Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in California but spent most of his life in New England. His style is characterized by its openness in contrast to the high modernists who left America for Europe. He was also a high school and college teacher, and his tendency to pedagogy, conversation, and questioning are evident in his poems, which are often staged as facets or flashes of a story, reworkings of a Victorian tradition of narrative poetry and dramatic monologue.
NORTH OF BOSTON, 1914
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The interrupted or bizarre “Yoda” syntax “Something there is…” emphasizes an unnameable force reminds me of the in medias res beginnings of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings poems later in the century. It shows an almost-perfect iambic pentameter and is a good example of poetic impersonality. The artificial social world here “wants” to engage with Nature’s force, where Nature is a stage for the interaction. The wall is often interpreted as poetry itself – it is both artifice or craft and Nature and chaos – something that stands between and, as Frost wrote in an essay on poetry, “rides its own melting.”
This long poem concerns the death of a child determined by a man’s perspective, seemingly cold and distant as he tries to see the perspective of the hysterically mourning woman. It is almost in a free indirect discourse, with his flat delivery of the narrative nevertheless inducing pathos because of his struggle to understand what has happened and the interest in the difficult relationship of parts to whole.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still.
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be 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.
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and reappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking; I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall,
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Concerned with abundance and visceral exhaustion, the poem repeats in cycles to parallel the natural seasons it describes. When he looks through “a pane of glass/ I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough,” it reminds me of the Emersonian lens – the making of the whole body into an eye. It also melts as the poem runs on, again like Frost’s idea of the poem that “rides its own melting,” just as the seasons and days pass.
MOUNTAIN INTERVAL, 1916
“THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Here the emphasis is on the need to be one traveler – both fair and untrodden (a self-deception of how one moves through time). Think of the proleptic/analeptic notion of Genette, but compressed into a poem instead of a narrative.
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
As ice-storms do. 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-colored
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 inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
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
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Like Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill,” Frost builds an imaginative world here, one in which the boy’s play shapes Nature, rather than Nature shaping itself. Frost imagines this play, which he engaged in once himself, as a kind of calling, comparable to Salinger’s “catcher in the rye” – Frost writes that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” In both cases, the desire to turn play and beauty into a career is impossible in society (especially an urbanizing capitalist society from which Frost’s idealized boy is separated by distance). Like Thomas’ poem, Frost here expresses a mixture of nostalgia for the imaginative world of childhood as well as a delight in poetry as a means of creating worlds as well.
“OUT, OUT -”
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws know what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all was spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
Here, a hard, empty center – a synecdoche – becomes the whole. The poem turns from the humorous independence of the living saw to the tragedy of the boy’s unexpected death. The line “in the dark of ether” reminds me of Eliot’s “Prufrock.”
SELECTED POEMS, 1923
“FIRE & ICE”
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Frost had spoken to astronomer Harlow Shapley, who told him that the world would either freeze or burn after the explosion of the sun. Desire is fire here, while ice is hatred, and the poem’s movement down 9 lines is like the 9 circles of hell, which get hotter and hotter and end with the worst sinners encased in ice at the bottom. The poem is also satiric, probably intended for humor.
“NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY”
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
A poem about ephemerality, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” also posits a symbolic tension between the “green” of youth or spring and the “value” of gold or autumn. In this way, the poem questions how we choose what we value and whether we can in fact appreciate it before it has passed.
“STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.
One interesting thing about what is probably Frost’s most famous poem is that this private, natural, Thoreau-like moment is taken by a man not out in the real wilds, but on another man’s woods – woods Frost knows are the property of someone else. It is also reminiscent of Auden’s idea in “Their Lonely Betters,” about the birds, that “Words are for those with promises to keep.” Here, the speaker is ready to let himself go, but his mantra at the end calls attention to the medium of language and to his societal obligations.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
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 waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
The speaker considers the reflective pools in the woods that will soon be sucked up by tree roots to generate the dense, leafy foliage of summer. The penultimate line, “These flowery waters and these water flowers,” expresses a joy in the symmetry of reflection soon to be gone, although it has just arrived, “From snow that melted only yesterday.” It would be interesting to put this in conversation with Hardy’s poem “Neutral Tones,” also a pun on “reflection.”
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
The rhyme scheme here is that of an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, with a slight variation in the rhyming of the sestet: the abba abba / cdccdd instead of cdcdcd. The “dimpled spider, fat and white” recalls the “dimpled darling” of Little Miss Moffitt, The spider, the flower, and the moth (made into similes of “cloth” and “kite”) are all white, but Frost sees “death and blight” in this “design” instead of innocence and light. At the volta (the tonal turn at the sestet), Frost becomes less certain of the fatal design, and turns instead to questioning the larger forces of the universe (this is comparable to Yeats in the much less concrete and more symbolic poems “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming”).