discovering America all hislife. He has also beendiscovering the world; andsince he is a really wisepoet, the one thing has beenthe same thing as the other.
He is more than a NewEngland poet: he is morethan an American poet; heis a poet who can beunderstood anywhere byreaders versed in mattersmore ancient and universalthan the customs of onecountry, whatever thatcountry is. Frost’s countryis the country of humansense: of experience, ofimagination, and ofthought. His poems start athome, as all good poemsdo; as Homer’s did, asShakespeare’s, asGoethe’s, and asBaudelaire’s; but they endup everywhere, as only thebest poems do. This ispartly because his wisdomis native to him, and could not have been suppressed by any circumstance; it ispartly, too, because his education has been right.
He is our least provincial poetbecause he is the best grounded in those ideas–Greek, Hebrew, modernEuropeans and even Oriental–which make for well-built art at any time. He doesnot parade his learning, and may in fact not know that he has it: but there in hispoems it is, and it is what makes them so solid, so humorous, and so satisfying. His many poems have been different from one another and yet alike. They are thework of a man who has never stopped exploring himself–or, if you like, America,or better yet, the world. He has been able to believe, as any good artist must, thatthe things he knows best because they are his own will turn out to be true for otherpeople. He trusts his own feelings, his own doubts, his own certainties, his ownexcitements.
And there is absolutely no end to these, given the skill he needs tostate them and the strength never to be wearied by his subject matter. “The objectin writing poetry” Frost has said, “is to make all poems sound as different aspossible from each other. ” But for this, in addition to the tricks any poet knows,”we need the help of context–meaning–subject matter. That is the greatest helptowards variety. All that can be done with words is soon told. So also with meters.
. . . The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across therigidity of a limited meter are endless. And we are back in poetry as merely onemore art of having something to say, sound or unsound.
Probably better if sound,because deeper and from wider experience. “Frost is one of the most subtle of modern poets in that department where so muchcriticism rests, the department called technique; but the reason for his subtlety isseldom noticed. It is there because it has to be, in the service of somethinginfinitely more important: a report of the world by one who lives in it without anycause to believe that he is different from other persons except for the leisure he hasgiven himself to walk about and think as well as possible concerning all the thingshe sees; and to take accurate note of the way they strike him as he looks. What theyare in themselves is not to be known; or who he is, either, if all his thought is ofhimself; but when the two come together in a poem, testimony may result. This iswhat Frost means by subject matter, and what any poet had better mean if heexpects to be read.
Frost is more and more read, by old readers and by young, because in this crucialand natural sense he has so much to say. He is a generous poet. His book confidesmany discoveries, and shares with its readers a world as wild as it is wide–adangerous world, hard to live in, yet the familiar world that is the only one weshall ever have, and that we can somehow love for the bad things in it as well asthe good, the unintelligible as well as the intelligible. Frost is a laconic New Englander: that is to say, he talks more than anybody. Hetalks all the time.
The inhabitants of New England accuse one another of talkingtoo much, but all are guilty together, all are human; for man is a talking animal,and never more so than when he is trying to prove that silence is best. Frost hasexpressed the virtue of silence in hundreds of poems, each one of them moreingenious than the last in the way it takes of suggesting that it should not have beenwritten at all. The greatest people keep still. There may be little or much beyond the grave,But the strong are saying nothing until they see. Joking aside, Frost is a generous giver. He is not, thank heaven, one of thoseexiguous modern poets–Joseph Wood Krutch has called them costive–who hopeto be loved because they have delivered so little: the fewer the poems the better thepoet.
