Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost: Language, Diction and Versification

Epigrammatic Terseness
Frost is a great artist with words. His words are carefully chosen both with reference to their sense and their sound. He painstakingly revised and polished what he wrote and tried to express himself with utmost economy, with the result that many of his lines have an epigrammatic terseness and condensation and can easily be memorised and quoted. He has the Yankee habit of understatement. Elizabeth Jenning notices this aphoristic quality of Frost's verse and cites Reluctance and Stopping by Woods as examples. Epigrammatic lines like, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows", "Earth is the right place for love", "Nothing can make injustice just but mercy", "the hand that knows his business won't be told", etc. readily come to one's mind in this connection. Says Mark Van Doren, "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 the few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express."

Simplicity and Clarity
The first quality which strikes the eye in Frost's poetry is its extreme simplicity and clarity. He was well-learned in the classics and other literatures, but his diction is never burdened with this learning. There are few learned references and allusions in his poetry, neither does he have the obscurity and difficulty of T.S. Eliot. As Lawrence Thompson points out, "Frost's poetic concerns are akin to those which led Wordsworth to choose incidents and situations from common life and then to present them in a language actually used by the common present man, whose heart-felt passions are not restrained. Like Wordsworth, and like many other poets before and after Wordsworth, Frost has particularly emphasized his concern for catching within the lines of his poems the rhythms and cadences and tones of human speech. He uses, a simple, colloquial diction, which is, however, purified, in the manner of Wordsworth, of all that is slangy, coarse and vulgar."
Richness of Texture
Frost's simplicity is only apparent. Careful reading reveals that it is the result of an art that conceals art. There is constant shifting, selecting and ordering of material till perfection is attained. "His poems are remarkably flawless as far as technique goes; there are few cracks either in rhythm or verbal texture." Further, the simple texture of his verse conceals within it layer within layer of meaning. His imagery is drawn from the most common and familiar objects of nature, but it is used symbolically and hence arises the richness of his texture; Frost's language is simple, but highly suggestive.
Colloquialism: Voice Tones
Frost's ambition was to write in the natural, everyday speech of New Englanders, to capture the speaking voice with all its rich inflections and intonations. According to Mark Van Doren, Frost builds into his verse the conversational tones of the New Englanders. Says Cornelius Weygandt, "All rural New England shares a laconic speech, a pictures queness of phrase, a stiffness of lip, a quizzicality of attitude, a twistiness of approach to thought, but there is a New Hampshire slant to all these qualities, and that you find in the verse of Frost." In his own pronouncements on the nature of his art, Frost again and again emphasized the value of the speaking tone of voice. Through a proper arrangement and choice of words, he tried to convey the sense of humour, pathos, hysteria, anger, and all kinds of effects. He believed that every meaning has a, "particular sound posture", or the sense of every meaning has a particular sound. In this way, he stressed that, "in speech the movement of a sentence is an expression of its sense, the accents, the pauses, the voice's rise and fall, evoking a feeling which exactly fits the tenor of what is said." Further, he believed that real poetry consists of, "words that have become deeds", and that, "words are worse than nothing unless they do something". Therefore, in his poetry he tries to make words expressive of action-gestures by introducing even into his more serious poems various kinds of word-play, voice tones, and punch lines and other action devices. He complained, "what bothers people in my blank verse is that I have tried to see what I could do with boasting tones and quizzical tones and shrugging tones (for they are such) and forty-eleven other tones. All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven't been brought to book."
Dramatic Variety
From this it becomes clear that the distinctive feature of Frost's diction are: first, the conversation tone, and secondly, this conversational tone is regional, i.e., the tone of Yankee speech. Now in conversation the tone, the inflections, the intonations, the accents, vary from speaker to speaker, and Frost's diction has this variety. It is dramatic, it varies from character to character, and also according to a change in the mood, thought, emotions, and situation of the same character. Thus the tone and posture of the speaker, in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening are different from the tone and posture in Mending Wall or in The Death of the Hired Man or in After Apple Picking.
Speech Syntax
Besides this, the speech-syntax  is broken and loose. There are parenthesis, pauses, breaks, ellipses, unfinished sentences halting measures sudden ejaculations, repetitions and abrupt openings, and all these qualities characterise Frost's style. Sometimes the speaker has no patience to round off a sentence, but breaks it up at a point where he feels that his meaning  conveyed. At other times, the speaker is too much excited to complete his meaning and breaks in the middle. At still other times, the speaker 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 exclamations. We may be excused for quoting at length from The Death of the Hired Man to illustrate the point:
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times—he made me feel so queer—
To see if he was talking in his sleep.
He ran on Harold Wilson—you remember—
The boy you had in haying four years since.
or, the following:
'You know where they cut off the woods—let me see
It was two years ago
or no! can it be
No longer than that
?—and the following fall
The fire ran and burned it all up but the wall’
He thinks I only have to say the word,
And she'll come back. But, bless you, I'm her mother
I can't talk to her and Lord, if I could
I didn't like the way he went away.
That smile
! it never came of being gay.
Still he smiled—and you see him—
                                      I was sure.
However it should be noted that in his short personal lyrics the language is not so broken. It is smooth, continuous and direct. Thus Frost may be said to have two styles, and not one.
