Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Evolution of Frost's Poetic Genius

The Juvenilia
Robert Frost composed his first poem The Butterfly at the age of nineteen, and it was accepted for publication by the influential New York Magazine, The Independent. This encouraged Frost to publish privately six of his lyrics in a booklet entitled Twilight. These are youthful, immature poems. They are Frost's Juvenilia. The poet has not yet found himself. However, even this immature work shows signs of promise; it has within it the seeds of future greatness.

A Boy's Will
His next volume of verses, published in London in 1913, and entitled A Boy's Will, shows a considerable maturity of the poet's power. It is an early collection of lyrics in which the poet's characteristic manner and style are already visible. "The poet's eye is turned inwards. There is an expression of a variety of subjective moods, doubts, searchings, questionings, affirmings, etc." It is as if the poet is confronted with a number of alternatives, out of which he has not yet made his choice. The poems are enriched by a depiction of New England scenes, and the linking up of the poet's moods, the deeds and moods of winter, spring, summer, and finally a return to autumn moods and setting. Lyrics like Mowing are in the characteristic style and tone of the rapidly maturing poet, and they show that tendency to moralise which was to grow and become obtrusive in his later poetry. One critic praises the volume as the work of a true poet, and writes, "There is no insistent obtrusion of self-consciousness, no laboured painting of lilies, nothing of the plunge and strain after superthings. Neither does it belong to any modern 'school' nor goes in harness to any new and twisted theory of art. It is so simple, lucid, and experimental that, reading a poem, one can see clearly with the poet's own swift eyes, and follow the trail of his glancing thought. One feels that this man has seen and felt: seen with a revelatory, a creative vision: felt personally and intensely; and he simply writes down, without confusion or affection, the results thereof. Rarely today is it our fortune to fall in with a new poet expressing himself in so pure a vein." No one who really cares for poetry should miss this little book. There is scarcely a poem of them all but will reward a thrill, and many of them will yield much more. If we must select, The Trail by Existence must be mentioned for power of imagination: Pan with US for spirit and sufficiency and for its beautiful clean finish, October for its neat, skilful handling; and Storm Fear for its stark articulation in which every word tells. Reluctance, another fine lyric is a study in autumn mood.
"North of Boston"a Major Achievement
The very next year (1914), Frost published another volume of verses, North of Boston, which is one of the major achievement of the poet. It achieved immediate popularity and was published first in London; and then soon after in the U.S.A. It is predominantly a 'book of people', and the prevailing mood is not subjective but, "dramatic narrative and dramatic monologue". A variety of New England characters has been introduced and their re-action to the human predicament have been expressed in an easy, lucid, conversational and colloquial style. The poems in this volume paint the bleakest picture of human life to be found in the poetry of Frost. These blank-verse narratives of New England ways and manners are triumphs of psychological characterisation, both in moments of success and failure, in simple rural surroundings. This makes the volume of study, of considerable interest, both of New England scenes and New England people. In this connection, Amy Lowell writes, "Mr. Frost has reproduced both people and scenery with a vividness which is extraordinary. Here are the huge hills, undraped by any sympathetic legend, felt as things hard and unyielding, almost sinister not exactly feared, but regarded as in some sort influences nevertheless. Here are great stretches of blueberry pasture lying in the sun; and again, autumn orchards cracking with fruit, which it is almost too much trouble to gather. Heavy thunderstorms drench the lonely roads and spatter on the walls of farm houses rotting in all its ugliness. For Mr. Frost it is not the kindly New England of Whittier, nor the humorous and sensible one of Lowell; it is a latter day New England, where a civilization is decaying to give, place to another and very different one."
Frost's people in this book are left-overs of the old stock, morbid, pursued by phantoms, slowly sinking to insanity. In The Black Cottage we have the pathos of the abandoned house, after the death of the stern, narrow woman who had lived in it. In A Servant to Servants we have a woman already insane once, and drifting towards insanity again with the consciousness that her drab, monotonous life is bringing it upon her. Home Burial gives the morbidness of death in these remote places; a woman unable to take up her life again when her only child had died. The charming idyll, After Apple Picking, is dusted over with something uncanny, and The Fear is horrible revelation to those undercurrents which go on as much in the country as in the city, and with remorse eating away whatever satisfaction the following of desire might have brought. That is also the theme of The Housekeeper, while The Generations of Men show that foolish pride in a useless race which is so strange a characteristic of these people. "The book is the epitome of a decaying New England."