The fact is that the greatest poets have been, among other things, prolific:they have had much to say, and nothing has prevented them from keeping at it tillthey died. Contrary to a certain legend, good poets get better with age, as Thomas Hardy foranother instance did. The Collected Poems of Hardy are a universe through whichthe reader may travel forever, entertained as he goes by the same paradox as thatwhich appears in the Complete Poems of Frost: the universe in question ispresented as a grim, bleak place, but the longer one stares at it the warmer itseems, and the more capable of justifying itself beneath the stars. By an almostillicit process it manages in the end to sing sweetly of itself–not sentimentally, oras if it leaned upon illusion, but with a deep sweetness that truth cannot disturb. For truth is in the sweetness: a bittersweetness, shall we say, but all the betterpreserved for being so.
And this is the case, whether with Hardy or with Frost, because the poet has nevergrown tired of his function; has always known more, and known it better, as timepassed; and has found it the most natural thing in the world to say so in new terms. My object in living is to uniteMy avocation and my vocation. The poet in Frost has never been different from the man, or the man from the poet;he has lived in his poetry at the same time that he has lived outside of it, andneither life has interfered with the other. Indeed it has helped; which is why weknow that his poems mean exactly what he means, and might say in some otherlanguage if he chose. But he has chosen this language as the most personal hecould find, toward the end that what it conveys should be personal for us too.
Weneed not agree with everything he says in order to think him wise. It is rather thathe sounds and feels wise, because he is sure of what he knows. And the extent ofwhat he knows would never be guessed by one who met him only in anthologies. He is powerful there, but in the Complete Poems we find a universe of manyrecesses, and few readers have found their way into all of these. Some of them arevery narrow, it would seem, and out of the ordinary way; in the language ofcriticism they might even be dismissed as little “conceits”; but the narrowest ofthem is likely to lead further in than we suspected, toward the central room whereFrost’s understanding is at home.
The sign that he is at home is that his language is plain; it is the human vernacular,as simple on the surface as monosyllables can make it. Strangely enough this iswhat makes some readers say he is hard–he is always referring to things he doesnot name, at any rate in the long words they suppose proper. He seems to besaying less than he does; it is only when we read close and listen well, and thinkbetween the sentences, that we become aware of what his poems are about. Whatthey are about is the important thing–more important, we are tempted to think,than the words themselves, though it was the words that brought the subject on. The subject is the world: a huge and ruthless place which men will never quiteunderstand, any more than they will understand themselves; and yet it is the sameold place that men have always been trying to understand, and to this extent it is asfamiliar as an old boot or an old back door, lovable for what it is in spite of the factthat it does not speak up and identify itself in the idiom of abstraction. Frost is aphilosopher, but his ideas are behind his poems, not in them–buried well, for usto guess at if we please.
2We can guess that his own philosopher is Heraclitus, who said: “If you do notexpect it, you will not find out the unexpected. . . . Let us not make randomguesses about the greatest things. .
. . The attunement of the world is of oppositetensions, as is that of the harp or bow. . .
. What agrees disagrees. . . .
Strife isjustice. . . . The road up and the road down is one and the same.
. . . Thebeginning and the end are common . .
. . A dry soul is wisest and best. .
. . Formen to get all they wish is not the better thing. . . .
It is the concern of all men toknow themselves and to be sober-minded. . . . A fool is wont to be in a flutter atevery word.
” Yet the guess could be wrong, for Frost does not say these things,however strongly his poems suggest them. The suggestion may be nothing but acoincidence: the two men see the same world, and its end is like its beginning;down is up and up is down, the new is old and the old is new, and strife is justice. At least we know nothing of justice if we know nothing of strife. It is tension thatmaintains our equilibrium; if opposites could not feel each other in the dark therewould be no possibility of light. Good fences make good neighbors–each knowswhere he is and what confines him.
Without a wall between them, each wouldconfuse himself with the other and cease to exist; or if there were fighting, it wouldbe too close–a mere scramble, in which neither party could be made out. Distanceis a good thing, and so is admitted difference, even when it sounds like hostility. For there can be a harmony of separate sounds that seem to be at war with another,but one sound is like no sound at all, or else it is like death. Let each thing knowits limits even as it strains to pass them. No limit will ever be passed, since indeedit is a limit. Which does not mean that we shall never stare across the void betweenourselves and others.
