ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 2

 - Robert Frost


The poetry and life of Robert Frost are characterized in opposition to the works of nineteenth-century poets and Modernists Eliot and Pound.  Frost’s poetic project, how he positions himself among his contemporaries, his poetics of work, and his concept of “the sound of sense” are discussed.  The poems “Mowing” and “ ‘Out, Out–’” are interpreted, and the tensions between vernacular language and poetic form that they showcase are explored.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 2 - Robert Frost

Chapter 1. Introduction: Robert Frost [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: I imagine that you all have images of Robert Frost and actual images in your mind when you think of this poet. He’s a familiar face in American literature, and I’ve gathered some of them that seemed representative. This is Frost in old age, as an American bard from a magazine. This is the Frost that you probably know, as if he were born with white hair, right? And a kind of, well, kindly and monumental, and yet approachable figure that is familiar from American school rooms. Here’s another image of that same guy, Robert Frost, painted by Gardner Cox, reminding us of Frost as a kind of link to nineteenth-century life, to rural Vermont. Another image of Frost, this one from The Times, just a little story: “President Hails Bond With Frost” – that president would be John F. Kennedy – “On TV He Extols Poet Who Calls New Frontier ‘Age of Poetry and Power.’” And perhaps you have seen images of Frost reading his poem, “The Gift Outright,” at Kennedy’s inauguration. It was a kind of powerful moment in American culture where the president allied himself with poetry in this way.

Oh, more pictures. This is Frost with grandchildren, Frost with his pet calves. He was kind to animals, and a farmer. This one I like. This is Frost with a stick, or Frost with a branch. You can think about that when you read “Birches.” This is Frost boyish, even in age, Frost who also likes to play and even who looks just a little bit, don’t you think, malevolent? All of these images would seem to make Frost not a modern poet at all, not a modern poet in the sense that Eliot and Pound established; that is, a difficult poet in ways that I suggested last Wednesday, a poet resistant to ordinary language and common frames of reference, formally innovative, disorienting, urbane, metropolitan. I think of nineteenth-century art as being horizontal and stretched out like agricultural life in New England. And modernism is all about verticality, from a certain angle. This was the Stieglitz picture, City of Ambition, I showed you last Wednesday. Another pairing, this wonderful landscape by Martin Johnson Heade, and we could contrast it with these images of Brooklyn Bridge by Walker Evans, or even underneath the bridge. The bridge seems to – a figure of crossing – it seems here to rise up and out of the city and the river.

This is Frost before he had white hair, Frost at 18, which is, I believe, 1892 or so: boyish. And his first book is entitled A Boy’s Will; A Boy’s Will, Robert Frost. This is a cover of the first edition that you can go over to Beinecke and see. When you open it up and look at the table of contents, you see titles of poems, and underneath those titles are little legends and moralizations. “Into My Own” (title). “Legend”: “the youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having foresworn the world.” Or “Storm Fear”: “he is afraid of his own isolation.” These are poems, in other words, that come with little labels to tell you what they mean and what they’re about.

Modernism in Eliot and Pound is, in some ways, founded on expatriation, on a kind of internationalism. Frost’s poetry seems resolutely American, or at any rate it seems to be. There is, in fact, another Frost, a modernist Frost, a Frost that is, in fact, as international as Pound and Eliot, who began his career, in fact, beside them, as a London expatriate.

This is more of the table of contents. You can see how it’s laid out. This is the Frost who published that book. This is Frost at thirty-nine, Frost in a suit made by a London tailor in London. And when we go to the title page of A Boy’s Will we see that this New England poet publishes his first book, in fact, in London in 1913, there on New Oxford Street. Interesting. North of Boston, a great book that follows A Boy’s Will, is a title that locates these poems in a specific place in northern New England. It, too, is published in London, this time on Bloomsbury Street. You don’t really think of Frost as part of Bloomsbury, do you? But there he is, publishing his book in that place, just like Prufrock, also published on Bloomsbury Street – this in 1917, North of Boston in 1915.