Regional Flavour and Tone
Frost's conversational language is regional. He has succeeded in capturing the distinctive flavour and tone of Yankee speech. This regional touch is not imparted by the use of dialectic words. As Lynen Points out, there are few dialectic or regional words in the poetry of Frost. There is nothing regional about Frost's vocabulary. The words he uses are the words which are in common use everywhere. The regional quality of his diction is seen not in the choice of words, but in their arrangement. It is seen in his phrasing and idiom. Phrases like, "To get it anywhere that I can see", "Has nothing any more to do with me", are real Yankee speech. But phrasing alone cannot account for the peculiar regional quality of Frost's diction. The impression of regionalism is also created by the fact that Frost's idiom and phrasing grow out from the meaning and emotion which the poem conveys. The style is not distinct but a part of the content of poetry. The meaning is, "reflected in, and symbolised by, the details of language." The speakers in his poems are Yankees, and their moral sense, their attitudes and values, their mental states, are conveyed by their manner of speaking. For example, in The Code, there is a perfect fusion of style and content, and so the style acquires a peculiar local flavour. The Yankee pride and sense of self-respect are expressed through the reticence and understatement peculiar to the rural dwellers in the region north of Boston. In Fire and Ice, "the more one listens to the nuances of tone, the more one hears the Yankee qualities of the speaker's voice." As a record of colloquial English, the poem is a tour de force. It acquires much of its intensity from the Yankee habit of understatement and reticence. Says Lynen, "The colloquial phrasing does not negate the poem's bitterness. Quite the opposite; it is the means of raising it to an extreme pitch. The more the speaker's manner disclaims strong feelings, the more powerful his feelings seem." Furthermore, the understatement dramatizes the special character of the Yankee concerned. His ironic, casual manner manifests a more than normal sensitivity of thought. He is speaking of things in human nature which arouses the deepest terror, but he will not yield to emotional outbursts. Instead he holds back, pretending to be amused, indifferent, because only by reining in his own feelings can he be free to face the brutal results of man's emotions realistically or recognizes their full destructiveness. Most serious ideas are here expressed, through humble, everyday phrase. In such poems Frost's style acquires a symbolic significance. We see in it, and through it, the essential nature of the Yankee mind.
Use of Traditional Metres: His Rhythms
The conversational, colloquial quality of Frost's poetry is also seen in his rhythms. Most of his poetry is cast in the traditional Iambic metre. But variations are introduced subtly and skilfully. Frost is not an innovator and he has never tried his hand at free verse, like Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Auden. But his variations are wider and more frequent than those of other poets upto the 19th century. His handling of rhythm is distinctive. It is seen in his ability to maintain a strong, regular cadence and yet make the lines seem loose and unpatterned. "The looseness can be traced to the many spondees and clusters of unaccented syllables, which break up the metre again and again without ever displacing it. It is not displaced because the variations, though numerous, are balanced by the frequent reiteration of the metre in perfect lines. Syllable count as well, is strictly observed." The result is a rhythm which has the advantages of regular metre, and yet creates an abrupt and rough effect suggestive of everyday speech. In this way, he is able to capture the casual and informal rhythm-pattern of the spoken language. His talking rhythms result from a close balancing of looseness and flexibility with regularity, reiteration and tightness.
A Great Experimenter with Verse-forms
Frost is a great metrical artist, a great experimenter with stanzaic-forms and verse-forms, but he is in no sense an innovator. His skill is seen in his adaptation of old traditional metres to his own uses. He has experimented with odes, eclogues, satires, dramatic monologues and dialogues and masques. He has employed ballad metre, sonnets and sonnet variants, terza rima, heroic couplets, blank verse, and free invented forms. Elizabeth Jenning admiring his skill as a versifier writes, "Frost's verse is formal, even at time, stately; its movements are often easily anticipated. Yet, despite this, his technique is so flexible, his handling of language and cadence so careful and delicate, that he is able to give his most elegant poems the air of spontaneity." He himself once said that just as in sport a game is more enjoyable when played according to rules, so poetry is more skilled and enjoyable when written within the limits of forms and conventions. So he avoids the formlessness and eccentricity of modern free verse, and keeps the appropriate form and shape.
His Blank Verse
Frost's skill in the handling of blank verse has not been generally recognised. Yvor Winters, for example, is critical of his handling of blank verse and says it is inept, undistinguished and monotonous. Elizabeth Jennings, however, admires his blank verse for its amazing flexibility and variety. Admiring his use of blank verse in his poem From Plane to Plane, she writes, "It is a very different kind of poem; it is a sort of conversation piece between two hired men, a countryman and a man from college. As is his custom in this type of poem, Frost employs blank verse and it is amazing how flexible he makes this medium seem.” It can carry equally and effectively the colloquial.
They were giving corn
A final going over with the hoe………
and the allusively humorous,
"So I have heard and do in part believe it,
Dick said to old Pike, innocent of Shakespeare.
and the reflective,
I like to think the sun's like you in that Since you bring up the subject of the sun.
This would be my interpretation of him.
He bestows summer on us and escapes
Before our realizing what we have
To thank him for.
In short, Frost is a great metrical artist, as well as a great artist with words. He has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry. He has carefully rendered into metre customary Yankee speech. His poems are people talking. His greatness and skill is seen in his mastery over the difficult art of handling conversation in verse forms.

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