Leo Marx looks at the picture of a ludic Frost

Leo Marx

  • Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered by William Pritchard
    Oxford, 186 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 19 503462 7

On the eve of the First World War, London still beckoned aspiring American poets. Ezra Pound arrived in 1908, Robert Frost in 1912, and T.S. Eliot in 1914. When Pound arrived he was only 23, Eliot was 26, but Frost was almost 39. He had been writing poetry, most of it unpublished, for some twenty years, and the difference in style was striking. Set beside the early work of Pound and Eliot (or of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, for that matter), Frost’s ‘simple’ lyrics might have seemed to be some sort of throwback – as if they belonged far down the back slope of the great Modernist watershed. But those same unassuming poems earned Pound’s immediate praise, and though Frost remained stubbornly impervious to avant-garde poetics, his work was soon accorded high critical esteem. How shall we account for his success in the face of triumphant Modernism? One of the incidental merits of William Pritchard’s readable and instructive ‘literary life’ is that it implies a new way of answering this most puzzling question.

Pritchard begins with an amusing account of Frost’s rapid entry into literary London. When he arrived with his wife, four children, and two or three manuscript collections of poems, he could not have been more of an outsider. He did not know a soul in England, nor is there reason to suppose that anyone in England had ever heard of him or his work. He had not yet published a book. Only a few of his poems had appeared in relatively unstylish American magazines. He carried no letters of introduction. Yet somehow, perhaps on the advice of a taxi-driver, he quickly located a publisher for his first book, A Boy’s Will, which appeared early in 1913. He attended the opening of Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, where he met F.S. Flint, who sent him a book of his poems. The poetry was, in Pritchard’s phrase, ‘rich in inexpressible yearnings’ – the sort of writing Frost could not abide. He nonetheless found a way to praise it, Flint was delighted, and one thing quickly led to another.

Flint introduced him to the high-flying Pound, who by then had published six books and seemed to know every writer in England. Pound quickly took his unworldly compatriot in hand. When told that the first copy of A Boy’s Will might be at the publisher’s, Pound determinedly walked miles across London with Frost to pick it up, kept Frost waiting while he read through the poems, and then magisterially announced that Frost could leave (without his only copy of the book), so that Pound could write a review. In the event he wrote two favourable reviews – one for a British, the other for an American magazine. Through Pound, Frost also met Yeats, who is said to have praised his new work (‘the best poetry written in America for a long time’). Frost soon became friendly with the Georgian poets, Lascelles Abercrombie, W.H. Davies and Wilfrid Gibson, and he formed a truly close friendship, probably the closest of his life, with Edward Thomas.

Frost and his family sailed for home early in 1915. The outbreak of war had cut short his foray into literary London, but from a crassly opportunistic standpoint it could hardly have been more successful. In two and a half years the unknown Frost had become a recognised writer, and his work had won the respect of many of the leading poets writing in English. By the time he left for home, two of his books were in print in England (North of Boston having appeared in 1914), and he had arranged to have them both published in the States. To prepare a favourable reception for his work at home, meanwhile, he had dispatched elaborate instructions about reviews and other forms of publicity to his American supporters. Now that he was shifting his sights to the American scene he took pains to dissociate himself from Pound, whose sponsorship had been invaluable, but whose condescension he resented. Besides, he was made nervous by Pound’s aggressive rebuke of certain American editors for their alleged refusal to publish his work. This was no time to offend such people. As he explained to one admirer, ‘I expect to do something to the present state of literature in America.’

It is typical of Pritchard’s seemingly arbitrary method that he begins with his subject in middle age, and that he devotes such a disproportionate amount of attention to Frost’s English sojourn. But his rationale is compelling. He is writing a ‘literary life’ in the strict sense that here biography serves criticism. He focuses on those aspects of the life which bear most directly on – or help most to illuminate – Frost’s theory and practice of his craft. By starting with the poet’s shrewd London campaign, Pritchard quickly establishes his major theme: Frost’s absolute confidence in his own genius, his singleminded pursuit of his career. True, this entails the scanting of many episodes in Frost’s life, but if one is to deal with the art as well as the life within the compass of a single volume, ruthless selectivity is essential. After all, Pritchard argues, Frost lived for almost ninety years, and readers who want to follow the year-by-year course of the poet’s life can always turn to Lawrance Thompson’s 2000-page official biography.