People, for instance, who look at the sea–They cannot look out far,They cannot look in deep. But when was that ever a barTo any watch they keep?It is human to want to know more than we can. But it is most human to know what”cannot” means. Frost never says these things either; his poems only suggest them, and suggestfurther things that contradict them. His muse, like the truth, is cantankerous; itkeeps on turning up fresh evidence against itself.
And yet we cannot miss thealways electric presence of opposition–two things or persons staring at each otheracross some kind of wall. Frost has no interest in doors that do not lock, in friendswho do not know they are enemies too, or in enemies who do not know how topretend they are friends, and even believe it as far as things can go. His drumlinwoodchuck sits forth from his habitation like one who invites the world to comeand visit him; but he never forgets the two-door burrow at his back. So Frosthimself can reflect upon the triple bronze that guards him from infinity: his skin,his house, and his country.
If he is greatly interested in the stars, and no poet ismore so, the reason is that they are another world which he can see from this one,and accept or challenge as the mood of the moment dictates. They burn in theirplaces as he burns in his, and it is just as well that neither fire can consume theother; yet each of them is a fire, and secretly longs to mingle with its far neighbor. The great thing about man for Frost is that he has the power of standing still wherehe is. He is on the earth, and it is only one of many places, and perhaps everyother place is better.
But this is his place, where in spite of his longing to leave ithe can stay till his time comes. Like any other distinguished person, Frost lives intwo worlds at once: this one, and another one which only makes it more attractive. The superiority of the other one is what proves the goodness of the one we have,which doggedly we keep on loving, as doggedly it tolerates and educates us if welet it do so. Wisdom is enduring it exactly as it is; courage is being familiar with itand afraid of it in the right proportions; temperance is the skill to let it be; andjustice is the knowledge that between it and you there will always be a lover’squarrel, never to die into cold silence and never to be made up.
The main thing isthe mutual respect. Not that Frost wants us to think he knows everything. If, as they say, some dust thrown in my eyesWill keep my talk from getting overwise,I’m not the one for putting off the proof. Let it be overwhelming, off a roofAnd round a corner, blizzard snow for dust,And blind me to a standstill if it must. His vision is the comic vision that doubts even itself. But it remembers all it can ofwhat it always knew, and rests, in so far as the mind can ever rest, on the sum ofits memories.
The comic genius ignores nothing that seems true, howeverinconvenient it may be for something else that seems as true. The groundwork of all faith is human woe. . . .
There’s nothing but injustice to be had,No choice is left a poet you might add,But how to take the curse, tragic or comic. The choice of Frost is clear. His humor, an indispensable thing in any great poet,is in his case the sign that he has decided to see everything that he can see. No manof course sees all the world, but the poorest man is the one who blinds himself.
The man with his eyes open has the best chance to understand things, includingthose things his ancestors have said. The minister says of the old lady who used tolive in The Black Cottage:–One wasn’t long in learning that she thoughtWhatever else the Civil War was for,It wasn’t just to keep the States together,Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both. She wouldn’t have believed those ends enoughTo have given outright for them all she gave. Her giving somehow touched the principleThat all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases–so removedFrom the world’s view today of all those things. That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s. What did he mean? Of course the easy wayIs to decide it simply isn’t true. It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it plantedWhere it will trouble us a thousand years. Each age will have to reconsider it. . . .
For, dear me, why abandon a beliefMerely because it ceases to be true. Cling to it long enough, and not a doubtIt will turn true again, for so it goes. Most of the change we think we see in lifeIs due to truths being in and out of favor. There it is. One couldn’t say half so much if one were tragic.
FroastCopyright 1951 by Mark Van Doren. Permission to reproduce granted by Charles and John Van Doren, executors. Allrights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1951; “Robert Frost’s America”; Volume 187, No.
6; pages 32-34.————————————————————–