Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost as a Poet of Nature

Opinion of Critics
The question whether Frost is a great nature-poet or not has been hotly debated. There are those, like Alvarez, who do not regard him as a nature-poet at all, but as a poet of country life. Frost himself has encouraged this view. He said in a television interview in 1952, “I guess I am not a nature-poet. I have written only two poems without a human being in them." John F. Lynen, on the other hand, says that Frost has so many and such excellent poems about natural scenery and wild life, "that one can hardly avoid thinking of him as a nature-poet". According to the learned critic, Frost began as a nature-poet, and his interest in nature persisted throughout his career. "Frost's nature poetry is so excellent and so characteristic that it must be given a prominent place in any account of his art." (Lynen). Marion Montgomery says the last word on the issue, when he writes that Frost is a great nature-poet, but he is not a nature-poet in the tradition of Wordsworth. He is a nature-poet of a different kind, and hence the failure to appreciate his nature-poetry correctly.

Nature: Local and Regional
Frost is a great lover of nature, and his love, too, like that of Wordsworth, is local and regional. It is the region that lies to the north of Boston, which forms the background to his poetry. It is the hills and dales, rivers and forests, trees, flowers and plants, animals, birds and insects, season and seasonal changes, of this particular region, which have been described in one poem after another, and his descriptions are characterised by accuracy and minuteness. As Isidor Schneider says, "the descriptive power of Mr. Frost is to me the most wonderful thing in his poetry. A snowfall, a spring thaw, a bending tree, a valley mist, a brook, these are brought not to, but into, the experience of the reader." The method is simple and can be analysed. What he describe is never a spectacle only, but an entire adventure. In Our Singing Strength we follow him disputing with birds a bit of roadway; in A Hillside Thaw we almost see him on his knees trying to feel with his hands the process of snow turning into water. Numerous poems of Frost, written at different periods of his life, are devoted to the description of the various objects of nature, and his descriptions always reveal minuteness of observation and fidelity of description. Thus in the Birches we get a concrete and faithful description of the 'habit' of birches and how they re-act to a storm:
When I see birches bend to left and right,
Across the lines of straighter, darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain…….They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inter dome of heaven had fallen.
Frost's Nature-love: Comprehensive and All-inclusive
Frost's love of nature is more comprehensive, many-sided, and all-inclusive than that of Wordsworth. Wordsworth loved to paint only the spring-time beauty of nature, or what Coleridge called, "Nature in the grove", but Frost has an equally keen eye for the sensuous and the beautiful in nature, as well as for the harsher and the unpleasant. A Boundless Moment, gives us one of those fresh glimpses of beauty which have made Frost's nature-poetry so popular:
Oh, that is the Paradise-in-bloom, I said,
And truly it was fair enough for flowers.
Frost can appreciate that, "Nature's first green is gold", and he can enjoy the beauty of nature's ‘green' and ‘gold', but it would be a mistake to suppose that Frost is a mere painter of pleasant landscapes. Rather, the bleak, the barren, and the sinister is more characteristic of his nature-painting. Even when revelling in the sensuous charms of nature, Frost is no long unaware of the sinister and the ugly that may lie hidden beneath the surface. Says John F. Lynen in this connection, "Even in Frost's most cheerful nature sketches there is always a bitter-sweet quality. Admittedly he can and does enjoy nature. His flowers, trees and animals are all described with affection, yet none of the nature poems is free from hints of possible danger; under the placid surface there is always the unseen presence of something hostile." Spring Pools, for example, begins innocently enough with a description of the pools and flowers which one sees in the woodlands in early spring. Then suddenly the tone become grave:
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery watery and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
"There is something sinister about the way the poem turns out. Spring, traditionally the season of birth, innocence, and joy, ushers in darkness, and the optimistic ending of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind is grimly inverted."
