Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

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A novel of the ‘Roaring Twenties’

This novel lays claim to being (probably) the most memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’, the jazz-age America which came to such a devastating end with the Wall Street Crash at the end of that crazy decade.  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s finest achievement, is interesting as the record of an era and  of the disillusionment felt by thoughtful, sensitive people with established institutions and beliefs and in their sense of moral chaos in America after the Great War of 1914-1918.

Such was Fitzgerald’s success in expressing what was widely regarded as the spirit of the twenties that he was virtually credited with inventing the period.  It was inevitable that he should be honoured with such dubious titles of distinction as ‘the laureate of the jazz age’ and ‘the novelist of the American dream’.  It is true that he is remarkably successful in rendering some of the essential features of an exciting time.   Sometimes it seems that Gatsby captures the moment and renders a more convincing account of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ than many a historical document.

The fragile, rich, drifting world of the twenties was the emotional heart of Fitzgerald’s life, the source of his happiness as well as his misery.  Gatsby is a reflection of his passionate involvement in the issues of his day, but also of his ambivalent attitude to what he saw and experienced.  It is, however, more than that.  In 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling remarked that  The Great Gatsby was still as fresh and as relevant as when it first appeared in 1925, and that it had even gained in stature and relevance, something that could be said of few American novels of its time.  Sixty five years after Trilling’s comment, there is little evidence that interest in the novel has in any way declined.  Indeed, its popularity has been enhanced by Hollywood film producers who have brought the novel and the era to the silver screen with great success and acclaim.

The American Dream

The Great Gatsby is, like many American novels, about an American dream, one dreamed by the romantic, wealthy bootlegger who gives the book its title.  Gatsby’s dream begins when, as a poor young man, he falls in love with Daisy, a girl whose charm, youth and beauty are coloured and made glamorous in his eyes by a lifetime of wealth, whose very voice, he notes, ‘is full of money’.  His dream that Daisy may become accessible to one of his class and background is nourished by two circumstances: the war makes him an officer, and his post-war activities elevate him to riches.  Gatsby must, however, learn that such things will not bring Daisy wholly within his reach and that however ardently he may pursue it, his dream cannot be realised simply because he wills it.

Class differences

In Gatsby, Fitzgerald is dealing with an important social theme.  He is fascinated by class distinctions and their relationship with the possession of wealth.  This places him firmly in the tradition of the great classical novelists.  The English novel originated in an age (the early eighteenth century) when class structures were drastically disturbed.  Most of the major English novelists have since continued to be absorbed by class differences, and to draw heavily on these and their influences on human behaviour and attitudes.  Think of the dominance of class and money in the novels of Jane Austen.  Although there is an evident ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s attitude to those who possess great wealth, the established rich, they still represent what Lionel Trilling calls, ‘the nearest thing to an aristocracy that America could offer him’.  Fitzgerald deals with the trappings and symbols of this American aristocracy, the great one being money.  In one of his stories, The Rich Boy, there is this telling comment:

Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.  They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.

Readers of Gatsby will recognise that it is mainly about what money does to those who possess it in abundance.

There are, of course, two main versions of wealth in The Great Gatsby, dramatically contrasted throughout.  This contrast gives the book much of its interest.  Gatsby himself is the newly-rich tycoon, the boy from Dakota who thought he had to get rich quickly to win the love of a rich girl.  His wealth gives him a vulgar neo-Gothic mansion, an incredible car, and garish clothes; it causes him to assume uncharacteristic stances and attitudes, including ‘an elaborate formality of speech’.  All of these things placed side by side with the grace and ease associated with the representatives of the established rich, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, appear ludicrous.  Gatsby is, from one point of view, a vulgar upstart who purchases his standing in society by giving mammoth parties patronised by all and sundry.  (Check out Fitzgerald’s descriptions of these parties).  His great wealth, for all his efforts,  cannot imitate the effects produced by that of the Buchanans.

The world of the Buchanans

But the contrast is not entirely, or even mainly, in favour of the established rich.  Gatsby, for all his lavish vulgarity, turns out all right in the end in the eyes of the reader; the Buchanans do not.  Gatsby is using his money as an instrument with which to achieve something, to further his aim of enriching his life; he has a capacity for wonder, for excitement, not shared by the Buchanans.  Their wealth and that of their associate Jordan Baker is sterile, which induces a tired, bored attitude to life.  “We ought to plan something,” yawns Jordan, ‘sitting down at the table as if she were getting out of bed’; and again, “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow … Everybody thinks so.”

What Fitzgerald establishes in the scenes involving the Buchanans is that their money has drained away their emotions.  Daisy’s pattern of living, based as it has always been on the security of possession, has given her the habit of retreating in the face of responsibility into ‘their money or their vast carelessness’.  This aspect of the mentality of the established rich is more than once contrasted with Gatsby’s heroic, if ludicrous, romantic idealism.  He watches outside the Buchanan house after the accident, seeking to shelter Daisy from its unpleasant consequences.  She is seated with Tom over a plate of cold chicken and two bottles of ale (‘an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture’) when Nick arrives.  Gatsby looks at the latter ‘as though his presence marred the sacredness of the vigil’.  The vulgar tycoon can also be the chivalrous, incorruptible upholder of ideals, however, mistaken these may be.

