Not The Norman Rockwell Of Verse — Robert Frost At 150


Facing west from his white clapboard Victorian house, surrounded by acres of skeletally bare oak, maple, and hickory reaching up from the snow-covered New Hampshire woods, Robert Frost might have gazed at the granitoid solidity of Ryan’s Hill while he contemplated the demonic. “It was far in the sameness of the wood; / I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail, / Though I knew what I hunted was no true god,” writes Frost in a poem from his first collection, A Boy’s Tale, published in 1913 when the poet was already nearly forty. Written on that farm in Derry, New Hampshire, while Frost was teaching at the nearby Pinkerton Academy, “The Demiurge’s Laugh” is uncharacteristically gothic, a thread of the supernatural running through this little horror story of a lyric. The narrator, disoriented in his errand into wilderness, hears an ever-shifting “sleepy sound, but mocking half,” a sound that was “all I needed to hear: / It has lasted me many and many a year.”

Finally, the eponymous Demiurge, the malevolent deity of the ancient Gnostics guilty of creating our corrupted and fallen world, “arose from his wallow to laugh, / Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went; / And well I knew what the Demon meant.” A Demiurge would naturally be of interest to a poet, especially an inheritor of a Romantic tradition that would place significance on such things, but the entire forested scene is a bit more eldritch than what we expect from the good, gray poet of the New England woods. It shouldn’t be. Although it’s true that such imagery is fit more for Hawthorne or Lovecraft than a Modernist poet, Frost remains one of the greatest literary enumerators of a particularly modern darkness, regardless of his reputation (among those who refuse to read him carefully) of being a jingle man out of step with the prosodic conventions of the twentieth century. Now, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, it’s worth considering that Frost is our great American poet of darkness.

Despite the stereotype of being the Norman Rockwell of verse, Robert Frost’s standing, even sixty-one years after his death, remains blue-chip, still perhaps the most famous American poet among the general public. Frost’s work remains anthologized and interpreted, and taught in secondary and undergraduate classrooms; his lyrics among the handful that can be expected to be namedropped as a reader’s favorite poem (two roads and all of that). If anything, Frost has suffered from the albatross of presumed accessibility. Among the luminaries of American Modernism, Ezra Pound was experimental, T.S. Eliot cerebral, H.D. hermetic, Langston Hughes revolutionary, Wallace Stevens incandescent, and William Carlos Williams visionary, but Frost is readable. David Orr writes in his excellent book-length close reading The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (2015) that Frost is a poet whose “signature phrases have become so ubiquitous, so much a part of everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets to graduation speeches” that it can become easy to forget the man who penned such phrases.

Because he was a committed formalist—not just an enthusiast of meter, but of rhyme for heaven’s sake—Frost has rightly or wrongly been categorized as an unrepentant poetic irredentist, a temperamental conservative in a movement enthralled to Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “Make it new.” That Frost was an immaculate conveyer of traditional literary forms—no jingle man but rather a subtle deployer of meter and rhyme, of rhythm and enjambment—doesn’t exonerate his formalism for some critics, and for others might even make it worse. A poet who was slurred in a 1936 edition of The Saturday Review of Literature by the (now-forgotten) critic William Rose Benét as being merely a “wise old woodchuck,” perhaps worthy of his four Pulitzers, but thankfully never given a Nobel. This is the maudlin straw-poet of snowy blanketed New England fields and of mossy stone cairns, the sentimentalist of autumnal orange and summer’s first green being gold; this is the saccharine Poet Laureate of Vermont, the favored homespun bard of President John F. Kennedy enlisted to read at the 1960 inauguration, and who recited his verse from memory after being blinded by the sunny brightness of a Washington January. The poet incongruously born in California (of all places!) who through sheer-force-of-will molded himself into the voice of New England, for whom the land was his before he was the land’s. A regionally rusticated American pastoralist fit for inspirational posters and needlepoint.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” Arguably the most famous three lines in American poetry, the one peppered in any number of graduation speeches or yearbook quotations, but also a fit metonymy for Frost’s reception history, because, as Orr writes, “Most readers consider ‘The Road Not Taken’ to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion…but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seem completely at odds with this interpretation.” Orr describes how Frost’s popularity has made him exist on two parallel but separate levels: one, the corncob bard of Yankee wisdom who appears on t-shirts and mugs: the other, the critic’s darling who is “bleak, dark, complex, and manipulative.” The latter, it should be affirmed, is the accurate reading of Frost. As Orr (and probably your college English professor) explains, “The Road Not Taken” has nothing to do with inspiration and stick-to-it-iveness; rather it’s a melancholic exhalation at the futility of choice, a dirge about enduring in the face of meaninglessness. If you read Frost for the snow, but don’t feel the cold, then you’re not really reading Frost. Furthermore, I’d argue that Frost’s vision isn’t just contrary to the popular misconception of him, but that as an American poet he deserves to be categorized as among those with the darkest of visions, not because of those demonic images he played with in his freshman effort, but because he abandoned such ghouls and gremlins in genuflection before the actual hardness of this world.

