Commentary Magazine


The Strength of Robert Frost

Between 1954 and 1958, first in Northampton, then at Amherst, I saw Robert Frost often in the setting of a New England college town. In his eighties his presence was strong, vivid, gifted, contradictory, and passionate; I was fascinated by his sense of himself. He was continually presenting himself to professors and to students, filling them in on his life, expounding his views, reading his poems, and could get dangerously flushed with the excitement of “saying” these poems and then taking off from them for general remarks to people who were always younger than himself, dazzled by so much temperament, force, obstinacy, and intelligence. However, his own remarks, even when they were connected only by reference to his own career, were in detail usually close in thought, pithy, original in expression, and wildly felt; he was a startling unison of intellectual passion and of a sensibility still raw in its memories of pain.

Frost was very gifted, proud, honest, ambitious, religious, and mischievous. He was a figure of perilous balances and unyielding memories who seemed held together by his fierce pride as a craftsman and thinker. There was nothing in the local English departments that he did not want to know about or even take a hand in, and any professor of American literature, any critic or scholar who would be likely to write about him, was encouraged and informed with a matter-of-fact regard for his own fame and a shrewd interest in promoting it that was not without pride in what he could do for scholars. But shrewdly and paternally as he handled his admirers, he would respond to the mention of any other celebrated figure in contemporary literature with a guardedness, destructive gossip, and sometimes open anger that his own fiercely cherished place was being invaded in conversation. He was always irritable and resentful about Ezra Pound, who in 1913 had been among the first in London to praise Frost's first book, A Boy's Will, but had done this with such a possessive air that Frost had never been able to forgive him any more than he could forgive Pound his impresario's temperament, his contempt for American culture, his faking as a classical scholar, and his fame among the avant-garde.

Frost could be very puritanical about the celebrated; all he would say about Faulkner, after they had gone down to Latin America together on a cultural mission for the State Department, was that the novelist was “intemperate.” If the listener took this as an unexpressed suggestion about Faulkner's novels—Frost had a poet's disapproval of fiction anyway as lacking true style—Frost would not exert himself to limit the criticism. He had the almost physical repulsion of other temperaments that often, not always, comes with very powerful imaginative capacity. He was just the opposite of the scholars and critics with whom he spent much of his time, for he was by no means prepared to consider another's opinion just because it had been published. His own critical thinking was original, speculative, fiercely practical, based on the principles he had worked out in defense of his own creative mission as a poet seeking to approximate the spoken language; younger poets he noticed chiefly when they evaded the test of skill, lacked dramatic tone and “sparkle,” or slipped into liberal or radical postures that he despised as defeatism confusing itself into utopianism. The wildly self-assertive strength that I always saw in him, even when he was doing nothing but fend off questions that were useless to him, was his prime test of a man and his opinions. Strength he valued more than anything else, and he gave it a kind of metaphysical status in the universe at large. “Style is the way a man takes himself,” he had written in an introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson's King Jasper; it was one of his few published tributes to another poet.

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Frost could be very scornful about positions that he disliked; in the 50's, before John F. Kennedy came into his life and gave him such a new sense of power and importance that Frost began to feel that he, too, was part of the age of space and so gave his benediction to expanding government action, he was waspish and petty still about the most desperately needed social legislation of the 30's. Frost's politics were certainly conservative, if not as violently right-wing as some opinions in his family. Frost himself had the characteristic bitterness of the old-stock American who feels that he is being forced to pay for “alien” welfare schemes created to take care of the lazy and the incompetent. His real political hero was Senator Taft, who was also civilized enough to admire his poetry. Frost was very personal about people in office; just as Napoleon vaguely resented writers for being so ambitious, so Frost was prepared to admire “rulers” for being as strong-minded as writers. But until Eisenhower was finally prodded by Sherman Adams into inviting Frost to the White House, Frost was bitter that Eisenhower should have been indifferent to him and that the President preferred to associate with business executives. Kennedy's admiration helped to make Frost “a Democrat again.”

Listening to Frost talk about politicians and politics in his way, I came to admire him for his fierce self-regard more than I would have expected to; whether cause or effect or accompanying condition, it was certainly connected with his great gift. A very old, swollen, slowly moving man, he defended every particle of existence left to him and remembered every grief with a depth of feeling for those he had lost; the subtlety and hardness of his thinking were particularly striking in the company of people always concessive, watchful, neutral, and subdued. He was from another species, where people were smarter but also not afraid to suffer. He was openly vulnerable. In the candid commentary to his large volume of selected Frost letters,1 Professor Lawrance Thompson, Frost's designated biographer, contrasts Frost's lack of confidence with his strong pride in himself as a poet. Frost gave the impression of fighting to keep everything he had won, of having to triumph over every obstacle, of wanting to call on everything within reach for his continuing education. Of course I had known about Frost's early difficulties in getting a hearing, and that it was only in England, when he was thirty-nine, that he was able to get his first book published; I knew that he relished his many academic honors all the more because of his own brief and irregular attempts at a college education. But it was startling to find Frost reciting all his early college grades and still cursing Pound for a braggart as he walked up and down the cold Amherst streets after he had had a too exciting evening reading from his poems in Johnson Chapel and could not sleep. He would recite his life over again, exactly as he does in so many letters to scholars, critics, reviewers, and collectors in Professor Thompson's book. Yet the most extraordinary thing about his verbal memories was the spell they put on him as he recited them. The transitions were as wonderful, original, and clairvoyant as they are in his best poems; even when he was shaking with fatigue and cold but would obstinately refuse to go to bed until he had talked himself out, his ideas were sinewy, shrewd, right on the button. I understood better why Frost felt related to Emerson, despite the difference in their philosophies. One of Emerson's early biographers remembers him talking in a stream of perfect sentences even when he was dying. Frost's sentences were achieved definitions, and showed an obsessive drive to clarity. One felt that they were a physical necessity.

