Discuss the Limitations of Robert Frost as a Poet

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      Introduction: Great poets, everywhere in the world, in every language and throughout all these centuries of civilized human life have written much that can be called trivial and inferior. In the early years when a poet has no yet established himself he is sure to have composed much that is trash and rubbish, Robert Frost too composed. After a poet has established himself it is likely that he may have composed some trivial work solely because his inspiration had become flagged. To this general rule Robert Frost is no exception. Almost all the critics have pointed out this fact, while he was praised as "the purest classical poet of 20th century America" worthy of being considered on a par with Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau.

Frost's simplicity has endeared him to the common reader though as Randall Jarrell has pointed out, "it is extraordinarily subtle, complex and intricate too. A skilful combination of an outer lightness with an inner gravity is one of his major poetic achievements. Frost has been very successful in infusing pastoral art with a subtle significance by imparting universal validity to it. Though many of his themes are regional yet he does not fail to rise to the highest pinnacle of the universal and the general. He has a rich and ripe philosophy: he is a nature-poet equally efficient in portraying man in all his aspects. He is a classicist and traditionalist and is a good lyric-writer". So much for his achievement. Let us have an idea of his faults as well.
Robert Frost

      Frost's simplicity has endeared him to the common reader though as Randall Jarrell has pointed out, "it is extraordinarily subtle, complex and intricate too. A skilful combination of an outer lightness with an inner gravity is one of his major poetic achievements. Frost has been very successful in infusing pastoral art with a subtle significance by imparting universal validity to it. Though many of his themes are regional yet he does not fail to rise to the highest pinnacle of the universal and the general. He has a rich and ripe philosophy: he is a nature-poet equally efficient in portraying man in all his aspects. He is a classicist and traditionalist and is a good lyric-writer". So much for his achievement. Let us have an idea of his faults as well.

      Conservatism: Cowley has criticised Frost for being opposed to innovation in art, ethics, science, industry and politics. He strongly disapproves of everything Russian and not only their pessimism, revolutionary instincts, collectivistic tendencies etc.

      Unevenness in Frost's Compositions: The fact that he had written much good poetry should not make us blind to his callousness of composition in some other poems where he lacked in inspiration.

      A Good poet with A Dangerous Influence: Yvor Winters regards Frost as a good poet wielding a great dangerous influence. He sums up thus: "he (Frost) believes that impulse is trustworthy and reason contemptible, that formative decision should be made casually and passively, that the individual should retreat from cooperative action with his kind, that affairs manage themselves for use best if left alone. These views are sure to be a hindrance to self development and they effectively cut Frost off from any really profound' understanding of human experience whether political, moral, metaphysical or religious". He points out the adverse effect in his poems of all these views. He concludes that "the results in nearly all the poems is a measure of carelessness in the style sometimes small and sometimes great".

      Didacticism in Frost's Writing: Yvor Winters criticises didacticism in Frost's writings. He calls Frost's ideas impossible and his style exceptionally shoddy. He finds fault with Frost's conversational style, faulty and undistinguished rhythms, repetitious to the point of deadly monotony.

      Melancholy Traits and Uncertainty: Yvor Winters 'feels that Frost's view of human nature is dangerous because the individual man is small, lost and unimportant in the midst of a vast and changing universe. Taking the poem On Going Unnoticed as an example he says that Frost has a habitual but unreasoned hesitancy or fear preventing him from moving decisively in either direction. "He cannot decide whether to go or to stay and the result is uncertainty and increasing melancholy". The poems Tree at My Window, The Road not Taken etc. are also faulty in as much as they put on the readers a burden of critical intelligence whereas actually this burden should have been borne more fully by the poet.

      Adverse Effects of Frost's Views: According to Yvor Winters the extraordinary views of Robert Frost have an adverse influence on his poems too such as (i) the didactic poems suffer froma perversity and incoherence of thought (ii) the narrative poems suffer from slightness of subject or flat and uninteresting apprehension of the subject (iii) a disturbing dislocation in the symbolic lyrics, between the descriptive surface which is frequently lovely and the ultimate meaning which is usually sentimental and unacceptable (iv) a degree of carelessness in the style.

      Weakness of Sentimentality: Yvor Winters says: "The best of the didactic poems is the one called The Lesson Today. The poem is for the most part a severely critical comment upon that school of contemporary criticism which holds that the modern poet is condemned to mediocrity because of the degeneracy of the age and to this extent the poem is one with which itis hard not to sympathise. Frost addresses the hypothetical poet of the court of Charles the Great, (Lines 84-103). From this subject however the poem wanders into a brief discussion of mortality in general and the poet's concern with the subject. After that topic the poem closes on the poet's epitaph for himself:

Ane were an epitaph to be my story
I'd have a short one ready for my own
I would have written of me on my stone
I had a lover's quarrel with the world.

      These two transitions are casual rather than structural and the poem falls badly apart. The last lines, moreover, are extremely bad. There is a weak sentimentality about them which one perceives easily but the reason for which deserves mention. There are good reasons for quarrelling with the world or at least with large segments of it. Much of the world is evil and the evil had better be recognised and taken seriously. It is as if one said to a murderer; "After all you are human and you have perfect right to your own opinions, attitudes and behaviour, we are all human and should respect admire each other". The principle at the back of the final line is vicious and corrupts the line. And the intellectual vagueness which is responsible for the weak ending is responsible likewise for the fragmentary structure of the poem".