You remember that table of contents page I showed you a moment ago with the titles and the moralizations that Frost has for A Boy’s Will? Well, here’s the modernist table of contents of Prufrock, and of course, what would the legend for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” be? “He wanders around in a melancholy way, quoting Hamlet for…” Well no, it – Eliot didn’t do that. When we look at the table of contents of this book, which is North of Boston, well, it looks a lot like Eliot’s. Those little tags that seemed to explain the poetry have disappeared and instead we simply have the titles of these very great poems: “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Mountain,” “Home Burial.” There’s something in Eliot’s – the presentation of Eliot’s work and indeed in the work itself that is affronting, resistant, impersonal. And the typography, the presentation of the book is part of that. It’s part of Eliot’s whole aesthetic. But North of Boston, well, you know, when we start looking at these two books together, it seems to share some of the properties of Eliot’s book; and indeed the poems that we find when we open that book also have things in common with Eliot’s. The other Frost, not the simple, familiar, monumental Frost but the Frost who is a modernist poet who begins writing in London, is really quite as cosmopolitan, quite as learned as Pound and Eliot at this moment. And yet he uses his learning differently. He uses it very often by concealing it, in fact.

Well, let me turn from pictures to text. On your handout today, the handout number two, we have – well, there are several quotations from Frost’s letters, and let’s look at the first one first. Frost says at the time that he’s publishing A Boy’s Will, to a friend:

You mustn’t take me too seriously if I now proceed to brag a bit about my exploits as a poet. There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with a critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it – don’t you doubt me there. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do – if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Frost to John Bartlett, November 1913]

Frost wishes to be so subtle as to seem altogether obvious. It’s not just that he seems obvious but is really subtle. Rather, his subtlety shows itself in his deliberate concealment of it, in the ways in which he masks himself in obviousness. The problems that Frost’s poetry poses for us as readers are not problems of reference. They can’t be solved by footnotes. Compare the footnotes in the Frost poems to the footnotes in The Norton that you find next to Eliot or Pound’s poems. The problems that Frost poses are problems of interpretation, problems that provoke you to ask not, “what does he mean exactly?” but “how does he mean that?” Is he joking or is he serious? Is there something on his mind that he’s not saying? The wonder of Frost is really in his tone, his way of saying things without saying them in so many words.

Now, this guile of his, because that’s what it entails, this guile is something temperamental, I think. It came naturally to him. But it also reflects a specific literary situation. The popular, old-fashioned Frost and the elite, modern Frost – these roles point to a division in the audiences for poetry that emerges clearly in this period. The Frost who writes a familiar, crafted lyric that would have been easily recognizable as poetry, that we could give a little tag to after its title; well, contrast this with the poet of The Waste Land, say, whose work would not have been recognizable to many readers as poetry and indeed was not. On one level Frost was – spoke for and to an audience trained by the genteel poetry of late nineteenth-century America, readers who loved Longfellow, the Fireside Poets, poets who published in Victorian popular magazines and wrote those gilt-embossed books that cultured families kept behind glass bookcases and that you can still find at tag sales on New England greens. That’s the obvious Frost, the one that the subtle Frost in many ways constructed, aiming all the time not at a general reader at all but at an elite reader of the new tiny-circulation, Little Magazines where the work of Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore and others were first published; those magazines I showed you last week, magazines like Broom or Blast or Rogue or The Criterion.

There’s duplicity in Frost’s poetry, and there’s a certain doubleness in the figure that he projects as a poet. I like to think of his obsession with double meanings, which he has, as a way of responding to a division in culture, between popular and elite readers, a division that he saw as expressive of a division in American culture between money and esteem, business and art. In that quotation I read for you a few moments ago, Frost opposes two kinds of success: one of “esteem,” that success with a critical few that “butters no parsnips” – You can see he brings in the kind of folksy term to, well, to what? To disdain that kind of success or put it in its place. – and on the other hand, a success with the general reader who buys books in their thousands. Frost wanted both. The opposition is between poetry that makes money and poetry that, precisely because it is good poetry as modern poetry defines it, does not.

Notice that the latter kind of poetry, the good kind that “butters no parsnips,” is associated here with Frost’s “quasi-friend Pound.” Instead of butter, Pound writes “caviare” – kind of a European thing, right? Caviar. By contrast, Frost is declaring his ambition to reach out to a large audience. It is for Frost a frankly economic ambition. By becoming a poet for all sorts and kinds, Frost intends, as he says, to arrive “where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else…” This is ambition for a career, but it’s also a desire for personal autonomy. For Frost, poetry is invested with a longing for autonomy in, well, both simple and complex senses. He wants to use poetry to stand on his own two legs. He sees it specifically – and this is important – as a form of work that will allow him to be self-sufficient and self-determining.

