Dark and Deep
- Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers
Constable, 424 pp, £20.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 09 476130 2
- Collected Poems, Prose and Plays by Robert Frost, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson
Library of America, 1036 pp, $35.00, October 1995, ISBN 1 883011 06 X
‘It would be hard,’ Robert Frost wrote, ‘to gather biography from poems of mine except as they were all written by the same person, out of the same general region north of Boston, and out of the same books.’ Frost’s biographers, who began their collective labours well before he died, were not to be put off by such a statement, and the early collections of memoirs and reminiscences culminated in Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume biography published between 1966 and 1976. Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963; between those dates he lived a long and harrowing life, the general details of which have become well known. They include the early death of his editor-father, the family’s return from San Francisco to Massachusetts and New Hampshire; Frost’s abortive stays at both Dartmouth and Harvard; his assisting in his mother’s school; his marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Elinor White; their ten-year stay on a New Hampshire farm given to Frost by his grandfather; the early deaths of two of their six children; the brief two-and-a-half year escape to England, where Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will (reviewed enthusiastically by Pound) was published; the subsequent appearance of many volumes of poetry, four of which received Pulitzer prizes; the sporadic teaching at Amherst and elsewhere as a poet in residence and éminence grise; the immensely popular stage-readings; the catastrophic fates of three of the four surviving children (Marjorie died of a post-partum infection; Irma was permanently confined in an insane asylum; Carol, the only son, committed suicide); the exhaustion of Elinor, whose heart gave out in her sixties after many changes of dwelling and ten pregnancies – the last when she was 52; the final years of public fame, culminating in Frost’s reading of ‘The Gift Outright’ at the Kennedy Inauguration and his meeting with Khrushchev in Russia.
The problem for any contemporary biographer is that Lawrance Thompson is the only source for much of Frost’s life; his biography (backed by the two thousand pages of his manuscript ‘Notes on Robert Frost, 1939-1967’) necessarily shapes all subsequent work. Admirers of Frost were scandalised by the animus they perceived in the Thompson biography; one response, represented by William Pritchard’s admirably balanced Frost: A Literary Life Recognised (1984), was to offer only a brief account of the biographical facts, and then centre attention on the poetry, giving Frost’s art its due. Now Jeffrey Meyers has appeared, crowing that ‘the heart of Thompson’s biography was based on [a] lie.’ He proposes to reveal the truth – to wit, that when Frost was 64, after the death of his wife, he had a long affair with his ‘secretary’, Kathleen (Kay) Morrison, the wife of Theodore (Ted) Morrison, a lecturer in the Department of English at Harvard. Since this fact (documented in Thompson’s ‘Notes’ and now further documented thanks to the co-operation of Kay Morrison’s daughter) was made known by Frost to many bystanders, and broadly hinted at by previous commentators on Frost, it is not the discovery that Meyers pretends it is: in 1984, Pritchard, for instance, mentioning Frost’s proposal of marriage to Kay, had added that ‘the exact degree of intimacy between Frost and Kathleen Morrison at that point is unknown, although there has been, as is to be expected, rumour and conjecture.’ And he had quoted Frost’s 1939 comment after a visit to the Morrisons: ‘I came through the two weeks with the Morrisons pretty well considering all there was on all sides to dissemble.’ One had only to read between the lines. In any case, it is hardly fair to say of Thompson’s biography – which, before it arrives at the Morrison period, covers 64 years, during 43 of which Frost was faithfully married to Elinor – that its ‘heart’ is ‘based on a lie’. One could say its conclusion was based on a suppression. But Meyers is nothing if not hyperbolic. He seems to have decided that his jumping-off place requires him to reveal what he perceives as the sexual underside of Frost’s life and poetry.
