Assessment of Robert Frost Poetic Art

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1. Frost: A Representative American Poet:

      Robert Frost is undoubtedly an American poet, typifying that country's traditional cultural inheritance in his poetry. He has absorbed the essence of what constitutes America; he has been called the Voice of America', because he represents the doubts, faith, joys and sorrows of the American people. Rarely does a poet so carefully and powerfully reflect the emotions, ideals, and thoughts of a region that surrounds him as Frost does.
Regionalism in Frost: Closely related to the 'American' aspect of Frost's poetry is his regionalism. His poetry is of New England in the sense that the rural New Hampshire area forms the background and material for Frost's poetry. Critics have found fault with this aspect of Frost's poetry, saying that he really rises about the local' picture.
Robert Frost

2. Regionalism in Frost:

      Closely related to the 'American' aspect of Frost's poetry is his regionalism. His poetry is of New England in the sense that the rural New Hampshire area forms the background and material for Frost's poetry. Critics have found fault with this aspect of Frost's poetry, saying that he really rises about the local' picture. On reading Frost's poetry, however, we cannot but notice that behind the typical essence of the Yankee culture captured by Frost there are emotions and ideas, joys and sorrows, love and hatred, fears and courage that are common to all humanity. It is thus incorrect to call Frost a 'regionalist' in a derogatory sense, for he gives to the local and particular a universal appeal.

3. Pastoralism Universalizes:

      Frost has been called a country poet by Alvarez. True, Frost writes of rural New England. But he is capable of offering a commentary on urban or cosmopolitan way of life, as in Acquainted with the Night. In other poems, pastoral pastimes are almost always given a universal relevance. From a particular countryside scene or event, Frost moves on to illuminate some universal situation, clarify life in a, small way.

4. Originality as a Nature Poet:

      Frost's pastoralism related as it is to his use of Nature in his poetry is quite different from the attitude of earlier poets, such as the Romantics like Wordsworth. On the face of it, Frost seems close to Wordsworth. But Frost does not romanticise Nature, and he is alive to the hostile and unpleasant aspects of Nature. He was a working farmer, and no working farmer can be romantic about Nature. As W.H. Auden has observed, Frost's poems on natural objects are always concerned with them not as foci for mystical meditation or starting points for fantasy, but as things with which, and on which, man acts in the course of the daily work of gaining a livelihood. He finds no 'holy plan' working in nature, nor does look upon nature as a benevolent mother figure. In his view Nature and Man are two separate principles, and it is futile for man to look for friendship in the external world. Indeed, he constantly emphasises the difference, and not the similarity, between man and nature. In poems such as The Most of It and Two Look at Two, creatures of nature and man look at each other, but the communication stops there.

5. Frost's Humanism:

      Frost is an emphatic defender of humanism. He asserts the worth and nobility of the individual. As Radcliffe James Squires observes, "Frost is a poet not because he is affected by nature or because he has lived on a farm, but because he speaks to men about men". Frost's poetry is in a sense an encyclopedia of human thoughts and human characters. Frost's humanism encompasses art, philosophy and all sorts of experiences. His poetry is definitely the poetry of Man and describing an essential unit of the cosmos. Though Man is not more than a mere particle of dust in the vast universe, it is he alone who is possessed of the powers of imagination, creation and a sense of beauty. As a great poet of humanity and human life, Frost records the life and love, the talks and feelings and emotions of the New England people. But these aspects are also universal to mankind.

6. Themes of Loneliness and Communion:

      Linked to Frost's humanism and concern with Man in his poetry, are the two contradictory desires his characters express, namely, relationship and communion with society and fellow human beings as well as a loneliness. Man on the one hand is bound together with society on the basis of social contract and equality, and thus is a part of society, and tied to neighbour, nation and family. On the other hand, there are moments when he feels himself at a great distance from his fellow men, environment and society. He begins to be conscious of divisive lines and barriers. He feels the absence of love and human bonds. In Frost's poetry, there is an abundance of isolated people, especially in North of Boston. Emotional and physical alienation forms a major theme of Frost's poetry.

