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Sincerity and Inventions: On Robert Frost

Written by

Carol Frost
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The original first stanza of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" may hold interest less as a literary artifact than as a puzzling contradiction of Robert Frost's explanation that he wrote the poem "about the snowy evening and the little horse as if I'd had a hallucination—little hallucination," in only "a few minutes without strain":

The steaming horses think it queer
             Little horse must
      The horse frozen think it queer
We stop without a farm house near
             The woods and frozen
Between a forest and a lake
The darkest evening of the year

The small lie about the poem's composition, though, can, perhaps, be trumped by a glimpse into the poet's personal life. In his essay "Robert Frost's Favorite Poem," M. Arthur Bleau recollects Frost's telling him "the circumstances which eventually inspired what he acknowledged to be his favorite poem." It's a good story: Christmastime, family living on a farm, and no extra money for presents. Frost takes goods to the market but is able to sell nothing and heads home. Evening comes on and it starts to snow. Frost dejectedly drops the reins to give the horse his head. It knows the way home but slows down as the carriage approaches the house, sensing the man's despair over his failure. How could he face them with nothing in his hands? The horse stops, and Bleau records what he says were Frost's exact words: "I just sat there and bawled like a baby," until there were no more tears. Then the horse shook its harness and the bells jingled. Nothing had been said to the horse but he knew he was ready and took him home. Love would see the Frost family through that Christmas and the rest of hard times.

If one finds that Frost's practice—research, reading, revising—contradicts his avowals about immediate and original writing, is Frost insincere? Why the pose about art—the easier, the more honest, craft is there or it isn't, and inspiration ("hallucination") makes the eloquence? If an event presented as true in a poem happened otherwise, where then is honesty?

The source work behind some of Frost's poems may provide answers to the question of sincerity and honesty. I don't mean to suggest that the critic can point to clearly defined origins for a poem or a poetry by looking at the poet's reading and other influences, or turning to the letters, essays, and memoirs. But the similarities between an artist's work and what else he has read or seen can be interesting. The painter John Lees recently reminded me of the complex nature of influence in telling me about his own artistic history, his sense of being an original artist having begun in an interest in the new art he saw when he was a young man. What he now terms—after 50 years of painting—his "post pop Romanesque Minoan funk" canvases reveal his predilection for "pop" color styling and also a circling back centuries to find art that validated his more scholarly interests and gave him a new sense of how he might proceed, though not in the elegant cohesive arc of influence he or his critics could wish for.

Frost was also tied to the old and the new. The modern colloquial tones—"quizzical tones and shrugging tones"—that he said he was after in a letter to Walter Eaton Pritchard in 1913 characterize North of Boston. The archaic is heard in phrases like "the maiden fair," "fain," "I wist," and "fields of asphodel" in A Boy's Will. It is worth remarking that several of the poems associated with Frost's colloquial voice were written during the years that he was writing his more conventional (and derivative) lyrics, among them "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Housekeeper," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "An Encounter," and "The Axe-Helve." Frost spoke with much acuity about his interest in what he called "sentence tones." In a letter to Walter Pritchard Eaton, written in 1913, he explains the particular nature of his preoccupation with "tones that are not usually regarded as poetical." He doesn't claim to invent these tones; he talks about their always being there and of his role as both listener and "summoner." "All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven't been brought to book," he tells Pritchard, and talks about searching them out: "No one makes them or adds them. They are always there. . . .The most creative imagination is only their summoner."

Frost spoke at some length about tone, believing as he did that the "One who concerns himself with it [the sound of sense] more than the subject is an artist.," he wrote in a letter to John Bartlett in July of 1913. The best way to hear "the abstract sound of sense," Frost told Bartlett, "is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words." The sounds that the voices produce replicate the mood or tone of expression even without an understanding of the words—meaning, then, is carried by tone even before our idea of what is specifically denoted. "It is the abstract vitality of our speech," Frost continued, noting that "an ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse." In his essay "The Imagining Ear," Frost spoke of "bringing in the living sounds of speech. . . .And the great problem is, can you get these tones down on paper? How do you tell the tone? By the context, by the animating spirit of the living voice."