The unwarranted conclusions Meyers jumps to about Frost’s life are coarse, but his consequent readings of poems are coarser. Some samples of the former: though there is no documentation, ‘it seems probable’ that the parents of Frost’s mother Belle ‘had never, in fact, been married and that “hussy” (a lewd woman) was a euphemism for prostitute’. (The word ‘hussy’ comes from Thompson, who offers no source for it, and no footnote ascribing the word to Frost.) Again, though there is no documentation, Meyers decides that Frost ‘persuaded the virginal Elinor to become his lover before they were actually married ... He also described her defloration in one of his most personal and revealing poems, “The Subverted Flower”.’ The poem certainly reveals a young woman’s revulsion when she perceives unconcealed sexual desire in her young man, who suddenly appears bestial in her eyes – but as to her ‘defloration’ precisely nothing at all is said. Meyers seems unaware that there are many sexual moves short of ‘defloration’ that could have shocked a modestly-reared young woman in 1892. When such jumps of inference are common, as they are in Meyers’s biography, factuality recedes into a blur. One would do better to consult the detailed 26-page chronology at the back of the Library of America’s splendid new Collected Poems. No, the chronology doesn’t say that Frost took Kay Morrison as his mistress, but it implies as much in its remarks about Frost’s sojourns alone with Kay in Florida. The late romance with Kay, useful as it was to the widowed Frost, can’t be shown to have had any major effect on his (long since formed) thought and style; it was in fact a sorry thing, since Kay was, according to Meyers, still sleeping with her husband, and had affairs with Bernard de Voto and with Lawrance Thompson as well. But Meyers, having secured the story for himself thanks to the co-operation of Morrison’s daughter Anne, has allowed it to skew his biography. Many of his pages read like newspaper précis of the plots of soap operas. Anne Morrison, he writes,
still bitter about some aspects of her childhood, feels Kay hurt other people because she had been hurt by her father. She hurt Ted by her affairs with Frost and other men; she hurt Frost by refusing to leave Ted and by making him jealous of his rivals; she hurt her children (Bobby even more than Anne, for he was older and ‘saw the craziness more clearly’) by her betrayal and her lies. But Kay’s behaviour also had some positive aspects. She rescued Frost from emotional chaos, enabled him to write and inspired some of his finest poems. She greatly enhanced the children’s lives by making Frost a member of their household.
Can it be that any child’s life is ‘greatly enhanced’ by his mother’s bringing her lover into the house? Especially if the child ‘saw the craziness’ of it?
The poet’s turbulent life does not need the rhetorical heightening of such absurd language; it is dramatic all by itself. Frost was a rebellious boy, schooled principally at home by his Scottish mother, unsettled by the death of his father from tuberculosis, subject to real and psychosomatic illness. He never did well in the role of obedient student, either because of his mother’s early indulgence or because of his own oversensitive taking of offence; he had a hard time getting along with others. He quit Dartmouth; he quit Harvard. There were reasons for this (by the time he got to Harvard he was married with a child, and soon there was another pregnancy); but his brilliant idiosyncrasy of mind and his volatility of mood made him restless under instruction. It was a doctor who said sedentary work was bad for him and advised outdoor work, but though the farm provided a subsistence-level existence for ten years for Frost, his wife, and their increasing family, it was not a life-solution. At night, with the children in bed, Frost wrote poems – three books’ worth, more or less. It was with those manuscripts that he made his way to England; the rest is history, and the drama, both personal and public, was plentiful.
Meyers is an unreliable biographer of this drama. Two examples must do. Frost believed, at one unhappy moment in his courtship of Elinor, that she had rejected him; he fled from home to the Dismal Swamp in Virginia. There exists an early (undated) posthumously-voiced sonnet called ‘Despair’, where Frost imagines himself as a suicide by drowning:
I am like a dead diver after all’s
Done, still held fast in the weeds’ snare below ...
My sudden struggle may have dragged down some
White lily from the air – and now the fishes come.
