, written in the first person, became the preferred Romantic form. The ‘I’ is usually the poet himself, not a persona created by the poet.
- The natural scene, accurately observed, is the primary poetic subject. Nature is not described for its own sake but as a thought-provoking stimulus for the poet, leading him to more insight or revelation.
- Romantic nature poems are usually meditative poems. The landscape is sometimes personified or imbued with human life. There is a reaction against a purely scientific view of nature. Humans are depicted as isolated figures in the landscape.
- The Romantics subscribed to Wordsworth’s belief that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ and write about them in ‘language really spoken by men’ who belong to ‘humble and rustic life’.
- Wordsworth insisted the poet should use ‘a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’.
- The poet’s visionary imagination rises above the limited, sense-bound understanding and enables him to see things in a new way.
- Romantic poetry is concerned with mystery and magic, folklore and superstition. The role of the imagination is related to the importance of instinct, intuition and the emotions of the ‘heart’ as the source of poetry. (This is also very true of Yeats’ poetry.) According to Coleridge, ‘Deep thinking is attainable only by the man of deep feeling’. The capacity to imagine permits the poet to enter a higher visionary state and regenerate the world.
VICTORIAN POETRY: Frost studied Victorian poetry in great detail. He cited Thomas Hardy and Robert Browning among his favourite poets. Three features of this poetry made a particular impression on him:
- The use of traditional forms, such as the sonnet
- The revival of the narrative poem, prosaic in style and casually colloquial in tone
- An abiding awareness of time and its effect on humans.
SOME THEMES AND ISSUES IN FROST’S POETRY
The Natural World: Frost was a keen observer of the natural world. Plants, insects, geographical features and the seasons have their place in his poetry.
- Creatures: dimpled spiders, trapped moths, bewildered butterflies.
- Plants: butterfly weed, blue or white heal-all, yellow leaves, dark pines, apple trees, russet apples, summer forests.
- The physical world: spring pools, winter snows, the sky, brooks, Vermont mountains.
- The seasons: autumn and winter are the dominant seasons, with falling leaves, bare trees, snow, ice, chill winds and rain.
The natural world is rarely described for its own sake or as a background against which the action of the poem takes place. Instead, nature leads the poet to an insight or revelation. Often a comparison emerges between the natural scene and the psyche, what Frost called ‘inner and outer weather’.
His descriptions of nature are not sentimental. He describes a world that is bleak, empty and cold, where creatures suffer in silence and humans feel isolated. His natural world contains blight, darkness and death and therefore can be threatening, hostile or indifferent.
Isolation and communication: Humans are depicted as figures of isolation in the landscape. Not only are they isolated but they represent loneliness, and thereby acquire symbolic status. Loneliness can be seen as a human condition. Efforts to communicate effectively are at best difficult (‘The Tuft of Flowers’), and are sometimes rebuffed (‘Acquainted with the Night’).
The role of fate and chance: Frost is far less affirmative about the universe than other American writers. Looking at nature, they discerned a benign creator, whereas he saw ‘no expression, nothing to express it’. In Frost’s world, God is either hostile or indifferent to the plight of helpless creatures, who, like humans, are victims of fate or chance. (This theme is dealt with very well in Tennyson’s great Victorian poem ‘Choric Song of the Lotus Eaters’). His poetry records an ever-present, underlying darkness that erupts in a random manner with tragic circumstances. (see ‘Out, out –‘).
Mutability – the effect of time on people and nature: In Frost’s poetry time is sometimes seen as being destructive:
- Yesterday’s flowers wither
- Winter snows melt, spring pools are drained by trees, trees lose their leaves in autumn
- Time destroys beauty, impoverishes the elderly.
The effect of time can be overcome to some extent by the power of memories and the imagination (‘The Tuft of Flowers’).
The role of the imagination: The imagination enables the poet to see the world in a new way. In brief, intense moments he may enter a higher, visionary state. This allows him to regenerate his imaginative and creative capability and provides him with fresh insights and new inspiration for his poetry. This state cannot be sustained for long, however, and he must return to the real world.
STYLE AND TECHNIQUE: SOME POINTS
Language: From his study of Hardy’s writing, Frost learnt how to achieve simplicity in poetry through the use of a few well-chosen words. He made a conscious effort to use ordinary language in his poems and captured the full range of human emotions, from joy to sorrow and from exaltation to fear, through the use of plain, monosyllabic speech. He stressed the importance of colloquial language, as it was appropriate to the subject matter in his verse and made his poetry accessible to a wider audience. Frost played the colloquial rhythms against the formal patterns of line and verse and constrained them within traditional forms, such as the sonnet or dramatic monologue. The plain diction, natural speech rhythms and simplicity of images contrive to make the poems seem natural and unplanned.
