A U G U S T 1 9 1 5
From Atlantic Unbound:
Robert Frost in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1996)
The first three poems -- and one that got away -- introduced and read aloud by Peter Davison.
In an illuminating paper on recent American fiction which I hope by
and by, with the editor's permission, to discuss along with Mr. Owen
Wister's smashing onslaught in the Atlantic Monthly, Mr. W. D.
Howell's remarks, "By test of the native touch we should not find genuine
some of the American writers whom Mr. Garnett accounts so." No doubt Mr.
Howells's stricture is just, and certain American novelists -- whom he does
not however particularize -- have been too affected in spirit by European
models. Indeed Frank Norris's early work, Vandover and the Brute,
is quite continental in tone; and it is arguable that his study of the
French Naturalists may have shown beneficial results later, in the breadth
of scheme and clarity of The Pit.
This point of "the native touch" raises difficult questions, for the ferment of foreign influence has often marked the point of departure and rise of powerful native writers, such as Pushkin in Russia and Fenimore Cooper in America. Again, if we consider the fiction of Poe and Herman Melville, would it not be difficult to assess their genuineness by any standard or measure of "native touch"? But I take it that Mr. Howells would ban as "not genuine" only those writers whose originality in vision, tone, and style has been patently marred or nullified by their surrender to exotic influences.
So complex may be the interlacing strains that blend in a writer's literary ancestry and determine his style, that the question first to ask seems to me whether a given author is a fresh creative force, an original voice in literature. Such an authentic original force to me speaks from North of Boston. Surely a genuine New England voice, whatever be its literary debt to old-world English ancestry. Originality, the point is there, -- for we may note that originality of tone and vision is always the stumbling-block to the common taste when the latter is invited to readjust its accepted standards.
On opening North of Boston we see the first lines to be stamped with the magic of style, of a style that obeys its own laws of grace and beauty and inner harmony.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,Note the clarity of the images, the firm outline. How delicately the unobtrusive opening suggests the countryman's contemplative pleasure in his fields and woods. It seems so very quiet, the modern reader may complain, forgetting Wordsworth; and indeed, had Wordsworth written these lines, I think they must have stood in every English anthology. And when we turn the page, the second poem, "The Death of the Hired Man," proves that this American poet has arrived, not indeed to challenge the English poet's possession of his territory, but to show how untrodden, how limitless are the stretching adjacent lands. "The Death of the Hired Man" is a dramatic dialogue between husband and wife, a dialogue characterized by an exquisite precision of psychological insight. I note that two college professors have lately been taking Mr. Ruckstuhl to task for a new definition of poetry. Let us fly all such debates, following Goethe, who, condemning the "aesthete who labors to express the nature of poetry and of poets," exclaimed, "What do we want with so much definition? A lively feeling of situations and an aptitude to describe them makes the poet." This definition, though it does not cover the whole ground, is apropos to our purpose.
Mr. Frost possesses a keen feeling for situation. And his fine, sure touch in clarifying our obscure instincts and clashing impulses, and in crystallizing them in sharp, precise images, -- for that we cannot be too grateful. Observe the tense, simple dramatic action, foreshadowing conflict, in the opening lines of "The Death of the Hired Man":
Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table"It's we who must be good to him now," she urges. I wish I had space to quote the debate so simple in its homely force, so comprehending in its spiritual veracity; but I must restrict myself to these arresting lines and to the hushed, tragic close:
Part of a moon was falling down the westYes, this is poetry, but of what order? the people may question, to whom for some reason poetry connotes the fervor of lyrical passion, the glow of romantic color, or the play of picturesque fancy. But it is precisely its quiet passion and spiritual tenderness that betray this to be poetry of a rare order, "the poetry of a true real natural vision of life," which, as Goethe declared, "demands descriptive power of the highest degree, rendering a poet's pictures so lifelike that they become actualities to every reader." One may indeed anticipate that the "honorable minority" will appraise highly the spiritual beauty of the lines above quoted.
But what of his unconventional genre pictures, such as "A Hundred Collars"? Is it necessary to carry the war against the enemy's cardboard fortresses of convention by using Goethe's further declaration:
"At bottom no subject is unpoetical, if only the poet knows how to treat it aright." The dictum is explicit: "A true, real, natural vision of life . . . high descriptive power . . . pictures of lifelike actuality . . . a lively feeling of situation" -- if a poet possess these qualifications he may treat any theme or situation he pleases. Indeed, the more prosaic appears the vesture of everyday life, the greater is the poet's triumph in seizing and representing the enduring human interest of its familiar features. In the characteristic fact, form, or feature the poet no less than the artist will discover essential lines and aspects of beauty. Nothing is barred to him, if he only have vision. Even the most eccentric divagations in human conduct can be exhibited in their true spiritual perspective by the psychologist of insight, as Browning repeatedly demonstrates. One sees no reason why Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi" with all its roughcast philosophic speculation should be "poetry" and Mr. Frost's "A Hundred Collars" should not; and indeed the purist must keep the gate closed on both or on neither. If I desired indeed to know whether a reader could really detect the genuine poet, when he appears amid the crowd of dilettanti, I should ask his judgment on a typical uncompromising passage in "A Hundred Collars," such as the following:
"No room," the night clerk said, "Unless -- "The whole colloquy between this tipsy provincial reporter, Lafayette, and the scared doctor, will, at the first blush, seem to be out of court to the ordinary citizen trained from childhood to recognize as "poetical," say Bryant's "Thanatopsis." The latter is a good example of "the noble manner," but the reader who enjoys it does not therefore turn away with a puzzled frown from Holmes's "The Wonderful One-hoss Shay."
