Robert Frosts Poems

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671441340
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/21/1976
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback

Introduction

I

AN INTRODUCTION

ROBERT FROST: THE MAN AND THE POET

The character, as well as the career, of Robert Frost gives the lie to the usual misconceptions of the poet. Frost has been no less the ordinary man for being an extraordinary creator.

The creator, the artist, the extraordinary man, is merely the ordinary man intensified: a person whose life is sometimes lifted to a high pitch of feeling and who has the gift of making others share his excitement. The ordinary man lives by the creative spirit. He thinks in images and dreams in fantasy; he lives by poetry. Yet he seems to distrust it. He clings to the notion that a poet is a queer and incompetent creature, a daydreaming ne'er-do-well, an eccentric trying to escape the business of the everyday world, a soft and coddled soul.

Almost the opposite is true. History is the record of men who were not only poets but workers, men of action, discoverers, dreamers and doers. Sir Walter Raleigh's exploration of Guiana and other expeditions in the New World brought him fame and envy. Sir Philip Sidney was a soldier whose gallantry on the field of battle is a deathless story. Geoffrey Chaucer, "father of English poetry," was a diplomat and secret agent on the king's business in Europe. John Milton was Cromwell's fighting foreign secretary.

Nor have poets failed in labor and industry. Ben Jonson was a bricklayer. Robert Herrick was a jeweler. Robert Burns was a plowboy. William Blake designed, printed, and sold his own books. William Morris manufactured furniture. Long before he became known as the greatest American poet of his time, Robert Frost worked as a farmer, a bobbin boy in a Massachusetts mill, a shoemaker, andhe west coast and worked on the San Francisco Bulletin, a Democratic newspaper. During the Civil War, he was proud to be a Copperhead, a southern sympathizer and champion of states' rights. When his son was born on March 26, 1874, the child was named after the great southern soldier and scholar, and christened Robert Lee Frost.

The San Francisco of Frost's youth was a rough town -- Westerners sported revolvers as jauntily as Easterners carried canes -- and although Frost's father enjoyed the hazardous life of editor-politician in a boisterous community, his health did not stand the strain. When he died of tuberculosis in his early thirties, the boy Robert was ten years old.

ii

Taken back by his mother to the New England of his ancestors, the fatherless boy grew into the independent young man. His mother taught school and read to him. The first story he ever read through for himself was Scottish Chiefs; the second was Tom Brown's School Days. He was then fourteen, a late starter with books. He discovered poetry, and relished the sheer music of Poe as much as the meaningfulness of Emerson. Simultaneously with the discovery, he began to write his own verse. At fifteen he saw his first poem printed in the Lawrence High School Bulletin; it was a long ballad about the night when Cortez was driven out of Mexico City. When he was nineteen his first "professional" poem was accepted by The Independent, a magazine of national circulation; he received a check for fifteen dollars. His mother was proud, but the rest of the family were alarmed. His grandfather said, "No one can make a living at poetry. But I tell you what," he added shrewdly, "we'll give you a year to make a go of it. And you'll have to promise to quit writing if you can't make a success of it in a year. What do you say?"

"Give me twenty -- give me twenty," replied the nineteen-year-old youth, like an auctioneer.

Someone must have overheard the mocking flippancy and punished him by making him wait the full twenty years. Twenty years later, almost to the month, Robert Frost's first book, A Boy's Will was published and proved that the boy was not only a true poet but an accurate prophet.

Meanwhile he grew up among his fellows. He graduated at seventeen from the Lawrence High School, and delivered the valedictory. His covaledictorian was a remarkably pretty girl, Elinor Miriam White. Three years later he married her.

His had been a crowded youth. In school vacation days, from twelve on, he had worked in the shoe shops of Salem, New Hampshire, nailing shanks and cutting heels, helping on the farm with the haying, and pushing a bobbin wagon in a woolen mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. But, long before he was eighteen, Frost knew what he wanted to do; he literally attached himself to poetry. First he made an attempt to please the family, especially his father's father, and get a formal education. After being graduated from high school, he entered Dartmouth College. Within two months he was back home. "I was mostly roughing around up there," he said years later. "My mother had a hard school to teach. She had a lot of rough boys, and teaching them was the least part of her work. I told myself -- perhaps as an excuse -- that if I had to be roughing some place, I'd be more useful roughing around that school than roughing around at college." So, at eighteen, Robert Frost came back an d took his mother's class away from her in the school at Methuen, Massachusetts.

