The Magazine

The Poet Outright

One key to understanding Robert Frost.

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It would be a good parlor game to draw up a list illustrating the variety of great men New England has produced—starting with the archetypal New England poet Robert Frost, continuing through, say, Benjamin Franklin, the gunsmith Samuel Colt, the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, the Watergate conspirator and prison missionary Charles Colson, and winding up with George W. Bush—and then challenge participants to name the person on that list who is not, in fact, a native New Englander. The answer is Robert Frost himself, who was born and spent his childhood in San Francisco. Only the death of his journalist father in 1885, when Frost was 11, brought the family back to Massachusetts. 

Robert Frost

Robert Frost in England, 1957

Getty Images

Frost became a New Englander of a recognizable kind, or of many kinds: He attended public high school in Lawrence, farmed in New Hampshire, read a lot of Emerson, and absorbed his culture more from London (where, at almost 40, he published his first volumes of verse) than from New York. But the New England of his poems is not a world of kicking leaves, eating lobster, and looking at mountains. It is the morbid, gothic, and ghastly world of those who, in a less delicate age, were called Swamp Yankees: the millworker who has his feet shattered by a piece of industrial machinery, the runaway wife watching the passersby at nightfall with paranoia, the married couple suffering a collective nervous breakdown over a dead child. 

We should distinguish between Frost’s most typical poems and his most celebrated ones. The typical poem is a blank-verse dialogue between people to whom something unspeakable has happened, with a vaguely repellent air lowering over them. But all of the most celebrated poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Mending Wall,” “Birches”—have some atypical element that renders them welcoming. Frost’s poems are no more what they seem than Frost himself. 

He reveled in this ambiguity. He praised poetry as “the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” Tim Kendall, an English literature professor at the University of Exeter, uses the word “ulteriority” to describe this aspect of Frost’s worldview. In The Art of Robert Frost, he illustrates it through a kind of low-tech version of an online university course. Kendall reprints several dozen poems in full, and follows each of them up with a lecture, which bundles in all kinds of explanatory “links.” 

First, Kendall ties Frost’s poems to his opinions, which are generally odd-sounding to contemporary ears because they are not the product of any kind of herdthink. These references do not resolve Frost’s double meanings, but they establish that some of those meanings are more “meant” than others. The political views hinted at in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” for instance, are made clearer by the impatient wish, confided to one of Frost’s notebooks, that we could “for Christ’s sake forget the poor some of the time.” 

Second, Kendall examines Frost’s method of composition. The closing lines of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” might be the best-known stanza of American poetry:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

It is interesting to know that Frost chose it because he thought his original ending: 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep

That bid me give the reins a shake.

was a dud. One can see why.

Third, and most helpfully, Kendall engages with a century’s worth of close readings of Frost’s poetry. From Amy Lowell to Randall Jarrell to Seamus Heaney, the most celebrated poets and critics have sung Frost’s praises and picked his nits. This has made him a profitable poet through whom to study the motives and meaning of American poetry in general. 

A lot of these examinations of Frost were carried out in the heat of one scholarly fad or another, hardened into conventional wisdom, and have never been reexamined. Such reexamination is the main service Kendall supplies.