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Robert Frost Was Neither Light Nor Dark

He's worth reading because we're both

Howard Sochurek/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The Art of Robert Frost by Tim Kendall (Yale)

In writing about Robert Frost, one hardly has to mention that he is often thought of as the simplest of the great English-language modernists, even the most simplistic. This is when he isn’t considered too simplistic to be modernist or great, remembered from graduation speeches and picture books, which seems to have tempted everyone writing about Frost to tell readers very quickly that they’re wrong: wrong to feel his emotions as simple, wrong to hear his language as plain. Even the best things written about the character of the man and the work, written by and for specialists and sophisticates, tend to proceed by negative theology. We have been taught that Frost’s poems are not earnest or kindly, not optimistic or light. Not saintly, he was also not monstrous. Never clearly present in his poems, he was never quite hidden. He was not even a native New Englander. (He was, however, a racist.) He was rarely ever just serious, and all that his critics clearly agree on is that he was often mischievous but rarely for its own sake, which is another way of saying that we do not understand the tricks he played on us or where they came from. We know the glory of his works, or at least we feel it.

It is no exaggeration to call Frost the least understood of the great modernists, despite the aspects of his work that children can understand easily. His symbols are often straightforward enough that the prospect of exegesis seems like middle-school English (green is innocence, the dark woods are death). Not being teachers of middle school, the best scholarly and critical minds of the last generation or two have largely passed Frost over for the denser surfaces of Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Oppen, Pound, Crane, Yeats, Stein—and, a bit later, Lowell, Bishop, and Ashbery. There are no major works on Frost by Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, Frank Kermode, Marjorie Perloff, Christopher Ricks, no great artistic tribute like Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Nearly all the major work on Frost is from sixty-year-old essays and talks (Randall Jarrell’s, Lionel Trilling’s, Robert Frost’s) and out-of-print books (William Pritchard’s, Mark Richardson’s, a book of essays by Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, and Derek Walcott). “I’m just the country boy,” Frost said in 1959. “It is smart today ... to be reading St. John Perse, or T. S. Eliot, or me. No, leave me out. Not smart.” Critics have looked past him because of his lack of ostensible difficulty, and we misunderstand him because of his difficulties. It is difficult even to say what they are.

His work tends not to challenge us in the ways that we have come to expect from good poetry. His famously intricate forms are often rather easy to spell out, as are his less famous allusions (Romantic poets, Emerson, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Catullus, Plato, Swedenborg, Darwin). His singular achievement in meter—what he called “the sound of sense”—was such an achievement precisely because he could convey a wide range of emotions by sentence sounds alone, even when we haven’t made sense of them. He was no great student of philosophy or history or politics, and most of his abstract ideas, almost all about poetry, are right there in the Collected Prose or the poems. The challenge, then, is the lack of challenge: that we experience the poems with more depth than we can usually comprehend. In this we are uncannily like the people in his poems walking past forests or down country roads or finding other sights that entrance them, who know that they reflexively project their desires and fears onto what they see even though they can’t help themselves. No matter how false their projections, their experience of them is as real and as intricate as that of what they see (and as that of their own theories and doubts). To read Frost is to feel his characters’ inner conflicts and to feel as conflicted as his characters, who are all too often lost in themselves. So the critic is tasked with the slippery business of tracing her patterns of feeling and thought back to the source without leaving too much of herself or, like most critics, too little.

The Art of Robert Frost is as good an example of the latter problem as anything, not least because it is a useful and intelligent book. Tim Kendall, a British literary critic and scholar, has republished a large selection of Frost’s poetry, though almost all from the first half of his oeuvre, and has written a short critical essay on each selected poem. One could quibble with which poems he leaves out, but what he leaves in is largely representative and excellent. Kendall is very observant and is careful enough, if not perfect; the book is both a fine introduction to Frost and a thoughtful work of criticism, bringing the corpus of Frost scholarship to bear on the poems’ minutiae and on their places in the whole of Frost’s work. This is what makes it such a good example of what we miss when we read Frost without sustained attention to the conflicts that he provokes in ourselves. It shows how even the most diligent of critics, with a century of scholarship behind him, can explain Frost’s poems with great sensitivity but without regard to his own inner conflicts, and can thereby leave all but untouched the gap between the words and their lingering beauty.

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The art of Robert Frost, according to The Art of Robert Frost, is that of meaning a number of things by what he said. No one would disagree, not even the middle-schoolers, which I suspect is why Kendall brings up the idea with an SAT word, “ulteriority,” and contorts himself trying to define it: “Although Frost defined ulteriority as ‘saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another,’ it is better to think of it as a way of meaning two things at once, or of saying one thing in terms of another thing which is also said.” If the main tension in Frost’s art is between the literal and the ulterior, the critic’s main task is to figure out which is which. “The issue central to any consideration of Frost’s achievement,” Kendall writes, is “how [we can] know when we should read for ulteriority.” What the method largely misses are the ways in which our projections are themselves central to our readings of the poems, the ways in which we read ulteriority into Frost’s words whether we’d like to or not.  