Meyers argues that the 20-year-old Frost chose the Dismal Swamp because other poets had written about it, and that Frost intended only to make a dramatic point to Elinor by disappearing. Meyers adds: ‘If he wanted to kill himself, why did he not do so in Canton or Lawrence, where it would have the maximum impact?’ The question is naive: a youth fleeing the collapse of his hopes might go – often does go – far away. I make the point only because Meyers argues that he, rather than Thompson, gives the ‘real (rather than ostensible) reasons why Frost left Dartmouth and why he went to the Dismal Swamp’. Nothing proves that the ‘real reason’ for Frost’s trip was the attraction of the poems that he may or may not have read about the Dismal Swamp. As for the departure from Dartmouth, there is no documentation from Dartmouth supporting Meyers’s argument that Frost was ‘expelled’ in 1892 for hazing a fellow student. Meyers’s ‘real reason’ depends on a statement by the son of one of Frost’s Dartmouth classmates, a statement published in 1986, almost a hundred years after the putative event. A scrupulous biographer would have weighed such dubious memorial evidence against Frost’s (possibly self-serving) account that he had left college because he was bored; and a scrupulous biographer would have recognised, in support of Frost’s version, that he also left Harvard (in good standing) without finishing. But scrupulousness is not Meyers’s long suit.
Meyers is a professional biographer specialising in writers: the jacket copy says, ‘He has written biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Lowell and his circle, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allan Poe, Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson,’ adding that he is now writing a life of Humphrey Bogart. Popular biographies written at such speed need to claim some new revelatory hook on which to hang sales. The Kay Morrison hook might have been harmless had it been left at the level of late biographical fact, but Meyers uses it to cast a lurid light backward over Frost’s whole life, arguing that since he is considering Frost’s sexuality, previously obscured by Thompson’s ‘euphemisms’, he has much that is new to offer: ‘I believe this biography offers a radically new view of Frost’s character and an original interpretation of his poems.’ He becomes specific:
The new discoveries about Frost’s life have led to deeper understanding of his poetry and to new readings of ‘Into My Own’, ‘Home Burial’, ‘After Apple-Picking’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’, ‘Design’, ‘The Silken Tent’, ‘All Revelation’, ‘The Most of It’, ‘The Discovery of the Madeiras’ and ‘Directive’.
This is a hefty claim; what do we find that Meyers means by ‘an original interpretation’ or a ‘new reading’?
He certainly does not mean anything based on evidence. In the famous poem called ‘Design’ (originally entitled ‘In White’, as Whistler might have entitled a painting), Frost’s speaker notices a white spider perched on a white flower, holding up its prey, a white moth. Normally, the flower (‘heal-all’) would have been blue. Struck by the odd coincidence, Frost’s speaker puts a sinister interpretation on the conjunction, aligning it with the theological argument which infers a God from the presence of design in nature:
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth ...
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall.
But Frost being Frost, he decides to have it both ways, and subverts his speaker’s ‘paranoid’ inference by adding, with a nod to sanity: ‘If design govern in a thing so small.’ Now what is Meyers’s ‘new reading’ of this sonnet, which he regards as Frost’s ‘greatest poem’? Meyers’s observations are tediously un-new (drawing as they do on Randall Jarrell and Lionel Trilling); but he adds one triumphant new wrinkle: ‘In “Design” the normally black spider and blue heal-all ... are both wickedly white – a play on Elinor’s maiden name.’ Well, well; so Elinor is the witch who assembled these ingredients, perhaps? Or is she the ‘dimpled’ spider and her husband the moth-prey? And do these hinted-at equivalences (because Meyers, in spite of his claims, does not make a reading out of his ‘new’ claim that Frost is punning on Elinor’s name) help the poem at all? Hardly.
Meyers is bold: claiming that Trilling ‘misread’ the famous poem ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’, he offers one of his own ‘original interpretations’. Here, for evidence, is the brief poem (normally taken to be about the incorrigible human attraction to the unfathomable beyond; Trilling summed it up as showing ‘the response of mankind to the empty immensity of the universe’):
The people along me sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be –
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
What is Meyers’s paraphrase? The poem, he says (offering no evidence but his own assertions),
mocks Frost’s imperceptive critics ... They cannot either look out far to see the whole design of his work, nor in deep to scrutinise the exact details ... The manifest limitations of his dull-witted critics, he says, never prevented them from searching for meanings in his verse, and their stupidity was never a bar to any watch they keep.
