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Early Frost is a surprise. In A Boy’s Will, North of Boston, and Mountain Interval, we encounter the work of a poet so familiar everyone thinks they know him and so accessible that some have mistaken the ease with which they approach him for lack of depth. But these poems, the first three collections he published, between 1913 and 1916, are fresh and full of surprises almost a century later, surprises enough to disorder orders we think we know. Part of what makes Robert Frost so fresh at the beginning of the twenty-first century is his recognition that even in a complex, urban world it remains essential to be versed (as he himself put it in a later collection) “in country things.” This does not mean a simple retreat from the complexity of city life, but an encounter with the natural world in which humans work, which, while it may appear sublime, is also hostile or at best indifferent. Being human is complicated whether one lives in the city, in the country or in between; yet wherever one lives, nature provides the context.
Robert Frost’s poetry is rooted in rural New England, with which he is invariably and often exclusively identified. But he was born in San Francisco in 1874 and grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he settled with his mother and sister after his father died of tuberculosis in 1885. Robert’s father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a Harvard graduate, a teacher, a newspaper editor, and a Democratic politician. He named his son after Confederate General Robert E. Lee and is said to have run off as a teenager to join the Confederate army in Virginia before being sent back to New Hampshire. But when he arrived in San Francisco the Democratic newspaper he worked for was owned by Henry George, a fiery post-Civil War critic of wage-slavery; so his politics appear to have been more complex than the pejorative “Copperhead” (applied to Confederate sympathizers in the North) might imply. He was prone to depression, and he died when he was only thirty-four—both facts of some relevance in understanding Robert’s early sense of his own mortality and the complex psychology evident retrospectively in his life and in his poems. His mother, Isabelle Moodie, was a teacher and a devout Swedenborgian. Robert was baptized in the Swedenborgian church, and this simultaneously devout and, by New England standards, decidedly unorthodox religious background is relevant to the complex theology of his poetry. It gives him a spiritual connection with William Blake, with whom he shared an understanding of imagination as an active force in the real world rather than a passive escape from it, and it contributes to the easygoing engagement of Frost’s mysticism, already evident in the early poems included in this volume. Robert was impatient with formal schooling, so he received much of his education at home—a tradition he continued with his own children, even as he became established as a teacher in New Hampshire. He attended Dartmouth for less than a year and studied for two years at Harvard, where he encountered the ideas of philosophers George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and (though he did not actually study with him) William James. After he left Harvard in 1899, Frost took up poultry farming in New Hampshire, where he farmed full-time near Derry until 1906. Among his earliest prose works are articles on poultry farming published in The Eastern Poultryman and Farm Poultry between 1903 and 1906. From 1906 to 1911, Frost continued to farm part-time while he taught English at Pinkerton Academy, where he became known as a demanding and innovative teacher and developed a pragmatic approach to education in the spirit of William James and John Dewey. He spoke of “having a go” rather than “taking a course” and insisted that his students be actively engaged in creative work. He sold the farm in 1911 and moved first to Derry and then to Plymouth, where he taught psychology and education at Plymouth State Normal School before he and his family moved to England in 1912, where they remained until 1915.
Frost published almost no poetry before he went to England, but he quickly established connections there—including, among others, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the philosopher-critic T. E. Hulme—and published two collections, both with David Nutt, before returning to the States. While it was most likely a matter of timing more than of conscious resistance on the part of American publishers that resulted in Frost’s first two collections appearing first in England (though Frost did write in his Notebooks that New York publishers found it hard to take a poet with mud on his shoes seriously), it is interesting that the quintessential “American” poet of the twentieth century found his public voice as a poet in England.
But, though A Boy’s Will and North of Boston were first published in England, they are indisputably New England books. In correspondence from the time of publication, Frost says that he went to England to write, not to get published. And, by his account, he carried the manuscript of A Boy’s Will to David Nutt almost on a whim. He had assumed the book, which he had written before he left the United States, would be published by an American publisher; and it seems to have come as a surprise that it was so readily accepted in England. The book received strong reviews and was followed a year later by North of Boston, a collection even more closely tied to New England. Positive critical response on both sides of the Atlantic paved the way for the third book included in this volume, Mountain Interval, which was first published in the United States by Henry Holt. These early collections contain some of Frost’s best-known poems (including “Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” and “The Death of the Hired Man”), and they tied him inextricably to New England (and especially New Hampshire) in the public mind. Of the three, North of Boston most clearly exemplifies Frost’s generally narrative approach even to lyric poetry. Frost described A Boy’s Will in a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant as “poems of youth, written separately, between 1892 and 1912, not in a design to be together.” He went on to say that “they represented a sort of clinical curve” and that he “realized they had a unity, could be a book.” North of Boston, on the other hand, is built around fifteen narratives that make it read almost like a collection of short stories in verse, with two short lyrics (“The Pasture” and “Good Hours”) added as bookends. Mountain Interval combines some of the most beautiful of Frost’s short lyrics (notably, “The Road Not Taken”) with story poems (such as “Snow”) that again confirm his regional rootedness and sensitivity to the sound and rhythm of the language of the place with which he became so closely identified. More than one critic has noted that Frost was so at home in the sound and rhythm of New England at least partly because of his intense involvement in farming at the beginning of the twentieth century. When he traveled to poultry shows or talked with his neighbors, he listened; and, as a result, he settled into the rhythm and tone of the place he occupied for so many years.
