Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost as a Lyric Poet

Frost's Lyrical Genius
Frost's genius was essentially lyrical. The bulk of his poetry consists of lyrics. He began his career with the writing of lyrics and he continued to write lyrics upto the end of his career. He never lost the freshness spontaneity and intensity which should characterise a lyric. Speaking of the lyrics in Frost's A Witness Tree, a late publication, Marry Colum writes, "Here is the lyric in all its intensity, indeed, with a greater intensity than the lyrics the poet wrote when he was young……..These lyrics have that wisdom, that power of revelation, which is time's last gift to the mature and powerful mind."
Untermeyer agrees with this view and writes, "Robert Frost began with lyrics and, after many successes in blank verse monologues and 'talking narratives', he returned to the singing line. When his work is viewed as a whole, it will be seen that he never left the lyric for long. The impulse grows with the convictions, and the convictions grow with the years. The later songs reinforce the early ones; they are perhaps somewhat riper, more mellow, more sure, 'of all I thought was true'."
(a) Pure Lyrics: Subjective and Personal
Frost's lyrics may be divided into two broad categories. First, there are the pure lyrics. They are short pieces, personal and subjective. In such short pieces we feel nearest to the poet, for in them the poet's personality is fully unfolded. They are in the nature of emotional responses to particular situations which confront the poet. They are an expression of the poet's own moods and emotions. The lyrics in A Boy's Will, his earliest volume of verses, consist of such short pieces. They are an expression of the poet's searchings, questionings, affirmings and cherishings. The poet explores his own ties to his beloved, to strangers, to nature, to the universe, and to God. Into My Own expresses the poet's deeply felt need for separation and isolation. Love and Questions, A Late Walk, Flower-gathering, are lyrics of love and courtship. A Tuft of Grass expresses the poet's newly perceived need for human brotherhood, and in Reluctance the poet's mood changes and there is a wistful longing for isolation. These changing moods of the poet have been given an appropriate nature-background. Seasonal changes have been carefully noted and recorded; beautiful nature-descriptions make these lyrics charming idylls of rural New England. Admiring these pure lyrics, Untermeyer writes, "A Boy's Will, Robert Frost's first book is chiefly lyrical—the spontaneous up-welling of the youthful heart—but the years have not spoiled its freshness. Such poems as My November Guest, Storm, Fear October and Wind and Window Flower (all from A Boy's Will) do not date. They range from a contemplation of the sad beauty of bare autumn to young fences about an indoor flower wooed by a wintry breeze, yet they are unmistakably the work of the same unaging poet."
Their Simplicity, Intensity and Melody
Frost is at his best in such short pieces, and owes to them much of his popularity. He continued to write such lyrics all through his career. Lyrics like Stopping by Woods, Gathering Leaves, Acquainted with the Night, Being Versed in Country Things, etc., all from his later volumes, express the poet's personal responses to particular situations, and are also statements of his ripe inferences regarding the nature of the human predicament. They have a charming simplicity and a rare immediacy of appeal. They come direct from the poet's heart, and so go direct to the heart of the readers. They express the surprise of the poet and so come as a surprise to the reader. They reveal, clarify and illuminate. Frost once said that the greatest aim of a poet should be to communicate the thrill of 'sincerity', and the poet's pure lyrics do convey this thrill. As Untermeyer puts it, "Observation and imagination, experience and intuition, mingle unforgettably in Frost's lyrics. They add excitement to such a humble task as gathering leaves; they illuminate such common sights as a hillside thaw, a tree fallen across the road, a passing glimpse of unrecognized flowers, and a few flakes of powdery snow." In such lyrics, common scenes and sights, and everyday experiences take on a new charm and a new significance. They sing as if by some natural magic of their own. Lyrics like Desert Places and Moon Compasses have an almost incantatory (mantric) music. Admiring them Dudley Fitts writes, "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. This quality is vibrant, eager and curiously young; it is pure incantation, the more moving because it is managed by the simplest and homeliest means."
