Vanity Fea

Robert Frost

From the Oxford Companion to American Literature, by Hart and Leininger:

Robert [Lee] Frost (1874-1963), member of a New England family, was born in San Francisco and taken at the age of ten to the New England farm country with which his poetry is identified. After a brief attendance at Dartmouth, where he disliked the academic attitude, he became a bobbin boy in a Massachusetts mill, and a short period at Harvard was followed by further work, making shoes, editing a country newspaper, teaching school, and finally farming. This background of craftsmanship and husbandry had its effect upon his poetry in more than the choice of subjects, for he demanded that his verse be as simple and honest as an axe or hoe. After a long period of farming, he moved to England (1912-15) where he published his first book of poems, A Boy's Will (1913), whose lyrics, including "Into My Own," "Revelation," "Mowing," and "Reluctance," are marked by an intense but restrained emotion and the characteristic flavor of New England life. He returned to the U.S. to settle on a New Hampshire farm, having achieved a reputation as an important American poet through the publication of North of Boston (1914), described by the author as "a book of people." and showing brilliant insight into New England character and the background that formed it. Among the poems in this volume are "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Code," "The Wood-Pile," "Home Burial," and "A Servant to Servants."

—"Mending Wall," blank-verse poem by Robert Frost, published in North of Boston (1914). Describing the time he and a neighboring farmer spent the day in replacing fallen stones on the wall which divides their land, the poet declares, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." and expresses his philosophy of tolerance, generosity, and brotherhood in the contrast between his neighbor's dogmatic "Good fences make good neighbours" and his own more considered

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out

—"The Death of the Hired Man," blank-verse dramatic narrative by Robert Frost, published in North of Boston (1914).
Warren and Mary, a farmer and his wife, discuss the return of Silas, an aged farmhand who has worked for them often in the past, always wandering off when other employment offered itself, and coming "home" at tims of difficulty. Warren wants to dismiss him, but Mary describes the poignant contrast between his former proud competence and his present broken helath, loneliness, and pitiful eagerness to serve. She tells of his infirm mind, which she thinks a sign of approaching death, and her husband is moved to reconsider. Whan he enters the house to talk with Silas, he discovers the old man dead.

—"The Code," blank-verse dramatic narrative by Robert Frost, published in North of Boston (1914).
An experienced farmhand tells a "town-bred farmer" of the pride his fellows take in their competence, and the resulting code:

The hand that knows his business won't be told
To do work better or faster—those two things.

For illustration he describes an incident that took place when he worked for a certain Sanders, of Salem, a prodigious worker himself. They were engaged in unloading a wagon of hay, and Sanders, made the mistake, while standing below to pile th load, of saying to the hand on the wagon, "Let her come!" Offended at this breach of the code, the hand dumped the entire load down on the helpless farmer, regardless of the danger of suffocating him. Sanders extricated himself, and showed that he recognized the justice of his employee's act:

"Discharge me? No! He knew I did just right."

—"The Wood-Pile." blank-verse poem by Robert Frost, published in North of Boston (1914).
The poet suggests a cosmic symbol in his discovery of a weathered, long-abandoned cord of maple, "cut and split and piled," held from being scattered by a growing tree on one side and on the other "a stake and prop, these latter about to fall." This wasted labor can be the work on ly of "someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks," and could leave his creation "To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay."

—"Home Burial," dramatic narrative in blank verse by Robert Frost, published in North of Boston (1914).
The incompatibility of a New England farm couple is revealed in the tragic conflict between them following the death of their only child. The husband has buried the child in the nearby family plot, and the wife becomes obsessed by his seemingly unfeeling attitude. Oppressed by loneliness, she comes to hate him and now feels that the transitoriness of his grief is a further proof the "the world's evil." She is determined tha she "must go—somewhere out of this house," but her husband declares obstinately, "I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—"

—"A Servant to Servants," blank-verse dramatic monologue by Robert Frost, published in North of Boston (1914).
A lonely, overworked New England farm wife talks with a visiting naturalist, and through her eager conversation reveals the tragic story of her life. Reared in a loveless family, in which her mother's life had been embittered by the necessity of caring for an obscenely mad brother-in-law, she herself had been influenced for a time by the inherited strain of insanity, and welcomed the opportunity to marry Len, the unfeeling husband who neglects her for his many business enterprises. Though she craves personal freedom, love, and the touch of beauty, she is burdened by innumerable menial tasks, including the feeding of the brutal farmhands, whose "servant" she has become.

The same expressive idiom and brilliant observation appear in Mountain Interval (1916), containing such characteristic poems as "The Road Not Taken," "Birches," "Bond and Free," "A Time to Talk,"
"Snow," "Putting in the Seed," and "An Old Man's Winter Night."

—"The Road Not Taken," poem in iambic tetrameter by Rober Frost, published in Mountain Interval (1916).
The poet tells how the course of his life was determined when he came upon two roads that diverged in a wood. Forced to choose, he "took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."

—"Birches," blank-verse lyric by Robert Frost, published in Mountain Interval (1916). The poet describes his boyhood pleasure in climbing birch trees, swinging from the tops until the supple trunks bent in a curve to the ground. He dreams of being again "a swinger of birches," and finds in this occupation a symbol for his desired surcease from "considerations," in which he might

   go by climbing a birch tree . . .
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again,
That would be good both going and coming back.