The book is photographic. The pictures, the characters, are reproduced directly from life, they have been imprinted upon his mind as though it were a sensitive plate. He gives out what has been put in, unchanged by any personal mental process. His imagination is bounded by what he has seen, he is confined within the limits of his experience and bent all one way, like the wind-blown trees of New England hillsides. "The poet now writes in his own characteristic manner, he goes his own way, regardless of rules and conventions, and the result is a book of unusual power and sincerity."
The Mountain Interval
North of Boston was followed by The Mountain Interval in 1916. It was published in America. It derives its title from the hill near New Hampshire farm, above the interval or intervale; where the Frosts lived after their return from England. Though it has some fine pieces, the volume is among the lesser known works of Frost. As Louis Untermeyer points out, "The later work never succeeded to the popularity of its famous forerunner and for no other reason but its very lack of unity. North of Boston presented a pattern—to many a dark and terrible pattern—in its interknit New England monologues; Mountain Interval scattered its effects, introduced new inflections, puzzled the admirers of Frost's "grey monotones" by an infusion of bright colour. Yet some of this poet's finest moments are in the lesser known book. Nothing from the more popular collection will last longer than the dramatically suspended Snow, the idyllic Birches, or the intensity of the Hill Wife lyrics. Even The Death of the Hired Man scarcely surpasses the charged pathos of An Old Man's Winter Night. The volume shows a further evolution of the poet's art. Says Lawrence Thompson, "The poems in this volume combine the two previously separated moods of the inner lyric vision and the outer narrative contemplation, in ways which reveal increasing poetic subtlety and versatility. For example, while all of Frost's lyrics partake of the dramatic, five lyrics are gathered under the title The Hill Wife to provide a miniature drama in five moods rather than acts; obliquely, an isolated woman's cumulative sense of fear, loneliness, material estrangement, is represented as being so completely misunderstood by her husband that he is baffled when she disappears, irrevocably and without warning." Another foreshadowing of a subsequently favourite Frostian mode occurs in a farm fable, entitled The Cow in Apple Time, in which the poet depicts with mingled amusement and sadness the wayward Cow's self-injurious action, which personifies one kind of headstrong and ill-considered human rebellion.
New Hampshire
Frost's next volume of verses, his fourth, entitled New Hampshire, was published in 1923 after a long silence of seven years. The poet's powers have considerably matured and he has made a definite choice out of the several directions foreshadowed in the earlier volume. "One reads A Boy's Will and sees several possible lines of development and in Mountain Interval and North of Boston encounters less of pure lyricism or universal emotions and more attention to the eccentricities of a peculiar people, dominated and shaped by a peculiar environment, and thus is prepared for New Hampshire, so large a part of which is given over to this undertaking." The volume deals largely with the peculiar character of New Englanders, their eccentricities and whimsicalities. The emphasis is on the individual and the peculiar rather than on the universal. "But it is a measure of the greatness of Frost as a poet that dealing with a restricted area and people he is able to introduce much that is moving and beautiful and of a lasting and universal significance." Though there was much that was humorous, comic and whimsical in the earlier volume also it was concealed by the all prevailing grimness and bleakness. This volume is characterised by humorous, witty, and gentle social satire aimed at the American glorification of big business, commercialism, and materialism. Emphasising ths predominent tone of banter in the volume, Louis Untermeyer writes, "The very form of the new book is an extended piece of bandage; the long title poem is a broad smile from beginning to end; the most serious of the narratives sparkle with a silly intimate banter. This increase in humour, so rich in its varying timbers, will irritate the literal-minded almost as much as it will delight those to whom fact and fantasy are not inimical opposites, but continually shifting facets of the same many-sided thing. The critics who concluded that Frost was too overburdened with his lonely farms and isolated cottages, who maintained that he could never be "whimsical or quaint", will scarcely know what to make of this volume in which practically every poem proceeds from a magnified whimsicality."
So much has been made of Frost's factual realism that it is worthwhile to insist that, beneath the surface naturalism, his work is distinguished—even impelled—by a rare and fantastic mind. This side of Frost's genius has been so under-emphasized that we may be allowed to overstress it by directing attention to the fundamental quaintness of conception of Paul's Wife, of An Empty Threat, of A Star in a Stone-Boat, that lovely chain of tercets, and of Wild Grapes, which is a feminine complement to Birches.
But it is in the lyrics that Frost's warmth is most apparent. A great love of the New England countryside, of earth itself, surges from such poem as Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, Gathering Leaves, In a Disused Graveyard, and the brightly ironic The Need of Being Versed in Country Things. A less physical and almost unearth passion speaks in the beautiful, though troubled lines of To Earthward, the mystical sonority of I Will Sing You One-O, and the condensed wisdom of Fire and Ice. “I consider the last as one of the greatest epigrammatic poems in the English language; every lineand there are only nine altogetherseems to have been carved in crystal."