One of Pritchard’s aims is to rescue Frost from what he regards as Thompson’s insensitive, moralistic, all-but-defamatory characterisation. Thompson’s book left readers with the impression that Frost was a ‘monster’, ‘a hateful human being’, and a man of ‘demonic vileness’. This characterisation stems primarily from Thompson’s account of Frost’s alleged callousness toward other people, especially his wife and children, and it raises complicated issues which Pritchard can scarcely hope to unravel in the limited space he allows himself. To be sure, he does persuade us that Thompson, who had been close to Frost, and who had been chosen by Frost for the task, had developed an excessive antipathy to his subject in the course of writing his immense biography. What Pritchard offers us, in place of Thompson’s overdrawn portrait of an irremediably self-involved man, is an impressionist sketch of a somewhat more human, intermittently affectionate, yet disconcertingly feckless, husband and father.

The behaviour Thompson depicts as chilling careerism Pritchard treats as the charming insouciance of a truly poetic temperament. In Thompson’s version of the London years, the cagey Yankee poet is a shameless flatterer and manipulator whose conscience more often than not was overborne by his enormous ambition. Acts that seemed duplicitous or self-seeking to the literal-minded Thompson, Pritchard regards as merely subtle or playful or poetical. So far from having us deplore them, Pritchard would have us admire them, as we do the poems, for their ‘ingenuity and expertness’. Pritchard allows that Frost was, as he coyly said of himself, ‘not undesigning’, but he takes at face value the poet’s notion of living poetically: his designing merely testifies to the intensity of his aspiration toward a free, morally unconstrained, playful way of life. This idea is the key to Pritchard’s understanding of the close interplay between Frost’s life and work: ‘Here we touch on as deep a conviction as is to be found in the life or the poetry; for ... this insistence on a “free” action, unmotivated by reasons of prudence or foresight or sentimental feeling, is ... something Frost believed centrally about his own life.’

The difference between ‘poetical’ and ordinary behaviour, it seems, is like the difference between the figurative and literal, poetic and prosaic, uses of language. But the moral limits to such behaviour are obscure. Pritchard seems remarkably untroubled by the difficulty of reconciling this ideal of ‘poetic’ freedom and disinterestedness with the poet’s boundless egotism and opportunism. Frost’s frequent misstatements of fact about himself are not easy to distinguish from lies, but here many of them are seen as harmless instances of a man acting playful and poetical. Pritchard is almost as tolerant of Frost’s notoriously reactionary political attitudes: his chauvinism and racism, his anti-intellectualism and his unconcern with social justice. All in all, then, Pritchard’s effort to rescue Frost’s reputation from the damaging effect of Thompson’s heavy-handed moralising is only half-successful. He conclusively demonstrates that Thompson’s portrait is misleading, but though his account of Frost’s character and opinions is more believable, it perhaps is too indulgent to be a wholly acceptable substitute.

The most engaging passages derive their energy and lucidity from what Pritchard calls his ‘informed inwardness’ with the poetry. A professor of English at Amherst College, where he had been an undergraduate, and where Frost taught for many years, Pritchard knew Frost slightly, and he wrote his Harvard doctoral dissertation, about Frost, under Reuben Brower; Brower, who also had been an undergraduate at Amherst, and a colleague of Frost’s on the Amherst faculty before going to Harvard, was to write an excellent book about the poetry. An interesting essay might be written about this posthumous ‘Amherst-Frost connection’ and the tacit doctrinal position it occupies in contemporary American criticism.[*] In any event, Pritchard writes about the poems with a confidence-inspiring, no-nonsense certitude that comes from having lived with them for a very long while. He is a fine reader, but because the poems are not reprinted in their entirety (to save on permission costs, one supposes), his commentary can be fully appreciated only by those who know Frost’s work well, or who are willing, as Pritchard suggests, to stop and read the poems as he discusses them.