But is Mr. Frost then a humorist? the reader may inquire, seeing a gleam of light. Humor has its place in his work; that is to say, our author's moods take their rise from his contemplative scrutiny of character in men and nature, and he responds equally to a tragic episode or a humorous situation. But, like creators greater in achievement, his humorous perception is interwoven with many other strands of apprehension, and in his genre pictures, sympathy blends with ironical appreciation of grave issues, to endow them with unique temperamental flavor. If one styled "Mending Wall" and "A Hundred Collars" idyls of New England life, the reader might remark sarcastically that they do not seem very idyllic; but idyls they are none the less, not in the corrupted sense of pseudo-Arcadian pastorals, but in the original meaning of "little pictures." One may contend that "The Housekeeper" is cast in much the same gossiping style as Theocritus's idyl, "The Ladies of Syracuse," with its prattle of provincial ladies over their household affairs and the crush in the Alexandrian streets at the Festival of Adonis. And one may wager that this famous poem shocked the academic taste of the day by its unconventionality, and would not indeed, please modern professors, were it not the work of a Greek poet who lived three hundred years before Christ.
It is not indeed a bad precept for readers who wish to savor the distinctive quality of new original talents to judge them first by the human interest of what they present. Were this simple plan followed, a Browning or a Whitman would not be kept waiting so long in the chilling shadow of contemporary disapproval. Regard simply the people in Frost's dramatic dialogues, their motives and feelings, their intercourse and the clash of their outlooks, and note how these little canvases, painted with quiet, deep understanding of life's incongruous everyday web, begin to glow with subtle color. Observe how the author in "A Servant to Servants," picturing the native or local surroundings, makes the essentials live and speak in a woman's homely confession of her fear of madness.
But it is best to give an example of Mr. Frost's emotional force, and in quoting a passage from "Home Burial" I say unhesitatingly that for tragic poignancy this piece stands by itself in American poetry. How dramatic is the action, in this moment of revelation of the tragic rift sundering man and wife!
He saw her from the bottom of the stairsHe entreats his wife to let him into her grief, and not to carry it, this time, to some one else. He entreats her to tell him why the loss of her first child has bred in her such rankling bitterness toward him, and why every word of his about the dead child gives her such offense.
-- "And it's come to this,Here is vision, bearing the flame of piercing feeling in the living word. How exquisitely the strain of the mother's anguish is felt in that naked image, --
"Making the gravel leap and leap in air,Perhaps some readers, deceived by the supreme simplicity of this passage, may not see what art has inspired its perfect naturalness. It is indeed the perfection of poetic realism, both in observation and in deep insight into the heart. How well most of us know, after we have followed the funeral and stood by the grave-side of some man near to us, that baffled, uneasy self-questioning, "Why do I feel so little? Is it possible I have no more sorrow or regret to feel at this death?" But what other poet has said this with such moving, exquisite felicity?
I have quoted "Home Burial" partly from the belief that its dramatic intensity will best level any popular barrier to the recognition of its author's creative originality. But one does not expect that even a sensitive taste will respond so readily to the rare flavor of "The Mountain" as did the American people to Whittier's "Snowbound," fifty years back. The imagery of the Quaker poet's idyl, perfectly suited to its purpose of mirroring with faithful sincerity the wintry landscape and the pursuits and character of a New England farmer's family, is marked by no peculiar delicacy or originality of style. Mr. Frost, on the other hand, may disappoint readers who prefer grandeur and breadth of outline or magical depth of coloring to delicate atmospheric imagery.