Although his father's father was willing to help him, Robert was not willing to take the advice that went with the help. He might be told what to do, but never how to do it. Instead, he contributed to the family income by teaching at one school and another, by working in Lawrence, reporting for the town newspaper, editing a "column" of notes and sketches. One of his stories concerned a large bird in a big wind that, looking for a perch, flew to the top of the flagpole of a large building and stayed there until some hunting fool shot him. The building was the U. S. Post Office, the flag was flying, and the bird was an American eagle.

iii

Two years after his marriage, Robert Frost once more tried to please the family and complete his scholastic education. He entered Harvard in his twenty-second year and remained until his twenty-fourth. He liked the study of philosophy, he was drawn to the classics; he enjoyed Latin and Greek, but -- "It wasn't what I wanted " he said.

His grandfather was disappointed, but he gave his unambitious grandson a farm near Derry, New Hampshire, for a refuge. The refuge presented something of a challenge, and at twenty-five Frost began farming. He was anything but a born tiller of the soil, though he did make some sort of living exclusively as a farmer for five or six years. In the end he turned to teaching part of the time. But his head was full of poems, and his wife was only too willing he should write. Everyone was displeased -- except himself and his wife, neither of whom minded being "neglected."


IN NEGLECT

They leave us so to the way we took,
A s 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.

iv

The Derry farm had been given Frost on such terms that he was committed to it for ten years. Ten years passed and Frost, now thirty-five, was able to sell his New Hampshire property. With the money, plus the little he had saved by teaching at Pinkerton Academy in Derry Village, Frost uprooted himself and his family, and sailed for England. Living abroad was cheap -- this was in 1912 -- and Mrs. Frost wanted, she said, "to live under thatch." The Frosts found a home in Beaconsfield, a little town in rural Buckinghamshire. Although England was in the throes of a literary revival and "Georgian Poetry" was the center of a movement, the Frosts were untouched by what was going on. They went nowhere, except for occasional visits to London, and saw no one until almost a year had passed. Then they tried farming again, this time in Gloucestershire, where their near neighbors were the poet-dramatist Lascelles Abercrombie and the poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.

One evening in 1913 Frost sat before an open fire, shuffling through the poems he had written, only a few of which had been printed in magazines. In his hands was the work of twenty years. "It came to me that maybe someone would publish a few of these poems in a book. It really hadn't ever occurred to me before that this might be done." Frost remembered that Henley's publisher had been David Nutt. David Nutt was dead, but his widow was carrying on the publishing business, and to Mrs. Nutt he went. Mrs. Nutt read the work of the unknown poet and d ecided to publish his book.

It was as simple as that. Too simple, perhaps -- no influential friends; no publicity, nothing to win favor except the poetry. But young authors impatient for publication should remember that Frost had to wait more than twenty years from the time of his first poem in a high school magazine to the time of his first book When the volume appeared, the poet was thirty-eight years old.

v

A Boy's Will is Robert Frost's first book, and the title not only indicates the mood but pays a tribute to Longfellow who, in "My Lost Youth," wrote:

A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.

The English reviewers were captivated with Frost's unaffected lyrics, with his simple vocabulary and sharp observation, most of all with his way of turning usually forgotten thoughts into unforgettable phrases. But if the critics were enthusiastic about A Boy's Will they were exuberant about North of Boston, which appeared about a year later. They praised the second volume for many reasons. Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote, "Mr. Frost has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry...Tales that might be mere anecdotes in the hands of another poet take on universal significance because of their native veracity and truth to local character." An anonymous critic in The Nation acclaimed the poems for their "downright knowledge, their vivid observation, and (most important) their rich enjoyment of all kinds of practical life." Attention was also directed to the plain language and lack of rhetoric, "the careful rendering into the meter of customary speech."

The last feature is Frost's most characteristic, if not his most enduring, quality. A Boy's Will is poetry that sings; North of Boston is poetry that talks. This was emphasized in an essay entitled "The Permanence of Robert Frost," by Mark Van Doren, who maintained that Frost's singularity, his "strangeness," consisted in the conversational tone he builds into his verse. "Whether in dialogue or in lyric, his poems are people talking....The man who talks under the name of Robert Frost knows how to say a great deal in a short space, just as the many men and women whom he has listened to in New England and elsewhere have known how to express in the few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express."

vi

In early 1915, seven months after the outbreak of the First World War Robert Frost returned to America. He came back to find himself suddenly and unexpectedly famous. His two books were on sale everywhere in the United States, published by a New York publisher, Henry Holt and Company. The man who had left America an unknown writer came back to be hailed a leader of "the new era in American poetry."

As soon as Frost suspected he might now live by poetry alone, he did a characteristic thing: he bought a farm. It was on a hillside near Franconia, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He lived there for five years.

Less than a year after his return from England, Frost delivered the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Tufts College. The year following he was invited to join the advisory board of the short lived but brilliant monthly, The Seven Arts; he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; he was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard, the very college f rom which he had declined to graduate. "Truly," wrote Gorham B. Munson in 1927, "he had scarcely tapped, and all the doors of literary America opened to him."

