Frost was one of my first art heroes, a model for wrestling difficult affirmations out of the tragedy of ordinary life. My interest in Frost kicked up a notch when I went to college. One of my professors, Lawrance Thompson, had been chosen by frost as his official biographer, so I was privileged to hear some of Thompson’s behind the scenes stories.
Thompson’s three volume biography of frost became very controversial because it is so dark. But in the long run I believe Thompson’s account will have staying power. I recommend it as a corrective to the mythology of frost as a kind of affable Yankee Santa Claus.
His poetry was achieved in the context of a series of family tragedies. His sister had to be institutionalized. He lost one son as an infant, another son to suicide, one daughter to insanity, another to puerperal fever in childbirth. Only one of his children, Lesley, survived into late maturity.
He spoke of once yawning at the exact moment a siren went off signaling the end of the shift at a nearby mill. Such was his general condition of anguish that he experienced the sound as if it were coming out of his own mouth.
Frost’s story is one of unexpected success emerging, very late, from apparent failure. He dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard. He was unsuccessful at chicken farming. He didn’t publish his first book of poems until he was forty.
He did have considerable success in one aspect of his life before he became famous as a poet, and that was high school teaching. The pre-iconic frost was remembered with enormous affection by his students. But his sensitivity about having spent his twenties and thirties as an apparent nobody stayed with him, rendering him unusually needy for praise and attention. After he became recognized could not abide not being the star of the show.
Once he was in an audience listening to a reading by fellow poet Archibald Macleish. He began crumpling a piece of paper so loudly that it distracted the people around him. Then to top it off he somehow managed to light the paper on fire—definitely taking the attention off Macleish and putting it on himself, and not in a good way.
Writing a poem for frost was an act of competitive prowess, analogous, if it went well, to hitting a ball out of the park with the bases loaded.
He also thought of the creation of a poem as a kind of contest with chaos. He wrote that “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. . . In a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but a momentary stay against confusion.”
“A momentary stay against confusion” is a classic iambic pentameter line with an extra half-beat.
Even his casual conversation verged on the poetic. When my father attended a lunch with frost at the St. Botolph club in Boston, he was introduced as someone in the lobster business, and frost replied without pause, “just like the apple business, culls and deadfalls, blights and sudden weathers.”
Here’s a brief piece that illustrates frost’s ability to use metaphor artfully while still maintaining a casual conversational tone:
There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
that i should have guessed
Was blow-away paper the rain
had brought to rest.
It is speckled with grime as if
small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten—
If i ever read it.
Frost summed up the rationale for his use of the transmutation of voice tones into poetry as “the sound of sense.”
He used the example of people talking in an adjacent room. We can’t make out their exact words, but we hear enough to get the basic sense of whether they are exchanging pleasantries or arguing, merely from the muffled rhythm of the sounds.
Frost was much too competitive not to be disappointed never to have won the Nobel prize. One of his poetic heirs, Bob Dylan, another art hero of mine, did win it, and deserved to, though Frost deserved it just as much if not more. Dylan’s voiceways do echo frost’s use of the sound of sense. Here are some fragmentary lines from songs by Dylan:
“She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess,
But I used a little too much force.”
“So many things that we never will undo
I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”
Dylan’s Nobel is interesting because I doubt he would have gotten it if lines like this were not seamlessly embedded in terrific music. He really won the prize for songwriting, not purely for literary quality.
But Dylan and Frost do have something deeper in common: they both had access to non-intellectual sources of inspiration beyond their conscious control. They each have spoken with wonder and regret about what they accomplished in their inspired youth that they could no longer do as well, or at all, in late maturity.
Here’s a Frost poem composed when frost was in his prime over a period of three days. He neglected food and sleep in his concentrated effort to arrange a few simple phrases into something rich and strange while yet being perfectly clear.
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 drink up and blot out and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From now that melted only yesterday.
We sometimes think great art or poetry has to be obscure and difficult, but the very greatest art is often simple, lucid and profound at the same time.
Here’s another apparently simple frost poem that exhibits an uncanny perfection, called “come in.”
As I came to the edge of the woods
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.
Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.
The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush’s breast.
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went—
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked
And I hadn’t been.
This poem is almost Asian in its condensation. You may notice an echo of “stopping by woods on a snowy evening,” where the poet feels the same temptation to get sucked into both physical and metaphysical darkness, but he resists.
Frost is a poet of wonderful last lines. “I meant not even if asked/ and I hadn’t been,” not only pops him back out of almost giving in to lamentation but brings the poem full stop with the same nonchalance as the little poem about old snow as newspaper—“the news of a day I’ve forgotten/if I ever read it.”
Frost’s voiceways didn’t always work perfectly. Larry Thompson filled me in on the background of one of frost’s most iconic poems, “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 kept 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.
Most of us have heard these lines used in graduation speeches as a poetic illustration of courageous non-conformity.
But hints of an entirely different meaning are sprinkled throughout the poem. The biggest hint is that if it were simply about non-conformity, surely we would expect one of the paths to be well-trod and the other practically unused, but that’s not the case here. Frost goes to considerable lengths to stress the sameness of the two paths.