      Critical Attitude to Mechanical Devices: The poem The Egg and The Machine reveals Frost's sentimental dislike for machinery for being vicious. A railway engine passes a traveller who is irritated and annoyed to see a rail road running through his favourite marsh. So he feels a desire to wreck the engine. He says:

"I am warmed for war
The next machine that has the power to pass
Will get this plasm in its goggle-glass".

      It is evident from this that the poet has selected the locomotive to symbolise the viciousness of machinery.

      The traveller threatens to throw a turtle-egg into the headlight of a locomotive. Being a "plasm" the turtle egg has a symbolic significance. The raw life therefore is capable of confounding the mechanical product of human reason. But if we analyse the symbolism the poem becomes reduced to a weak joke. The locomotive does not represent human reason as such but what is created by human reason in order to facilitate higher activities.

      Political and Spiritual Drifter: The poems Build Soil and The Road not Taken are typical examples of the political drifting and spiritual drifting respectively of the poet:

I'd let things take their course And then
I'd claim the credit for the outcome

      This indicates Frost's political drifting. This theory of laissez-faire means the surrender of the nation to unscrupulous businessmen and profiteers. If the poet's advice were to be acted upon by the people, the business of the State would be taken over by official scoundrels keenly awaiting a suitable opportunity.

      The spiritual drifting in the poem The Road not Taken is clearly expounded by Yvor Winters. The poem renders the experience of a spiritual drifter touching upon the uncertain melancholy of his condition. According to the critic, the poem does not go far enough. It is incomplete because it compels the reader to bear the burden of critical intelligence which is really that of the poet himself. Frost has intentionally refrained from careful thinking.

      Triviality in Some Poems: The Hill Wife is a typical example of the trivial character of some of the poems of Robert Frost. The dramatic crisis, not being the personal experience of the poet, is not offered clearly. The motive of the wife in deserting the husband is not comprehensibly explained. The poem has an eerie quality, like that of a dream or of neurotic outbursts. It has little else. As a study in human relationships it amounts to nothing. It is a trivial poem.

      Vagueness: Many poems like The Sound of the Trees has the vagueness and uncertainty of the poem The Road not Taken. There is a lack of precision in the rendering of the details and of the total attitude. The limitation of the writer's intelligence is evident from the poem. He confuses whimsical impulse with moral choice. This confusion and mistake causes in him ann uncertainty with regard to the value of the whole business. He is vaguely afraid that he may or may not be wrong or right.

      Want of Seriousness: The poem A Serious Step Lightly Taken suffers from want of seriousness. Yvor Winters says: The title implies approval and not disapproval. The poet seems to urge people to take serious steps lightly. But if serious steps are to be lightly taken poetry at least is impoverished and the poet can have very little to say. Most of the world's great poetry has had to do with serious steps seriously taken. And when une seriousness goes from life it goes from the poetry too.

      Advocacy of Impulses and Instincts as Against Reason: The poem The Bear expresses the view that reasoning man is ridiculous, because he labours and changes his mind. The poet probably wants to say that the impulsive man is wiser and nobler. Rational man to the poet resembles the caged bear and the impulsive man the wild bear. Yvor Winters says: "The fact of the matter is, however, that impulsive man, if he is restrained by conventions and habits, the nature and origin of which he does not understand, is likely to be merely confused, uncertain and melancholy and if he is not so restrained may degenerate to madness or to criminality... It is not foolish to change one's mind. One learns by changing one's mind'. In the critic's opinion Frost is satirising the intelligent man from the point of view of the unintelligent and the more often one reads the poem the more trivial it appears.

      Frost's World Fragmentary and Meaningless: Frederic I. Carpenter says: The fault of Mr. Frost lies merely in this that he is a poet only: His criticism of life is merely poetic. Frost's world is fragmentary and meaningless. It is in his own words, "the vast chaos of all I have lived through" within which a poem may exist but only as, again in his own words, 'a momentary stay against confusion'.

      No Message to Give to the World: Unless he records in his poems enduring human values, no poet is worthy of his job. He must have a conference message to give to the world. In the absence of this, Frost at best is the author of certain good poems but not one who reveals an embodied vision of man. He. suffers from a fundamental indecisiveness because he has not mastered any large scale aggregation of human phenomena.

      Prudery of the Victorian: Frost is more Puritan than a noble Christian. All the characters in his poems are decently clothed with etherealized and intellectualized love affairs. A critic says: "He rejects the tenderer than those collectivistic regimenting love with which the modern world is being swept.

      To put it briefly Frost's tendency to moralise from the very beginning of his career grew upon him with the passing of time. In his later poems the didactic nature becomes too obtrusive and offensive. His characters are confined to the rustic labourers of his New England excluding the intellectuals of complex human type. A psychological penetration into the depths which characterises modern poetry is conspicuously absent in his works. Frost does not differentiate separateness from self-centredness. Frost philosophy lacks depth and profundity. He has not the cosmic imagination which creates its own world.

      Conclusion: We can safely say that despite all these shortcomings we cannot deny Robert Frost an honoured and highly respectable place among great poets. Even Shakespeare, Milton and other stalwarts are not free fron blemishes. Indeed it is their shortcomings that really highlight the achievements.

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