(b) Dramatic Lyrics—Objectivity and Action
Secondly, there are dramatic lyrics of Browning type. They are in the form either of dramatic dialogue or dramatic monologue; and they are much longer than the pure lyrics. They do not express the poet's own personal responses but those of some imagined character or characters. The poet effaces himself completely, and speaks through the medium of the imagined character. Thus he achieves the same objectivity as characterises a drama. Further, as in a drama, they depict some sort of action. The action may be external, developing through character confrontation or through a dialogue between two or more characters. The action is seen in terms of the effect they have on each other; in the give-and-take which results when people speak their minds to one another. In the dramatic monologue, on the other hand the action is always psychological—it consists of the change which takes place in the attitudes and emotional responses of the characters concerned. They are lyrics because of the intensity and immediacy with which emotion is expressed. They have the intensity of a personally felt emotion. The Death of the Hired Man and Home Burial are the best of his dramatic dialogues. Of his dramatic monologues, A Servant to Servant, The Pauper Witch of Grofton and The Witch of Coos are the best. These dramatic lyrics deal with rural New Englanders, in their rural surroundings. Each of them presents these people in some moment of crisis, in some gripping emotional situation, and their psychology is revealed either through a dialogue or a colloquity.
Diction and Versification
Frost uses a different kind of language appropriate for each of these two kinds of lyrics. In the pure, personal lyrics, Frost's language has a rare smoothness, force and sublimity. The communication is direct without any interruptions and breaks in the form of asides, pauses and parentheses. On the other hand, in the longer dramatic lyrics the medium is the conversational language and so the diction is replete with the characteristics of the spoken tongue. As in speech, so in these lyrics, there are constant breaks, pauses, unfinished sentences, ellipses, ejaculations, repetitions, etc. The speaker has no patience to round off a sentence but breaks it up as soon as he feels that his meaning has been conveyed. Or, the speaker is too much excited to complete his meaning and breaks off in the middle. Or he abruptly interrupts his speech to talk about something else, or to throw in a side comment or an interjection. The most important things in the diction of poems like The Home Burial, Directive, etc., are the breaks, the dashes, the asides and the exclamations. The speaking voice and the conversational rhythms are the basis, and in each case the rhythms, tones, and inflections change according to the requirements of the mood and emotion. The tone and accent of the speaker are different in Stopping by Woods, from in those Mending Wall, The Death of the Hired Man, After Apple-picking, etc. Admiring the coversational tone of Frost's lyrics Mark Van Doren writes, "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 few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express. And Frost's ability to make verse talk and sing increased with years.”
Blending of Fact and Fancy
In Frost's lyrics there is a skilful blending of fact and fancy, of imagination and observation. Fact and fancy are the two polarities of Frost’s lyrics. At places Frost would like to escape into a world of ideal existence, but very soon he is back again to hard reality. His flights from the world of reality are only momentary; ultimately he comes back to earth and accepts his duties and responsibilities. The wood may be 'lovely and dark' but they fail to hold him for long, because he remembers that he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps, and in Mowing the scythe whispers to him, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows." Birches illustrates this exquisite blending of fact and fancy most eloquently, for in this lyric the climb, "toward heaven", ultimately results in a move "earthward". The withdrawal is momentary and it makes him see life more clearly and face it more courageously. For him "Earth is the right place for love", and so he longs to return to it. Frost's devotion to fact shines brightly throughout his lyric. But his is never a mere transcript of actuality, a kind of dogged reporting. When he is most faithful to things, he is most lyrical. The Grindstone is a familiar portrait, a still-life painting of the tool-sharpening instrument common to every farmyard. Yet a whimsical fantasy is woven round it and this is seen even in the opening lines:
Having a wheel and four legs of its own
Has never availed the cumbersome grindstone
To get in everywhere that I can see.
"As the poem gathers speed, it accumulates wit and inventiveness. The grindstone turns in an acceleration of energy, and after achieving its highest momentum, it suddenly slows down—slows down, as it were, from fantasy to philosophy." In short, "Fact and fancy are beautifully balanced in these lyrics. Nothing escapes the poet's observation; nothing prevents his speculation on what he observes.”
