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kathryn schulz

Schulz on the Terrors and Pleasures of Robert Frost

Frost in 1958.

      

Whose woods these are I think you know. Because, really, how could you not? Other than the ones where Dante got lost, they might be the most famous woods in the history of verse; certainly they are the most famous woods in American literature. I am talking, of course, about the forest in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

I can recall with some clarity my first encounter with those woods, which was also my first encounter with Frost. I was in the fourth grade. The poem was on the blackboard, and my teacher asked for a volunteer to read it aloud. Guess who raised her nerdy hand? “My little horse”—oh, damn; too late, I saw it coming—“must think it queer”: My classmates hooted. Eventually I finished, and we discussed the poem for a while. Then we read it aloud again, this time en masse—the way, each morning, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

A quarter-century later, I’m sitting at a different desk, looking at the same poem—this time in The Art of Robert Frost, a new book by British professor Tim Kendall. In the annals of Frostiana (and they are vast), Kendall’s book is an unusual hybrid, part anthology, part critical study: 65 poems with two or three pages of understated, illuminating commentary about each. It’s a good way to revisit Frost—and, per Frost, revisiting him is precisely what we should do. Kendall quotes this passage as the epigraph to his book: “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written. We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A.”

This piece is my attempt to go back to A. Ever since that initial encounter with “Stopping by Woods,” I’ve been working my way from misunderstanding Frost to trying to understand him better. In that, I’m decently representative of the literary scene at large. For close to a century now, Frost has been the object of a massively multiplayer tug-of-war over how best to interpret his work. Nobody seriously questions whether he was a good poet; four Pulitzer Prizes have a way of settling that issue. What’s at stake is what his poetry says about nature, human nature, and America.

The fact that we routinely teach Frost to 10-year-olds suggests one set of answers. The implication is that he is both an elementary poet and an edifying one: a civics lesson in verse. Frost’s America—with its chores and boys and leafy woods, its gruff but kind neighbors, its weathered farmhouses and fresh-cut hay—is, on the surface, bucolic, nostalgic, and conservative: in short, perfectly suited to our national curriculum. Put the simplicity and rusticity together, and you get a vision of Frost as the plainspoken poet laureate of a rural, artisanal America—in the unbeatable formulation of the writer Jonathan Miles, “the L.L. Bean of verse.”

That was the general impression of Frost after his first book, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1915, and it lingers still. Eventually, though, the other side got ahold of the rope, and a wholly different man hove into view. This was largely thanks to Lionel Trilling, who stood up at Frost’s 85th birthday party and shocked the literary Establishment by declaring him “a terrifying poet.” Thus emerged the other Frost: a man ­bending his birch tree out over nothingness, amanuensis to the existential abyss.

These views are so different as to seem irreconcilable. Yet Kendall suggests—and I agree—that the key to understanding Frost is to do exactly what the poet does: to take both sides by taking neither. That refusal of partisanship, that doubling of sympathies—that is, to my mind, the hallmark of Frost’s work. You will never find his apple-pie versifier divorced from his terrifying reaper, any more than you will find his colloquial voice unbound from formal meter. In those ways and more, Frost is the great poet of—in the original sense of the word—duplicity, of doubleness. “Never satisfied with saying one thing when he could be saying two or more,” Kendall writes, “Frost encourages multiple answers without giving precedence to any of them.” The last clause is the crucial one. Frost is an exacting, serious, honest poet, but he is neutral to the point of scariness. Seamus Heaney spoke (admiringly) of “the crystal of indifference at the core of Frost’s being.”

As with many assessments of Frost, that strikes me as half-right. Frost is crystalline and cool, but indifference implies amorality, and he is not amoral. On the contrary, his refusal of resolution is consummately moral. This poet of apparent simplicity asks us to do something that is, ethically and intellectually, extremely hard: to think and feel more than one thing at once. In this sense, his poems are like his famous mended wall. From a distance they appear sturdy and plain, but up close they are a small victory, or hiatus, in a war of opposing forces, a minor miracle of equilibrium: “we have to use a spell to make them balance.” That is Frost’s wizardry, that ability to keep everything stacked up when most of us would topple to one side. So how does he pull off the trick?

Frost was born in 1874, a member of the same generation as Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. I wish you luck finding evidence for that in his work. Robert Lowell called Frost “our last poet who could honestly ignore the new techniques” (meaning, of modernism), and ignore them he did. That’s why his work seems, at first, so old-fashioned. If you have clawed your way through Pound’s Cantos, a poem like “Birches” feels almost prelapsarian. 

Some of that Edenic air is about content; none of the horrors of the twentieth century make any evident incursion into Frost’s poems. But what Lowell was really getting at was form. Frost had a genius for meter and never wrote without it (he famously disparaged free verse as “tennis without the net”), and his early work rhymes in a way that was retrograde even in 1915. Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” mocked poets who resorted to predictable couplets: “Where’er you find the cooling Western Breeze/ in the next Line, it whispers thro’ the Trees.” More than 150 years later, Frost rhymes those exact words, in the first stanza of the first poem of his first book. Then he doubles down. The next two rhymes are, I kid you not, “gloom” and “doom.”

It’s early days, and it is (frankly) not a very good poem, but the move is pure Frost: He is pushing the envelope of failing to push the envelope, daring you to take him for staid. Later, he will largely abandon rhyme, and his lyric poetry will be augmented by his great narrative works. But the air of simplicity and conventionality is there to stay. If anything, his language becomes plainer over time; you can read your way through a lot of Frost before finding so much as a three-syllable word. His characters are specific but ordinary, as are his pet topics. (Witness how often he writes about chores: chopping wood, picking apples, mending fences.) “The trouble with your poetry, Frost,” grumbled Wallace Stevens, “is that it has subjects.”