7. Frost's Philosophy, Attitude to God:

      It is bee use of Frost's keen awareness of Man's isolation in a vast universe that critics have tended to call him a pessimist. Such a view, however, is not completely tenable, He does not shut his eye to evil, and such a recognition is absolutely necessary if Man's life on this earth is to improve. And a poet who believes in the possibility of Man's amelioration cannot be called a pessimist. Frost is no cynic, he never suggests that life is not worth living. He loves the earth as he avers in Birches. The human lot may be, indeed is, hard; but it has to be accepted with 'bare sorrow' without exaggeration or explaining the problems away.

8. Frost is a Realist in His Attitude to Life and Poetry:

      His realism is, of course, obvious in his descriptions. But it is not merely descriptive realism which his poetry depicts. Art, he felt, was relevant to life; indeed, art strips re to form. The realist poet presents life's realities, not so much in terms of photographic verisimilitude, but in terms of imaginative comprehension. Thus, we see the blend of fact and fancy in Frost's poem. He is aware that man's intellect can comprehend only a relative truth, for absolute truth is elusive. Possessing, as he does, an-artist's love for form and a realist's interest in the quality of life, Frost's keen eye selects poignant facts from common experience. By making the facts yield their essence, he transmutes them into something rich and strange - the delight and surprise of knowing something 'I did not know I knew'. He must have the practical, limited, day truth, while he continues his quest for the absolute truth. Thus, the rural New England of his poetry is a study in miniature of the fundamental human nature, which is everywhere the same. A Frost poem involves the crystallization of experience. Thus, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening relates to the eternal human experience and wisdom of man in his determination to face the inscrutable universe through his work.

9. Moral Truth in Frost's Poetry:

      Frost's poems move from delight to wisdom in most cases. Generally his moral truths which he presents in his poems are not obtrusive, but grow out of the poem itself. Some of his poems have an explicit moral, in others - The Road not Taken, or Two Look at Two - it is a little way beneath the surface. But all his best poems, as C. Day Lewis observes, "have this hard core of moral truth, a value-giving character to their outward features". It is not as if Frost has any specific or systematically formulated vision of life or philosophy. He is a free thinker, sometimes ascetic (as in Design), sometimes a non-conformist taking the road "less travelled by", and always aware of the relativity and elusiveness of absolute truth, us indicated by. For Once, Then, Something. It is not quite correct to call him a spiritual drifter because of his refusal to be categorical about truth. He wants man to strike a balance between extremes. He does not believe in any oversimplified view of life.

10. The Terrifying Quality in Frost's Poetry and His Irony:

      Lionel Trilling called Frost a "terrifying poet" and said that the universe conceived of by Frost was a "terrifying universe". He saw in Frost's poetry "the representation of the terrible actualities of life in a new way". The "terrifying" quality is part of Frost's realism. In Design, a microscopic example is used to illustrate the macrocosm, indicating the horror of the universal design - if at all there is one. The beginning of the poem seems innocent enough - almost pretty description; but the end is what provokes a sense of horror. This is Frost's ironic view. J.F. Lynen observes that the "terror Frost expresses is the terror which comes and must come with the birth of something new." In Design is presented the ironic predicament of Man - his incapacity to see the significance of a situation as it is, and his limited knowledge about the universe.

      The predicament of man is again presented in Neither Out Far nor l Deep which is written against the background of infinite universe and finite existence of man. The land, sea and the gull are symbols used to convey limited human vision and comprehension vis-a-vis the vast universe. Man presumes to have advanced so much in his knowledge of the universe, but he is still essentially 'confounded' regarding Truth. Here is the irony of tragedy - the terrifying quality which is revealed when the situation of Man in the universe is understood. Human comprehension is fallible as is indicated by the lack of foresight and insight in people. Out, Out is one example of terrible irony of fate. In Provide, Provide, Frost with devastating irony tells his fellow Americans and human beings to provide for themselves against all possible contingencies, only in the process, bringing out the essential futility of such provision in the face of the inscrutable reality.

