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Robert Frost (1874-1963)

literature

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Robert Frost

(1874-1963)

- his work can be read as a culmination of the tradition of the plain-   spoken poetry in which the natural world is used for metaphors of spirit: in the tradition of William Wordsworth, who at the beginning of the 19th century defined a poet as a man speaking to men.



- Frost started by writing pastoral verse : his first book of poems “A Boy’s Will” (1913) tackled rural subjects which fit nicely with the Georgian school of poets who were just gaining a wide audience in Britain (where he published it). These poems were marked by an intense but restrained emotion and the characteristic flavor of New England life. They were poems on rural subjects written for a well-educated “city” audience.

- typical of his pastoral poetry : draws upon the feeling that the rural world is representative of human life in general. He creates remarkable depth of reference : he offers the minute particulars of his immediate experience, yet the things described seem to point beyond the rural world. Thus, Frost is not a naive chronicler of farm life in rural New England. He is a poet fully aware of every influence, from the ancient writers of Greek and roman eclogues (pastoral traditional poem) through the Romantics up to his contemporaries.

- Shortly after the publication of his first volume Frost wrote a memorable letter to his friend, John T. Bartlett, in which he put forth a theory of poetry that he called “the sound of sense”. The idea behind this theory is against the classsic assumption according to which the music of words was a matter of harmonized vowels and consonants. He considered that the best place to get the abstract sound of sense  is in ordinary speech irregularity. The poetry in a line (another denomination for “the sound of sense”) was the product of the difference between the abstract metrical line and the natural flow of speech.

- The obsession with ordinary speech and its relation to poetry is partly what makes Robert Frost a modern poet. There is nothing of the elevation of poetic style found in many Victorian poets, nothing self-consciously poetic. The poetry resides in the plain sense of things, the articulation of moments of clarity and poise.

- Another aspect of Frost’s theory is his understanding of symbolism and how it functions in a poem. Frost called himself a Synecdochist (synecdoche-the part stands for the whole/Gk ‘taking up together’) A symbol is always synecdochal : an image is meant to represent something larger than itself. E.g. the poem “Mowing”T physical labor as synecdochal image : the “mowing” of the poem stands for larger motions of the mind and spirit. Why was there “never” a sound beside the wood but one ? Frost is separating this mowing from any purely physical act; the mowing is a mental action that isolates the poet. The “mowing” is analogous to writing poems. The poet is thoroughly absorbed in the work that is productive of meaning. However, in the Romantic tradition, Frost does not place too much emphasis on the conscious aspects of literary production. A poet’s meanings are “accidental”. Thus, the mower says “I knew not well myself” what meaning was produced by his motion.

      The central theme is built around this blending of the earnest love which derives satisfaction from the activities of the immediate moment. Objects and sounds combine to emphasize the intense pleasure the mower feels. The goal is the very writing of the poem, not the resulting reputation of the poet, or the poem.




- A similar symbolism is to be found in his second volume, “North of Boston”(1914) : in “The Wood-Pile” T the woodpile is clearly an object of human labor, the product of careful craftsmanship and sustained attention. It is very like a poem : something constructed for the sheer love of doing it. The natural world, left to its own devices is, pointless in Frost’s humanistic view of reality.

- In “North of Boston” Frost also began to experiment with the dramatic poem - the monologue or dialogue poem. In “The Death of the Hired Man” an old couple, Mary and Warren, discuss the fact that Silas, an old hired man who has left Warrne’s employment has come home to die.T Frost does not romanticize country people and farm life. The world conjured in these poems is not idyllic. Death, exhaustion, illness, marital bittenness, cold and moral bankruptcy are close at hand.

- In Mountain Interval (1916), Frost’s third volume, “The Oven Bird” is a poem implicitly about the act of writing, about a bird who “knows in singing not to sing,” which is to say that he must abandon the worn-out poetical diction and rhetorical conventions of his predecessors and offer a new kind of song.

- New Hampshire (1923), Frost’s fourth book, marks, more than the previous books, o beginning of the poet as a philosopher of the common man. Here Frost appears as Reactionary, he identifies with political conservatism; what he takes aim at is anti-New. He hates Freudianism, Marxism. He is the New England equivalent of a Southern Agrarian, preferring small farming communities to large industrial cities. He hates the modern world, with its machines, its pace, its lack of values, its tendencies toward collective behavior. He is always the Emersonian or Thoreauvian Romantic, the individualist, falling back upon a stance of self-reliance.

- On the other hand Frost was a major Modernist poet for his tragic vision, evoking a “terrifying universe” of emptiness and secular life. He often seems to suggest that the old tradition of nature poetry is recoverable, yet what he finds in nature - the harsh lives, the rugged New Hampshire settings, the relation of farmer to neighbour-breeds skepticism about ideas of wholeness or fulfillment.








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