A Terrifying Poet : Robert Frost

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      'Terrifying' Applies Only to Some of Frost's Poems: The idea that Robert Frost is a terrifying poet was first set afloat by Lionel Trilling. After an unprejudiced and unbiased study of Frost's poems, we find that while the word terrifying' is the attest adjective for some of his poems, it does not apply to a large bulk of Frost's poetry. Terrifying poems form just a category into which Frost's poems fall, the other categories being pleasant poems, affirmative poems, cheerful poems, humorous poems and so on. They (the terrifying poems) constitute only one facet of the poet's personality and that of his work. But these poems occupy a significantly vital place in his poetic achievement - within this group come some of the best poems of Frost. Trilling's comment on Frost's poems invited attack from critics for Frost's image was that of an incorrigible optimist.

Terrifying poems form just a category into which Frost's poems fal, the other categories being pleasant poems, affirmative poems, cheerful poems, humorous poems and so on. They (the terrifying poems) constitute only one facet of the poet's personality and that of his work.
Robert Frost

      Many Poems on Complex, Tragic, Philosophical Issues: A large number of Frost's poems have for their core, complex and philosophical themes. Throughout these poems there is an undercurrent of exploratory and suggestive mood. The poet here is like a speck wandering and pondering on the essential problems of existence. These poems are generally poetical ponderings on philosophical problems like the maintenance of an integrated identity, his freedom, his bulwark against an overpowering chaos, the significance of human suffering and possibilities of salvation. Behind these poems lies a mind torn between belief and logic, pre-conceived notions and stark realities, affirmation and negation. The terrifying poems that Iripling referred to are a manifestation of one extreme of Frost's philosophical range. This is the magnetic fascination of the dark that enwraps and annihilates "the self, the fear of one's inner desert places" Frost faced many personal tragedies during his life span and this led to thinking time and again that human existence is meaningless and all the suffering and agony that goes with it is too high a price for it. At times Frost also entertained the idea of cosmic meaninglessness. Design and Neither Out Far nor In Deep give us the impression that absolute void and meaningless blankness that gape at us constantly are the only ultimate reality of human life.

      Frost's Interest in Abnormal People: Browning and Frost share a common ground-both are interested in probing and portraying people who are psychologically abnormal. "This quality is a major contributor to the 'terrifying' element in Frost's poetry. Frost's narratives often deal with eccentric and Heathcliff-like macabre human behavior. His characters are generally lonely, sensitive, neurotic figures that are haunted by (and they themselves haunt) a dead past, live in a non-existent vacuous present and can look up only to a blind future. Frost's interest was not merely literary he himself had often stepped close enough to the verge of insanity; hence his fascination by abnormal characters.

      North of Boston - A Treasury of Abnormal People: North of Boston is full of abnormal, unbalanced people the over-wrought mother of Home Burial breaking down under the grief of the death of her firstborn, the common-law wife in The Fear disguising her desires as obsessions and so on. The most striking of all these is the ghastly lunatic in A Servant to Servants making life a hideous mockery for himself and his relations. Here hard work and stony soil can grow only nervous prostration; not a heroic challenge to circumstances. All these poems easily fall within the 'terrifying' group.

      Autobiographical Element: Bereft have an autobiographical element in them. Once Frost was all alone in a farmhouse in Salem, New Hampshire. Thirty years later he wrote this poem which Portrays beautifully the fear and other emotions that gripped him that day. He attributes animalistic, antagonistic qualities to his physical surroundings and achieves the effect of psychological terror. The speaker reaches a state where he feels that everybody and everything is against him. In his paranoiac fear he sees the leaves as snakes rising to strike him. For him Nature assumes an antagonistic human identity constantly spying and intruding upon him.

      The Terror of Nothingness: With Neither Out Far Nor In Deep, Frost comes in the range of Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson and others, who all had at some juncture in their lives, contemplated the terror of nothingness. The lyric form of the poem is a deceptive facade over disturbing implications. In this poem the people constantly gaze at the sea but all that is there for them to see is a ship moving mechanically to an unknown destination and the reflection of a gull in the water - it is not certain that people see even that. They gaze oh vast oceans of emptiness - there is in them perhaps an inner urge to turn their backs toward land. "They cannot look out far/they cannot look in deep - Yet they continue looking. On a cursory glance the poem is a commentary on the tragic limitation of man's perception. But perhaps it goes further than that and postulates a blank and absurd universe that proves futile the very attempt to look'. The poem ends with a question - the open ending suggests that the ambiguity is unresolved. The question with which the poem ends is an utterly 'terrifying' question as far as its implications are concerned. It suggests either a fear of something real (though invisible) or an utterly futile vigil.

      Psychologically Terrified People: The Hill-Wife consists of five short poems. It is a poem in which the husband and wife are shown to be living like two lonely individuals under the same roof. Mentally and emotionally they are miles apart. The central character of the poem is the wife. Each poem reveals an independent facet of her mind - a psychological milestone in her disintegration into insanity.

      In The Subverted Flower the theme is a man's sexual advances on a girl who is instinctively repelled and scared stiff by them. Frost manages the poem very skillfully. He projects her feelings of terror and disgust and along with it, he also gives expression to the man's point of view. There is no resolution as such and so the end appears harrowing to some people.

      An Old Man's Winter Night speaks of an old man who wanders in his lonely house on a wintery night and finally goes to sleep. The poem brings out the loneliness and pathos of old age and is a study of death and human inadequacy. A Servant to Servants haunts us. The speaker in the poem is a woman who is heading towards a schizophrenic personality. She is overworked, over-tired and only half-articulate. She has reached a point where she starts doubting the reality of her own emotions-feeling completely devoid of them. Her neurotic sensitivity is very poorly matched by her husband's insensitivity to her impending breakdown. It is a terrifying poem and the woman's loneliness, fear, drudgery and aimlessness alarm us.

      The Fear has for its setting a gloomy, fear-ridden, spooky atmosphere. This is very apt for a poem in which the whole drama of the poem is a Gothic composition of pools of light amidst lurching shadows' and an all-pervading darkness.

      The Concept of Malevolent Universe: Design embodies in a nutshell, Frost's belief that the universe is malignant. Though a very small poem (it is a sonnet, i.e., contains fourteen lines), the ratio of its terrifying effect is inversely proportionate to its size. The poem concludes that if at all there is a design in the universe, it is a "design of darkness to appall". The poem proves that Frost is willing to confront the frightening and appalling even in its darkest forms. The conclusion of the poem is not superimposed on the poem. It follows as the natural, logical conclusion of the argument (though perverse), of the poem.

      Frost - An Optimist: Our rambling survey of Frost's outstandingly terrifying poems shows that he has done justice to "the grimness and awfulness and untouchable sadness of things, both in the world and in the self." But, to jump to the conclusion that Frost was a misanthrope and had no faith in mankind would be ridiculous. Frost was an incorrigible optimist. In his other poems he has portrayed love and tenderness with as much subtlety and variety as he has brought out the horror and the gloom of this world.

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