The manners and situations and speech of New Englanders that Frost gives voice to originated, no doubt, in his daily interactions—walks and conversations—but there are other sources for the work. Frost read widely—almanacs, essays, and lots of other poetry, including the nineteenth century poems collected in Palgrave's Golden Treasury—- "the worn book of old-golden song," the young man in his poem "Waiting" carried with him on a walk. Frost read Poe, Homer, Untermeyer's Modern American and British Poetry, Henry James, Burroughs, Thoreau, Emerson, Browning, Virgil, Shelly, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Bryant, Keats, the Bible, and Hardy, all of which can be counted as influences. And something can be said of his self-influence, at least in the lines he imports from one poem to another—"And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground" in "A Tuft of Flowers" also appears as "And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground" in "Mowing." Situation and plot carry from one poem to another with regularity in Frost. For instance in both "Two Tramps in Mud Time" and "The Axe-Helve," the speaker is interrupted while splitting wood by a better woodsman. The search for a spring as a source, suggesting a myth of origins, occurs in "The Mountain," and more famously in "Directive."

The ways that Frost's reading comes into his poetry can be seen in various poems. For instance, the scene in "Design" is quite similar to the scene in Hardy's "An August Midnight" in which he writes: "A shaded lamp and a waving blind ,/ And the beat of a clock on a distant floor: / On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined- / A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore." Hardy's influence can be seen in "Stars," which echoes the sentiment in "Hap" and "Nature's Questioning" that God is either hostile or at best indifferent to the fate of the helpless:

And yet with neither love or hate
Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva's snow-white marble eyes
Without the gift of sight.

The littleness of humanity in a vast cosmos implied by these lines also occurs in Hardy's "Wanting Both" by way of a star that "looks down on me, / And say "Here I am and you / Stand, each in our degree :/ What do you mean to do."

Hardy echoes abound in Frost as do ones from Emerson, Defoe, and Thoreau. Frost has written that both Thoreau's Walden and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, informed his poem "Directive." Frost explains that: "Crusoe was cast away; Thoreau was self-cast. Both found themselves sufficient. No prose writer has ever been more fortunate in subject than these two. I prefer my essay in narrative form. In Walden I get it and always near the height of poetry." There are also Grail allusions and a paraphrase of St. Mark in "Directive."

Ray Stannard Baker is a less well acknowledged source for a Frost poem. A journalist and political muckraker, Baker published a series of "adventures in contentment" under the pen name David Grayson." Chapter five in the first of a series of nine books is entitled "The Axe-Helve." The country woodsman in the narrative breaks his old axe handle, obtains the right hickory sapling stick, after some search, lets it season, then goes about making himself a new helve. "Making an axe-helve," the narrator says, "is like writing a poem" insofar as a poet uses the material for a poem after long thought—"seasoned in the upper garrets of the mind for long and long, then it must be brought down and slowly cared into words, shaped by emotion, polished with love. Else it is no true poem." The woodsman in Frost's "The Axe-helve" has help from a French Canadian, while in the Grayson piece the helper comes in the guise of a "Scot preacher" with whom he discusses comparative merits of axes and helves and "the science of felling trees. . . until a listener would have thought that the art of the chopper included the whole philosophy of existence." An important moment occurs in Grayson's story when the preacher and the narrator compare the old axe-helve, which has been made on a machine, to the unfinished helve leaning against the wall.

The two narratives aren't entirely alike. In Grayson's, a second woodsman comes by when the handle is finished, and having "no poetry in his soul" and unable to "understand the philosophy of imperfection nor the art of irregularity," he finds fault with the work. For a week the narrator leaves the helve standing in the corner, then one morning accepts its imperfections to the degree that he decides to fasten his old axe to the new helve. "A work must prove itself," he says, resting afterwards "in the glorious perfection of the forenoon. Not alike in plot is what I meant to say." The rest of Grayson's narrative, however, is uncannily similar in its implications to Frost's notions of art, to nature's possible perfection, and, well, to human downfall—embodied in the metaphor for the helve standing against the wall as Eden's snake.