Frost was born in 1874 into a working family. His father’s death, when Frost was a boy, represented, among other things, an economic crisis for his family. Frost’s schooling was erratic. This is impressive: he dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard, and he did so to take laboring jobs, each time enacting a conflict between intellectual life and manual labor that would be a persistent and central theme of his poetry. He worked at all sorts of jobs: in factories, at a mill, on a newspaper. He was a schoolteacher, and of course he was a farmer, too, when his grandfather gave him a farm to work, which he did, for ten years in Derry, New Hampshire. It’s in fact at the end of this period that Frost moved himself and his family to England, in a last-ditch bid to make literary contacts and advance his career as a poet. It was first in England that Frost published the books that established his reputation as the pasture poet of New England, a poet whose authority seemed to rest on his being rooted in his region. Once he returned to New England in 1916, after North of Boston, success followed on success. Poetry was a way for Frost out of manual labor but it was also a form of work for Frost that was opposed to manual labor. It was an escape from it, a way of transcending it, but also in many ways allied to it – valuable because it could be a form of productive labor, something he could use to “butter his parsnips.”

Chapter 2. Robert Frost Poem: “Mowing” [00:19:21]

These concerns that I’m laying out all inform his poetry. They structure Frost’s work as a poet and his ongoing inquiry into that work. Frost poems perform a kind of phenomenology of work, of labor. They say what it is like to work at something. In so doing, they are always also brooding on what it is like to read and write poems. This is the case with “Mowing,” which is in your packet from RIS, and is an example of one of these Frostian poems about work. Let me read it for you.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound –
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

This is a monologue by a worker, a mower. It is a sonnet, too. It’s a sort of song of a worker. Notice that Frost is interested at once in the presence of a sound, the sound of a solitary worker, or, to be more precise, the sound of the tool of the worker. The sound is the sign of his work. And it raises a specifically interpretive question: what is the message of the work that the man does? What is it saying? What is its meaning? “What was it it whispered?”

Beside this one of many tools in Frost, I asked you to pay attention to tools in his poetry as you read it over the weekend. To work in Frost is to use a tool. Tools mediate the worker’s relation to the world. It’s what the worker uses to do things and to make things. Things are not “made up” in Frost, “not made up” in the sense of imagined, called up out of thin air, like fairies and elves. Instead, things in Frost are “made” in the sense of “constructed.” They’re the products of specific acts, of the acts of a worker. Think of other tools in those poems. There’s the spade in “Home Burial,” the spade that’s used to bury the couple’s little child. I’ll talk more about that poem next time. There’s the ladder to heaven in “After Apple-Picking.” It’s a ladder used to ascend a tree, it’s a kind of tool of ascent that’s a kind of a tool for getting fruit. And then there’s the terrible chainsaw in Out, Out – .” In “Mowing,” the scythe makes a sound as it cuts, and that sound is delicate, it’s quiet, it whispers. But cutting is something fearful and forceful; it’s a kind of controlled violence. Frost takes it for granted that we will remember that the scythe is a conventional image for time, which harvests all of us in death. Time and death – these are the forces that the worker works against and tries to marshal in the process of working his will in the world, to make his way in it, to earn his living, to stand on his own two feet.

But these forces are not something that the man controls as a simple extension of himself. Tools in Frost are tricky. You have to learn how to use them. They have in Frost a kind of independent, objective existence.

Chapter 3. Robert Frost Poem: “Out, Out – ” [00:25:13]

Remember “Out, Out – .” If you look on page 213 in your Norton, well, I’ll read from the middle of the poem. A boy is out sawing:

His sister stood beside them [ – the group. He’s not alone, he’s with
others.] in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap –
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand,
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all –
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart –
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off –
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.

And the boy dies. It’s an extraordinarily powerful poem. This saw, rather than whispering, snarls and rattles. Ultimately, it takes the life of the worker. It reminds the worker that it has the power of death, the force that the worker only accesses through the tool. Although Frost’s tools give the worker a way to impose his will on the world, the tool is part of the object world and it declares here brutally and cruelly that the worker’s will is limited and subject to the tools he uses.