“I cannot rub the strangeness from my sleep”—1914. “‘Don’t let him cut my hand off… Don’t let him, sister!’”—1916. “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice”—1923. “A voice said, Look me in the stars / And tell me truly, men of earth, / If all the soul-and-body scars / Were not too much to pay for birth”—1942. Then there is his mea culpa from a 1928 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review—“I have been one acquainted with the night.” There is no supernatural terror in Frost’s poetry, he’s far too mature for that. What animates Frost’s darkness is precisely the same thing which many of his most fervent public readers superficially perseverate on, and that’s his abiding sense of realism. He is nothing if not a pragmatic poet (that demiurge aside) and it’s life itself, in all of its undeniable finitude, that supplies the poet’s most potent fears. The moral universe of a Frost poem might include the arbitrariness of life, the continual threat of accident, the singularity of the isolated soul, and always our trepidation toward the grave. Death alone—in the finality of its extinctions and its infinite blackness—is far more horrifying than any chimera dreamt up in weird fiction. The Yankee poet has murdered the Puritan God, and then must live with the aftermath—our condition now as silent as fresh snow lightly falling on a field, as dark as the woods two hours after midnight. 

That imagery (among other poems, obviously) is replete in one of Frost’s most celebrated poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” included in his 1923 collection New Hampshire. As with the poet at his darkest, this lyric can operate on two levels—the homespun and the existential, with the superficial charm of the narrative purposefully occluding the full implications of the poem’s narrative. The poem’s narrator is a solitary wagon-driver making his way toward dawn, like Dante at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, having found himself in a dark wood. Pausing within the forest, the narrator watches the snow quietly fall; a pause that unnerves his steadfast horse who “must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year,” with that last line evoking everything from John Donne’s “A Nocturne Upon St. Lucy’s Day” to St. John of the Cross’s description of the “dark night of the soul.” Finally, the narrator reflects that 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.”

Frost maintained that the poem wasn’t about suicide deferred, but it’s hard not to read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as concerning self-annihilation (albeit self-annihilation avoided). It’s that “But” that starts the second line of the final stanza that is the poem’s turn, for why place such an interjection after the observation of the dark, lovely finality of the woods, of that frozen lake so amenable to drowning oneself, if only then to reaffirm that here are promises to keep, miles to go before he sleeps, responsibilities and duties that must be fulfilled before death can be entertained? The poem’s rhyme scheme is simultaneously simple without ever being obvious, while the soft, unfolding trickle of end-stopped sounds concludes with that quatrain where every line ends in the same rhyme, feeling as if you’re being lulled to sleep, as if you’re peacefully freezing to death. “And so far from being obvious, optimistic, [or] orthodox,” writes the poet Randall Jarrell in his 1953 landmark essay that did so much to rehabilitate Frost among scholars, “many of these poems are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, makes pessimism seem a hopeful evasion.”

Frost has little in the manner of sectarian concerns across his corpus, but his verse was hardly devoid of the theological, of a sense of the numinous. Despite (perhaps with tongue in cheek) describing himself variously as an “Old Testament Christian” and as an “old dissenter,” organized religion held little appeal for Frost. His family’s immediate milieu was Unitarian and Presbyterian, while he was baptized in the idiosyncratic denomination of the New Church, founded by Emanuel Swedenborg in the eighteenth-century (among the faiths which fascinated both William Blake and Joseph Smith, incidentally). Ultimately, Frost’s belief was to take unbelief seriously, for as he declared in a 1946 Cincinnati lecture, “irreligion was worse than atheism.” This is to say that Frost took questions of faith—of mortality, morality, and meaning—seriously, regardless of the answers. What that answer was, for Frost, more often than not, was an awful silence.

In his 1914 “A Loose Mountain,” Frost contemplates the terrible distances between stars in the cosmos, but concludes that “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces / Between stars—on stars where no human race is. / I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.” Frost is the darkest of poets because he is the most honest of poets, he is the most realistic. As he wrote in a letter, there are “no vampires, no ghouls, no demons, nothing but me.” There is no need for the Demiurge when death itself will do. This is not a universe without hope, however, for Frost’s Yankee existentialism doesn’t degenerate into Yankee nihilism because he finds the possibility of self-constructed meaning in the power of work (mending fences, chopping wood, writing poems). There is significance in the quotidian, where after the death of God the only grace is in the material estimation of life, in work. With Frost, the Protestant ethic of his ancestors has finally converted faith back into works, where in an inert and dead universe all that can stave off nothingness is that which you can hold in your hands, build with your hands. Everything else is but the most perilous abstraction, while the rest is the most sublime darkness.



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