The Metaphysical Manner: Juxtaposition of Opposites
In many of his finest plays, in the manner of the metaphysical poets of the 17th century, Frost juxtaposes the opposites of life. Concepts antithetical (opposite) in their very nature are brought together, and an effort is made to reconcile and harmonise them. Thus, in Birches the 'habit’ of birches suggests to him the way in which man should reconcile his romantic dreams, his ideals, or his higher aspirations, with the facts of prosaic, matter of fact world of reality. Like the birch-swinger, he may climb momentarily, "toward heaven", but soon like him, he should dip down and come to earth again Frost's lyrics range from the simple and idyllic to the philosophic, and often the two extremes are combined. The Master Speed, for example, conducts the reader, and also the lover, in "a stream of radiance of the sky", and "back through history up the stream of time." More than that, by a quite paradox, it persuades him that he has, "the power of standing still". Thus speed and love are joined, and
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away.
The union of love and speed may be unusual, but even much more remarkable is the union of fire and ice. The lyric Fire and Ice is a masterpiece of condensation. Here, wrapped in an epigram, is a speculation concerning the end of the world and the beginning of wisdom. The opposites 'fire' and 'ice' are harmonised, for, says the poet, for destruction ice is as good as fire. He accepts the world's contradictions and tries to harmonise them as, "my two eyes make one sight".
Frost's Achievements
(a) Philosophised the Lyric
According to Lawrence Thompson, Frost's artistic achievement as a lyric poet, "rests on his blending of thought and emotion and symbolic imagery within the confineness of the lyric" The poet observes the world around him. The common scenes and sights of nature, fields, farms, and roadside dwellings, the flora and fauna of New England, the Yankees at their rural occupations and pastimes, mowing, apple-picking, gum gathering, birch-swinging, wall mending, etc., all claim the poet's attention. All these and a hundred other commonplace things are observed minutely, and rendered precisely. Observation leads to emotion and emotion to thought. As he himself tells us, in his lyrics, "emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found the word." His lyric begin in delight in the beauty of the world around, and they end in wisdom. His lyrics express his sensuous joy in the beauties of nature, or his sense of pathos and tragedy of human life, resulting from his observation of the rural scene. This sets him thinking, and the lyric ends with an expression of his, "rich and ripe philosophy". Thus in Birches, he observes the 'habit' of birches, thinks over what he observes, and concludes,
..... Earth is the right place for love:
I do not know where it is likely to go better.
In the Oven Bird, the singing of the bird fills him with delight, he ponders over it and delivers the philosophical conclusion:
The question he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, express the conflict in the poet's mind between his love of the scene and his urgently felt need of keeping his promises and doing his duty. Mowing is a humble rural occupation, but it sets the poet thinking and he comments: "the Fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows". Almost all the nature-lyrics of Frost reach out to a metaphysical conclusion.
(b) Symbolised the Lyric
Not only has Frost philosophised the lyric, he has also symbolised it. The simplicity of his lyrics is only apparent. In reality they have a richness of texture, and a careful reading reveal that they carry layer within layer of meaning. The unlearned may enjoy them as simple lyrics celebrating the charms of rural New England, but to the more thoughtful they appeal because of the deep moral and philosophical significance that lies underneath. Frost suggests much more than he actually describes. His imagery is drawn from the most commonplace objects and phenomena of the world of nature and the world of man, but the poet endows it with a figurative significance so that the lyric reaches out much beyond the immediate and the physical. Thus in that admirable lyric The Need of Being Versed in Country Things, the country things are symbolic of much that is beyond scrutiny, beyond even the sharpest examination. Says Elizabeth Jenning, "the poem is about a derelict barn, but Frost uses the subject and the occasion to write a poem about the alliance between sensitivity and acceptance, the realistic attitude which is essential to the true countryman. And, of course, the poem is concerned with far more than just this, it reverberates far beyond its immediate subjects. It is profoundly simple and, likewise, simply profound." The imagery of Frost's lyrics is symbolic, and symbolism enriches the texture and opens out vast vistas before the mind's eye. There is constant expansion and extension of meaning and much is conveyed within a little space.

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