The shrewd humor and Yankee understatement that distinguish such poems as "The Cow in Apple Time," "A Hundred Collars," and "Brown's Descent" are exhibited also in Frost's witty self-critical remarks, such as "I might be called a Synecdochist; for I prefer the synecdoche in poetry—that figure of speech in which we use a part for the whole." In both emotion and language he was restrained, and conveyed his messages by implication. Although his blank verse is colloquial, it is never loose, for it possesses the pithy, surcharged economy indigenous to the New Englander. His genre pieces, in the form of dramatic idylls or monologues, capture the vernacular of his neighbors north of Boston. Frost explained his realism saying, "There are two types of realist—the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one; and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. . . . To me, the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form." His next book, New Hampshire (1923, Pulitzer Prize), shows his ability to deal with genial, informal subjects, as in "The Star-Splitter," "Maple," "The Axe Helve," "New Hampshire," and "Paul's Wife," and to concentrate emotional impact into a few clean-stripped lines, as in "To Earthward," "Two Look at Two," "Stopping by Woods on as Snowy Evening," "Gathering Leaves," "Fire and Ice," and "Fragmentary Blue."

—"The Star-Splitter," blank-verse narrative by Robert Frost, published in New Hampshire (1923).
Brad McLaughlin's "life-long curiosity About our place among the infinities" culminates in his burning his house down for the insurance, to buy a telescope. He earns a living as a railroad ticket agent and uses his leisure "for star-gazing" through his glass, "the Star-splitter." Brad and his friend, the poet, often spend their nights in his activity, but though it provides material for "some of the best things we ever said," they remain in ignorance of the real nature of the universe: "We've looked and looked, but after all where are we?"
—"Maple," narrative poem in blank verse by Robert Frost, published in New Hampshire (1923).
Although others commonly misunderstand it as "Mabel," Maple, the name of a New England girl, given her at birth by her dying mother, guides her life and endows her with a mysterious poetic quality. Her father is unable or unwilling to make clear the intended meaning, and Maple is able to find only partial clues, but the man she marries discerns her kinship with the spirit of the trees, and they share this secret as a motive of their love.
—"The Axe Helve," blank-verse dramatic narrative by Robert Frost, published in New Hampshire (1923).
The poet, chopping wood, is interrupted by a neighboring farmer, the Frenchman Baptiste, who objects to his using an inferior machine-made axe-helve. He promises him a good hickory helve of his own cutting, and that evening the poet visits Baptiste's home, meeting his sociable wife, who speaks no English. He talks with the earnest workman, who proves to be a conscientiouss laborer who knows "how to make a short job long for love of it," and insists that his children shall not attend school, asserting the superiority of his own proud independence and appreciation of such essential things as the materials of a properly durable axe-helve.

—"New Hampshire," blank-verse poem by Robert Frost, published in 1923 as the title piece of a volume which won a Pulitzer prize.
In this familiar monologue, the poet presents a witty defense of his manner of life and philosophic attitude. He describes New Hampshire as "one of the two best states in the Union. Vermont's the other," and as a compact community ahving "one each of everything as in a show-case." Answering the "glorious bards of Massachusetts" who "taunt the lofty land with little men," he names friends among the New Hampshire people he admires and would not change. "I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer," he says, in condemning extremists who demand that he take a radical attitude.
—"Two Look at Two," blank-verse poem by Robert Frost, published in New Hampshire (1923).
A pair of lovers climb a wooded mountain, and at the approach of night prepare to turn back but are halted on seeing a doe staring at them across a fence. The spell broken when she calmly walks off, they are about to go on again, but are stopped a second time by the appearance in the same place of "an antlered buck of lusty nostril" who "viewed them quizzically with jerks of head." After a moment he too disappears, but the lovers stand spellbound,

As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor
Had made them certain earth returned their love.

In 1928 he issued a fifth new volume, West-Running Brook, with the same warm lyric quality that had characterized his first book. His Collected Poems (1930, Pulitzer Prize) assembled in one volume the work that has a lifelong continuity in its rhythms, its clear focusing on the individual, and its observation of the native New England background.

After collecting his poems, although he held positions as an affiliated teacher at Amherst, Harvard, and Michigan, he continued his literary career and in 1936 published
A Further Range (Pulitzer Prize), whose lyrics, though more playful in blending fact and fantasy, have beneath their frivolity a deep seriousness. A new edition of Collected Poems (1939) was followed by A Witness Tree (1942, Pulitzer Prize); two blank-verse plays, A Masque of Reason (1946), about Job, and A Masque of Mercy (1947), in which Biblical characters in modern setting discuss ethics and man's relation to God; and Steeple Bush (1947) and In the Clearing (1962), later lyrics. The standard collected edition is The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969), edited by Edward C. Lathem. His correspondence appears in Letters to Louis Untermeyer (1963) and Selected Letters (1964), edited by Lawrance Thompson. Thompson published a controversial full biography—as official biographer—Robert Frost (3 vols., 1966-77), giving a harsh view of the poet. A less tendentious treatment is by William H. Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (1984).


Robert Frost  at Poetry Foundation.


Kevin Murphy. "Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'." Video lecture. YouTube (Ithaca College) 29 Feb. 2008.*

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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