Consider the first poem in Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, which is also the first poem in Kendall’s selection: “Into My Own,” in which, according to Frost’s initial epigraph, “The youth [the poem’s speaker] is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having forsworn the world.” Kendall offers a number of good reasons for why the youth’s conviction is silly. The youth, who boldly proclaims to arise and go off to the wilderness, does nothing and congratulates himself nonetheless, in grandiloquent language to boot. “This is stay-at-home poetry,” writes Kendall; it is “less than [Frost’s] best work.”

Kendall is right, of course, that the youth is a little ridiculous. (Since when was youth anything but?) Yet the absurdity is part of the point and, crucially, not toward the end of cheap satire, ulteriority, mischief. Without any loss of composure, the youth’s conviction in his journey is weighed down by his fears and his doubts and the vagueness of his ambitions. With every reason not to be, he is sure of himself. Likewise, in reading his poem, it is hard not to be taken by his passion even as you doubt its propriety, and to be swept up by his language even as you notice its conventional badness, believing in his words despite yourself. It’s hard not to feel like the youth.

Here is the poem in full:

One of my wishes is that those dark


So old and firm they scarcely show the


Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of


But stretched away unto the edge of


I should not be withheld but that some


Into their vastness I should steal away,

Fearless of ever finding open land,

Or highway where the slow wheel pours

    the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,

Or those should not set forth upon my


To overtake me, who should miss me


And long to know if still I held them


They would not find me changed from

him they knew—

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

It’s true, the youth applauds himself before he does anything, turns his back on people by imagining their running after him, declaims his fearlessness in literal “doom” and “gloom” rhetoric, a rhyme that was parodied by Shakespeare the way “trees” and “breeze” was parodied by Pope. The youth wants everything because he fears that he will get nothing. This hides his intimacies: the wide eyes with which he draws us into his confidence (“One of my wishes”); the mythic assurance of “I should not be withheld but that some day”; the vividness of the “highway where the slow wheel pours the sand,” the line slowing, nearly halting, like the pour. Of the moments of grandeur within his grandiloquence, the greatest are his final two lines: “They would not find me changed from him they knew— / Only more sure of all I thought was true.” Will he grow more sure because he comes to realize the courage of his convictions or because he stops considering other perspectives, because he strengthens or because he ossifies? Who hasn’t wondered this about himself?

One of Frost’s great subjects is the tension within the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—how, for instance, they can feel certain despite their arbitrary foundations, imaginary highways made of sand. Consider the poem that everyone knows, “The Road Not Taken”: 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The ironies of this poem are almost as well-known as Hallmark cards, and Kendall rehearses them well. The speaker spends less time describing the roads’ differences than telling us that they aren’t that different. The road he took was not even less traveled by, and his saying so, “with a sigh,” is his impression of his future self, who will have made a myth of the decision. The poem is a “cunning nugget of nihilism,” as Dan Chiasson has observed. Your sense of it “as an anthem for non-conformity” was perfectly wrong.

Since the poem “has probably caused more confusion ... than any other of Frost’s poems,” as Kendall writes, it has probably caused the most critics to tell readers that they are wrong. But this misses the point: the wrongness is part of the point, the temptation into believing, as in the speaker’s impression of himself, that you could form yourself by your decisions, that you, like everyone else to whom the speaker is “telling this with a sigh,” could take the road less traveled, as the master of your fate. In falling for his ruse, we show its force. We fall for it despite our better critical judgment, because we fool ourselves like his future self. The charge is not nihilism, which would mean that our decisions never matter, but the reflexive temptation to see ourselves as brave, unique, self-determining, at the expense of remembering how little our decisions might have mattered and how little we knew about them. Imagine how dry this would sound if you hadn’t been tempted.

I hope that no one mistakes my argument as a defense of purely naïve readings of Frost, or for ignoring his ironies. I mean only that we misunderstand him when, in studying him, we disregard our unstudied reactions. For instance, Kendall convincingly shows the ways in which Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” parodies “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge’s great meditative poem about a quiet winter night. The earlier poem, from 1798, is a picture of clarity: clear syntax, clear thoughts, clear descriptions, clear faith that the natural world is a reflection of God, whom Coleridge’s infant son could come to know by wandering in nature “like a breeze.” “So shalt thou see and hear / The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language, which thy God / Utters, who from eternity doth teach / Himself in all, and all things in himself.” Where Coleridge’s poem is clear, Frost’s is muddleheaded; his old man (not an infant) wanders through his house and forgets things. Coleridge’s faith in animated nature becomes, in Frost’s hands, an old man’s delusion (“All out of doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost”). Coleridge’s crystalline images, such as the “silent icicles, / Quietly shining to the quiet moon,” become a windbag the old man can’t quite inflate:

He consigned to the moon, such as she


So late-arising, to the broken moon

As better than the sun in any case

For such a charge, his snow upon the


His icicles along the wall to keep;

And slept. 