Gatsby’s world

The superficial beautiful world of Tom and Daisy is just as ludicrous in its way as the one Gatsby creates around himself.  Gatsby’s world is, of course, a pathetic attempt to reproduce that of people like the Buchanans; by aping its surface, he fondly imagines that he can capture its heart.  His provision for himself of an acceptable background is part of the elaborate, absurd pretence.  As he reveals these fictional details, his speech becomes stiff and stilted, he chokes and swallows on the phrases:

I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle west – all dead now.  I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years.  It is a family tradition.

Almost all of this is false, of course, the truth being less flattering: ‘An instinct towards his future glory had led him to the small Lutheran college of St Olaf’s in Southern Minnesota’.  His stay at Oxford is short and undistinguished.  But the attitudes of the Buchanans are exposed by Fitzgerald to as pitiless a scrutiny.  Here is a sample of what passes for thinking among them on ‘serious’ issues:

This idea is that we’re all Nordics.  I am, and you are, and you are, and – After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again – And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art and all that.  Do you see?

The narrator Nick caraway remarks at the beginning that one of the things his father told him was that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.’  It is, oddly enough, in the socially deprived Gatsby rather than the long-established Buchanans that the ‘fundamental decencies’ are most in evidence.

 Balancing two worlds in the novel

‘The test of a first-class intelligence,’ Fitzgerald remarked, ‘is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’  In The Great Gatsby, he holds contrasting ideas simultaneously on some major aspects of his material and successfully integrates opposing arguments and points of view.  The most obvious instance of this is when he oscillates between imaginative identification with the splendours of rich society and a recurring tendency towards objective analysis of its limitations.  The boredom, limited emotional range and narrowness of mind of the Buchanan set is very cleverly conveyed in the dialogue, but against this, he can also convey in a very sensuous way the attractions of being very wealthy:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’; while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.  At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with the low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

But a more significant tension is that between the responses called forth by the two sides of Gatsby’s nature, as they are revealed in a few critical episodes and mediated to us through the play of Nick’s judgement of the events and his responses to them.  The central passage of the novel, taken in conjunction with Gatsby’s own account of his background, provides a good example of the ambivalence with which the hero is regarded by his creator:

I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then.  His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of god – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would like to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end.

The obscene, gargantuan vulgarity of his weekend parties is evoked with sober irony:

Every Friday, five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.  There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb!

 Gatsby as a tragic figure

If this were all there was to Gatsby, we would read the novel as a satire on contemporary manners.  Fitzgerald’s first publishers did, indeed, call the book a satire, but it is only incidentally so: principally in the contribution of the minor characters, and in the occasional comment on the incongruous activities of the major ones.  But the story and the main character are tragic.  The tragic implications of story and character arise chiefly from Gatsby’s redeeming qualities.  Like Fitzgerald himself, Gatsby is a romantic, and in the end meets the fate of all romantics: disillusion, a sense of inadequacy in the face of experience, a deeply felt sense of failure.  His romantic dream is centred on Daisy, an unworthy object as he finds out too late.

Gatsby’s romanticism is stressed throughout the book.  It sometimes involves an endearingly childlike attitude to experience, a sentimental attachment to anything associated with those he loves, not found in any of the other characters.  ‘If it wasn’t for the mist,’ he tells Daisy, ‘we could see your house across the bay.  You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’  This green light acquires a symbolic force.  In a famous passage at the close of the novel, we are reminded of the sense of wonder Gatsby experienced when he first noticed the light at the end of daisy’s dock; it comes to stand as a memorial to his romantic idealism:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther …  And one fine evening – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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A sense of the past

Gatsby has the characteristic romantic preoccupation with the past.  This is beautifully evoked by Fitzgerald in a telling passage, which reveals some of the hidden springs of his failure and of his tragedy.  His great delusion is a sad and common one: that the past can be restored and duplicated, and the effects of the passage of time erased.  Gatsby wants Daisy to abandon Tom Buchanan so that, after she is free, she may go back with him to Louisville to be married from her house, ‘just as if it were five years ago’.  When caraway tells him he can’t repeat the past like this he can see no reason whatever why: ‘I’m going to fix everything just as it was before.’  His longing to do so is perfectly comprehensible.  His life has been disordered since his parting with Daisy: he wants to ‘recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy’.  He returns in his poignant day-dream to a starting place, to a scene with Daisy, described in heightened, poetic, emotionally-charged language, that can make sober realities pale into unimportance.  The incident takes on almost an absolute value, for us readers as well as for Gatsby.  Little wonder that he wants to begin again from such a point:

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight.  They stopped here and turned toward each other.  Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year …

His vain hope of recapturing such a past is finally extinguished by Tom Buchanan’s exposure of his activities during the intervening years.  The romantic cavalier is mercilessly stripped of his glamour: ‘He and Wolfstein bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter … I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him.’  Tom reduces Gatsby’s thrilling aspirations to the level of the sordid: ‘I think he realises that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.’  The end of the quest for lost happiness is tellingly rendered:

But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, towards that lost voice across the room.

