To Love a Wall?
Robert Frost on a U.S. 10 Cent Stamp, 1974
Robert Frost’s second book, North of Boston (1914), has almost universally been considered the defining moment of his literary maturation. First published in England when the poet was forty years old, it reflected twenty hard and lonely years of quiet artistic development. Thirteen months earlier Frost had published A Boy’s Will (1913), a collection of thirty-two mostly short lyrics. Widely praised in England, A Boy’s Will had demonstrated Frost’s mastery of the tunefully lyric, bucolic, and metrically conventional Georgian poetic style. North of Boston, however, represented something unmistakably new and distinctively American. Over twice the length of Frost’s first book, North of Boston contained only sixteen poems—four lyrics and a dozen long narratives, all set in rural or small-town New England. The new book also sounded different. All but one of the poems in A Boy’s Will rhymed. Only three poems in North of Boston did. The rest of the book was written in a deliberately low-key, conversational blank verse. As Frost wrote John Cournos two months after its publication: “One thing to notice is that but one poem in the book will intone and that is ‘After Apple Picking.’ The rest talk.”
Although North of Boston has been praised as an American classic and received abundant critical analysis, it has never been adequately appreciated for its radical reinvention of the modern narrative poem. Critics have carefully studied the book’s innovative use of speech rhythms (Frost’s celebrated “sound of sense”) and its austere “Yankee” diction. They have explored Frost’s stark regional subject matter and his dignified portrayal of the rural poor. Critics have understood the author’s decisive break with soft and sentimental Georgian romanticism. All of these hard-edge qualities demonstrated a modern, if not quite Modernist, sensibility. At the same time, however, critics have said little about Frost’s use of the narrative mode itself—surely the book’s most notable feature—probably because it made him seem like a retrograde figure, a poet glancing backward at tradition rather than advancing boldly with his younger contemporaries such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Frost’s commitment to narrative verse (as well as to rhyme and meter) linked him instead to the slightly older Edwin Arlington Robinson. Together they have seemed the two major transitional figures in American poetry between traditional and Modernist aesthetics. Frost may have been recognized as the greater poet—broader in range, more modern in style and outlook. He may have commanded more pages in the anthologies and more sustained critical attention than the perennially neglected Robinson, but inevitably Frost still remained on the far side of the great Modernist fissure.
A nagging question in Frost criticism in the half-century since the author’s death has been where to place him in the larger narrative of American poetry. There has been no question about the magnitude of his achievement. Realizing “the utmost of ambition,” he lodged more than a few poems “where they will be hard to get rid of.” He ranks high on the short list of great American writers. Moreover, he remains one of the few modern poets in English still read, esteemed, and quoted by all types of people from elementary school kids and chaired professors to journalists and politicians. But after Modernism, popularity itself seems suspicious—an attribute associated with Longfellow and Whittier not Pound and Stevens.