Modernism in Robert Frost Poetry

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      What is Modernity ? 'Modernism' is one of those terms that have constantly eluded proper definition. What does the term 'modernity' exactly connote in the context in which the term is being used? First of all, let us have it clear in our minds that contemporaneity does not ensure modernity. The fact that all his significant works were published in the twentieth century and he was a contemporary of such towering poets like Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Auden and Ezra Pound does not automatically grant Frost modernity. Some writers of the past appear to be breathing just behind our backs-much nearer to us in spirit and thought than many of the contemporary poets. Fraser has brought out this point very well. "When we describe a work of literature as 'modern' we do not merely mean that it has been published in the last year or two, or since the beginning of the century, perhaps since the Renaissance, or perhaps since the decline of the Roman Empire and the earliest poems and chronicles written in a vernacular European tongue (For modern times might be thought to begin, from some points of view, with the Christian era itself).

Frost is indifferent to modern life and the cause at the root of it according to Granville Hicks, is that Frost has bound himself to a literary tradition that is out of fashion and has lost its meaning in the modern context.
Robert Frost

      Now, when we describe a work as "modern", we are ascribing certain intrinsic qualities to it, though we may be vague in our minds about what these qualities are. Thus the question of date need not rise at all..". Then giving examples of some ancient and comparatively older poets who seem to appeal much more to the modern mind and some new ones who appear much less modern, Fraser goes on to say that all through the literature of the past, there are certain works, which, in the attitudes they express and the problems they deal with, have a peculiar affinity with the spirit of our own times.

      T.S. Eliot, who was at the spearhead of the modernist movement in English poetry said that, "one is not modern by writing about chimney-pots, archaic by writing about oriflammes," implying that modernism means much more than a mere knowledge of latest scientific inventions and discoveries. It implies a keen perception and an insight into the modern psyche, the modern consciousness. In his effort to define modernism', Stephen Spender says that it is "a sensibility to contemporary phenomena like machinery, the industrial city and neurotic behaviour". The Times Literary Supplement mentions the two marks of modernism as "the liveliness that comes from topicality" and "the difficulty that comes from intellectual abstruseness."

      Frost: A Traditional Poet and Not Modern ? Some critics feel that Frost is essentially a traditional poet. It has been repeatedly pointed out that his poetry has a disarming simplicity while the hallmarks of modern poetry are complexity and intricacy. In his poetry, irregular verse forms, fragmentary sentences, learned allusions, ironic, contrasts, erudite and abstruse symbolism are more or less missing - and these qualities are characteristic of modern poetry.

      Frost is indifferent to modern life and the cause at the root of it according to Granville Hicks, is that Frost has bound himself to a literary tradition that is out of fashion and has lost its meaning in the modern context. Hicks says: "For all his common sense and his originality, he has chosen to identify himself with a moribund tradition. Many poets in these hundred and fifty years have written of mountains, fields and brooks, and of farmers at their task; these things have become part of our imaginative inheritance, and one must be insensitive indeed not to be conscious of the beauty in them. But there are other objects now more frequently before our eyes-factories, skyscrapers, machines. We see mechanics, shop-girls, truck drivers, more often than we do farmers, and we see the farmer not as a romantic figure but as the victim of economic forces".

      Isidor Schneider seems to agree vehemently with this view, and regarding these as most serious limitations of Frost's poetry, he says: "Mr Frost is singularly out of touch with his own time. Indeed, many poets who ante-date him are more contemporary in spirit, It has, indeed, been Mr. Frost's wish to keep out of his own age and his own civilization. We may go therefore to his poetry for diversion and relief from our time but not for illumination". Frost according to some critics does not understand this age. When he essays to speak of it, as in the long poem New Hampshire (one or the poorest in the book and full of irrelevancies) he shows a surprising lack of comprehension. There to the challenge of contemporary ideas, he replies with know-nothing arrogance: "Me for the hills where I don't have to choose."

      Another critic who feels that Frost is a traditional poet is Yvor Winters. He feels that Frost endorses some very anti-modern views. He analyses The Bear to prove that Frost admires man as an instinctive and impulsive creature. In this poem he ridicules the idea of man as a solely reasoning being which is obviously contraposed to modern thought. In this sense, Frost has a much closer affinity with the nineteenth century Romantics than with the Moderns.

      A very same review of Frost's achievements as a poet and a very balanced views regarding his modernity is, however, given by William O'Connor. He concedes the fact that critics are of divergent opinions regarding Frost's modernity depending on their own modernity: "The degree of modernism of the individual critic is likely to condition his final judgement of Frost. It is apparent that traditionalists like Tate or Warren object to an industrialized and mechanized world, to relativism in moral standards, and to such an economic form as finance capitalism which enables the individual to avoid personal obligations. Yet they recognize that the tradition, based in part on religious belief and sanctions, which opposed these developments, is rapidly breaking up, even in those regions which are its strongholds. They have been able, no more than another, to reverse the process or to suggest anything more than palliatives. Only some transcendental belief, some new myth, will be able to change the direction". Their poetry, which find its tension in the conflicts with traditionalism, is concerned with problems which in Frost's poetry remain unnoticed. Tradition serves poetry well and is necessary to it - but it would seem that as minds poets have some obligation to face the problems which give their time its character.