The Sinister and the Horrible
Treacherous forces are for ever breaking through the pleasant surface of the landscape in this manner. Frost on his nature rambles has the air of someone picking his way through no man's land during an uneasy truce. The weather is bracing, his spirits are high; but he must tread lightly for fear of hidden dangers, and there is always the chance that he may stumble upon a bullet-pierced helmet or something worse. At the most unexpected times, he gives glimpses of horror. In Two Tramps in Mud Time he interrupts his genial chat about the April weather to advise:
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth
These vistas opening upon fearful realities do not in the least negate the beauty. Frost also sees in nature; rather, it is they which give his song birds, wild flowers, brooks, and trees their poignant appeal. The charm of many of the nature-lyrics results from the vividness with which sweet, delicate things stand out against the somber back-ground. "You cannot have the one without the other: love of natural beauty and horror at the remoteness and indifference of the physical world, are not opposite but different aspects of the same view."
Frost's Realism
In other words, as W.H. Auden emphasises, Frost does not idealise or romanticise nature, he gives us the truth about her. His poems on natural objects, such as Birches, Mending Wall or The Grindstone, "are always concerned with them not as foci for mystical meditation or starting points for fantasy, but as things with which, and on which, man acts in the course of the daily work of gaining a livelihood." Nor is he, like Wordsworth, a poet who has had a vision in youth which he can spend the rest of his life in interpreting. These poems tell us, not so much of rare, exalted, chosen moments, of fleeting inexplicable intuitions, but of his daily and, one might say, common experience. His realism is also seen in the fact that he does not picture the natural world as better than man's. "Nature lives mechanically; awareness of life is the distinctive privilege of man. Man, no doubt, causes much misery through war and bloodshed, but then he is also capable of much heroism. Nature's world is disordered, it is human labour alone which can turn it into a well-organised and beautiful garden.
Frost writes from personal experience of those activities in nature which he himself has observed and experienced. His realism, his authenticity and veracity, has been admired and confirmed by numerous dwellers in the countryside. Indeed, realism is a marked feature of Frost's nature poetry. The woods are, no doubt, 'lovely', but their beauty cannot detain the poet for long as he has promises to keep and miles to go. "The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows"; fact, 'reality' is never long absent from Frost's nature-poetry. Frost is not concerned with nature as such, he is more concerned with the common human activity that goes in her lap as mowing, apple-picking, birch swinging, etc. By noting such everyday activity he seeks to study man in relation to his physical environment, and to the lower creatures that live within her.
Love of Creatures of Nature—Birds
From a love of nature to a love of the lower creatures is only a short way, and Frost was a great lover of birds, insects and animals. Specially keen and sympathetic was his interest in birds, and he observed their ways and habits, minutely and painstakingly. Birds appear and re-appear in a large number of his poems. A Minor Bird, Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same, A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury, Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter, The Oven Bird, etc., are all devoted to affectionate and sympathetic study of the ways and habits of birds. The Oven-Bird calls for a special consideration, as it brings out the best in Frost's bird-poems. The poem describes the habits of a kind of thrush which builds a nest resembling an oven, and which in its song expresses its knowledge of the changing seasons, and knows, "what to make of a diminished thing":
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcost,
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Often while dealing with the lower creatures of nature, Frost's eye takes on a merry-twinkle as does that of the grown-ups when they see their children at play. For example, the society of ants in the Departmental has been described elaborately and in detail, and the effect is amusing and funny. Frost constantly notes the doings, ways and habits, of these humble partners in nature teaming family, his observation is sympathetic and loving, their ways are likened to human ways, they are interpreted in human terms, and the effect is extremely humorous and delightful. At other times, he brings out the pathos of their existence, the suffering which they have to undergo at the hands of man and nature.
The Moral-Tag
The Oven-bird also illustrates Frost's peculiar habit of tagging his philosophy or a moral at the end of his nature poems. Thus oven-bird teaches him, "what to make of a diminished thing", and in Stopping by Woods, etc., the poet turns away from the 'lovely', 'dark and deep' woods, for he has promises to keep, and thus teaches the lesson that in life one must do one's duty and fulfil one's obligation. Similarly, Birches, Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight, and a host of other nature-pieces, all end on a moral note.