This seeming simplicity—of meter, language, content—explains why some critics regard Frost as a folksy gentleman farmer with a gift for words. And it is, through and through, a fake-out. The first intimation that something is amiss is tonal. For a poet of flowers and trees and cute little calves, Frost comes off awfully chilly. (It is uncanny, that name of his—as if Whitman were named Walt Widedoor, or Dickinson Emily Slant.) This is what Heaney meant by the crystal of indifference, but it’s not exactly that; it’s lack of sentimentality about subjects that are usually sentimentalized. That saves Frost from being the Thomas Kinkade of verse, but it also makes him fairly alarming. Frost has the eye of a mortician; looking at life in full bloom, he sees the bones. Take, for instance, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which is nominally about the passage from springtime to summer:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“So Eden sank to grief”: That is the ­poet’s response to … June. And that is why Trilling called him terrifying. He saw through Frost’s act to his cosmology, to the way his pastures and orchards grow in thin topsoil on a bedrock of isolation and meaninglessness: ashes to ashes, by way of New Hampshire. You can mainline that darker Frost, if you want. Read “Out, Out—,” a poem that terrifies not because it “snarls,” like the buzz saw that kills its young protagonist, but because—like the boy in his fatal lapse—it looks indifferently away. Or read “Home Burial,” with its young farm couple fighting on the stairs, the mounded earth over their firstborn still fresh in the field outside.

What saves all this from becoming unbearable, or at least becoming Sartre, is, again, its doubleness. Frost is often called a master ironist, but that’s not quite right. He doesn’t say one thing while meaning something else: He says one thing, wholly means it—and also means something else. Read these words again: “Nature’s first green is gold.” It’s an acute observation and a lovely line, with a happy upward lilt that reflects both the energy of springtime and the pleasure of realizing something interesting. There’s nothing ironic in it, no bitterness, no bite; Frost means it. Writing about a different Frost poem, “Come In,” the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky says that although it’s about death, a naïve reader would say it was “about a bird singing in the evening, and that it is a nice tune.” And Brodsky adds, “Interestingly, he would be right.”

Frost, who relished writing for naïf and sophisticate alike, called this “the pleasure of ulteriority.” That both / and quality is what I love most about him—partly, as I said earlier, because it strikes me as morally and intellectually courageous, but also because it strikes me as how we live. There’s always an obvious reality demanding our attention, a world of chores and walks and conversations, of feeling harried or happy or irritable, of maybe, on a good day, noticing birdsong or stars. Only intermittently do we crash through all that, into the party of exaltation or terror. And almost never can we hold it all in view at once. That is precisely what Frost, with his strangely keen diplopia, is able to do. That makes him approximately the least elementary writer on the planet. But it also makes him a great poet to grow up with, in both senses of the phrase.

So let's go back to A. Of all of Frost’s poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” might be the best known, and the one most often taught to kids. (It has only one real competitor: “The Road Less Traveled,” which is actually a not-very-Frosty poem that he wrote as a kind of joke, in the voice of a friend. He remained cranky ever afterward about its fame.) It’s easy to see why “Woods” is so popular in the classroom: It’s short, metrically regular, uses only one- and two-syllable words (none of which would send a fourth-­grader to the dictionary), and rhymes in that particular way that kids appreciate and Pope did not.

But forget all that. Forget your childhood associations with the poem. Forget whatever antipathy you have to nostalgia. Forget to cringe at “lake” and “shake” and “here” and “near.” Forget everything you rationally deduced about it—because, after all, even kids can figure out that Frost is up to other tricks here. We are not here to figure. We are here to feel. Note how deftly Frost sets us down in a place (“between the woods and frozen lake”) and a time (“the darkest evening of the year”). Note how hushed it is, how mustered all our senses. Bells fill the air, briefly: audible snowflakes, a glittering of sound. In the silence afterward, the real snow sifts downward over everything.

We are just standing there, looking. And then, suddenly, that quality kicks in: the ulteriority, the both/and, the this and this and this. We are on a routine journey home; we are on the threshold of the universe, serenity mingling with awe; we are far from civilization and terribly near the ancient fears: separation, insignificance, darkness. (“He will not see me stopping” is one false step from “He will not hear me screaming.”) The boundaries between these conditions, never more than what we impose in order to stay sane, evaporate. And then comes the end, and another doubling—the most explicit one Frost ever wrote:

And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

It is the greatest pan-out in the history of verse. We draw away from a man alone in the woods and see man, alone in the woods. As the scale expands, the world diminishes, becomes a snow globe, shaken. And right then, just as we are grasping the nature of our situation—we’re fine; we’re exhilarated; we’re terrified—Frost has the balls to vanish. But he brought us here in the first place! He said we were about to head home!—but no. We are stopping here. We are midway through our journey, no Virgil, no nothing, alone, and this place we are in (like this poem we are in) is lovely. And it is dark. And it is deep. Translation: We are lucky to be here; we are sane to be scared; we are not getting out anytime soon. In point of fact, we are not getting out at all. Not in this lifetime, anyway. We will never be out of these woods.

The Art of Robert Frost by Tim Kendall. Yale University Press. 408 Pages. $35.

This story appeared in the June, 11,  2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Yousuf Karsh