Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost as a Modern Poet

The Traditional Elements
Frost's first volume of poetry was published in 1913, and his last in 1947, and he died in 1963. Thus in point of time, he is the contemporary of such 20th century poets as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Auden and Ezra Pound. But critics after critics have regarded Frost as a traditional 19th century poet, and have emphatically denied his modernity. For one thing, it has been pointed out that his poetry has a disarming simplicity while modern poetry is characterised by complexity and intricacy. In his poetry, we do not find irregular verse-forms, fragmentary sentences, learned illusions and references, ironic contrasts, and erudite and abstruse symbolism, to all of which we are used and which he regarded as the hall-mark of modernity.

Secondly, as Granville-Hicks points out, "Frost writes of mountains, fields and brooks, and of farmers at their humble task; these things have become part of our imaginative inheritance and one must be insensitive, indeed, not to be conscious of the beauty in them. But there are other subjects now more frequently before our eyes—factories, skyscrapers, machines. We see mechanics, shop-girls, truck-drivers, more often than we do farmers, and we see the farmer not as a romantic figure but as the victim of cruel economic forces." Scheneider agrees with this view and writes, that one of the most serious limitation of Frost's poetry is that he is out of tune with modern age and all its problems, "Mr. Frost is singularly out of touch with his own time. Indeed, many poets who antedate him are more contemporary in spirit. It has, indeed, been Mr. Frost's wish to keep out of his own age and his own civilization. We may go, therefore, to his poetry for diversion and relief, but not for illumination. Mr. Frost does not understand our time and will make no effort to understand it. When he essays to speak of it, as in the long poem New Hampshire, he shows a surprising lack of comprehension. There, to the challenge of contemporary ideas, he replies with know-nothing arrogance: 'Me for the hills where I don't have to choose'."
Thirdly, Yvor Winters analyses such poems as The Bear to show that Frost admires man as a creature of impulse and instinct, and ridicules the idea of man as a reasoning creature, and this is in marked opposition to modern thought. In this respect, he has his affinities with the great 19th century romantics rather than with the great moderns.
Frost's Modernity
(a) The Pastoral Technique
However, such views arise from a one-sided, superficial reading of his poetry. Cleanth Brooks, John Lynen, Trilling and a host of other competent and that the surface simplicity of his poetry is deceptive and misleading. There is no doubt that he withdraws into rural New England and writes of New Englanders, of their simple occupations carried on in their primitive setting, away from the haunts of modern civilisation, and the concerns of modern life. But, John Lynen rightly points out, "his retreat into country-side is not a romantic escape from the harsh, unpleasant realities of modern life, rather, it provides him with a point of view, a frame of reference, for studying and commenting on the facts of modern life." He studies life reduced to its elemental simplicity, and this elemental life is his norm with reference to which he judges urban life, and even life in general, life as it has been in all ages and countries. It is the same method of indirection as is used by such modern poets as T.S. Eliot. Just as Eliot in his poems, for example, The Waste Land, juxtaposes the present and the past is made to reveal and interpret the present, so also in his poetry Frost juxtaposes rural and the urban, the rural serving as a comment on the urban. And, as in T.S. Eliot, the comment is implicit rather than explicit. A simple everyday situation from rural life is presented, and the situation is such that it serves to illuminate and clarify some aspect or problem peculiar to the modern age. Thus in the Mending Wall, the necessity of fences is emphasised—"Good fences make good neighbours"—and thus we get an implicit comment on the modern craze for pulling down barriers. Says John F. Lynen, "He has, in effect, found a retreat in one of those out of the way places where technology has not yet complicated life by separating man from the land. But this retreat is of a special sort. He does not turn his back on the world of today, nor does he advocate a 'return to the soil'. There is in his regionalism no call for action or program for social reform, and, as a matter of fact, he insists over and over again that no program will ever resolve the basic conflicts in human life. His withdrawal must be distinguished from agrarianism. It is the adopting of an artistic perspective. Regional New England—just because it is primitive and remote from modern life—is for him a medium for examining the complex urban world of today, a standard by which to evaluate it, and a context within which to discover the order underlying experience that modern life has obscured and confused. This point deserves a good deal of emphasis, for there is a tendency even among the poet's warmest admirers, to view his pre­occupation with rural New England as merely an escape from problems too over-whelming to be faced." Those who judge him in this way fail to see the positive value of his retreat for the intellect. Indeed, one may say they failed really to read him at all. As a matter of fact, Frost's Pastoralism is an, "exploration upstream, past the city with its riverside factories and shipping, on against the current of time and change to the clear waters of the source." It is a technique through which he not only achieves modernity, but also universality.
