Saturday, December 4, 2010

To what extent was Lionel Trilling justified in saying that Robert Frost was a terrifying poet?

Lionel Trilling stresses, that the world which Robert Frost 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 a terrifying poet……..The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe. Read the poem called Design 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.
Trilling says that the process by which the Frostian characters arrive at the truth is always terrifying. In Design the poet one morning saw a spider holding a moth on a heal-all. The pattern of whiteness in the spider and the flower rather evokes a sense of horror. The heal-all is just an innocent flower and its whiteness does not refer back to a definite universal cause. How the spider reached and settled on the flower to catch the moth is anybody’s guess. Similarly it is not known by what power, how, or why the moth too reached the spot to be caught by the spider. An inexplicable scene of horror marked the break of day. If this scene of horror is any indication of the universal design, it is that of a design of gloom and horror. This process of arriving at the truth is terrifying, but it suggests the predicament of man vis-a-vis the universe.
The same terrifying process of arriving at the truth is marked in Neither Out Far Nor In Deep. The people stand on the shore and "look one way", they "turn their back on the land" and "look at the sea all day". They are always busy trying to scrutinize the inscrutable universe and thus are proved dupes. Reality is varied and complex and the people are unable to "look out far" or "look in deep".
One reason for the "terrifying" quality of Frost's poetry was that Frost, like Browning, was interested in abnormal psychology. Frost's narratives often deal with eccentric, even macabre, human behaviour. His characters tend to be lonely, neurotic figures haunted by their past, with nowhere to go in the present. It was not literary precedent alone that directed him to choose such characters. He himself had trodden close enough to the borderline of insanity to be fascinated by abnormal characters.
Abnormal people abound in the poems of "North of Boston"—unbalanced people like the over-wrought mother in Home Burial who is cracking up under a burden of grief over her child's death: or the common-law wife in The Fear, who unconsciously disguises her desires as obsessions. Most abject of all is the ghastly lunatic in A Servant to Servants, who makes life a hideous mockery for himself and his relations. In this poem hard work and a stony soil have combined to bring about nervous prostration instead of heroic response to the challenge of difficult circumstances. All these poems belong to the "terrifying" category.
Similarly Acquainted with the Night is one of the finest personal, reflective lyrics of the poet. Untermeyer described it as 'a record of personal melancholy touched with terror'. In the poem during his night walk, the poet is startled to hear a cry come to him, "over houses from another street". He listens to it with rapt attention. He stands still, "and stopped the sound of feet", in order to understand its meaning. But the cry is not addressed to him. It is a vague, impersonal cry, suggestive of the horror, bloodshed and violence of city life. In this way, the poet's own personal melancholy and terror acquires a universal significance and becomes an expression of the so-called: "ache of modernity".
Two Tramps in Mud Time throws light on the poet's attitude to nature. Even the most cheerful nature-sketches of Frost have a dark under-tone. He does enjoy the beauty of nature, yet none of his nature-poems is free from hints of possible danger. Beneath the beautiful and calm surface, there is always the lurking presence of something hostile and sinister. Says John F. Lynen in this connection. "At the most unexpected times, he gives glimpses of horror. In the poem, 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.
Lionel Trilling regards the lyric Neither Out Far Nor In Deep, as "the most perfect poem of our times" for the energy with which emptiness is perceived. He calls Frost a terrifying poet, for the universe he conceives of a terrifying one. For example, in this lyric man is confronted with the vast, impenetrable unknown, as vast and terrifying as, "the ghast heights", of the sky. It is, no doubt, uncomfortable and horrifying to be face to face with immeasurable, infinite voids of space. But the total effect of the lyric is not depressing. Rather, there is something heroic about the way in which the watchers on the shore continue to keep their watch, and do not turn away in horror from the unfathomable blank that stretches before them. Frost stresses the littleness of man in the scheme of things, but he also brings out the essential heroism of his soul.
The Most of It is also one of those admirable lyrics which convey effectively the sense of man's terrifying loneliness in an obscure, strange, indifferent, even hostile, universe. For Frost, nature is neither a kindly mother with a, 'holy plan', of her own, watching benevolently over man, nor has she a spirit or a soul of her own with whom communication is possible. Rather, as in the present lyric, the world of nature is an alien world, with no sympathy or concern for man and his affairs. The Most of It presents, "a momentary insight into the vast and brute indifference of nature".
In this poem especially, and to some extent in Acquainted with the Night, the poet confronts his condition fairly and see it for what it is, but the insight is momentary: he neither proceeds from this point to further understanding, nor even manages to retain the realization that he has achieved. It is a terrifying poem and Lionel Trilling is of the view that it gives the reader disturbed and restless nights. It is a vision of horror which it presents, so horrible that it prevents sleep.
The above poems written at different stages of Frost's life shows that Frost has done justice of 'the grimness and awfulness and untouchable sadness of things both in the world and in the self. But 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 background. 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 opposites, but different aspects of the same view."

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