Frost was now forty. During the next twenty years -- from 1916 to 1936 -- the poet spent much of his time at various institutions of learning. Although nominally engaged as a professor, he was a stimulator rather than a teacher. His function was not to instruct but to excite, to infuse with warmth, to act as "a sort of poetic radiator." This function he richly fulfilled without ceasing to create, he became a critical force; never trying to persuade anyone, he became an influence.

In 1938 he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and three years later took a house in Cambridge. But he did not relinquish his hold upon the land. He now owned, and occasionally occupied, five farms -- all in Vermont.

vii

The volumes that followed North of Boston marked a continual increase in the ability to make verse talk and sing. Sometimes the poems conversed; sometimes they made their own tunes; mostly they talked and sang together.

Poets are said to lose the singing impulse as they grow older. The reverse is true with Frost -- his later work is distinguished by its lyrical power. A Witness Tree, published in Frost's sixty-seventh year, is as fresh as anything written in his youth.

Four times Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the best book of poetry of the year -- Frost being the only poet ever to achieve that quadruple distinction -- in 1924, for New Hampshire; in 1931, for Collected Poems; in 1937, for A Further Range; and in 1943, for A Witness Tree. Other honors steadily accumulated. He was intermittently on the faculty at Amherst College from 1916 to 1938; Poet in Residence at Michigan University from 1921 to 1923 and again during 1925-26; he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1936. He was cofounder of the now famous Bread Loaf School of English -- a summer institution in the Green Mountains of Vermont -- and he has lectured there since 1920. He was awarded honorary degrees by Columbia, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, and other colleges and universities. He was one of the few authors to receive the Gold Medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

These honors did not affect the man or his work. The quiet strength, the deep convictions, remained unshaken in the person as well as in the poetry. The last lines of the first poem in Frost's first book took on a prophetic conclusiveness:

They would not find me changed from him they knew -- only more sure of all I thought was true.

viii

The truth has been Frost's central passion. He has never been fooled by easy solutions or tricked by slogans; he has never given in to the fashion of the moment in poetry or politics. Again and again he has reaffirmed his belief; he states part of it in "The Black Cottage":

...why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favor.
As I sit here, and oftentimes,
I wish I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.

But a persistent search for truths does not mean that Frost is a grim philosopher. On the contrary, his touch is as light as it is certain. It is light even when -- or especially when -- his subject is tragic. When Frost is most serious, he is most casual. His verse has a growing intimacy; it radiates an honest neighborliness in which wit and wisdom are joined. He knows humanity without its "company manners"; he has studied it in stony pastures and academies of art and science. He appreciates skill in every craft. Preferring reality of expedience to a retreat to a fantastic dream-world, he insists:

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

Always the worker as well as the dreamer, Frost shapes his verse and judges a poem by the same standards which, up T. K. Whipple, "he would apply to an ax or a hoe or a spade: it must be solid, strong, honest." The pulse of his verse is timed to the heartbeat of the workaday world. Poetry and action, love and need, are united. As the poet himself says at the end of "Two Tramps in Mud Time":

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Frost judges, but he rarely condemns; he is fundamentally serious, but never pompous. Some critics have considered him essentially a moralist, but his worst enemy (if he has one) would not accuse him of trying to make anything or anyone over. He accepts the world's contradictions without being crushed by them. One of his most recent po ems, significantly entitled "The Lesson for Today," is a long philosophical discussion, which concludes:

And were an epitaph to be my story
I'd have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover's quarrel with the world.

"I had a lover's quarrel with the world." No reviewer has written, none will write, a more accurate summary of the poet's spirit; a contemplation of the world which is free to question, even to criticize, but always with understanding, always with earnest love.

-- Louis Untermeyer

Copyright 1916, 1923, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1943, © 1967, 1969 by Holt, Rinehart & Winston; copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1951, © 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962, by Robert Frost; copyright © 1964, 1967, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine; copyright © 1971 by Louis Untermeyer and Mary Silva Cosgrave

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  • Posted February 15, 2010

    One of the Best

    Robert Frost is one of the best poets of all time. He knows his way around metaphors and similis like no one else, and it would be a shame it everyone didn't read at least one of his beautiful poems. His prose is unlike anyone else and is mastered only by himself. Read this if you have a love for the beautiful and tragic, you will appreciate it all the more.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 22, 2011

    Highly recommended.

    Now I look forward to reading some of his other works. This one is great.

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  • Posted October 8, 2011

    Highly Recommend: A master of the Art

    For a classic read and style this is my go to author and book. It's a great collection that is worth it's weight in gold!

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