Chapter 4. Verbal Sounds, Metaphorical Associations and the Suggestive Choice of Words [00:27:19]

In “Mowing,” the poem’s lines are like sweeps of the scythe as it lays down rows of swale. Frost wants us to think about that. He wants us to see the row, the harvested rows as being like lines of verse. It’s an ancient association from classical poetry. The word “swale” is interesting. You hear in it the s and the w, the two key sounds of this poem, which are the sounds of the whispering scythe. Frost loves verbal sounds and he loves to play with their metaphorical associations. He invites us to hear the sweep of the scythe in those s sounds themselves, I think, and maybe even to hear the workers huff and puff, his rhythmic exhalation in the w’s, which alternate and interact with those s’s.

The whisper of the scythe then. This is what the poem is all about. The whisper is not, Frost specifies, a “dream of the gift of idle hours.” Poetry is not, that is to say, a leisure class activity. Frost is writing against the Romantic idea that poetry is written in repose, received passively as inspiration. Poetry, in Frost, is action, not a matter, as Wordsworth would say, of emotion recollected in tranquility. Frost is also here specifically writing against the early poetry of Yeats, which you’ll read next week, poetry that finds reality exactly in “dream,” and that has plenty of fairies and elves in it. Frost is not after “easy gold” but rather hard-earned wages.

“Dream”: here Frost implies that it is something, “dream” is something more than the truth. He has that phrase, “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak / to the earnest love that laid the swale in rows.” That’s an interesting phrase, “more than the truth.” Why not “less”? Why isn’t “dream” less than the truth? Frost has made a suggestive choice of words. Truth is something less than dream, in Frost. Truth is life-sized. To get down to it, you have to cut away what is not true, what is inflated, beside the point, excess, ornament. The truth is something that you get down to. The truth is a reduction, a simplification. It is what is fit for the earnest love that is working for truth.

“Love”: this is a crucial word in Frost. You don’t think of Frost as a love poet. There are love poems in Frost. And yet even apart from those there are many poems that use that word “love,” often in crucial places in the poems. In fact, love and desire are really at the center of Frost’s poetry. So far, I’ve been stressing a kind of anti-Romantic side of Frost, how he seems to be saying, “Nothing but the facts, please.” “But the fact,” he says in that next to last line, “is the sweetest dream” of labor, and it is earnest love that is doing this cutting. Labor loves; labor dreams. When we look carefully at this poem, in fact, the distinction that Frost seems to make between fact and dream starts to give way.

Let me go back to the sound of this work. “What was it it whispered?” Note Frost’s use of words like “something” and “perhaps.” These are words you’re not supposed to use in poems or in even writing about poems. In Frost, there is here this explicit, deliberate, calculated vagueness, a withholding of certainty that allows a range of possible meanings to be entertained, held open. It’s a rhetorical and conceptual move that I think is analogous to the whispering of the scythe. What I mean is that this tool doesn’t speak loudly; it whispers, and you have to lean forward to hear it. The same is true with the poem, with any Frost poem – except that line 13 seems to violate that, it seems to violate that principle. “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Well, here Frost seems to be spelling things out, making a declaration, making a statement, saying what the fact is, and seeming to celebrate the literal: “the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

Importantly, though, that’s not the last thing the poem says. What difference would it make had Frost, as he could have, I suppose, reversed the order of lines 13 and 14? Line 13 stands out, as if almost – as if out of the poem, as if out of time, as a kind of fact or truth, a fixed principle that is stated in a kind of eternal present – “the fact is” – like no other sentence in this poem. Had Frost decided to end the poem there, he would have said, or seemed to be saying, “This is what it’s all about.” It would be like one of those morals following the titles of his poem. But in fact, he doesn’t end there. He doesn’t make so clear a declaration.

Line 14 returns us to the work of mowing. “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make” returns us to the work of mowing and the work of reading and interpretation and deciphering. The poem ends with an image of process, and not of product, an image of the process of labor. The implication is that it is the same way for the poet who lays his words in rows, in those rows of swale that are his lines of verse. The hay, that is, well, what? The payoff, what the poem is all about, what mowing is all about. The hay isn’t handed over to you. It’s rather “left… to make.” That’s a rich phrase.

What Frost gives you here and elsewhere is a poetry that leaves its meanings to make, all the time. Frost’s poetry is engaged in construing, constructing, constituting facts, which means it doesn’t give us the truth as if it were a product, a fashioned object; rather, it gives us a process, an act of fashioning, an act that is involved with dreams and desire and with love. Facts are made and not found in Frost’s poetry of work. And this is to say that the process by which facts are made is, well, it’s like work and is therefore, well, it’s something daily, ordinary, ongoing; and for these reasons incapable of completion. It’s something that we have to do over and over again, that is, making up the world. “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” Stevens said that, but Frost could have said it, too. Meaning in Frost poems, as in the world that they evoke, has to be interpreted every day. It has to be in that sense worked for again and again.

