Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938, by Lawrance Thompson
Acquainted with the Night
Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938.
by Lawrance Thompson.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 744 pp. $15.00.
Imagine a famous poet, revered by the public for his wisdom and humanity, who attracts to him a young academic disciple; imagine that the disciple learns that behind his serene façade the poet is a vain, vindictive old hypocrite; that the disciple hides his shock and anger at the discovery, and as a result is rewarded with the task of composing the official biography; that for twenty years he follows the poet around, zealously gathering the material which he knows is going to destroy the other’s public reputation after his death; that at last the old man dies, and two decades of accumulated bitterness can be given expression . . .
It’s a good story; Henry James might have been able to use it to advantage. Whether or not anything like it lies behind Lawrance Thompson’s two distended volumes on Robert Frost,1 I would hesitate to say. What is certain is that the books throw a strange light on the friendship that existed between the two men. Almost wherever he can, Frost’s chosen biographer puts the worst possible construction on his subject’s behavior. When Frost writes a thoughtful letter to a friend in British Columbia about his theories of poetic diction, this is promptly associated with his “almost desperate campaign of self-promotion.” In British Columbia? When Frost expresses agreement with a friend’s views, it is “sycophancy.” When he mentions that he has been offered a job at Harvard, he is “boasting,” and so on, repeatedly, over the 1,500 pages we have so far been offered.
The author’s style is quite without distinction; he has no gift for evoking character; his summaries of emotional crises and intellectual developments are lifeless. Nevertheless, the stories and documents assembled here will, without doubt, explode forever the image of the unassuming, generous New England farmer-poet that Frost himself so assiduously cultivated. Indeed, by the end of the second volume the reader is inclined to feel that one would have had to be an angel to cultivate Frost’s company at close quarters for as long as Professor Thompson did without developing an active dislike for him. (I leave aside the question as to why one should put oneself through such discomfort in the first place. Or the second place, rather.) Nevertheless it must be admitted that if it was Thompson’s ambition to write the truly “definitive biography” of Frost he has succeeded beyond all question. If you want to know the size of each of the houses the Frosts lived in and the exact disposition of the rooms in each, this biography will tell you. If you want to know the names of the professors whose lectures Frost did not attend during his brief sojourn as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, Thompson will tell you that too.
Frost’s early years appear to have been bleak enough. His father, a would-be politician, alternating between exaggerated bouts of optimism about his prospects and half-savage spells of drink and disappointment before dying of tuberculosis at an early age; his widowed mother, a lady of literary inclinations and Swedenborgian views, making a half-living as a teacher in various raw New England mill towns, fired from one position after another because of her inability to maintain discipline, dependent often on the charity of friends and resentful in-laws; his sister, given to obscure hysterias and bitter feuds with her only brother, before finally dying in a state insane asylum; the future poet himself, trying on a dozen roles, from mill-hand to farmer to teacher (most often the last), persisting with nothing except the fierce, unavowed intention of somehow, some day, becoming a poet—we see them all within the context of a society that combined a sanctimonious respectability with a harsh economic ruthlessness. Fair seedtime this poet’s soul never had; instead, he would write to the first editor to accept one of his poems for publication, “But this inflexible ambition trains us best.”
Up to the age of thirty-eight, his successes were few indeed. He had been the star pupil at his high school. He had played for the school’s football team, though the strain of the games had made him vomit. He had won a place at Dartmouth, which he had promptly abandoned. He had married his childhood sweetheart, holding her to her promise against (it seems) her own later misgivings. He had published a few poems in journals of no particular importance. He had attracted some attention to his unconventional methods of teaching English literature. He had been left an income of eight hundred dollars a year and a small property by his grandfather, in spite of having sought out every occasion he could to quarrel with the old man. On that income Frost left New England for England; and here, in the house he had found for himself near Beaconsfield, his luck at last began to change. His first book of poems was accepted for publication; he made friends among the Georgian poets; he met Edward Thomas, and made possible Thomas’s career as a poet; publishers and critics in the United States began to take notice of him; he could already afford the luxury of quarrelling with Ezra Pound. In however small and discreet a way, he was unmistakably lancé;. End of Volume I.