The first thing a reader of A Boy’s Will encounters is Frost’s engagement with the sonnet, indicative of both his devotion to form and the freedom with which he moved in it. The first poem in the collection, “Into My Own,” is a traditional sonnet with a regular rhyme scheme and meter. It is broken into three quatrains with a concluding couplet that may be taken to highlight the mature confidence of a poet who was almost forty when he published this first collection—or the hard-headedness of a Yankee not inclined to change his mind: “They would not find me changed from him they knew— / Only more sure of all I thought was true.” This first poem in the first collection Frost published takes a stance vis-a-vis time that he also takes up in what is perhaps his best known poem, “The Road Not Taken”—looking back from some future present on a life in time, not so much on a past moment as on the process of life that is always passing. The poem also introduces the image of a “dark wood” to which Frost will often return, as in “A Dream Pang,” where the “I” of the poem “had withdrawn in forest, and my song / Was swallowed up in leaves that blew away.” The unmistakable image of solitude and the dark wood as uncharted territory into which one might venture and be lost is tempered by the final couplet: “But ‘tis not true that thus I dwelt aloof, / For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof.” This is one of many illustrations of the doubleness of Frost’s vision that Frank Lentricchia connects with his use of simile. His poems are rarely either/ors resolved by a single decision. More often, they hold conflicting possibilities together—in this case, the solitude of an “I” withdrawn and the community of “I” with an other present at “the forest edge.”
The most masterful example of the sonnet form in A Boy’s Will—and one of the best examples in the entire body of his work of the depth to which Frost penetrated the ordinary (beyond Wordsworth, as Robert Faggan has suggested)—is “Mowing,” in which Frost forms the sound and sense of simple human work into a poem. Jay Parini and others have exposed the latent sexuality of the poem (“mowing” is a traditional euphemism for sex). But, be that as it may, the poem stands or falls on the simple presentation of a simple act of work; and Frost does this spectacularly. The ear of the mind can hear it as clearly as the eye of the mind can see it: “There was never a sound beside the wood but one, / And that was my long 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.” The slicing of the scythe is present in the sense of the sound. And the concluding couplet is as vivid a presentation of pragmatism as any in James: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. / My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.” The fact (pragma) is the made of making. And “making” applied to hay, as the last word in the poem, is simultaneously active and passive: the mower makes hay, but the hay makes by lying where the scythe leaves it. Frost reflected on this doubleness of making as it relates to form in poetry in 1919: “A man who makes really good literature is like a fellow who goes into the fields to pull carrots. He keeps on pulling them patiently enough until he finds a carrot that suggests something else to him. It is not shaped like other carrots. He takes out his knife and notches it here and there, until the two pronged roots become legs and the carrot takes on something of the semblance of a man. The real genius takes hold of that bit of life which is suggestive to him and gives it form. But the man who is merely a realist, and not a genius, will leave the carrot just as he finds it. The man who is merely an idealist and not a genius, will try to carve a donkey where no donkey is suggested by the carrot he pulls.”
In a note before the first poem of North of Boston, “Mending Wall,” Frost says it takes up the theme of one of the last poems in A Boy’s Will, “The Tuft of Flowers.” (Frost added “The Pasture” as a sort of preface to North of Boston, as he did also to later collections. But, with “Good Hours” at the end, it is more of a bookend than part of the main body of the collection.) There are two variations on the theme in “The Tuft of Flowers.” First, in the fourth and fifth stanzas, the speaker of the poem refers to an absent mower whose presence he knows only by the cut grass he has come to turn: “But he had gone his way, the grass all mown, / And I must be, as he had been,—alone, // ‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’” But, after the appearance of a butterfly that leads him to “A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared,” he concludes with a more optimistic couplet: “‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’” As usual in Frost, this is not a simple either/or. “Mending Wall” takes up the theme in a narrative of two neighbors mending a broken wall between them. They are, as Frost’s poetry reminds us more than once, both together and apart—not one at a time, but both at the same time. When the “I” of the poem notes that a wall is not really necessary in the place where this one is broken, the neighbor simply repeats an old saying both know well, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the “I,” full of spring mischief, asks why. That question, we are made to believe, is to get behind the wall of the familiar: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.” The pun is characteristic of Frost’s humor, often used effectively, as it is here, in the middle of serious contemplation. But the neighbor “will not go behind his father’s saying,” and the poem ends with the neighbor repeating it. As in “A Dream Pang,” to be human is to be both alone and together.