The real basis of Frost’s London success, of course, was not his clever self-promotional activity, effective as it was, but the poetry – the achieved poetic style – he had brought from America. During his long solitary apprenticeship, while he had been earning a living as a poultry farmer and school teacher, Frost had developed a theory of poetry that distinguished his work, in Pritchard’s view, from that of just about every poet then writing in English. The theory turns on the idea of making verbal music out of the cadence of whole sentences, or what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’ – a concept Pritchard elucidates in this characteristically direct, helpful, teacherly summary:

‘The phrase may accommodate either an underlining of “sound” or of “sense”, thereby setting up a playful shuttling between the poem as communicating something, some grain of wisdom or truth about the world (the sound of sense), and the poem as wholly embodying that truth through its particular music, so that one is mainly aware of something heard (the sound of sense).’

Pritchard is at his best in showing how Frost succeeds in breaking the vernacular cadence of ordinary sentences with all their irregularity of accent across the metre’s regular beat. His most telling illustrations of this stylistic accomplishment are from North of Boston, which featured such powerful, highly compressed blank-verse narrative poems as the well-known ‘Death of the Hired Man’ and ‘Home Burial’. But Pritchard makes a point of discussing the less familiar poems. Here, for example, is the narrative voice heard in the opening lines of ‘The Black Cottage’:

We chanced in passing by that afternoon
To catch it in a sort of special picture
Among tar-banded ancient cherry trees,
Set well back from the road in rank lodged grass,
The little cottage we were speaking of,
A front with just a door between two windows,
Fresh painted by the shower a velvet black.
We paused, the minister and I, to look.
He made as if to hold it at arm’s length
Or put the leaves aside that framed it in.
‘Pretty,’ he said. ‘Come in. No one will care.’

The first seven lines spoken by this quiet, detached, coolly observant narrator, Pritchard observes, ‘have almost no tone’, yet the sentence sound is there, and it is made all the more conspicuous by the overtly conversational lines that follow. ‘It is all a matter of pace; Frost’s accomplishment is to make that pace expressive of the activity supposedly going on, so if “We paused, the minister and I, to look,” “we” do so in a line that is a complete sentence and whose commas create the pause.’ Pritchard underscores Frost’s insistence that he was writing for the ear, not the eye; that his technique was as much the content as what we ordinarily think of as content or theme; and that, indeed, this poet had no burning desire to convey a ‘meaning’. What matters most about a Frost poem is that it exists ‘just for itself’ or, in other words, that it is ‘ “free” in the nature of its expressiveness’.

An obvious advantage of this kind of radically selective ‘literary life’ is sharpness of critical focus. Unlike a comprehensive, minutely documented biography, in which discussion of the writer’s work often is swamped by a detailed chronicle of events, Frost never strays far from what matters most: the poet’s theory and practice of art. The book is a model of critical forthrightness, but its corresponding defect is a relative thinness of context, a virtual absence of cultural history. Although Pritchard attaches central importance to Frost’s success in bringing the cadences of American speech into poetry, he slights the prior history of that project: the tradition that goes back at least as far as Emerson’s ideas about language, and includes Whitman’s quite different practice. Nor does Pritchard relate the idea of a poetic grounded in sentence sounds to its prosaic counterpart: the distinctively American vernacular prose style developed by Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and company.

The absence of historical depth is also evident where Pritchard is at his best: in his sensitive discussion of Frost’s most admired and distinctive poems, the pastoral lyrics. (The working title for North of Boston was New England Eclogues.) In the ‘typical plot’ of the early lyrics, Pritchard says, ‘the protagonist goes forth into nature, encounters somebody or something, is moved to consider its significance, and ends with a balanced reflection – a composed version of the “wisdom” in which (he [Frost] says) the figure a poem makes should end.’ This is accurate enough, but it encourages the impression of a poet working more or less directly from his own casually selected, idiosyncratic experience. We get little sense of the extent to which this whole process – going forth into nature, encountering something, considering its significance, etc – was a well-established, if subtly changing, cultural rite. We get little sense, to put it differently, of Frost’s place in the record of romantic pastoralism in America.