The line “I shall be telling this with a sigh” is another giveaway. If I’m a courageous non-conformist, why am I sighing?
The lesson seems to be not courage, but the arbitrariness of decision-making in life. It’s impossible to know clearly ahead of time whether we are making the right choice, especially when it comes to the really risky decisions like who to marry or what career to embark upon.
The circumstances of the poem’s composition take us further in a direction opposite from an upbeat graduation trope.
Frost’s best friend was a British writer named Edward Thomas. Thomas was a guy who had a lot of trouble making decisions, whether to marry, who to marry, whether to enlist in the first world war.
Frost wrote the poem to Thomas as a playful piece of advice about the impossibility of entirely knowing whether we have made the right decision. The poem’s last line, “and that has made all the difference,” was meant ironically, imparting, however disguised, a tone of rueful acknowledgement that ultimately our choices must always be made in partial darkness.
Unfortunately, “and that has made all the difference” is just about impossible either to read or say ironically, and so people have generally taken it straight. Thus it has become a graduation cliché
Yogi Berra glossed the poem as well as anyone when he said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
Irony deepens to tragedy when we learn that after frost showed the poem to his friend, Edward Thomas did make a firm decision which nobody, including frost, could talk him out of— to enlist. Thomas was killed on the front lines in France two months later.
Frost himself lived on to become famous beyond his wildest hopes.
Keats remarked that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The relationship between Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy might be one of the best examples of Keats’s surprising assertion.
Frost adored Kennedy and was delighted to be asked to take part in his inauguration. But Kennedy was cautious, because he knew frost would try to steal the show.
Most of us are old enough to remember the scene. On that frigid sunny January day in Washington. Frost, in his eighties, appeared flummoxed by the glare and seemed unable to make out the poem he had written especially for the occasion.
Lyndon Johnson used his top-hat to try to shade the manuscript. Frost playfully grabbed the hat and growled, “here, let me help you,” by which time he had an already sympathetic audience in the palm of his hand. Apparently still unable to make out the poem on the page, instead he finally recited from memory another of his better known poems.
Larry Thompson filled in the backstory. Apparently frost came to a realization at the last possible moment that the poem on the paper before him was just not that good. So he pretended not to be able to read it. Here are a few sample lines:
There is a call to life a little sterner
And braver for the earner, yearner, learner. . .
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of the next Augustan age,
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried. . .
The tired rhetoric exhibits the stiffness and lack of inspiration often found in “commissioned” poetry.
A poem that does exhibit the best of frost’s supple conversational voice, rural motifs, and philosophy of self-sufficiency is “two tramps in mud time,” written in 1934 as the nation emerged from the great depression.
Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily ‘hit them hard!’
I knew pretty well why he dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.
Good blocks of oak it was iIsplit,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake: and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.
The water for which we may have to look
In summertme with a witching-wand,
In every wheelcut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
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.
The time when most I loved my task
These two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask,
You’d think iIhad never felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip on earth of outspread feet.
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.
Out of the woods two hulking tramps
(from sleeping god knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps),
They thought all chopping was theirs of right
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.
Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right—agreed.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
The very rhythm of the lines seems to imitate the movement of the axe splitting the wood and affirms the joy and dignity of manual labor. The rhymes are totally unforced, as if they came out of nowhere, precise, unaffected, inevitable. The tone is genial and consistent, the voice of a strong rural personality who is completely in charge of himself.
In its middle stanzas the poem seems to digress into an extended description of the time of year, but we do not experience it as a digression, but instead as a tour de force description of the year passing from winter to spring.
Then comes the climax of the final stanza, with its hard-won universal wisdom, a wisdom which feels almost Buddhist—one of the elements of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path is right vocation—trying to integrate what you love with what you have to do to put bread on the table —trying to make love and need one thing.
This is the kind of poetry William Carlos Williams meant when he said “it is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Back to Frost and Kennedy.
President Kennedy’s people managed to arrange a meeting in Russia between frost and Nikita Khrushchev. Frost got into big trouble with Kennedy because he told the press, incorrectly, that the soviet leader had said that Americans were “too liberal to fight.”
In the context of the Cuban missile crisis that followed only a few weeks later, this was unacceptably careless talk . Playful ambiguity in a little poem about forks in the road written for an indecisive best friend was one thing; ambiguity in the diplomatic dialogue between nuclear superpowers was something else again. To frost’s bitter disappointment, Kennedy never contacted with him again.
But perhaps the finest tribute ever made to frost came from none other than president Kennedy, in remarks at the dedication of a new library at Amherst college a few months after frost’s death, and only a couple of weeks before Kennedy’s own tragic assassination. Here’ an excerpt:
“our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. “I have been” he wrote, “one acquainted with the night.” and because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Not all of our presidents can be philosopher-kings, but today it seems almost beyond belief a president sound talk like that.
Frost’s poetry was surely one of the sources that called Kennedy, no doubt in cooperation with his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, toward a greater eloquence.
The last line from Kennedy’s inaugural is a classical hexameter line of poetry—“here on earth god’s work must truly be our own.” It closely echoes the affirmation of the human spirit at the end of “two tramps in mud time.”:
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.