West Running Brook
After an interval of five years, in 1928, Frost came out with his fifth volume of verses, West Running Brook, containing some of the most significant verses of the poet. The major theme of this book is resistance and self-realisation. The tension between man and nature hitherto always exciting and often harmoniously resolved, has loosened. Nature has grown more hostile, man more heroic. The increasing undertone of humanism is beautifully eloquent in the sonnet A Soldier, one of Frost's greatest poem:
But this we know the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.
Some poems of this book show Frost's interest in astronomy while in others we find religious or philosophical reflection. Some of Frost's best lyrics are also contained in this volume, as for example, Spring Pools, A Peck of Gold, Once by the Pacific, Tree at My Window, Acquainted with the Night, etc.
A Further Range
A Further Range is Frost's sixth volume of verses, published after a long silence in 1936. The habit of moralising has grown on the poet, and he is constantly sermonising. At Woodwards Garden, for example, shows him in his most didactic, school-masterish, and unattractive mood. However, even in this volume there are lyrics which are pure gems. Says Dudley Fitts, "One is perfectly at home with the short lyrics, such poems as After flakes, Lost in Heaven, the fine A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury, or Desert Places. Here is Frost at his purest and best: no one else writes in this way, no one else has ever written precisely in this way. The quality is vibrant, eager, and curiously young; it is pure incantation, the more moving because it is managed by the simplest and homeliest means." In the same tradition are many of the longer, more dramatic pieces: The Gold Hesperides, for instance, and The Old Barn at the Bottom of the Fogs. If these poems are generally less distinguished than by lyrics, it is because they are discursive, and because they more easily admit two elements which have marred much of Frost's works for at least some of his readers: an obvious didacticism, and a ponderous kind of playfulness.
"A Witness Tree" and "Steeple Bush"
A Witness Tree (1942) and Steeple Bush (1947) are two volumes of poems which, according to Lawrence Thompson, are heavily padded with relatively unimpressive and inartistic matter and add little to Frost's stature as a poet. However, even these two volumes contain some lyrics of great merit, lyrics which have achieved wide recognition and popularity. In the former volume we have The Gift Outright in which Frost's patriotism finds its most emphatic expression. It was this poem which Frost was invited to recite in 1961, when the late Mr. Kennedy took up office at the White House as the President of the U.S.A. In the later volume, those poems are remarkable in which the poet satirises the complacent attitude of modern scientist.
A Masque of Reason
A Masque of Reason (1945) and A Masque of Mercy (1947) are two short verse-plays which Frost significantly placed at the end of his Complete Poems, published in 1949. The former is a modern philosophical drama based on the Biblical story of Job, the purpose being to justify the ways of God to men. The setting is Heaven, and the entire play is in the form of a dialogue between God, Job, and his wife, concerning the strength and weakness of human reason to understand divine plan, and the place of Evil and suffering in it. There is very little action. Besides this, the tone throughout is humorous, jocular, and flippant, and Frost's mockery of conventional religious attitudes is often offensive.
A Masque of Mercy
A Masque of Mercy is also based on the Biblical story of Jonah, the prophet, and Frost's view point is more conventional and so more acceptable. The setting is a small book store in New York, and the play opens at about the closing time. It is in the form of a dialogue between Keeper, the owner of the store, his wife, named Jesse Bel, a friend, named Paul and a fearful, fugitive, who enters the shop running, and who is afraid of divine punishment. Thus its central theme is the wisdom or unwisdom of man's fearing God. By the end, the primacy of God's mercy as against His justice is established. It is only the limitation of human knowledge which prevents man from realising this truth: his fears arise from his ignorance.
The two masques taken together, "provide an epitome, or a gathering metaphor, of many major themes developed by Frost in the poems which precede and succeed them. Relationships are again explored in each of the masques: man's ultimate relationships to self, to society, to nature, to the universe, to God. Or, to say it another way, the two masques further extend themes involving man's perennial sense of isolation and communion, of fear and courage, of ignorance and knowledge, of discontinuity and continuity."
In short, the poet's genius underwent a slow and gradual evolution. But it is the same poet who writes throughout. Nothing changes basically. As Louis Untermeyer points out, if there is any change, it is a change in emphasis. “The idiom is clearer, the convictions have deepenedthe essential things, the point of view, the tone of voice remain the same. Frost found his style, his personal idiom, quite early in the career, and he did not change, or modify it to any considerable extent.

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