Frost used repetition for effect, to emphasise, and to add to the musical quality of his verse. He described sound in the poem as ‘the gold in the ore’ and added that ‘the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other’.
Rhyme: Unlike many American poets in the twentieth century, Frost upheld formal poetic values during changing times, when formal practices were widely abandoned. He emphasised the importance of rhyme and metrical variety, observed traditional forms and developed his technical skills. He could claim without fear of contradiction that ‘I am one of the notable craftsmen of my time’. His poetry is written so that the rhyming ‘will not seem the tiniest bit strained’. He used terza rima, end-of-line rhymes, and full and half-rhyme. He also wrote in blank verse.
Frost used a wide variety of verse forms, including the sonnet, dramatic monologue, narrative and lyric.
Imagery: The imagery in Frost’s poems is deceptively simple. There are images from the natural and the human worlds. Some are everyday and ordinary, some are grotesque and macabre. In a number of poems, such as ‘Spring Pools’, the imagery caries the meaning. Frost uses precise details to re-create the colour, texture and sounds of the world within the poem. This makes his poetry richly sensuous. Yet, using the same technique, he can paint a cold, bleak scene that is chillingly realistic.
His use of similes and metaphors creates layers of meaning in his poems. In ‘After Apple Picking’, for example, the metaphor used is complex. On one level it can be read as a nature poem, while at a deeper level it can be read as a study of the creative process. (And there are other levels in between!).
Tone: The tone of voice used is vital to the meaning in Frost’s poems. His poetry displays a great range of tone, and it may vary considerably within a particular poem. It can be precise and matter-of-fact, sympathetic, sad, relieved, strong and confident, despairing, humorous, dark and ironic, wistful or weary.
First-person narrative: Frost frequently used the first-person for his narrative. The reader is permitted a glimpse into the speaker’s life at a specific moment, often during a crisis. The use of the first person creates a feeling of reliability: the reader is being given a first-hand account of an event, and trusts the accuracy of the narrator. The authenticity of the story is never doubted in ‘Out, out – ‘, for example.
Dramatic stories: A strong narrative structure is apparent in many of Frost’s poems. The narrator takes the reader through a series of events and actions, which lead to a dramatic conclusion. These events are often thought-provoking or provide an insight into life.
SUMMARY OF PRINCIPAL FEATURES IN FROST’S POETRY
- Frost wrote in various traditional forms, including the lyric and the sonnet; he is especially noted for his achievements in blank verse encompassing his narrative monologues and dialogues.
- His themes include the character, people and landscape of New England; fertility and beauty of nature; relationships between individuals and nature, and between individuals themselves; selfhood, love.
- Style: He writes in the New England dialect; his forms are not experimental but are adapted to the poet’s purpose. Visual images and aural images are significant features of his style.
- For Frost, ‘the sound of sense’ has an important bearing on meaning; the sound and tone of words, therefore, are significant.
- Even in so-called nature poems, the person is often to the fore. His focus is nearly always on the individual rather than the community.
- Colloquial and dramatic idiom is preferred to poetic diction.
- Simple poems can be symbolic of ideas that are more profound. (Therefore, tread carefully!)
AN OVERVIEW OF THE POETRY OF
Frost once said that ‘the four things I most wanted to go into in life were archaeology, astronomy, farming and teaching Latin’, but as we now know he also ‘went in’ for poetry. ‘I want to reach out to all sorts and kinds’ he said and it would seem that, in his poetry, he succeeded. As a young man, he was advised by the Reverend William E. Wolcott to write a more heightened, elevated kind of poem. Wolcott thought that Frost’s poetry was too much like the speaking voice but, in fact, this speaking voice, ordinary speech, poetry that talked, was what Frost preferred. Years later, Frost was to see that advice as pivotal in his development as a poet,
‘I’m sure the old gentleman didn’t have the slightest idea he was having any effect on a very stubborn youngster who thought he knew what he knew. But something he said actually changed the whole course of my writing. It all became purposeful’.
In a letter written in 1914, Frost wrote that ‘Words exist in the mouth not books’ and whenever Frost gave a poetry reading, he used the word ‘say’ rather than ‘read’. At one such reading in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, he told his audience: ‘I have a feeling you didn’t understand that poem. I’ll say it again.’
Frost was always interested in the rhythms of natural speech and he was also very interested in formal patterning and rhyme. Free verse (unrhymed, irregular verse) was rejected by Frost. He said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net! In other words, he enjoyed the discipline and restrictions of the net – for example, ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ is written in heroic couplets and he also wrote blank verse and liked the sonnet form (‘Design’).
