Humanity: His Central Theme
Frost is a great poet of nature but he is even greater as a poet of man. His landscapes are all landscapes with human figures. Frost himself once remarked that he had hardly written two poems without a human being in them. Untermeyer, too, recognises this fact and writes, "Robert Frost has written on almost every subject. He has illuminated things as common as a woodpile and as uncommon as a prehistoric pebble, as natural as a bird singing in its sleep, and as 'mechanistic' as a revolt of a factory worker. But his central subject is humanity. His poetry lives with a particular aliveness because it expresses living people. Other poets have written about people. But Robert Frost's poems are the people; they work, end walk about, and converse, and tell their tales with the freedom of common speech."
His Range: Its Limitations
As a poet of man, Frost confines himself to a study of the New Englanders. He makes no mention of the Poles and the French Canadians who form a considerable section of the population of this region. Similarly, shop-girls, truck-drivers, mechanics, etc., which inhabit this region are rigidly excluded. Frost's study of humanity is limited to the Yankees, and even among the Yankees to those who dwell in the country-side and carry on their humble rural occupations. Sophisticated and complex characters, such as intellectuals, are also beyond his range.
His Characters: Variety and Vividness
But within these limits, Frost displays a wide diversity of characters. According to Untermeyer, "Characters as diverse as can be imagined are portrayed in The Gum-Gatherer, The Investment, The figure in the Doorway and To a Young Wretch. The method of presenting them is as various as the characters themselves. Sometimes they walk leisurely into our consciousness like the gum-gatherer, or trip lightly into our hearts like the youngster in To a Young Wretch or enter pathetically like the young couple in The Investment, or flash suddenly into our vision like the figure in the doorway glimpsed by the poet from the window of a dining car, while the train sped through. These people live with increasing vividness: in the poet's lines and in the reader's memory. They are drawn with affection, but not with a blurring sentimentality. They lose neither their sweetness nor their vigour, for they are portrayed with an unpitying sympathy, a tender exactitude." The people Frost writes about are rural New Englanders, and he writes about every possible aspect of their lives and doings. He shows them at their humble occupations, and in the humble joys and sorrows of their lives. Babette Dutsch writes in this connection, "Frost has much to say of happy wooings and matings, of friendly encounters and generous neighbourliness, as of the bleaker aspects of farm life. The grimmer views that his verse presents are relieved by glimpses of such features of the farmer's day as vivify, if he has the poet's temper, his limited and burdensome routine: the reward of watching the seedling 'shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs' the madness of the cow in apple time: the noise of trees."
His People: Their Reality and Actuality
Frost had intimate, personal knowledge of these New Englanders, and he writes of them with sympathy and understanding. He writes of them not as a superior, but as one of them. His absorption in, and identification with, these humble people is complete. His identification with them is so complete that he is able to bear and retain the distinctive features of their speech, and it is the Yankee speech, the Yankee idiom and phraseology, but purified of all coarseness and vulgarity, that forms the basis of his poetry. But he does not glorify and idealise them as did the English romantics. He portrays them realistically and vividly. "The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows", and it is the fact about these people that he gives us. His treatment of humanity is free from romantic exaggeration, but at the same time it is not mere photographic representation. Frost's realism is free from any taint of vulgarity or shoddiness. Says Untermeyer, "Many attempts have been made to define Realism, and no two definitions have agreed with each other. It seems safe to say that a realist is one who really knows what he is talking about. If this is true, Frost is a realist, for no American writer knows his subjects, people and places, so thoroughly. But his is a peculiar kind of realism. It does not insist on a catalogue of mean trifles, on a piling up of bald or brutal details." "There are the two types of realist," Frost once said, "There is the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real potato. And there is the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I am inclined to be the second kind. To me, the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form." The people in his books are real, living, breathing human beings, and their reality and actuality has been repeatedly attested to by those who have travelled through the region which Frost has made peculiarly his own.