By the time Volume II ends, Frost has published half-a-dozen volumes of verse, and received twice as many honorary degrees; universities are competing with one another for the privilege of having him as their poet-in-residence (a more novel idea then than it has since become), and publishers are doing the same for the privilege of having him on their lists; his lectures and readings are crowded out wherever he appears; innumerable articles have been written by visiting journalists about his sagacity, compassion, nobility of character, detachment from worldly ambition, and attachment to the New England countryside, his farmer’s eye for crop and soil and stock, his indifference to literary folk and all their fashions. It’s a triumph, all right; one doesn’t want to deny Professor Thompson his right to use the word in his title: a triumph of dissimulation, if nothing else. Frost’s rancorous envy of any rival contemporary; his insatiable vanity; his never-sleeping readiness to intrigue for the advancement of his career; his habit of nourishing grievances against those who had done him no wrong but to whom he intended to do wrong; the ugly hardening of his political views into something which was not so much “reactionary” as merely self-justifying—all, all were hidden from view.
It is not a story to make one love the literary profession better. Thompson’s tut-tuttings notwithstanding, it would be an exceptionally highminded writer who could read this biography without feeling more than a touch of Frost within himself. Few writers, however, would follow Frost’s example in picking quarrels with so many of the people who were best placed to foster his reputation, particularly in its early development. (Pace Thompson’s belief that Frost was a master at rigging the critical reception of his books.) The truth is that his malice and aggression almost invariably outran his calculation. “But this inflexible ambition serves us best.” . . . What one sees in Frost is an implacable intensity of self-assertion, without which he could never have become a poet, but which nevertheless doomed him to much unhappiness as a man and which gravely diminished the value of almost everything he wrote.
Of course, a simple way of dealing with the problem would be to say, as many reviewers in effect have said, “The poems are greater than the man!” But if it were so easy for poems to be greater than the men who write them, we would have many more great poets than we do. In my opinion, Frost’s poems are very much like the man. What is more, this is one of the reasons for their continuing popularity.
“Perfect conviction ignores itself, presenting the public truth.” Thus Santayana (under whom, incidentally, Frost studied for a short time at Harvard, and to whom he took a strong dislike). In other words, one distinction between the major and the minor writer is not that the former is necessarily above vanity, malice, scheming, and the rest; but that his moral and artistic conviction is so strong he feels no temptation to try to draw personal advantage from his work in his work. Another philosopher spoke of the artist as “pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world”; what would mark him off from the rest of us is that his eye remains clear and disinterested even when it gazes on the innermost nature of his own experience and imaginings.
These are hard but quite familiar paradoxes. They are illustrated too often in Frost’s work by default. He is almost always present as a personality in his own poems, as a man signaling to us for attention. He doesn’t trust his experience, and he doesn’t trust us with it. He consoles us. He tells us what to think about his thoughts. He exercises charm. And his audience is duly consoled and charmed. It doesn’t mind being winked at, twinkled at, nudged in the ribs. It doesn’t notice that in poetry these are all forms of aggression.
One sees the process at work in many of those lines of Frost’s that have become most famous:
Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to
One could do worse than be a
swinger of birches.
I would have written of me on
He had a lover’s quarrel with the
But something has to be left to
I have been one acquainted with
the night . . .
and all the rest; as well as in a host of whimsical fancies, winning similes, cozily humanized nature scenes, and in the humorous manner he made peculiarly his own of eating his poetic cake and having it too:
Don’t let the things I say against
Betray you into taking sides
Or it might get you into trouble
with me. . . .
If certain it wouldn’t be idle to
I’d summon grouse, rabbit, and
deer to the wall
And warn them away with a
stick for a gun. . . .