He chose to write in a language that was close to and inspired by ordinary, everyday speech. But it was not only the language that made him a popular and accessible poet; it was also his subject matter. Frost’s poems are rooted in the natural world but he himself was careful to point out that in his poetry man is almost always part of the landscape. He made New England his own and wrote about ordinary people living ordinary lives. The subject matter of the poems – turning the hay, spring pools, picking apples, a farmyard accident, a spider, walking at night – is described, but the poems go beyond description. (This characteristic of his poetry is probably what attracted Heaney to the poetry of Frost.). In ‘The Road Not Taken’ and many other poems the speaker explores moral and philosophical ideas, so that suggestion is as important as what is being described. Frost said that ‘You don’t want to say directly what you can say indirectly.’ (After all, the reader has to go some part of the journey too!).
The world of Frost’s poetry is beautiful but it is also harsh and uncaring. Frost wrote that ‘Man has need of nature, but nature has no need of man.’ At a dinner in Frost’s honour in New York on the poet’s eighty-fifth birthday (26th March 1959), Lionel Trilling said Frost’s best poems represented ‘the terrible actualities of life’ and. In an essay published in Partisan Review, Summer 1959, Trilling described the world of Frost’s poetry as a ‘terrifying universe’ and one of loneliness, doubts, disappointment and despair and his biography also reveals that his life was a troubled, anxious, sorrowful one.
However, there is not much evidence of this dark side in the poems on our course – especially in the ones highlighted. Instead, for the most part, the voice we hear when we read Frost is a warm, inviting, gentle voice. Lines such as ‘I went to turn the grass once’, ‘I am done with apple-picking now’, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh’, ‘I have outwalked the furthest city light’ are immediate, even colloquial, in tone. In 1939 Frost wrote:
‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me, the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew …. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.’
At a dinner in Amherst on the day of his eightieth birthday, Frost said: ‘all I’ve wanted to do is write a few little poems it’d be hard to get rid of’. He also commented:
‘We rise out of disorder into order and the poems that I make are little bits of order. It’s as if I made a basket or a piece of pottery or a vase or something and if you suffer any sense of confusion in life the best thing you can do is make little poems. Or cigarette smoke rings. Even those have form.’
At the beginning of many volumes of his poems, and also at the beginning of his Collected Poems, is a poem called ‘The Pasture’. It serves as both introduction and invitation. Frost is going out to attend to everyday jobs on the farm but he invites us to look at the world through his eyes, the eye of a poet:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be long – You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be long – You come too.
“Frost’s poems are ‘little voyages of discovery’.” Discuss.
Frost’s world is a rural world, a world of nature and trees, soil and crops. His poetry, like that of Kavanagh, Heaney and others, recreates a local and familiar landscape in which Frost, as a poet and as a person, is in communion. We sense that he knows nature’s spaces. We believe that his is a voice of integrity that invites us into fields and orchards and along the brooks of New England. And we occasionally feel that along the way, we may even discover something of Frost himself.
Frost often shares with us his understanding of the delicate and finely balanced relationships within nature. He writes of nature with a keen eye and respects her beauty and her peculiar ways. In ‘Spring Pools’, for example, there are many evocative images of trees, pools and flowers. The poet observes that the ‘trees have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods’. He goes on to personify nature adding that the trees should ‘think twice before they use their powers / to blot out and drink up and sweep away’ the spring pools. It is a very direct poem, a poem with purpose.
Purpose is also central to ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. We see the speaker searching through ‘an isle of trees’ before stumbling across ‘A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared’. The speaker discovers that, when he acknowledges nature’s presence on the farm, he no longer works alone. In the poem, nature’s ways seem, at first, quite different from man’s. Man appears initially as a destructive force, with a ‘blade so keen’ that ‘levelled’ the scene. The butterfly, returning to alight on the flower of yesterday, now discovers that it ‘lay withering on the ground’. However, nature is resourceful and the butterfly immediately discovers an alternative flower beside ‘a reedy brook’. Ironically, it has been uncovered by the ‘scythe’. The butterfly’s simple, though significant discovery is interesting; it suggests the connections, the interdependence within nature, between butterfly and flower or, as in ‘Spring Pools’, between tree and water. It also suggests the continuity of life, its habitual capacity to survive and regenerate. At the end of the poem, the speaker and the butterfly are seen in harmony, a link established between them. Frost has found meaning in nature and understanding in man, ‘Whether they work together or apart’.
Frost, however, also makes somewhat darker discoveries in nature. At times, these discoveries might be applied to the human space. In ‘Design’, for example, the macabre picture of the ‘fat and white’ spider on the ‘white’ heal-all, carrying a ‘moth / Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth’ shows the exactness with which Frost can depict nature’s creatures. From this deadly, pale procession, the poet reflects that the driving force behind the scene of such cruelty is the ‘design of darkness’. Who is to say that such is not the case in human society and in human community?