Meyers concludes with a specimen of his wit: ‘This poem could be called, like the actual confection of ice-cream encased in chocolate, “Frost-Bite”.’ It seems he does not understand that such a poem, by its abstraction in phrasing, disables any particular application, while suggesting many. The application it least suggests, given the unswayable (if disappointed) patience of the human vigil represented, is the improbable one proposed by Meyers. It is not that Frost liked critics; he did not. It is only that he would not have wasted a good poem about the human condition on a single tendentious application.
Meyers’s vulgarity reaches its apogee in the poems on which he imposes a sexual construction. In the famous poem, ‘The Most of It’, the Adamic speaker (standing by a lake) who has called out to the universe for ‘counter-love, original response’, finds his wish answered only by more brute mystery: something crashes into the water from the other side of the lake and swims across, but it turns out not to be human – it is ‘a great buck’:
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush – and that was all.
Meyers’s ‘original reading’ makes the buck ‘an embodiment of sexual power’: ‘He walks with horny tread, penetrates the brush and creates an orgasmic waterfall so that his mate can make The Most of It’
And as for the word ‘come’, why, Meyers is delighted whenever it appears. In ‘Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same’, Frost reiterates, through the effect of Eve’s voice on Edenic birdsong, his conviction that the rigidity of scheme (innate birdsong, received metrical form) must be crossed with spontaneity (Eve’s ‘sentence sounds’, human colloquial accent) in order for art to arise. Woman enhances the birds’ biologically invariant melodies with a new and subtler art: ‘And to do that to birds was why she came.’ Frost said his lyric was an ‘old-fashioned praise poem about a lady’s voice’. Meyers quotes this comment, but cannot forbear to add: ‘Emphasising the bold sexual pun on the final word, Frost suggests that just as the lady’s voice intensified the birds’ song, so Kay’s sexual passion inspired the words that made this poem.’ Since puns have to work on the literal level of a poem if they are to be puns, we are left to imagine what was going on in Eden to make Eve ‘come’.
Examples of this sort of ‘new reading’ in Meyers could be multiplied many times. Perhaps the most egregious occurs in Meyers’s comments on the love poem, ‘The Silken Tent’, published in 1942, in which a woman, tethered by many bonds of love and responsibility, man ages them so gracefully that they normally go unobserved. She is compared to a tent tethered by its guy-ropes:
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease ...
[She is] loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought.
Meyers pounces: the breeze, he says, ‘has dried the dew on [the tent’s] ropes so that it sways gently in “guys” (a triple pun on ropes, mockery and men)’. Gosh, the poet wanted us to know that Kay was swaying with lots of guys – there was Benny, there was Ted, there was Rob, there was Larry ...
The illiteracy of such ‘readings’ points to how greatly Meyers misunderstands the directions for reading encoded in a poem, the extent to which semantic possibility is controlled by context. Frost himself understood this very well: one of his ‘Prose Jottings’ criticises the finding of irrelevant ambiguities, ‘this spreading of every word into all its denotations and connotations ... as if it had been written on blotting paper’. Words in a competently written poem, Frost says, are prevented by the construction of the poem from expressing all their possible meanings: ‘The stronger the writing, the sharper the definition in the place. The direction of the piece combs the word into the single one of its meanings intended like a hair. Some would have it that the words are cowlicks that won’t be combed straight in a direction.’ It is true that Frost himself ostentatiously punned on ‘guy’ in both senses, in his 1944 uncollected verse letter to Louis Untermeyer.
Guy is a word of slang vicissitudes.
But good guy ought to mean a good guy wire
That stays the smokestack upright in its place.
Four wires it seems are a security.
Well I have had Kay Lesley you and Larry,
But I don’t think he would have thanked Meyers for introducing the pun on ‘guy’ into the delicacy of ‘The Silken Tent’.