But the attentive reader will soon discover that Mr. Frost's cunning impressionism produces a subtle cumulative effect, and that by his use of pauses, digressions, and the crafty envisagement of his subject at fresh angles, he secures a pervading feeling of the mass and movement and elusive force of nature. He is a master of his exacting medium, blank verse, -- a new master. The reader must pause and pause again before he can judge him, so unobtrusive and quiet are these "effects," so subtle the appeal of the whole. One can, indeed, return to his poems again and again without exhausting their quiet imaginative spell. For instance, the reader will note how the feeling of the mountain's might bulk and hanging mass, its vast elbowing flanks, its watching domination of the near fields and scattered farmsteads, begins to grow upon him, till he too is possessed by the idea of exploring its high ravines, its fountain springs and granite terraces. One of the surest tests of fine art is whether our imagination barks back to it, fascinated in after contemplation, or whether our interest is suddenly exhausted both in it and the subject. And "The Mountain" shows that the poet has known how to seize and present the mysterious force and essence of living nature.
In nearly all Mr. Frost's quiet dramatic dialogues, his record of the present passing scene suggests how much has gone before, how much these people have lived through, what a lengthy chain of feelings and motives and circumstances has shaped their actions and mental attitudes. Thus in "The Housekeeper," his picture of the stout old woman sitting there in her chair, talking over Estelle, her grown-up daughter, who, weary of her anomalous position in the household, has left John and gone off and married another man, carries with it a rich sensation of the women's sharp criticism of a procrastinating obstinate man. John is too dense in his masculine way to know how much he owes to them. This psychological sketch in its sharp actuality is worthy of Sarah Orne Jewett.
But why put it in poetry and not in prose? the reader may hazard. Well, it comes with greater intensity in rhythm and is more heightened and concentrated in effect thereby. If the reader will examine "A Servant to Servants," he will recognize that this narrative of a woman's haunting fear that she has inherited the streak of madness in her family, would lose in distinction and clarity were it told in prose. Yet so extraordinarily close to normal everyday speech is it that I anticipate some academic person may test its metre with a metronome, and declare that the verse is often awkward in its scansion. No doubt. But so also is the blank verse of many a master hard to scan, if the academic footrule be not applied with a nice comprehension of where to give and when to take. In "A Servant to Servants" the tragic effect of this overdriven woman's unburdening herself of her load of painful memories and gloomy forebodings is to my mind a rare artistic achievement, -- one that graves itself on the memory.
And now that we have praised North of Boston so freely, shall we not make certain stiff, critical reservations? Doubtless one would do so were one not conscious that Mr. Frost's fellow poets, his deserving rivals, will relieve one of the task. May I say to them here that because I believe Mr. Frost in North of Boston has found a way for himself, so I believe their roads lie also open before them. These roads are infinite, and will surely yield, now or to-morrow, vital discoveries. A slight defect of Mr. Frost's subtle realistic method, and one does not wish to slur it over, is that it is sometimes difficult to grasp all the implications and bearings of his situations. His language in "The Self-Seeker" is highly figurative, too figurative perhaps for poetry. Again in "The Generations of Men," his method as art seems to be both a little casual and long-winded. In several of his poems, his fineness of psychological truth is perhaps in excess of his poetic beauty, -- an inevitable defect of cool, fearless realism. And the corollary criticism no doubt will be heard, that from the intensity with which he makes us realize things we should gain a little more pleasure. But here one may add that there is pleasure and pleasure, and that it seems remarkable that this New England poet, so absorbed by the psychological drama of people's temperaments and conduct, should preserve such pure outlines and clear objectivity of style.
Is his talent a pure product of New England soil? I take it that just as Hawthorne owed a debt to English influence, so Mr. Frost owes one also. But his "native touch" is declared by the subtle blend of outspokenness and reticence, of brooding conscience and grave humor. Speaking under correction, it appears to me that his creative vision, springing from New England soil, and calmly handing on the best and oldest American tradition, may be a little at variance with the cosmopolitan clamor of New York. It would be quaint indeed if Americans who, according to their magazines, are opening their hospitable bosoms to Mr. Rabindranath Tagore's spiritual poems and dramas of Bengal life, should rest oblivious of their own countryman. To certain citizens Mr. Frost's poems of the life of inconspicuous, humble New England folk may seem unattractively homely in comparison with the Eastern poet's lofty, mystical dramas; but by American critics this view will doubtless be characterized as a manifestation of American provincialism. The critics know that a poet who has no "message" to deliver to the world, whose work is not only bare of prettiness and sentimentality but is isolated and unaffected by this or that "movement," is easily set aside. Nothing is easier, since his appeal is neither to the interests nor caprices of the market. Ours indeed is peculiarly the day when everything pure, shy, and independent in art seems at the mercy of those who beat the big drum and shout their wares through the megaphone. And knowing this, the critic of conscience will take for his watchword quality.
"Mr. Frost is a true poet, but not a poetical poet," remarked a listener to whom I read "A Servant to Servants," leaving me wondering whether his verdict inclined the scales definitely to praise or blame. Of poetical poets we have so many! of literary poets so many! of drawing-room poets so many! -- of academic and dilettanti poets so many! of imitative poets so many! but of original poets how few!
"A New American Poet" by Edward Garnett; The Atlantic Monthly; August 1915.