      Reality is too varied and complex for the limited human comprehension and vision to penetrate. People are unable to "look out far" or "look in deep", for they can only look one way while they turn their back on the other. In other words, man's limited capacity cannot comprehend the whole of reality.

      It has to be stated that the terror of Frost's poetry is related to his comprehension of the irony of man's situation, his predicament in the universe. However, the terror and horror have nothing to do with nihilism or sentimental horror drama. Ultimately Frost's poetry is the poetry of affirmation, for he indicates that man must live through reality as it is, remembering his own duties and responsibilities.

      The irony of Frost can be used in a comic sense as well. This is evident in Departmental which has fun at the expense of the departmentalism of human affairs and A Considerable Speck, in which the poet expresses a preference for an intelligent mite when compared to dullards of the human species.

11. Frost's Modern Awareness:

      Critics have termed Frost a traditionalist and conservatist suspicious of new ideas and innovations. But Lynen does not put Frost against modern poets; he puts him with the moderns though also emphasizing on his individuality. Frost's style seems familiar, but the very strangeness of that familiarity reflects the genuinely new thought that the poetry embodies. Frost's 'traditionalism' is no limitation in his poetry. His awareness is essentially modern, if we take into consideration the presentation in his poetry of the disintegration of values and the sense of loneliness, fear and disharmony, felt by men. In the matter of style, too, Frost shows the modern traits of imagism and symbolism. It would be incorrect to 'date' Frost as a traditionalist be cause he deals with nature and pastoralism in his poetry; one has only to read his poems to see how far he has gone from the Romantic approach. "In his pastorals", says John F. Lynen, "Frost's dominant motive is to reassert the value of individual perception against the fragmenting of experience resulting from modern technology. They thus deal with one of the most fundamental concerns of twentieth century thought." Frost may not be modern in a superficial way, describing ephemeral changes and progress', but his poetry embodies the basic predicament of modern man, and rost relates this to universal terms.

12. Stylistic Features of Robert Frost:

      Frost's poetry demonstrates ample use of poetic devices such as epigram, analogy, simile, symbol, indirection and metaphor. Through his poetic devices, he endows his poetry with pattern and organic vision. One should not make the mistake of dismissing Frost's as a simple traditional style which anyone can understand easily.

      Classical Concentration of Frost's Poems: Frost's approach to form is classical. His poems are pieces of classical concentration. Austere, simple, restrained, often understating, his poems of rural life, scenes and sights, resemble the spirit of Theocritus and Virgil the ancient writers of pastorals. Fire and Ice is a fine example of such classical concentration. Another classical trait is the use of aphoristic, and epigrammatic lines in his poems.

      Frost a Synecdochist: Frost uses synecdoche - that figure of speech in which we use a part for the whole. Frost's poems are full of suggestions. There are different levels of meaning in his poems; an obvious example would be Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. The obvious meaning satisfies the ordinary reader, but the more penetrating reader need not be disappointed, for he can find his own level of meaning in the poem. The same is true of Mending Wall. "All that an artist needs is samples", he said once; and, true to his contention, he rarely explains or insists or says too much. A Frost poem is inexhaustible because of the layers of meaning it conceals. This is in keeping with Frost's view that meaning in a poem is a discovery both for the poet and the reader.

      Frost's Technique of Beginning with the Particular and Ending in the General: Most of Frost's poems begin at a critical point and then develop to the full and general conclusion. This is in keeping with his method of synecdoche. A Frost poem grows, in the process gaining a complexity which is typically a modern trait. Two Tramps in Mud Time, for instance, begins in the particular and ends in the general and marks a "logical flow of reactions". Gradually the poem raises the problems of self-control, common good, love und need, avocation and vocation. In a Frost poem, as Lynen observes, the present moment represents "all other times" and the particular place he describes represents "the human situation as it has always existed".