If to read Meyers’s book (the sooner pulped the better) is depressing, to read Frost himself in the marvellous new Library of America edition is exhilarating. The edition is called Collected Poems, Prose and Plays, a title which carefully avoids the word ‘complete’. It reprints all the volumes of poetry that Frost published in his lifetime, and includes a selection of uncollected and unpublished poems; it adds three inconsiderable plays and a generous sampling of Frost’s lectures, essays, stories and letters (the choice slanted towards his remarks on poetry rather than, say, family affairs or politics). A new edition of the poems had long been needed, if only because the most recent, the 1969 Poetry of Robert Frost was mispunctuated. The most irritating instance of mispunctuation appeared in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. Frost had written, and published, the opening line of die final stanza as follows:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
This is a line gesturing towards two different perceptions: on the one hand, the woods are lovely; on the other, they are threateningly ‘dark and deep’. The medial comma is used to separate the two aspects. The 1969 reprint silently adds an extra comma:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
This printing not only destroys the conflictual stand-off, it also disturbs the rhythm by introducing an extra caesura, destroying the lullaby-seductiveness of the woods. The Library of America has now established correct texts for all the poems (though a few errors remain).[*] Eventually, scholarly editions will be compiled, texts will be annotated, and a tentative chronological order for the poems will be determined (Frost often published early poems in later volumes). But for the non-specialist reader, the Library of America edition will do well, now and in the future, as a basis for the re-evaluation of Frost. What is it like to see him complete? And what sense are we to make of previous views of him?
Frost was born in 1874; he was nine years younger than Yeats. Both Yeats and Frost, unlike the slightly younger Modernists (Stevens, b.1879, Williams, b.1883, Pound, b.1885, Moore, b. 1887 and Eliot, b.1888), eschewed free verse; and some critics have therefore preferred to view both Yeats and Frost as late Victorians rather than as early Modernists. (Yeats and Frost both experimented with free verse and decided against it; the other Modernists named above adhered to some version of it for their mature lyric work.) Frost’s scornful remarks about free verse (‘like playing tennis with the net down’) emphasised his decision to write in forms:
Lets chaos storm!
Let cloud shapes swarm!
I wait for form.
There used to be a critical orthodoxy (still prevalent in a few backwaters) that anyone practising rhymed and metered verse was a reactionary and no Modernist; we now understand, having seen many later writers (Merrill, Lowell) alternating metered and free verse, that both forms and free verse are neutrally available to all. What is usually ignored with respect to Frost is how often he, like Yeats, played with and altered the metrical forms he had inherited. His sonnets exhibit all kinds of hybrid mixtures of the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, not to mention the sonnet rhyming in tercets (‘The Planners’). Another example of his playfulness can be seen in the poem ‘In a Disused Graveyard’, which concerns a New England cemetery fallen into disuse when the countryside becomes depopulated. Frost finds a new ‘perfect’ rhyme scheme for each of its four stanzas:
The living come with grassy tread a
To read the gravestones on the hill; b
The graveyard draws the living still, b
But never any more the dead. a
The verses in it say and say: a
‘The ones who living come today a
To read the stones and go away a
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’ a
So sure of death the marbles rhyme, a
Yet can’t help marking all the time a
How no one dead will seem to come. b
What is it men are shrinking from? b
It would be easy to be clever a
And tell the stones: Men hate to die b
And have stopped dying now forever. a
I think they would believe the lie. b
The poem begins allusively with Tennyson’s In Memoriam stanza – abba. But then it wants to find a stanza for the reiterative single message of the gravestones: they ‘say and say’ a-a-a-a. In stanza 3, the poem veers into the aa bb ‘drumbeat’ couplets remembered, perhaps, from Henry King’s ‘Exequy’:
But hark! my pulse like a soft drum,
Beats my approach, tells thee I come;
And slow howe’er my marches be,
I shall at last sit down by thee.
And finally, Frost’s poem subsides into the kind of rhyme most likely to be found on New England gravestones: the alternate rhyme of the simple hymnal quatrain (though given a ‘clever’ variant in Frost’s feminine rhyme of the first and third lines).