The narrative style of “Mending Wall” sets the tone for the whole collection, which is a series of stories as surely as it is a collection of poems. And many of the stories reach back to pick up themes laid down by poems in A Boy’s Will, though Frost states this explicitly only before the first poem. “The Death of the Hired Man,” for example, takes up a theme laid down in “Love and a Question,” where the appearance of an “other” at the door is a threat. In the earlier poem, the stranger is a threat simply by being present: his demand for shelter threatens domestic bliss. In “The Death of the Hired Man,” the other who appears is not a stranger; he is known to both Mary and Warren. But his appearance forces them to rethink “home” and leads to two of the most quoted lines in Frost, spoken by Warren: “‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / they have to take you in.’” Almost never quoted is Mary’s response: “‘I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” In that exchange is a brilliantly distilled variation on one of the central puzzles with which Western philosophy has struggled—the relationship between necessity and grace. The more typical way of stating it is as a relationship between necessity and freedom, but Frost’s variation illuminates the role of the “other” in creating the tension that, in this poem, is resolved, finally, by a single word: “Dead.” But, in both poems, the presence of the other as long as any other is alive is a demand; and, whether one responds with an eye on grace or with an eye on necessity or with an eye on both, one responds. And how one responds ripples through every relationship.
In this regard, it is tempting to read every one of the fifteen narrative poems in North of Boston as a variation on the wall, a variation on the attempt to get behind it with words. This is perhaps most explicit in “The Mountain,” where the local informant goes through a marvelous series of variations in conversation with an outsider who has asked a question. After the mountain is described as being “like a wall,” the unseen brook at its summit is described as “cold in summer, warm in winter.” That description lies behind the variations: “a good distance down might not be noticed / By anyone who’d come a long way up”; “It doesn’t seem so much to climb a mountain / You’ve worked around the foot of all your life”; and, finally, a variation that is also a comment on the whole, “all the fun’s in how you say a thing.” The “fun” directs us to attend, as Frost does, to play. In the play of words lies the fun of how you phrase something, and how you say something plays a critical role in contrasts that may be as much a wall as the mountain. Another wall in Frost’s repertoire is madness, with which his own family struggled. It is often the women in his poems who embody the struggle with madness, perhaps because one of his daughters was institutionalized, but also perhaps because the limits rural women in particular encountered meant that where they lived brought the struggle most vividly to Frost’s attention. This is powerfully depicted in “A Servant to Servants,” where a woman who struggles with madness recalls the madness of her father’s brother, who had been, literally, caged rather than being sent to an asylum (and who plays the familiar role of the stranger threatening a marriage by his presence). She says, calling up an old expression that takes on new significance in her saying it, “the best way out is always through.” It is hard to read that without thinking of the variety of dark woods in which Frost loses himself, his characters, and his readers in his narrative poems. In the voice of the woman who is the “servant of servants” of the poem’s title, there is a reminder of why it is women who so often embody the struggle in Frost. Speaking of her husband, she says “His work’s a man’s, of course, from sun to sun.” That has the appearance of a statement about the long hours of labor farmers know well, but it is also a statement of the limits within which the labor of men is contained—it is long, but it is not endless. It goes without saying that her work, a woman’s work, begins before sunrise and does not end at sundown.
The last of the three collections in this volume, Mountain Interval, published in 1916, combines elements, both lyric and narrative, of the other two. One might read it as an extended meditation on space and time (keeping in mind that an interval may be a matter of either or both, particularly where and when it is a matter of mountains) after the meditation on boundaries and boundary crossing that formed North of Boston. “The Road Not Taken” introduces the theme brilliantly as it combines lyric with narrative: we are in the present of the speaker of the poem, but in that present we share an imagined time “somewhere ages and ages hence.” Imagining that time in the poet’s present, we may forget that we are reading the poem—perhaps reading it with a sigh—in one of those “ages and ages hence,” our own age, a where as much as a when in the language of the poem. In Frost, the where and the when often get teased out at boundaries where city meets country (as in “Christmas Trees” in Mountain Interval and “The Code” in A Boy’s Will), where human beings meet nature (as in “A Girl’s Garden,” “The Exposed Nest,” and “The Gum Gatherer”), where human beings meet each other (as in “Snow”)—all understood as beings meeting other beings (human and otherwise) in nature.
There are, Frost wrote, “many things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority. Poetry is simply made of metaphor. So also is philosophy—and science, too, for that matter, if it will take the soft impeachment from a friend.…” The matter of language, the matter of poetry, is metaphor, and its pleasure is ulteriority—something else that makes things happen.
One indicator of Frost’s success as a poet is the extent to which the encounter of a reader with his poems can recapitulate the encounter of the poet from which the poem is formed. These poems are as familiar as a flower in a field freshly mown. And every bit as surprising.
That, as Frost reminds us, is the sort of lump in the throat with which a new poem begins.
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who divides his time between Chicago and Shenzhen, China, where he teaches philosophy and poetry at Shenzhen University.