The result is that Pritchard’s unfailingly precise and perceptive discussion of these poems lacks the resonance it might easily have had. Speaking to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958, Frost talked about his mother’s early fondness for Emerson, and about his being ‘brought up’ in an Emersonian ‘religion’. Emerson was not given to formulaic statements, but the chapter on ‘Language’ in his 1836 manifesto, Nature, contains the essential formula, at once literary and metaphysical, for the viewpoint from which a great many American works, including Frost’s pastoral lyrics, depart: ‘1. Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.’

From the beginning, these propositions constituted the hypothesis, or point of departure, for much of Frost’s memorable work. ‘Mowing’, a poem from A Boy’s Will discussed by Pritchard, reads like a sceptical enactment of the notion that a writer might hope, by attaching the right words to the natural facts, to open a channel to a transcendent meaning. The speaker recalls that the only sound he heard while mowing a field was that of his scythe ‘whispering to the ground’.

What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound –
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

In one sense, he has already answered his question: but the rest of the poem is about the way he comes to terms with his inability to translate the scythe’s whisper (a natural fact) into words (a meaning or ‘spiritual fact’). In his yearning to get at the presumed meaning of the fact he had overreached the evidence, and he now reveals some of the illusory meanings he later had been forced to reject:

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.

To have invested that whispery sound with such spurious significance would only have diminished the experience.

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows ...

In the end, he had pulled back to the unadorned, irreducible fact with which he had begun.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Like many of Frost’s most moving lyrics, this is an inverted or failed pastoral, a minimalist version of a design that figures prominently in classic American literature. The action, a ‘going forth into nature’, has a distinctive New World aura, and it arouses expectations of achieving a meaningful harmony with nature that it eventually disappoints. The outcome is in effect a repudiation of the Emersonian notion that natural facts, properly understood, can be made to figure forth value, meaning or purpose. Yet the poem derives its essential power from the viewpoint it repudiates.

Frost continued to write such pastorals of failure throughout his career, and though the tone changed, the underlying pattern did not. In ‘The Most of It’ (1942), as in ‘Mowing’ (1913), the pastoral impulse to locate meaning in otherness is thwarted, and the speaker or protagonist is finally thrown back on the hard facts alone. What counts for everything, then, is what the poet can make of the failed quest – in the sense, not of fashioning a surrogate for nature’s non-meaning, but of demonstrating his technical skill.

Pritchard suggests the close if somewhat covert affinity between Frost’s work and the Modernist spirit. In a brilliant discussion of A Witness Tree (1942), he notes the increasingly stylised, unreal, dislocated character of the situations Frost depicts in these poems. There is something ‘perverse-looking’, a ‘weird fairytale cast’, about poems like ‘The Most of It’, ‘The Subverted Flower’ and ‘Never again would birds’ song be the same’. The intrinsic strangeness of these poems is particularly revealing in the light of Frost’s changing (or simply more candid) self-conception. As he became increasingly absorbed in self-promotion and in sheer publicity, he tended, in Pritchard’s words, to present himself in the language of ‘prowess and performance and play’.

The real subject of many Frost poems, with their ‘prevailing artificiality’, is the poet’s own performance. Although they display few of the familiar marks of the experimental avant-garde, they are akin to the work of certain Modernist poets in their studied avoidance of most connections with actual social life and, above all, in their manifest aspiration toward becoming purely self-referential objects. Pritchard never suggests that Frost was a Modernist in the received sense of the word, but he enables us to see the underlying compatibility between some of Frost’s best work and the spirit of an aesthetic Modernism that is, in a peculiar, inadvertent way, more radical, that veers closer to a thoroughgoing moral nihilism, than anything in the work of Eliot, Stevens or Williams.

[*] Brower’s book, The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (1963), remains one of the best close readings of Frost’s work. Pritchard also expresses his admiration for the more recent study by another Amherst graduate, Richard Poirier: Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977).