The poems concerning the country life are informed by another sort of field work—his nature walks. His high school friend Carl Burrell introduced Frost to the common flowers growing in fields and swamps and loaned him a popular primer for amateurs, How to Know Wild Flowers:A Guide to the Names, Haunts, and Habits of Our Common Wild Flowers, by Mrs. William Starr Dana. Frost's interest in flower gathering of all sorts can be verified by a quick survey of the poems in A Boy's Will, which provides a long list of flower references—woodbine, blue aster, orchis, bluet, asphodel, rose, butterfly weed, rose, goldenrod, witch hazel, fringed gentian, and rose pogonia. Burrell passed his enthusiasm for the rarer species along to Frost, and Frost used the book as a guide to look for those in the orchis family in particular, flowers which "may be sought in vain for many seasons and then will be discovered one midsummer day, lavishing their spotless loveliness upon some unsuspecting marsh which has chanced to escape our vigilance," as described in Dana's guide.

There seem to be at least two origins for the poem "Rose Pogonias," one confirmed by Frost as having been a walk he took with a neighbor where the flower was found, and the other found in Dana's book, starting with her dated entry that references Thoreau. On the next page of the guide, the plot for Frost's poem appears: summer, a walk with "a friend and her little daughter," crossing a wet, bright meadow where many flowers are blooming, finding Calopogon among the grasses, "hesitating to pick even a single blossom." The presence of the child easily reminds a reader of the child in "Self-Seeker." The character—an avid orchid gatherer—who is modeled after Burrell, praises the child Anne for not picking all the Ram's Horn Orchids.

Frost wrote through his influences—Hardy, for instance, and Thoreau—knowing there's no way round—as homage. And he wrote with them, filching images, plot structures, and phrasings, with transformation at the heart. The poems are the result of the steeping in his imagination of the material and the working out of initial irregularities in the verse. "I like an encounter to shape up, unify however roughly," Frost said. The literary encounters, the encounters in nature, and the borrowings too, serve the purpose.

Frost's permanent popularity may involve misunderstandings about art—a desire, at least, on the part of the common reader for the poem to be inspired and free from influence. For Frost the work of the poet was to collect, like a botanist in the bogs and fields, then to imagine what would suffice for a poem that would be his. He may not have always said so, but his sincerity is in the work, as can be seen in a comparison of Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" with an early version of the poem "Nothing Golden Stays."

"Nothing Golden Stays" is fifteen lines longer. Frost keeps only the first five lines of the three original stanzas, and three of the lines are changed: "Her early leaf's a flower" was originally "Her early leaves are flowers"; "But only so an hour" was "But only so for hours"; and "Then leaf subsides to leaf" was "The leaves subside to leaves." The second and third stanzas of the original draft bear sentiments that Frost leaves behind in the final version of the poem, for example "and thought of in the vast / The gold is soonest past" (11-12) and "In gold as it began / The world will end for man / And some belief avow / The world is ending now" (17-20).

The change to the singular (from "leaves" to "leaf") and the allusion to Genesis give him the sixth line for the final draft: "So Eden sank to grief." The meter helps with the seventh; and then, for the last line, Frost breaks away from the originally drafted iambic trimeter of the whole poem, to write, "Nothing gold can stay." Only a poet whose verbal imagination has been steeped in metrics could have known to change the original perfectly metered phrase—"For nothing golden stays," and thus to change the title. The line we all know, so simple and perfect, was imagined into place in some future moment—"recollected in tranquility" in Wordsworth's words. Coleridge made the same technical gesture in "Christobal," and though Frost may well have made note when he read the poem in Palgrave, perhaps consciously copied it, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" is entirely his—now ours.