Tuesday, August 23, 2016

He is in love with being misunderstood - Some early Robert Frost

Robert Frost was 39 when his first book, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1913.  North of Boston came out in 1914, Mountain Interval in 1916.  What a run of books.  North of Boston leads with “Mending Wall,” and Mountain Interval with “The Road Less Taken.”  And everyone – Pound, Yeats, etc. – recognized Frost’s poems, right away, for their worth.  A career’s worth of poems in just a few years, with many more books to come, decades of poems, a string of prizes and university appointments.

North of Boston, with longer poems, more dialogues and stories, and Mountain Interval, with more lyrics, are both astounding.  Without much in the way of formal innovation, Frost developed a voice – several voices – that sounded like an American version of early Wordsworth, ordinary New Englanders who somehow always speak and think in a heightened blank verse, who find meaning in work and the natural world.  Frost was a serious classicist, and his influences were as much Latin* as English, but those two latter books feel to me like the first serious American descendants of Wordsworth, by a “VURRY Amur’k’n talent,”** as Pound, that goofball, described Frost.

Frost’s first book, though, A Boy’s Will, that one I don’t get.  The table of contents of the original edition included a series of annotations that help explain my difficulties***:

Into My Own  The youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having forsworn the world.
Ghost House  He is happy in the society of his own choosing.
My November Guest  He is in love with being misunderstood.

And so on, each explication funnier than the previous (“The Demiurge’s Laugh  about science,” yeesh).

These notes make the poems sound unbearable, which they are not, and Frost had the sense to drop them in every future edition, leaving cruel editors to stick them back in.  There is at least some self-mockery in A Boy’s Will:

In Neglect

They leave us so to the way we took,
    As two in whom they were proved mistaken,
That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
    And try if we cannot feel forsaken.

The adult poet has plenty of ironic distance from the adolescent feelings described in the poems.

The title character in “My November Guest” is a female personification of sorrow, which could hardly be more boyish:

Her pleasure will not let me stay
    She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
    Is silver now with clinging mist.

A Boy’s Will is exceedingly autumnal.  It is perhaps meant to be growth that the boy learns, contra Sorrow, to miss the birds:

Now Close the Windows

Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
    If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
    Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
    It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
    But see all wind stirred.

A sequence of poems about storms, dead butterflies, and falling leaves begins.  Perhaps the boy has been dumped by his girlfriend:

from Reluctance

Ah, when to the heart of man
    Was it ever less than treason
To go with the drift of things,
    To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
    Of a love or a season?

So ends the book, on this note of resigned anti-wisdom.  The poems in A Boy’s Will are very pretty.  Now that I got.

* “It [North of Boston] was written as scattered poems in a form suggested by the eclogues of Virgil,” “Preface to an Expanded ‘North of Boston,’” Collected Prose, Poems, & Plays, Library of America, p. 849.

**  The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, Third Ed., p. 1,082.

*** LOA, p. 969.


  1. I think the LOA edition of Frost is a good way to enter Frost's world; it is a chronological presentation, which allows readers to see the poet's development over the years. I think one of the amusing geographical ironies about Frost is the San Francisco man becoming the New England poet emeritus. Such transplantations in iconic regional writers are intriguing. In any case, I wonder if you will be taking some time to write about "The Road Less Taken." The contradictions in the poem always leave me scratching my head, especially when so many readers are so damned sure about the explication.

  2. Yes, Frost could have been the great California poet. It was just chance that put him in New England.

    I doubt I will write about "The Road Not Taken." It seems like that one has been pounded pretty flat, and there are so many other good poems in the book with it.

  3. I'm not sure it was just chance that put Frost in New England, "if design govern in a thing so small." Were there influences and attractions - Robinson via Edward Thomas in "Old England" - and repulsions - Jeffers as the Californian poet? A New England farmer could be Virgilian and write eclogues in a way a California rancher couldn't.

    1. Aplogies! My first sentence should read 'I'm not sure it was just chance that put Frost in New England, or "if design govern in a thing so small."'

    2. No apologies necessary. This is the internet.

  4. I am not suited to discuss design! One does wonder what kinds of affinities are at work. But I believe Tim and I are just thinking of a road not taken that was outside of Frost's control - what if his father had lived longer, and Robert had stayed in San Francisco past age 11.