Such explorations do not happen by chance, but the only one which has attracted attention is Frost’s ingenious linked rhyme in ‘Stopping by Woods’. Yet it is in his alterations of the English forms that Frost is both most American and most Modernist. Why is a ‘disturbed’ form Modernist? Because it registers the seismic shock that the traditional form has undergone, whether from ‘chaos’ or ‘storm’ – and yet shows that, to a poet who waits, a form, even if irregular, becomes manifest. Books about Frost tend to ignore this ‘American revolution’ wrought by Frost on English forms, and to slight the work he put into vivifying the quatrain, the tercet, the sonnet. It is true that for Frost metre was bedrock: had not God, he once quipped, said ‘Iamb’? But Frost’s iambs do not sound like, say, Shakespeare’s; the reason they ring on the ear differently is that they are, as often as not, trippingly varied with anapaests. The intermixture of anapaests with iambs is what makes possible Frost’s disarmingly colloquial ‘sentence-sounds’. Before he learned to make them always sound natural, his anapaests merely sounded compulsively Swinburnian:
Why there hasn’t been time for the bushes to grow.
That’s always the way with the blueberries, though.
But in the great early lyrics, the intermixed anapaests contribute the unmistakable Frostian lilt, present even when the subject-matter of the verse is full of regret. I have italicised them below in the close of ‘Reluctance’, as they play hide-and-seek among the iambs:
Ah when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
And lest it be thought that anapaests appear only in the lyrics, here is an example of their striking and characteristic presence in Frost’s blank verse, lifting it into a ‘sprung’ colloquiality:
I hate to mink of the old place when we’re gone,
With the brook going by below the yard,
And no one here but hens blowing about ...
Although Frost’s rural blank verse owes much to Wordsworth, it doesn’t sound like Wordsworth. It has been Americanised, and modernised, and Frostised. And Frost is writing an elegy to the rural, not merely describing it. The hired man is dying; the old custom of ‘home burial’ for a dead baby has already fallen into desuetude; the enslavement of the farmer’s wife to preparing gigantic meals for seasonal workers will go the way of the family farms; the handmade ax-helve has been driven out by machine-made tools; and the days are waning when a ghost story could be invented about a husband who shoots his wife’s lover and buries the body in the cellar. Frost is the Modernist embalmer of his own lost past. The stage persona of the overall-clad farmer-poet was, as everyone but his more naive audiences always knew, a folksy cover-up for the poet who was as much at home with Horace and Lucretius as with Poe and Emerson.
The anthology-Frost is a good Frost to have and keep in the canon. Nothing can replace ‘Birches’ and ‘Mending Wall’ and ‘The Hill Wife’ and the late, brokenhearted ‘Directive’. But even in his wearier books, when Frost was too often able to summon only a thought and a form – instead of his magical combination of a feeling, a thought and a form – there are poems that rise above the cranky opinionated ones (some of which Frost self-mockingly grouped under the subhead ‘Editorials’). In the relatively weak 1947 volume, Steeple Bush, one can find, for instance, in ‘A Cliff Dwelling’, a sudden Frostian vision of prehistoric man in the South-West desert. Who – other than Frost – has seen him, down to the callus on his sole? What other Modernist poet tried to sense what it must have been to be one of the Anasazi, beset with fears, hiding in a cave, and starving with the rest of his tribe? In his irregularly-rhymed 13 short lines, Frost zooms from far-focus to close-up and out to far-focus again, from landscape idyll to primitive terror to historical remoteness:
There sandy seems the golden sky
And golden seems the sandy plain.
No habitation meets the eye
Unless in the horizon rim,
Some halfway up the limestone wall,
That spot of black is not a stain
Or shadow, but a cavern hole,
Where someone used to climb and crawl
To rest from his besetting fears.
I see the callus on his sole
The disappearing last of him
And of his race starvation slim,
Oh, years ago – ten thousand years.
