Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost as a Poet of Rural Life

The Pastoral: Its Nature
The word "Pastoral" is derived from the Greek word "pastor" which means, "to graze". Hence pastoral poetry is a kind of poetry which deals with the life of the humble dwellers in the countryside with their work, with their loves and pleasures, with their humble joys and sorrows. The background, the setting, is provided by the world of leaves and flowers, and the cyclic changes in season. Pastoral poetry flourished most vigorously in the age of Theocritus and Virgil among the ancients, and during the Renaissance in modern times. But with the passing of time pastoral poetry in England lost its naturalness and simplicity, and became artificial and conventional. Thus we find Dr. Johnson condemning Lycidas for its use of the artificial convention of the pastoral. The unhappy shepherd, the fair shepherdess, the wandering flock, the daisies and violets, the dance on the village green, the flowery wreath, and the oaten pipe, all came to be regarded as the essential part of the pastoral, and were used by one poet after another, as the conventional decor of their poems.

Frost's Poetry: The Rural Themes
However, as J.F. Lynen points out Frost's poetry is entirely free from such conventional and artificial elements. He has succeeded in capturing the simplicity and naturalness of the earliest Greek masters of this form. The greatness of Frost, as a pastoral poet has been universally recognised. The bulk of his poetry deals with rural life, and his pastoral poetry provides the centre, the basis, from which to study even that part of his poetry which is not strictly pastoral. One has simply to glance through Frost's Collected Poems to form an idea of the importance of rural life in the poetry of Frost.
Rural Characters—Their Ways and Habits
New England, or more strictly speaking that part of it which lies north of Boston provides the rural context, within which Frost's most characteristic poems are presented. It is this rural world which provides him not only with the setting but also with the objects, the incidents, the events, and the characters he writes about. His personages are all New Englanders and his poetry is a record of their characters and habits, as well as of the various aspects of their life and activity, their beliefs, ideals, traditions, and codes of conduct. In After Apple-picking, we get a true and interesting picture of the tired farmer going home for rest after the day's labour of picking apples:
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Towards heaven still
And there's barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there maybe two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
Thrift is a recognized trait of the inhabitants of New England. "Perhaps the rugged land fostered in the settlers of New England an attitude of making the most of what was available to them. Whatever the causes, the Yankees early developed the finest of making the best of thing…....Thrifty and hard working, they had little time for idle talk." The farmer in Blueberries, who fed his entire family on blueberries, is thrifty, one who has but to use Shakespeare's adage, "Sweet are the uses of adversity":
He seems to be thrifty; and hasn't he need,
With the mouths of all those young Lorens to feed
? He has brought them all up on wild berries, they say
Like birds……..
They eat them the year round, and those they don't eat
They sell in the store and buy shoes for their feet.
In a similar way, the farmer in Mending Wall who would say no more than, "Good fences make good neighbours", is not being silly or adamant, but is merely trying to make secure for himself the land he has acquired, the garden he has planted, through such hard work.
The Spirit of Adjustment
Frost's swinger of birches, too, has the New England spirit of adjustment in him. He lives far away from the city where alone he could have learnt to pay baseball. So he manages with what is at hand. He plays on the birches.
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball
Whose only play was what he found himself.
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again.
"The idea of adjustment to situations and determination in the face of adversities is again the key-note of Mowing. Two Tramps in Mud Time illustrates the resourcefulness—the Yankee ingenuity—of the tramps in making theirs what others have a right to." In The Code the hired man will not be taught how best he should work and drives a severe lesson into his master for having attempted to teach him. The poem thus brings out the Yankee pride and sense of self-respect.
Frost: His Realism
Glorification of rural life has been a leading characteristic of the pastoral. The swain (the rustic) is pictured as leading not only a life of idyllic happiness, but also as being ideally pure and innocent. Frost's treatment of rural life, on the other hand, is characterised by down-to-earth realism. He does not idealise the rustic and his life; rather he presents him as he is with all his instincts and impulses, jealousies, loves and hatreds, with all the sordid details of the life he leads. Except for the brief period of his stay in England, Frost was himself a farmer all his life, from early boyhood down to his ripe old age. Poetry was his vocation, but farming was his avocation. He combined the two, and this gave him an intimate knowledge of the life of the farmer, and hence arises the veracity and truthfulness of his depictions of rural life. His people are always busy with some solid-work, whether it is apple-picking, mowing, or mending walls. In After Apple Picking, the man who falls asleep, after picking apples, dreams of nothing but apples. His dream is nothing fantastic, it is expressive of his pre-occupation with the concerns of real life. In Mowing, the scythe voices the poet's own realism when it whispers, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows." One must work, one must do one's duty, one must keep one's promises, for it is only in such work that real happiness is to be found. Momentarily he might be lost in dreams, the lovely woods may enchant him for a while, but the charm is soon broken, and he remembers:
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
The Human Predicament: Frost's Universality