Interestingly, though, there is a conspicuous absence of community in his work. Even where the poet comes into the arena of human society, in a poem such as ‘Acquainted with the Night’, there is no sense of contact, of community between people who live along the ‘saddest city’ lanes. It is a place where people drop their ‘eyes’, unwilling to engage, abandoning themselves to insular and isolated lives. The Frost who walks through country paths in ‘The Road Not Taken’ seems much more at ease than the Frost who ‘stood still’ in the city rain.
Nevertheless, in the countryside, Frost himself tends to work ‘alone’, he walks alone, and plays alone, being ‘too far from town to learn baseball’. His main concern, it would appear, is not with community but with the individual identity – of pools, of apples, and of himself. Through his poems, we imagine a man who values self-sufficiency and individualism. He chooses the road ‘less travelled’. He can be seen turning, not outward towards community but inward towards his inner self in ‘After Apple-Picking’ where he reflects that ‘I am over-tired / Of the great harvest I myself desired’. His inward quest is also balanced by his outward journey towards familiar things in nature, giving his verse a reflective and meditative quality, whether he speaks of himself or of nature.
We can, therefore, make little voyages of discovery through Frost’s verse. The poet reveals his interesting and personal insights into nature while he also appears to us, the readers, as sensitive, tender, at times humorous, but especially reflective man. He can be detached from his subject or quite sympathetic to it. In all, we have discovered a poet who is emotionally honest to us, to nature and to himself.
Some personal thoughts on ‘The Road not Taken’
‘The Road not Taken’ has always been a very popular poem. It is a lyric, a first-person narrative tale of a key moment in the poet’s life. In the poem, the speaker, whom we can assume is Frost, is faced with a choice that appears quite suddenly as he walks along a forest track. At this moment, the route on which he has travelled diverges into two separate paths. The speaker faces a difficult decision that has to be made for the moment, yet may have repercussions that last a lifetime. This is what makes the decision so difficult.
If you consider, briefly, some decisions you make in your own life, you know that you might make hundreds of choices in any one day, most without even noticing! Deciding where to go for lunch is usually not too difficult; however, a much more difficult decision is the career to follow after your Leaving Cert. Your choice may affect your life for many years and so you tend to take time and effort in arriving at that decision.
So, Frost comes to a fork in the road. If taken on a literal level, the choice is simply the path along which to continue. However, if these paths are seen in a symbolic way, then the choice is more challenging. Our poetry course has thrown up many examples of where life is seen in terms of a journey on which we will meet many twists and turns. The moment in the poem could be such a moment in anyone’s life.
The poet considers his options carefully. He looks down both paths, ‘as far as I could’ in an attempt to see what they might offer. But his view is limited by the bend as the track veers into the undergrowth. It is, in other words, impossible to foresee what future may lie ahead – and Frost did not seem to have the luxury of a Change-of-Mind slip! At first, each alternative is equally appealing or ‘just as fair’. Similarly, both roads diverge into ‘a yellow wood’. The first path, however, is a more popular route, while the other less-travelled path is overgrown and ‘wanted wear’. The choice is clear but not at all simple: the common, easy path or the unusual, more challenging path? The first road might prove more reliable, even reassuring, for others have gone that way. The more difficult road, however, may produce a less predictable outcome yet perhaps a more fulfilling and individual one.
The poet is aware that the minor difference between the paths at this time will become major differences as the paths diverge further into the woods and into the future. Each path is attractive and alluring in its own way, but he cannot travel both. You can’t have your cake and eat it! This he regrets. Nonetheless, he decides.
Even as he travels his chosen path he still wonders about the path he has rejected and hopes to keep ‘the first for another day’. Yet, he knows in his heart that ‘way leads on to way, /I doubted if I should ever come back’. The poem, in this way, suggests that we can only hope to explore a very limited number of life’s possibilities. Finally, the poet ‘sighs’, happy with his choice, yet wondering what if…..? What experiences might have occurred along the other path? Certainly, his choice has ‘made all the difference’. That is gratifying; the decision has had a positive effect on his life and he is thankful for that and overall seems pleased with the road he has chosen.
This poem reminds us that important decisions in life are not exact predictions. We base our choice on reflection of what might be encountered along the way. Like Frost, we all hope that our major decisions will make ‘all the difference’ in our lives. We need to believe they will.
Frost believed that each poem was a ‘little voyage of discovery’; a path to something else, rather than an end in itself. Perhaps, the road not taken is just such a voyage?