      Frost is Modern in his Awareness: Brooks, Trilling and Lynen: Some Critics are against the views that Frost is a traditional poet. They are not Willing to accept the midway, compromising view like O' Connor. They advance and advocate vigorously, the view that Frost is essentially modern. Drooks, Trilling and Lynen are perhaps the critics most eager and ready to put Frost in the forefront of modern poetry.

      Frost is Modern in his Pastoral Technique: Frost's world is rural. Undoubtedly, he retires into New England and falls back on New England's scenery, the ways and habits of New Englanders for his poetry-drifting away and away from the humdrum contemporary world. But J.F. Lynen has very rightly pointed out that "his retreat into countryside is not a romantic escape from the harsh, unpleasant realities of modern life, rather it provides him with a point of view, a frame or reference, for studying and commenting on the facts of modern life." Frost studied life, stripped down to its elemental simplicity - and this simplicity is Frost's norm of judgment - not only of urban life, but of life in general; life as it has come down to mankind through the corridors of time in all its splendid colours and shades.

      Frost's is the Method of Indirection as used by modern poets like T.S. Eliot and others. In The Waste Land Eliot juxtaposes the present and the past. The past here, is definitely meant to reveal and interpret the present. Likewise, in Frost's poetry, the rural and the urban are juxtaposed - the rural serving as a standard for and comment on the urban. For example in Mending Wall the necessity of fences, of clear demarcations of property is emphasized, implicitly criticising the craze for pulling down fences and imposing brotherhood.

      Frost is not antique despite his dependence on the pastoral. Frost uses the pastoral technique to his advantage and moulds it according to his needs. John Lynen sees through Frost's pastoral technique and comments: "He has, in effect, found a retreat in one of those out of the way places where technology has not yet complicated life by separating man from the land. But this retreat is of a special sort. He does not turn his back on the world of today nor does he advocates a 'return to soil'. There is in his regionalism no call for action or programme for social reform, and as matter of fact, he insists over and over again that no programme will ever resolve the basic conflicts in human life." His withdrawal must be distinguished from agrarianism. It is the adopting of an artistic perspective. Regional New England just because it is primitive and remote from modern life - is for him, a medium for examining the complex urban world of today, a standard by which to evaluate it, and a context within which to discover the underlying experience that modern life has obscured and confused.

      Frost's pastoralism is "an exploration upstream, past the city with its riverside factories and shipping, or against the current of time and change to the clear waters of the source." It is a technique that takes Frost from modernity to universality.

      Modern Awareness: There are traditional and romantic elements a well as regional and pastoral traits in Frost's poetry. However, Frost puts these elements to original use. In Frost's poetry we find evidence of what Yeats called the "modern mind in search of its own meanings". As Rosenthal remarks, the mind at work in Frost's poetry is "neither that of a New England farmer nor that of a romantic rediscoverer of land".

      Modern Aspects of Life Criticised by Frost: The impersonal modern way of life and its organizationalism is satirized by Frost in Departmental. An acute consciousness of the modern machine age with its artificiality is implicit in Acquainted with the Night. If Frost tries to high-light the significance of impulse and instinct, it is because in the modern age natural urges of humanity are often subordinated to sordidness in the name of practical rationality. Frost does not subscribe to the modern trend of "Collectivistic regimenting love". He does not favour social regimentation; nor does he subscribe to extreme individualism. Frost is aware that there are eternal problems which cannot be solved, and it is against this eternal human existence that he presents the essence of the modern world. He knows that there is no formula of solution. In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening he indicates that man must act in the face of an incomprehensible world and that human reason, or any other faculty, even in the modern man, cannot help much.

      Frost is a Modern in his Realistic Attitude Towards Nature: Frost is definitely modern in his attitude towards Nature says Trilling. Frost does not see Nature with the exuberant warmth of the Romantics, nor does he see any holy plan to emphasise the harmony and the oneness of Man and Nature. Modern science thinks of Nature as mere matter, soulless, detached from and alien to Man. "Frost, throughout his poetry emphasizes the otherness of Nature and he is forever reminding us that a clear line demarcates the world of Nature from the world Man".

      The world of nature in Frost's poetry is not a world of dreams but is much more harsh and demanding than the urban world. He feels that Frost represents 'the terrible actualities of life in a new way. We think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet. The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe. Trilling cites Design and Neither Out Far Nor In Deep, "which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time." There is little in the poem to warm the reader 'except the energy with which emptiness is perceived'.

      The same grim reality is characteristic of Frost's characters. "The people of Robert Frost's poems speak of disintegration with a vengeance. In the interests of what other great things these people have made this rejection of the old consciousness, we cannot say for certain. But we can guess that it was in the interest of truth, of some truth, of some truth of the self. They affirm this of themselves: that they are what they are, that this is their truth, and that if the truth is bare, as truth often is, it is far better than a lie. For me the process by which they arrive at that truth is always terrifying. Trilling makes clear how Frost's poetry is essentially modern. His poetry does not refer to sensational events or events of historical, political or socio-economic importance of the day-to-day world; he does not even use urban scenery More important, Trilling shows us, that the terror Frost expresses is the terror which comes and must come with the birth of something new. It is the mark of a genuinely modern poetry.