The Abnormal and the Neurotic
The people in Frost's books may be divided into two broad categories. First, there are the abnormal people, frustrated, disillusioned, alienated and isolated neurotics, hovering on the verge of lunacy. As W.G. O'Donnell points out, "Abnormal people abound in North of Boston—unbalanced people like the overwrought mother in Home Burial, who is cracking up under the burden of grief over her child's death, or the common-law wife in The Fear, who unconsciously disguises her desires as obsessions. Most object of all is the ghastly lunatic in A Servant to Servants, who makes life a hideous mockery for himself and his relations. In such portraits one gets insight into what had gone wrong in certain sections of New England." Hard work and a stony soil had combined to bring about nervous prostration, instead of heroic response, to the challenge of difficult circumstances. The integrity of an older age had deteriorated into an attempt to maintain a false self-respect, and everything had conspired to make the disaster of insanity and neurosis a lasting menace. Frost saw that these morbid disorders cropped up somewhat too frequently in the remote rural districts, and he suggested that something in the land and the way of life seemed to breed such diseased minds. Throughout each poem in North of Boston, Frost insistently projects the theme of alienation, of man's isolation from his fellow men. The old style farmer in Mending Wall not only refuses to pull down the useless barriers, but to make matters worse insists upon having the last word: "Good fences make good neighbours." The Yankees in The Generations of Men pry into their past, look suspiciously at the incoming newer races, and decide that, when all is said and done, there are really no names quite like the old ones. In The Black Cottage the world passes by the best of an earlier New England that took the phrases of the Declaration of Independence seriously. The husband and wife of Home Burial cannot share the grief which, more than anything else in their experience, should make them one in feeling, they irritate a raw spot with every syllable they utter and thus unfit themselves for any return to a normal existence. "Frost's morbid concern," writes M.L. Roscnthal, "with the helplessness of man in an indifferent, if not actually hostile, universe is well brought out by his poem centring on the character of woman. The wife's hysteria in Home Burial is an outlet for the poet's shocked sense of the helpless cruelty of things. While his men, pre-occupied with their work and proud of it, are able to hold life's destructive terrors at bay, his women are as a general rule overborne by emptiness or grossness or fear; as in poems like The Hill Wife, A Servant to Servants and Subverted Flower"
The Normal and the Well-adjusted
The other kind of people who abound in his poetry, are the normal, well-adjusted country-dwellers. There are also people in his books who face life with courage and determination, and put up a stubborn resistance against heavy odds. They are the neighbours of those unfortunate ones whom Frost portrays so vividly and effectively. There are farmers like the one in The Death of the Hired Man, who discovers the meaning of home—"something we somehow haven't to deserve"—and learns that everyone needs at least one place of refuge where the demands of strict justice are tempered by a spirit of charity. Then there are the characters whom Frost allows us to see through the eyes of a humorist. A Hundred Collars has the genial, collector, Vermont Democrat, a hulking fellow, continually moving into a size-larger shirt, he is a poet in his perceptions, and he shares his creator's enduring love of the Vermont landscape—"The lay of different farms". The unpretentious Blueberries has Loren, the fatherly, and his brood of young Lorens, poor as a pasture full of steeple bush, but determined not to be poverty-stricken, not asking anything of anyone, just taking, what nature is willing to give—and surviving.
Robert Frost deals with the simple, rural New Englanders. The intellectuals and other complex characters do not come within the perview of his art. He deals exclusively with people living in a particular region. He depicts realistically their peculiar, regional characteristics, but he also reveals their basic humanity. From the particular and the individual, he rises to the permanent and the universal. He uses his regionalism to look at life beyond and depicts the universal traits of human nature. Write Brown and Falnagan in this connection: "His rural Yankees face the problems of farmers everywhere: adverse weather, shifting prices, topeliness, isolation. They may wear American-made overalls and speak with a downcast accent, but they are fundamentally ordinary men and women, confronted with the need to make a living and to adjust to conditions which sometimes seem intolerable. Frost captures their peculiar idiom, their folklore. On occasion he also dramatizes his characters. But primarily he keeps them human. His rural New Englanders are a study in miniature of the fundamental traits of human nature, which is basically the same everywhere. Herein lies the greatness of Frost as a poet of man.