In quarters naturally hostile to poetry that requires intellectual effort, Frost enjoyed a misleading reputation as a poet accommodating to average capacities and prejudices. Actually Frost had a bleak, if stoical, outlook; the religious faith which in private came out like the most stubborn of his loves was perhaps more a fact in Frost's complicated personal strategy for living than in his work, which in its best period did not seek to express personal beliefs, but dramatized concrete situations as new material for poetry. What makes Frost's poetry unusually interesting to the general reader is Frost's subject matter, which is characteristic experience in dramatic encounters. Frost does not write about poetry or about making the modern world safe for poetry, the usual themes of romantic and symbolist poets, for whom the poet himself is the hero. Frost writes about situations which threaten the moral balance of the passerby who has fallen into the situation. He makes poetry out of the dramatic, startling contest with the negative blackness that begins everywhere outside the hard-won human order. Frost's poetry is about the strength needed for living one's life, and it is about living in a way that differs very sharply from the stock poetry of modern life as a tragedy of disbelief, from the self-conscious ironies of literary reference that make the poet sound like Hamlet talking to Polonius.

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To read Frost's best poems is to have a series of satisfactions in the intellectual, emotional, and technical conquest of difficulties. They certainly do not inspire the reader with the wonder of pure imagination that is found in Yeats; even Hardy, whom we inevitably think of when reading Frost, gives the reader a sense of the Biblical cosmos, the more-than-human significance of the creation itself, that we do not find extending out of Frost's dramatic narratives. Frost's poems are directly about struggle; the terms of the struggle are defined with satisfying honesty and exactness, even to the epistemological difficulties that man encounters in getting to know the world. One feels in reading Frost's best pieces that he has defined certain difficulties of existence exactly, and has solved them just in the nick of time, so that little is left over for man's imaginative edification. Poetry now exists as if to assure us of another world, more worthy of our imagination; and when Eliot or Stevens actually makes us see this other world, we are dazed and grateful, as if the gold diffused in the sea had solidified and were now shining in our eyes. But Frost, who said that Stevens wrote on bric-a-brac, wanted to make poetry the triumph of this world. His hand-carved poems came out without the slightest concession to elegance, and the imaginative splendor he achieved, deeply impressive but by no means meant to impress you with splendor anywhere else, lay in the idiosyncratic truth of his lines, in the depth of experience that we associate with such masterful ability to achieve transitions. Just as Frost's God did not seem to extend to the world, so that He held the balance of existence but would not influence it, so Frost's poems do not make living easier, or imaginatively more luxurious. But they are immensely satisfying, because of the voice that prevails in them.

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The frost I briefly knew fought for fame, for control of his reputation, for mastery of human experience, on terms which he seemed able to impose on the younger and more passive people around him. So in this book of his letters, one hears Frost talking about his own life, advancing his career, handling the many people who were useful to him. A letter for Frost was an exercise in assertion, without the charm that the interplay of poetic narrative called out of him. Frost did not like writing letters and he did not surrender to anything when he wrote one. But the letters together make an impressive account of Frost's efforts to establish himself and to uphold himself. The severity of his struggles stuck to him in his triumph and became for him the characteristic mark of triumph.

Frost was born in San Francisco because his father, who sympathized with the Confederacy and named him after Robert E. Lee, was trying to make good as a journalist and editor away from his New England family. The father died of tuberculosis in his thirties, and the mother, a native of Scotland, then followed the body of her husband back East, where she taught in the public schools and eventually opened a school of her own in order to support the children. She educated Frost at home until he was ready for high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Frost tried Dartmouth for less than a semester, worked as a light-trimmer and gate-tender in the Lawrence mills, and was married at twenty-one to the remarkable girl who had been his fellow-valedictorian in high school. When he was already a father, he tried Harvard for a while as a special student, then withdrew. His crucial period was the nine years he spent on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where he wrote many of the poems that were to go into his first three books, A Boy's Will, North Of Boston, Mountain Interval. At a time when so many Americans from the rural areas were fitting themselves to the new urban pace, Frost, with a large family, was living in a corner of rural New England among farmers and small villagers whose speech fascinated him and whose difficulties became material for his poetry. He was to say later that the beauty of his first poems was “the unforced expression of a life I was forced to live,” and he was proud that he had learned to “perform in a language absolutely unliterary.” He would occasionally get a poem published in The Independent, but he remained unknown and virtually unpublished until he took his family to England) in .1912. He found friends' arid admirers among the younger English poets, and encouraged Edward Thomas to write poetry. Thomas, who was to die in the war, became the closest friend that Frost was ever to have.