The tree the tempest with a crash
Throws down in front of us is
not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end
But just to ask us who we think
Insisting always on our own way
so. . . .
There are really very few poems in his collected works in which one isn’t brought up against mannerisms like these; and the more you read, the more insistent on his opinions and himself the poet becomes, and the less of anything else he presents.
So what is left? Quite a lot, actually. Not enough, I’m sure, to warrant a biography of this size (with a further 750 pages, heaven help us, still to come in Volume III); but still, a body of work which reveals much intelligence, feeling, and genuine devotion to the art. The number of completely successful poems—or to put it another way, the number of unmarred poems—may be small; but there is an impressive proportion in which, even if only for lines or stanzas at times, we know ourselves to be in the presence of a most inventive and original poet.
Frost developed his theories of poetic diction quite early, and remained faithful to them throughout his life. “I alone of English writers,” he claimed, “have consciously set myself to make music out of what I call the sound of sense.”
The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from behind a door that cuts off the words. . . . [In poetry] those sounds are summoned by the audial imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence. . . . An ear and an appetite for those sounds of sense is the first qualification for a writer, be it prose or verse. But if one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the irregular beat of the meter.
A little later Frost added:
A sentence is a sound in itself on which other words may be strung. You may string words together without a sentence sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes-line between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes. . . . Remember that the sentence-sound often says more than the words. . . . [It] is gathered by the ear from the vernacular and brought into books. . . . I like to drag and break the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle.
Frost may not have been as “alone” as he claimed in working to these ends; his program describes one of the permanently recurring ambitions of English poetry. But he made his own way toward fulfilling the ambition, with a versatility and subtlety of movement that again and again touches and surprises the reader; not least because of what one of his earliest critics, F. S. Flint, called “his ear for silences.”
All out-of-doors looked darkly at
Through the thin frost, almost in
That gathers on the pane in
What kept his eyes from giving
back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them
in his hand.
What kept him from remember-
ing what it was
That brought him to that creak-
ing room was age.
(“An Old Man’s Winter Night”)
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The sturdy seedling with arched
Shouldering its way and shedding
the earth crumbs.
(“Putting in the Seed”)
The tireless but ineffectual hands
That with every futile pass
Made the great tree seem as a
Before the mystery of glass!
First there’s the children’s house
Some shattered dishes underneath
The playthings in the playhouse
of the children
Weep for what little things could
make them glad.
Then for the house that is no
more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in
This was no playhouse but a
house in earnest.
Not all the poems quoted above wholly sustain such a level of impersonality. Others do: I think of poems like “Spring Pools,” “To Earthward,” “For Once, Then, Something,” “The Most of It,” and “Apple Picking.” Of the long dialogues or monologues, “A Servant to Servants” seems to me far the best, partly because in it Frost was strong enough to dispense with a “frame” of implausible, reassuring lovers or wise farmer-folk, and held himself to the task of presenting without deflection the theme of the poem—which is madness, and the fear of madness. Madness and fear, loneliness and the meaninglessness of effort, are far more persistently the real sources of Frost’s poetic inspiration than he was willing to acknowledge. His poetry is almost entirely about rural scenes and rustic people; yet he is far less attached to his people and their setting than he pretends to be. Instead, in his best verse, he regards them with the close, covert observation which we fix upon our potential enemies.
“The poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”: with critical declarations of that kind, Frost won his reputation for being both a wise and delightful man, and became a guide to legions of well-meaning teachers of literature in American high schools and colleges. But it is a singularly poor description of the movements of soul with which his best passages of poetry begin and end. The farmer-sage can perhaps be compared with the young Frost who had been one of the heroes of the school football team; the poet with the boy who vomited in secret from tension and fear after each game. But the boy had to go on playing, at whatever the cost to himself, and the adult, too.
p>1 The first volume, Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1914, appeared in 1966 (639 pp., $12.50); and Professor Thompson is preparing the third and final volume, The Years of Glory.