Yet gestures of parody need not amount to a parody. The old man’s faith may be rootless, but it is real to him. It helps him sleep at night. His consignment of his snow to the moon, while certainly mocking Coleridge’s “high language of Romanticism,” is not “nonsensical.” His syntax meanders, like an old man, but his subject agrees with his verb. Tergiversation aside, the old man knows what he wants, and the poem asks for your respect as well as your mockery, as if to say that even a faith like Coleridge’s, and a genius like his, would come to sound like this in due time, and to question whether we could still share something of his faith, knowing that.

The poem may not be as evenhanded as “The Road Not Taken” or “Into My Own,” but, if it resonates, it is not because it “[demonstrates] the meaninglessness” of Romantic attachments to the landscape, as Kendall writes, but because we have it in us both to romanticize nature and to dismiss those attachments, just as we both dismiss the elderly and look past our prejudices. Like Frost, we are conflicted, we are both / and: passionate and critical, skeptical and ingenuous. His best work plays on these tensions in ourselves, in the way that his “Design” describes a predatory spider as if it were a human infant, to ask whether we should be as terrified of the latter as we are of the former if their cruelty stems from a greater design; or the way that “Birches” describes the boy’s swinging in such phallic terms—taking the stiffness out of his father’s trees and all that—to confront us with impurities we desperately want to ignore, as if we were children running away from our newfound sexuality and finding it everywhere. 

Or the way that “Birches” strains toward language so lovely that you feel as though it will snap out from under you. This loveliness is like that of the sounds in “After Apple Picking,” which are pellucid despite the picker’s weariness, raising the question of whether he really was right to act on his desires even if they must feel wrong when fulfilled. (The Biblical reference is obvious; the references to Keats’s odes are less so.) The sounds in “Desert Places” are as lulling and hypnotic as the snowfall they describe, as Seamus Heaney pointed out brilliantly. Could they palliate us enough to admit their lack of any spiritual significance—“no expression, nothing to express”—or are our projections as inevitable as describing your inner state in terms of a landscape, a desert? The question is like that in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a poem that starts out playfully, the speaker speaking for his horse, until we hear, “These woods are lovely, dark and deep” and are inclined to agree until we come to wonder whether his congenial feeling that the woods’ darkness has loveliness and depth, not just death, is as frivolous as the ideas that he had projected onto the horse.

The Art of Robert Frost is at its best not with the shorter lyric poems, which I have been discussing, but with the longer narrative poems, such as those that make up nearly all of Frost’s second book, North of Boston, the only collection that Kendall republishes in full. He faithfully describes the poems’ exceptional dramatic range, so exceptional because the emotions were so non-poetic—what Frost called “boasting tones and quizzical tones and shrugging tones ... and forty eleven other tones,” effected in “a language absolutely unliterary,” the casual speech of the countryfolk who inhabit the book. Kendall takes the view, which Frost himself encouraged, that the narrative poems were his greatest achievement, the triumph of natural speech over bookish speech, words overheard over words simply read, the poet come into his own.

Never mind the ever-present tensions between the literary and the unlearned, or that some of the narrative poems are rather boring, enough so that even the endlessly generous Heaney could write that their blank verse could “tire attention.” My reservation with Kendall’s approach is that his concentrating on the drama of the narrative poems, which takes place almost all between people, tends to obscure the lyric drama of someone’s struggles with himself. He approvingly quotes David Bromwich, who compares the lyric poems to “parables” but thinks that the narratives aim for “moral transparency” in their conflicts. This is to treat the lyrics as no better than partial sides of the narratives, when they really are narratives deeply compressed. The best of the narrative poems, in fact, are lyrics writ large.

Chief among them is “Home Burial,” a poem about a rural couple’s incompatible means of grieving the death of their young son. The husband is frustrated with his wife for her aloofness from him, and she is withdrawn and angry because of the cavalier pose he seemed to strike after he buried the child. “You could sit there with the stains on your shoes,” she says, “And talk about your everyday concerns.... / I can repeat the very words you were saying. / ‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’” He talks like a Frost poem, of course, whereas she can only be silent, a reticence that Kendall takes to be “unsympathetic to everything [Frost] holds dear.” “It is a testament to [Frost’s] genius,” Kendall writes, that he “portrays so sympathetically” a character with no faith in poetry. Yet Frost was such a character himself, or always contained such a character as part of himself.

He was a poet who put virtually none of his private life directly into his poems, so that his greatest moments of intimacy are the ones in which he is most hidden. His poems’ great pronouncements for poetry all run the risk of counting against it. (His “Oven Bird,” who alone among birds “knows in singing not to sing,” famously raises the question of “what to make of a diminished thing,” leading everyone and Kendall to answer, “a poem,” overlooking that the oven bird has permanence only because he asks “in all but words,” which are all a poet has.) Frost at his best was not a writer of parables and homilies. His faith was troubled. His writing strains toward the transcendent, but implicit in his every moment of transcendence is the lingering concern that it will all turn out to have been an illusion, that his language will have not been enough. He also leaves implicit in his every sign of failure the hope that his words can transcend it.