Anyone reading through the Library of America edition will find many such unknown but admirable poems. ‘I see the callus on his sole,’ says the poet: under the ‘stain or shadow’ of the obscuring aeons, poetry can imagine the prehistoric plight. Yet, as a good Modernist, Frost knows that the ultimate fate of every culture is unintelligibility. In another poem I previously hadn’t noticed (‘A Missive Missile’) he looks at a small stone decorated by a prehistoric artist, and realises that he cannot tell whether its three red signs – ‘two round dots and a ripple streak’ – should be read as eyes and a mouth or as drops of blood and a dagger. He reflects, rewriting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 and Arnold’s ‘To Marguerite’:
Far as we aim our signs to reach,
Far as we often make them reach,
Across the soul-from-soul abyss,
There is an aeon-limit set
Beyond which they are doomed to miss.
Two souls may be too widely met.
That sad-with-distance river beach
With mortal longing may beseech;
It cannot speak as far as this.
It is the mark of the truly capacious poet that he shows us something new each time we leaf through his pages. The large poet resembles nature, in that every ramble leads to new botanical specimens. Frost passes this test.
And how are we to think of Frost? He had the misfortune to have many of his volumes reviewed in times of high political passions. He was disliked by the Marxists of the Thirties, and written off by the political propagandists of the war and the Cold War. As usual, the age demanded virtuous statement from its poets, but Frost was too ironic for propaganda, as he was too rebellious for bourgeois life. He could well have said about his politically correct adversaries (who treated him as either a reactionary or a lightweight) what he had earlier teasingly said about the families of himself and his bride:
They leave us so to the way we took,
As two in whom they were proved mistaken,
That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
And try if we cannot feel forsaken.
Frost’s poetry was fiercely, and intelligently, defended by Randall Jarrell in a stunning essay (reprinted in Poetry and the Age, 1953), and subsequently sympathetically commented on in books by Reuben Brower (1963), Richard Poirier (1977) and William Pritchard (1984). None of these books takes a sustained inventory of Frost’s technical feats of genre, metrical means and literary revisionism, though he was very proud of his work in such respects. As he said of poetry in his 1960 Paris Review interview,
The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things – what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.
For all his macho language, Frost scored in delicacy, indirection and humour as well as in bold metaphorical prowess.
The new edition includes some previously unpublished roguish poems, one of them given to Kay Morrison with presents of jewellery:
Her husband gave her a ring
To keep her a virtuous thing.
But the fellow to whom I’m referring
He gave her an earring for erring.
He also gave her a necklace
For being so sinfully reckless.
That is a sample of what Frost used to refer to as his kind of fooling: finding ‘erring’ in ‘referring’ and rhyming ‘necklace’ with ‘reckless’. At their most unpretentious, Frost’s poems amuse by such turns; at their most beautiful, they suspend a ‘normal’ but usually unnoticed moment in an atmosphere of thanks-giving, regret and provisionality. Such is the silent moment in ‘Not to Keep’ when the overjoyed wife of the wounded soldier who has returned home discovers that he must soon return to the Front:
She dared no more man ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
Such a moment is the ‘hushed October morning mild’ before the leaves fall; such, the enigmatic appearance and disappearance of the ‘great buck’; such, the stopping by woods on a snowy evening; such, the brief return visit to the ‘belilaced cellar hole’ of the ruined house in ‘Directive’; such, the colloquy between man and wife in ‘The Death of the Hired Man’. In between the fooling poems and the beautiful poems are the grimly delineated poems – some savagely humorous, some not – of New England madness or death: ‘The Hill Wife’, ‘The Witch of Coös’, ‘Out, Out’. It is in his scepticism, his provisionality and his brutality that we find Frost the Modernist, while in his colloquiality he looks back as far as Chaucer, and in his lyric music as far back as the medieval carol. The irresistible way his lyrics almost memorise themselves in one’s head suggests that his poetry will be with us for a long time, long after the biographies subside into the inert contour history gives to the lives of the poets.
[*] For example, line 8 of ‘Trespass’ should read ‘Gave me a strangely restless day’ (the article is omitted); line 26 of ‘Winter Ownership’ should read ‘dew on brow and lip’ instead of ‘dew or brow and lip’; the line of ‘New Hampshire’ now reading ‘Laughed the loud laugh, the big laugh at the little’ should drop the medial comma.