Frost never forgets for long the "wearisome condition of humanity”, the hardness and bitterness of rural life, as well as of life elsewhere. Misery, disillusionment and frustration, and emotional isolation are facts, and the poet does not shut his eyes to these unpleasant aspects of life. His rural world is not a conventional Arcadia, or a dreamworld, into which one may escape for a time from the sorrow and suffering of life. Rather, his rural world is a microcosm of the macrocosm, a symbol and representation of life at large, with its joys and pleasures, but also with its heart-aches, fever and fret and weariness. It is a world in which the hired-men neglected and isolated, "come home", to die, and in which the death of a tender child lead to quarrels and alienations between husbands and wives. It is a world in which man lives in a hostile environment and suffers and struggles against heavy odds. He may occasionally forget the hard reality, and fly into a realm of fancy, but such flights are only momentary, and the poet is soon back to earth. Earth is the proper place for him, for love, as well as for work. As C. Day Lewis points out, Birches is a poem which perfectly expresses the poet's swing from fact to fancy and from fancy back to fact. In short, "in Frost's poetry we do not get a fanciful glorification of rural life, but a realistic rendering of the human condition in the rural context. And it is this realism which imparts such universal significance and appeal to the poet's treatment of life in New England countryside." Frost's poetry appeals even to those who are not familiar with New England, are not interested in New Englanders, only because it deals truthfully with hard facts, facts which are common to life in all ages and countries. Frost's universality arises from his study of the essentials of the human predicament as seen in a rural setting.
The Rural and the Urban: Parallelism and Contrasts
Frost's pastoralism is highly individual and unique. As John F. Lynen points out, "Frost's achievement as a poet, like Burn's and Wordsworth's, is a distinctly individual triumph" This uniqueness of his pastoral art arises from his ability to write of rural life from the point of view of an actual New England farmer. He does not write from a superior plane, as one who is above and beyond, but as one who shares the life of the rustic, his thought processes, and his way of looking at things. This adoption of the rustic point of view enables him not only to portray rustic life as it really is in itself, but also to contrast it with the life beyond the urban life, the complex life lived in the city. The earlier writers of the pastoral constantly stressed the parallelisms and contrasts between the simple and innocent life in the countryside, and the more sophisticated and artificial life of the court. Such parallelisms and contrasts are also provided by Frost by juxtaposing the simple country life, and the complex, artificial life in the city, so that the one serves as a commentary on the other. As John F. Lynen points out, "His New England, like Arcadia, is a distinct plane of existence portrayed in such a way that a comparison with the outer world is always strongly implied. It is isolated from ordinary experience, a society with its own folkways, customs, and ideals, a locality with its own distinctive landscape. Like the old pastoralists, he emphasizes the uniqueness of his rural world. It is an agrarian society isolated within an urbanized world, and its country folk are separated from the modern reading public by a gulf of social, cultural, and economic differences, nearly as broad as that dividing the swain of the old pastoral from the courtly reader. He sets his rural world apart by stressing its distinctly local traits and portraying Yankee life as quite different from that in the cosmopolitan urban society. And, as in the old pastoral, awareness of differences leads to a recognition of parallels. The more unusual and remote from everyday life his rural New England appears, the more effectively he can use it as a medium for the symbolic representation of realities in other areas of experience." Thus in The Pasture, the poet establishes a comparison between the pasture and the outside world. The reader is to admire the pasture as a world better than his own because it is more natural, more neatly organised, and more meaningful, but he is also aware that it is a plane of existence inferior in many respects to that on which he lives. "The contrast between the country and the town which we have noted in pastoral poetry is clearly the essential element in the design of this poem. It is not that country life is superior to city life, but that each life has its own values and distinctive features. In Birches, we are told that town has its base-ball, but as the boy in the countryside is too far from the city to learn baseball, he plays alone riding the birches, "down over and over again”.
The Rural World: Its Symbolic Value
Frost's poetry is simple, and this simplicity may be a reflection of the simplicity of rural life. But it is deceptive. It is only apparent. In reality, Frost's poems of rural life are highly suggestive and symbolic. A careful reading reveals layers within layers of meaning and significance, and many other levels of being are constantly suggested. For example, Stopping by Woods is apparently simple but in reality it is highly suggestive and symbolic. It suggests the idea that man must sacrifice his desire for pleasure and rest to his duty and work in life. Similarly, Mending Wall pictures an incident from rural life, but in reality it is highly suggestive. The wall symbolises all kind of barriers which divide man from man. Racial prejudices, conflicts between nations, religious and economic quarrels, are all suggested in their way. Thus does the poet suggest values and ideals which lie much beyond the rural life, and which characterise life on different and higher planes. The Onset, An Old Man's Winter Night, Out, Out, etc. all deal with incidents and characters taken from rural life, but these events and characters are invested with a rich symbolic significance. The rural world holds the centre of his attention, but it is made to imply and suggest much more.
The Yankee Manner
Not only does rural life provide Frost with characters and incidents: it also provides him with diction and versification. His diction, his phrasing, and his idiom are characteristically those of the dwellers in the New England countryside. His Yankee characters speak the true Yankee speech. Frost's language is in character; it is the language such as is really used by men in the region which forms the setting of Frost's poetry. It is true Yankee speech purified of all that is vulgar and slangy. In his pastoral poems, we hear the very tone, the very intonations, the real speaking voice of the New Englanders. And this heightens further the impression of realism created by Frost's pastoral art.

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Patent Agent said...

This is fascinating, I'd never really considered the yankee speech before, truthfully I used to think 'yankee' meant North Americans more generally!

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