      Frost's Poetry is Representative of certain Traits of Modernity: The Disharmony, Disintegration and Alienation: On one thing, most critics are agreed-Frost does not give expression to the scenery depicting modern life. But Frost is undoubtedly a modern man and presents a vivid picture of what modernism is doing to mankind. His poetry echoes, precisely what has been termed as the 'ache of modernism'. Cleanth Brooks has argued this point very effectively. He says: 'Another sense in which Frost is a truly modern poet is his portrayal of the disintegration of values in modern life and disillusionment of the modern man'.

      Most of his poems deal with characters who suffer from frustration, isolation and helplessness - diseases of modern life, which are portrayed in modern poems like The Waste Land. Frost's poetry reflects modern life - it depicts the sense of insecurity, frustration and loss that has crept into the psyche of the modern man. In The Hill Wife Frost has portrayed with great subtlety and exactitude, the cumulative sense of fear, loneliness and mutual estrangement of a psychologically isolated wife. Her husband is just a physical companion for her and is no match to her sensitivity. He does no understand her at all, so much so that he is completely nonplussed when she disappears, irrevocably and without any warning. The hill wife; is symbolic of mankind in general she epitomizes and embodies the isolation and loneliness of modern man foreshadowing the imminent doom of disharmony and disintegration that has already begun taking its toll.

      The Road not Taken can be read on a personal as well as a universal level-man is bewildered, lost and confused; he cannot find his way through the all - pervasive confusion and chaos. An Old Man's Winter Night displays the loneliness of the modern man passing through a phase that can easily be regarded as the winter of civilization. Home Burial is an almost representative instance of misunderstanding, disharmony and wearing away of emotional relationships as a result of consistent coagulation of the individuals within themselves a process of snailization that is increasing with an alarming pace in a world that boasts of finding outlets, going out increased social intercourse and opening of unknown vistas. In this poem, the situation seems to be almost beyond any amends. All hopes of any communication between the husband and the wife seem to have crumbled into non existence. All sympathy, consideration and positive emotion seem to have disappeared into the horizons and the vacuum has at last been replaced - but by selfish thoughts and doubts, though. Both accuse each other of callousness and their moods, constantly swing between despair and anger, outrage and frustration.

      Frost's Further Affinities with the Moderns in Style and Symbolist Technique: Frost's poetry is rich in shades and lights. It affects people in different ways. The common man reads it for deriving the pleasures of simplicity, of rural scenery and liter that it portrays. Some might seek, in Frost's poetry, a refuge from the urban muck and roar. The erudite sophisticated urban dweller may go to Frost's poetry for his presentation of human predicament in an alien, perhaps even a hostile environment. Some read it for the clarifications and illuminations it provides. The apparent simplicity of Frost's poetry is very deceptive. It conceals layers and layers of meaning.

      The extreme expressiveness and rich texture of Frost's poetry becomes a viable reality, because the great moderns have bequeathed to Frost, the metaphysical symbolist technique. Like metaphysical poets and their admiring inheritors of the twentieth century, Frost juxtaposes opposites. He puts side by side man and nature, rural and urban, regional and urban and is able to achieve a rare richness and an effect of variety, vividness and deep meanings through it. He generally tries to synthesize and reconcile opposites. For this, he often takes to the symbolic mode and the method of indirection. The poems that confine to the symbolic mode, leap beyond their regional locales and acquire universal meanings and importance. The symbolic strain is noteworthy in poems such as Fire and Ice.

      To all appearances, Mending Wall relates an anecdote typical of the conservative New Englanders. But read with a little depth, the poem stands out as symbolic of the conflict prevalent throughout the world - the conflict between the modern trend of razing all barriers to the ground and the view that we have inherited from our fore-fathers, that barriers are essential for good neighbourly relations. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, besides being an obviously personal experience, expresses the conflict that every sensitive individual must have felt sometime or the other the conflict between the demands of practical life with its obligations to others, and the intense and poignant desire to escape into a land of reverie, where consciousness is free to breathe and the senses are shorn of all shackles of necessity. Indeed, the levels of meaning offered by this poem go to prove Willard Thorpe's observation that the simple fact and surrounding mystery in a Frost poem make it metaphysical. The simple fact of a traveller watching the woods fill up with snow becomes the eternal human situation.

      Conclusion: Frost is Undoubtedly Modern. All the arguments, all the illustrations, logically lead to the conclusion that Frost is modern beyond any doubt. Frost is modern not in any overt and obvious manner. He is modern through and through; but to get an idea of his modernism, one has to read through his poetry and get a proper perspective of the layers of meaning that enwrap it and the sensitivity that runs through it. All the central facts of modern experience are presented by Frost in their nakedness without their social, political and economic overtones. Thus, even as far as sensibility is concerned, Frost is modern, or perhaps one should say, of universal sensibility.

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