Fitzgerald the moralist

Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a moralist.  He once gave as his reason for writing fiction ‘a desire to preach at people in some acceptable form’.  Moralists often find their natural outlet in satire, and Fitzgerald was gifted with a keen satiric eye and a keen sense of the absurdities of human nature.  Tom’s defence of ‘civilisation’ against the ‘inferior’ races provides a good example.  There are more good satiric portraits of minor figures like Catherine and Mr. McKee:

Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face … He informed me that he was in ‘the artistic game’, and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made a dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall.  His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.

But these, and the description of the massive vulgarity of the Gatsby residence are isolated patches; Fitzgerald was much more attracted to the affirmation of what he saw as the good than to the denunciation of the bad.  The positives celebrated in The Great Gatsby are the simple virtues: the hopeful, wondering, questioning attitudes of mid-Western America, o the ‘broad, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio’, over against which, in rich contrast, is the urban sophistication, culture, boredom and corruption of the jaded East.

 Flaws in the novel

The significance of the title of the book in relation to all this is often missed.  Gatsby is great is so far as he stands for the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald identified with the mid-West; he is a vulgar, contemptible figure in so far as he revels in the notoriety that his worldly success lends to his name.  He is, of course, a man of limited understanding, failing at once to appreciate his own real claims to recognition (his idealism, his high romantic aspirations) and to recognise his error in thinking that he really belongs to the world he has entered.  In its way, too, the novel is limited in its treatment of its central figure.  After all, we are expected to find the supreme value of the story and its hero in its romantic aspirations, in his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’.  There is no voice in the novel, no point of view which seems to question the adequacy of this attitude.  To many readers, it must seem a poor enough one in face of the complexities of actual living.  What is perhaps more disturbing is that the novelist himself seems to find Gatsby’s romantic stance entirely adequate.  A remark of his seems to bear this out:

That’s the whole burden of the novel, the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.

If this is the best that can be set over against the amoral world of the established rich, many readers will leave the book down with a sense of disappointment.

Merits of The Great Gatsby

Against this, however, one must stress the considerable virtues of The great Gatsby: its poetic quality (Fitzgerald was a devoted reader of T.S. Eliot, who influenced him here), its almost flawless structure, Fitzgerald’s mastery of technique.  His use of detail to suggest symbolic meaning is particularly impressive.  Here it is interesting to note that one of the best symbols in the book, the grotesque eyes of T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard came to him by chance.  His publisher had a dust jacket designed for The Great Gatsby, a poor quality picture intended to suggest, by means of two enormous eyes, Daisy brooding over an amusement-park version of New York.  Fitzgerald’s brilliant reworking of this in the book is a tribute to his intuitive skill.  Again, the slow, gradual presentation of Gatsby is a tour de force.  We are more than half-way through the book before we know the important things about him.  The evocation of atmosphere and background is memorable and utterly satisfying; a detail or two will often suffice to fix indelibly a scene, a character or a mood:

With an effort Wilson left the shade and support of the doorway, and, breathing hard, unscrewed the cap of the tank.  In the sunlight his face was green.

One must not ignore the intelligent use by Fitzgerald of Carraway as narrator; a good deal of the colour and subtlety of the novel arises from the response of the narrator’s judgement and feelings to the events he describes.

Finally, the power and impact of the book are greatly enhanced by Fitzgerald’s concentration of his story and theme into a relatively few telling scenes.

About the Author....

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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940), known professionally as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an American novelist and short story writer, whose writing gives us a memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’ and  of the Jazz Age. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.  Fitzgerald is considered a member of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. He finished four novels: This Side of ParadiseThe Beautiful and DamnedThe Great Gatsby (his best known), and Tender Is the Night.  A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously.  Fitzgerald also wrote numerous short stories, many of which treat themes of youth and promise, and age and despair (Wikipedia).

 

 

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AN ANALYSIS OF THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST (1874 – 1963)

 

Vermont in The Fall

Vermont in The Fall

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.’

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CAVEAT EMPTOR!

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)

DESIGN (1936)

PROVIDE, PROVIDE (1936)

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BACKGROUND INFLUENCES

Frost studied the classics, had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and was well read in European and American literature.  The 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.


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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.

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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 ass 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.

 

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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, thread carefully!)

 

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AN OVERVIEW OF THE POETRY OF

ROBERT FROST

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.’

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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:

THE PASTURE

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.

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FORST (5)

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SAMPLE ANSWER

“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 poet and as 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 to 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.

 FROST (7)

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 traveled 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-traveled 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?