Nature's Hostility
As regards Frost's attitude or philosophy of nature, it is quite different from that of Wordsworth and the other English romantic poets. Nature for him is not a kindly mother, watching benevolently over man, neither does she have any 'holy plan' of her own for the good of mankind. At best, nature is indifferent, but more often than not he finds something sinister and hostile lurking beneath the apparent calm and beauty of nature, this something sinister is constantly breaking out at the most unexpected moments, and in a most terrifying way. As we have already noted above, in Two Tramps in Mud Time, frost 'lurks' in the earth beneath, and suddenly puts forth, "its crystal teeth". In the Bereft the poet finds something, sinister, in the hissing of the leaves. Nature is hostile and alien, and man must constantly struggle against her for survival. Nature is bleak and harsh and the bleakness of nature is constantly used to emphasise human loneliness.
Separateness of Nature
Wordsworth stressed the harmony that exists between the soul of man and the soul of nature; Frost constantly harps on the difference or separateness of man and nature. Frost is a great poet of boundaries and there are boundaries which separate man from nature. There may be certain moments when man is 'favoured', and 'nature' takes a sympathetic interest in him, but such moments are rare. Thus in Two Look at Two a doe and a buck look at the lovers, and take some interest in them. But that is all; then they run away. There is still the man-made fence which separates them and which cannot be crossed. The barriers are always there; man can never be sure that nature returns his love. There are resemblances, but the resemblances are superficial. The differences and contrasts are basic and fundamental.
Nature: Impersonal and Unfeeling
Frost does not attribute a soul or personality of Nature. His natural world is impersonal, unfeeling, and at best animal creation. Says Marion Montgomery in this connection, "It is no spirit of nature which sends Frost's rain or wind; he never sees in the natural world the pervading spirit which Wordsworth saw. It may be that a mountain "had the slant As of a book held up before his eyes ("Time out"). But the mountain is not a personality as it is for Wordsworth in "The Prelude and in Other Poems." Frost makes his attitude towards nature clear when he says in New Hampshire that "I wouldn't be a prude afraid of nature" and again rather flatly, "Nothing not built with hands, of course, is sacred." Man must constantly struggle to conquer nature's wildernesses and subdue them to his use. In The Mountain the mountain takes up all the space and prevents the village from growing.
Frost's Personifications
Frost at times speaks directly to objects of nature, as Wordsworth did. But what is high seriousness in Wordsworth is fancy or humour in Frost. Frost humorously addresses his orchard, which he is leaving for the winter "Watch out for the rabbits and deer and grouse; they will eat you. And if the sun gets too hot before proper season, you won't be bearing next summer." In another poem and in a more serious vein, he speaks to The Tree at My Window, which he watches tossed about by the winds, and compares its state to his own, deciding that,
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her.
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
In these instances of direct address, however, we never suppose that Frost feels the kind of brotherhood for natural objects that Wordsworth expresses through much of his poetry. Always, to Frost, man differs essentially from other creatures and objects. His trees, though he speaks to them, do not take on grave countenances. The weather that buffets them is "outer" and bears them to the withered bracken. They, no doubt, "trail their leaves before them like girls drying their hair in the sun". But this is motion of natural objects and not emotion, human simile but not human feeling. "Whenever Frost talks directly to, or directly of, natural objects or creatures, we feel that he is really looking at man out of the corner of his eye and speaking to him out of the corner of his mouth. In all these poems, Frost is describing the animal and vegetable natures in man, not reading man's nature into the animal and vegetable worlds, as Wordsworth was inclined to do." Frost has a strong tendency to personification; he frequently speaks of the objects and creatures of nature in human terms, but his purpose is not to show the harmony between man and nature, but that man has much in him that is animal-like and vegetable-like. Sometimes, these resemblances are explored at length, and then they serve as ironical comments on man and his activity. Thus in the Departmental, the detailed analysis of the behaviour of a society of ants is an implied comment on departmentalism (red-tapism) in human life. And the effect of the detailed comparison is funny. Says Lynen, "The whimsical effects of the comparison are of the very essence, for the poem is funny just because it explores the resemblance between ants and men so thoroughly. And such thoroughness is only possible for a poet who sees man and nature separated by a boundary which is both definite and inalterable."
In short, Frost is a great and original natural poet. His nature-treatment is unique and distinctive in many ways. He does not take any theory of nature forgranted. Rather, he writes from his own personal experience and observation. His approach is pragmatic and realistic.

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