(b) Attitude Towards Nature—Realism
Frost is a modern in his attitude towards nature. The 19th century poets picture nature as benevolent and kindly with a, "holy plan" and emphasised the harmony, the oneness, of man and nature. Modern science, on the other hand, conceives of nature as merely matter, soul-less and mechanical, and so entirely different from, and alien, to man. Frost, too, is constantly emphasising this, 'otherness' of nature. He is a great poet of boundaries, and he shows at every step that some fence or boundary ever separates man from nature. This is what he teaches in poems like Most of It. The rural world, the world of nature into which he withdraws is not a world of dreams, a pleasant fanciful Arcadia, but harsher and more demanding than the urban world. As Lionel Trilling stresses, the world which he depicts is a terrifying one, more terrifying than the urban world, depicted by poets who are generally regarded as modern. Frost represents, "the terrible actualities of the life in a new way. I think of Robert Frost as at terrifying poet…….The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe. Read the poem called Design and see if you sleep the better for it. Read Neither Out Far Nor in Deep, which often seems to be the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warned by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived." The same grim reality, Trilling goes on to say, is displayed in Frost's characters: "Talk of the disintegration and sloughing off of the old consciousness! The people of Robert Frost's poems have done that with a vengeance………In the interests of what other great thing these people have made this rejection, we cannot know for certain. But we can guess that it was in the interest of truth, of some truth, of some truth of the self.       They affirm this of themselves: that they are what they are, that this is their truth, and that if the truth be bare, as truth often is, it is far better than a lie. For me the process by which they arrive at that truth is always terrifying." One of the great virtues of Trilling's speech is that in it he has made clear the essential way in which Frost's poetry reflects modern life. Frost does not depict the outward events and scenery of urban life, but the central facts of twentieth century experience, the uncertainty and painful sense of loss, are there and seem, if anything, more bleakly apparent in that their social and economic manifestations have been stripped away. "More important, Trilling shows us that the terror Frost expresses is the terror which comes and must come with the birth of something new. It is the mark of a genuinely modern poetry."
(c) Basic Problems of Modern Life
Frost may not depict the scenery of modern life—its chimney and factories, its railways, and automobiles, but he certainly deals with the basic problems and the basic facts of modern life. The ache of modernism finds its fullest expression in his poetry. The modern note of frustration, loneliness, isolation and disillusionment is often struck. Cleanth Brooks establishes the point through a study of some of the most characteristics of Frost's poems. He writes, "Another sense in which Frost is a truly modern poet is his portrayal of the disintegration of values in modern life and disillusionment of the modern man. Most of his poems deal with characters who suffer from frustration, isolation and helplessness—diseases of modern life, which are portrayed in modern poems like The Waste Land." Frost's poetry reflects modern life not in the sense that it depicts the outward events and conditions, but it brings out the central facts of twentieth century experience—the uncertainty and painful sense of loss. For example in The Hill Wife, Frost has portrayed obliquely the cumulative sense of fear; loneliness and marital estrangement of an isolated woman who is so completely misunderstood by her husband that he is baffled when she disappears, irrevocably and without warning. The poem has a wider meaning and it depicts the isolation and loneliness of modern man who has lost his moorings, and finds no comfort from old values. The poem The Road Not Taken depicts the confusion which prevails in modern life. The modern man does not know which way to go, and it is difficult for him to make a choice of the means he should adopt in order to come out of the present impasse. He is confused, and his life does not have a clear purpose. The protagonist in the poem (the poet himself) represents the modern man, who habitually wastes energy in regretting any choice made, but belatedly and wistfully sighs over the attractive alternative which he rejected:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Some ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
An Old Man's Winter Night is another poem of isolation, frustration and loneliness, and it is an epitome of modern times. The man is not only old, but lonely and it is the winter night:
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew not what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
(d) Disharmony and Disintegration
Home Burial in which the husband and wife are cursing and irritating each other on the day when their son is dead, depicts the disharmony and disintegration of modern life, when each person holds a divergent view from the rest, and there is no common, basic approach to life, which is characteristic of the modern age. All human sympathy is gone, and it has been replaced by selfishness. Here the wife blames the husband for his callousness:
I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’
t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your baby's grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You have stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there is the country, for I saw it."