Frost returned from England in 1915 to find more interest in his work here than he had ever known before, and he was soon on his way to the many triumphs and honors that were to become such a fixture of his later life. But he was never to forget his long struggle for recognition, and at the height of his fame pursued it eagerly, while he blamed his many family tragedies on the new way of life that his success had imposed on them all. “All this sickness and scatteration of the family . . . a result and a judgment on us. We ought to have gone back to farming years ago or we ought to have stayed farming when we knew we were well off.”

Of course Frost knew that the times had changed for everyone as well as for himself. The loneliness and mishaps of the farm folk among whom he lived in Derry, the deserted farms and lilac-choked cellars he had written about, were themselves instances of the cost of failure among those who could or would not join the band-wagon of progress. By the 30's the penalty for such failure would be multiplied in the millions. But Frost himself could not fail now and certainly would not tolerate failure. The many failures in the 30's perhaps frightened Frost even more than the new spirit of governmental intervention outraged him. Frost had an almost physical horror of anyone admitting defeat; a famous progressive educator once spoke to him of a school he had had to close as his “fourth failure,” and Frost quoted this to me with indignation. Americans were not allowed to fail and America was not allowed to fail; if Roosevelt or anybody else in power spoke of America having failed in any particular, he was a weakling and in spirit a traitor.

As shown again by his letters on the subject of writers who went “left” in the 30's, Frost could be spiteful and unrealistic about the social crisis. He was also under the inflicted guilt in those years of mental illness, death, and suicide among his children; his morale was at its lowest after the death of his wife in 1938. And despite his established and almost official position as a poet, his work meant less to “crisis” readers following after Eliot than it had to the generation of the 20's delighted by his use of plain speech. At a time when his conservatism put him at odds with many other writers, he demanded more submission as a sign of his continued importance. He certainly enjoyed his power to dominate people in his circle, and infuriated Bernard De Voto by gossiping that De Voto's analyst had advised him not to see Frost, a personality too strong for him. Frost also kept collectors on the line, both for money and the maximum assurance of future fame. He became so valuable to collectors that he complained that he was getting nervous having to watch over his waste basket and his old, disowned poems in print. Yet considering some of the bargaining and maneuvering he went in for, it is remarkable how detached, as an artist, Frost remained in his last years. His poems were getting more discursive, but his hold on everything he claimed and on everybody near him was as fierce as ever. He was endlessly involved with American colleges and universities, collectors, lectures, readings, national figures.

Kennedy's admiring interest in him, climaxed by his unforgettable reading of “The Gift Outright” at the 1961 inauguration after the fierce winter sunlight kept him from reading the new poem he had composed for the occasion, must have seemed to Frost like the last true prize of his life. In a letter to Eisenhower, he had addressed him as the “ruler” of the greatest nation in the world; he would now help to rule with the new ruler, in a new era of “poetry and power.” He was in Russia for eleven days on a cultural mission, but on his return waited in vain for Kennedy to see him. Apparently he irritated Kennedy by projecting onto Khrushchev the statement that the United States would never fight. The statement Frost gave the New York Times was that “Khrushchev said he feared for us modern liberals. He said we were too liberal to fight. I suppose he thought we'd stand there for the next hundred years saying, ‘On the one hand—but on the other hand.’” Professor Thompson says in his editorial notes: “There were others who suspected that RF might have put the phrase ‘too liberal to fight’ into Khrushchev's mouth to unburden RF's own conservative and familiar obsession for equating ‘liberal’ with ‘cowardly.’”

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The last time I saw Frost was in the spring of 1958, when he came back from Washington believing that his intervention with the Department of Justice had alone obtained Pound's release from St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Professor Thompson's material on Frost's part in the Pound case shows that Frost was brought in by Archibald MacLeish, who perhaps felt that his own political credit with the Eisenhower administration was not enough to help Pound. He drafted an appeal to the government signed by Frost, Hemingway, and Eliot. But Frost was sure that he had got Pound out. He sat in the President's house at Amherst talking with pride of what he had done for Pound, whom he disliked as much as ever. Pound's political views seemed to Frost just the marks of an exaggerated and disordered personality. Although he hadn't seen Pound in many years, he still felt troubled and threatened by Pound's excessiveness. By his intervention with Eisenhower's Attorney General, he had put order to what had been disorder, he had helped to close the case. He was proud of what he had done for Pound precisely because he disliked him; he had disciplined himself, and in a sense he had helped to administer a lesson to Pound, whether Pound knew it or not. “I did it,” he said in pride and exhaustion, “I went right in there, to the office of the Attorney General, and I talked to him.” Then he made a face. “That Ezra,” he said.


Footnotes

1 Selected Letters of Robert Frost, edited by Lawrance Thompson, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 645 pp., $10.00.

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