Chapter 5. Metrical Pattern [00:36:56]

Well, let me use this poem as a way into now talking about sound in more actual, more literal ways in Frost’s poetry and to begin with you to think a little bit about meter, in fact, and what Frost does with it. Let me go back to the handout where we’ve got more passages from Frost’s letters, and in particular what Frost has to say about something he calls “the sound of sense”; although he says in that first quotation that, well, he doesn’t like to brag.

I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. [This is an ambitious guy.] Now, it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland, which makes anything but dull reading). [This is a wonderful metaphor.] The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words…. [Understand what Frost means? He wants us to think about how we could understand what people are saying without taking in the words that they’re using, simply by catching the tones and rhythms of their exchanges. … The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound – pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse. But if one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre. Verse in which there is nothing but the beat of the metre furnished by the accents of the polysyllabic words we call doggerel. Verse is not that. Neither is it the sound of sense alone. It is the resultant from those two. There are only two or three metres that are worth anything. We depend for variety on the infinite play of accents, in the sound of sense. [Frost to John Bartlett, July 1913]

Frost’s “sound of sense,” the abstract vitality of our speech. It has to do exactly with how people say what they say. These are dimensions of communication that I’ve been identifying in “Mowing” with the whisper of the scythe, that is, a tone of meaning or a way of meaning. “The sound of sense.” It represents common and vernacular elements of speech. The sounds of sense are all part of language in use, which people are using to do things with. But, Frost stresses, poetry is not only that; it’s something more. It’s the sound of sense, as he says, broken – and that’s another interesting metaphor – it’s broken, he says, skillfully across the beat of the meter. Meter is something regular; it’s a fixed scheme; it’s inflexible, as Frost conceives of it here. The speaking voice, by contrast, is something idiosyncratic, irregular, particular.

In the second quotation, or rather the last on the page but the second one about the subject, Frost says:

My versification seems to bother people more than I should have expected [because he seemed to ears tutored in nineteenth-century norms to have a kind of rough and irregular metric] – I suppose because I have been so long accustomed to thinking of it in my own private way. It is as simple as this: there are the very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse [blank verse, that is – and I’ll explain it – unrhymed iambic pentameter]; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation. [Frost wants to create a sound effect of strained relation in his poetry, a strained relation between speech and meter.] I like to [and again the same word] drag and break the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle [and now I’m writing a poem, it seems]. That’s all [he says,] but it’s no mere figure of speech though one can make figures enough about it [and in fact, you can see Frost doing that in his poetry very often]. [Frost to John Cournos, July 1914]

“Strained relation,” this tension between speech and pattern, suggests the tension between all sorts of contending forces in Frost: the vernacular and the literary, the concrete and the abstract; flux, fixity; the individual will and material fact. The special sound of Frost’s poems result from the tensions between these pairs of opposing forces as they are embodied in his language.

To approach this, you’ll need to know a little bit about meter. In fact, a rough grasp on traditional English meter is essential to Frost and it’s also important to other poets we’ll read – to Stevens, say, or to Crane, or to Auden or Bishop. Obviously, these are poets who work usually in quite traditional meters. And yet, it’s also important for reading Pound and for reading Eliot and for reading Moore, who sound the way they do partly because they make a point of not writing pentameter, the meter that Frost often, but not always, chooses. How many of you know what iambic pentameter is? Don’t be shy. Okay. I’m going to spend a little bit of time at the beginning of class next time talking about it and working with you a little bit as we read Frost and in particular we can use the poem “Birches” to do that.

Don’t be distressed if you’re unfamiliar with it. Knowing what iambic pentameter is, is not a gift of birth, but rather something that comes through a little bit of practice, which means we have to work at it a little bit. And I will, in order to enable you to do that, give you a – or actually ask the TFs [teaching fellows] in section to hand out a meter exercise that you can do for next week. When you leave today, I would like to collect cards, just to figure out how many of us there are, and as I say, on Wednesday, between the online registration and our work on it in class, we should be able to get our sections ordered. So, see you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

– –


“Provide, Provide” and “Out, Out – ” from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1969, copyright 1964 by Lesley Ballantine, copyright 1936, 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

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