The husband replies in a mood of utter despair and frustration:
I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I'm cursed, God, if I don't believe I'm cursed.
And here is a slashing criticism of the modern age, where man has lost all sympathy for his fellowmen, and has become brutally selfish, callous and self-centred:
The nearest friends go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life.
And living people, and things they understand.
All such poems conclusively establish the modernity of Frost and bear out Trilling’s view that Frost is a 'terrifying poet'.
(e) Metaphysical—Symbolistic Technique
It is possible to read Frost's poetry on several levels. The common man may read him for charming depictions of rural scenery and rural life. They may go to him as an escape from the, "urban murk and roar". The erudite, on the other hand, may read him for his presentation of the human predicament in an alien, if not hostile, environment. They may read him for the clarification and illumination which he provides. A careful reading reveals that Frost's simplicity is deceptive, that his poetry has layers within layers of meaning. This expressiveness and richness of texture becomes possible only because Frost, like the great moderns, employs a metaphysical-symbolistic technique of expression. In the manner of the metaphysical poets and their 20th century admirers, he juxtaposes such opposites as man and nature, the rural and the urban, and the regional and the universal. He seeks to achieve a synthesis of such opposites in the same way as, "my two eyes make one sight". Often his method, like that of the modern poets, is indirect, and symbolic. For example, Mending Wall is a symbolic poem in which the poet symbolises the conflict between the new trend of bringing down barriers between men and nations, and the old view that for good neighbourly relations fences and boundaries are essential. The poem relates an anecdote typical of the conservative approach of the rural people in New England, but its implication has universal application. In this way, the poem becomes a symbol of the modern conflict in the minds of the people. The poet simply portrays that conflict, and does not give his judgment on it, because in spite of his standing for the bringing down of barriers, he appreciates the view of his neighbour who insists on following the old principle of his forefathers that, "Good fences make good neighbours". The charming lyric Stopping by Woods apparently records a moving personal experience. Read symbolically, it expresses the conflict which everyone has felt, between the demands of practical life, with its obligations to others, and the poignant desire to escape into a land of reverie, where consciousness is dimmed and the senses are made independent of necessity. As Austin Warren points out, sleep, winter, and darkness in the poem symbolise death; and woods are a symbol for perilous enchantment. An Old Man's Winter Night, The Woodpile, After Apple-picking, Birches, Neither Out For Nor in Deep, and a lot of other poems, are equally symbolic and significant.
In short, Frost is a modern poet in more ways than one. He may not depict the outward conditions and events of modern life, but the central facts of modern experience, the uncertainty and painful sense of loss, the disintegration and confusion of values, the frustration and disillusionment, are all there, and they seem more bleak and terrifying because they are presented in their nakedness, stripped of all their social, political and economic manifestations. And his mode of expression is symbolic and indirect. All this is the mark of a genuinely modern poetry.

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