      Oblique Method and Symbolism: Frost uses the modern method of oblique communication in poetry; in other words the indirect method involving symbols, metaphors, analogy and implication. There is plenty of symbolic imagery in Frost's poetry. The image of spider on a flower holding up a moth becomes a starting point for a poem on Design in the universe. The colour white is thus no longer associated with purity and good alone and suggests the mixture of evil and good in the universe. Frost's symbols define and explain each other. In the poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening woods filling up with snow, the frozen lake, and sleep are interrelated through their evocative effects. The silent darkening of the woods in snow suggests death hovering over this world of mortals. The frozen lake is suggestive of the insensibility and cold of death, while sleep again evokes the idea of death. Thus death is evoked by all three associated symbols. The idea of death is associated with the bafflement in the face of life suggested by the traveller by the woods full of depth and mystery. Frost makes use of some recurring symbols in his poetry such as woods, stars, snow, whiteness and darkness.

      One noteworthy factor about his symbolism: while the symbolic strain in Frost, is not easy to categorise, one notices that the phenomena and objects of nature are used as effective symbols in his poetry. Thus Frost's poetry of rural life has a significance beyond the realistic presentation of regional themes and characters, for they contain the symbolisation of reality in other areas of experience and are suggestive of different levels of values and ideals.

      Sound, Sense and Modulation of Tone: Frost has managed to handle well the poetical materials of rhythm, sound and sense. He writes "with his ear to the voice". The modulation of tones reveals distinct tones in different people, situations and moods in his poems. In Too Tramps in Mud Time, for instance, the speaker's tone develops from the sharp reaction of the first stanza through euphoria, self justification, to the ultimate self-discovery and conscientious individualism. Furthermore, the speaker of one Frost poem cannot be confused with the speaker of another poem.

      Poetry that Talks: the Speaking Voice Devoid of Rhetorie: In Frost's poetry we find that the "living speech of men and women" has been turned into poetry, as W, W. Gibson points out. The speech rhythms are functional; there is absence of rhetoric, and there is "the easeful rendering into the metre of customary speech". His poems are people talking, says Mark Vann Doren. "The man who talks under the name of Robert Frost knows how to say a great deal in a short space, just as the many men and women whon he has listened to in New England and elsewhere have known how to express in the few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express.

      Epigrammatic and Aphoristic Turns of Speech: Many of Frost's poems end on a tone that may be termed aphoristic or epigrammatic. Lines such as "Earth's the right place for love" (Birches), "The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows" (Mowing), "Good fences make good neighbours" Mending Wall), appear to be summing-up. However, they should not be taken to be the complete meaning of the poems in themselves. They resemble, says one critic, the conclusions to Shakespeare's sonnets rather than the 'messages' from popular newspaper poems. Such lines are significantly related to the context of the particular poems.

13. Polarities Balanced in Frost's Poems:

      Frost's poetry there are plenty of polarities or opposites and paradoxes. Conflicting moods and attitudes are depicted in a delicately poised balanced manner. 'Fact' is found to be the sweetest 'dream' in Mowing; the personal searching for truth reaches the conclusion that truth is evasive. In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and Come In, conflicting moods and attitudes are delicately poised. The polarities in both poems - the charm of a mysterious wood and the duty of daily life - are demarcated by the word but. Frost shows the classicist's attitude in his advocacy of moderation in thought and action.

14. Status of Frost As a Poet:

      It is a shallow approach to discard Frost as a simple charming poet alone. While critics such as Yvor Winters have been quite hard on Frost's poetic talents, the overall verdict is in his favour Most critics feel that his achievement far surpasses his limitations. Frost has been, of course, acclaimed as a national American poet. More than that, he is a poet who has something to offer to readers of various levels of understanding.

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