Solitude in Robert Frost
The life of American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) can be divided into three periods, as his authorized biographer Lawrance Thompson did: 1) the early years from birth to 1915, 2) the "years of triumph" from 1915 to 1938, and the later years from 1938 to Frost's death in 1963.
The three periods conform to versions of Frost's persona, from the most creative to the circuit of teaching and lecturing, to the historical laurels of public adulation. But as Thompson hinted in publishing the authorized biography after Frost's death (at the poet's request), "important adjustments would have to occur in the public response to the man and his work." Or more succinctly, as biographer Donald Hall put it:
Everyone knew him, and everyone loved him. With the aid of Life [magazine], we understood that Robert Frost was rustic, witty, avuncular, benign. Only a decade and a half after his death, his popular reputation changed totally. A consensus agreed that the old commonplaces were fraudulent. ... The same culture that applauded Frost as a simple farmer now reviled him as a simple monster. But he was not simple.
Part of this reevaluation must be an appreciation of solitude in the poetry -- and the life -- of Robert Frost, a process that takes into account that the earliest period of his career, and the earliest books of poetry, are his greatest works, and that solitude is the basis of their deep structure as themes, images, and expression.
The Early Poems
That the early works are Frost's greatest accomplishments is demonstrated not only by the date of what are still his most famous poems ("Mending Wall," 1914; "The Road Not Taken," 1916; "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "Fire and Ice," 1923), but also by the richness of language, sensation, observation, psychological insight, and poetics achieved in the early books: A Boy's Will (1913), North of Boston (1914), Mountain Interval (1916), and New Hampshire (1923).
Nearly all the Frost poems on themes of solitude are found here, as critics Wallace, Bidney, and others attest. These are the heartfelt poems arising from deep and volatile experience and emotion, defined by the legacy of solitude in Emerson and Thoreau, by the structure of Greek and Latin classics, by the cadence and language of Shakespeare and Milton, and by an experience of nature grounded in the land and mountains and dark forests of New England, Frost's adopted region.
The poems of solitude reflect a New England setting not only because of Frost's geographical acquaintance but because his very theory of poetics seeks to evoke a psychological style that is reflected in the (perhaps stereotyped) New England culture. A poem evolves not from thought but from, as he put it, "a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness. It is never thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is tantalizing vagueness."
Much later in life he described poetry as "a reminder of rural life -- as a resource, a recourse. It might be taken as a symbol of man, taking its rise from individuality and seclusion." The priority of emotions as the ground and inspiration of poetry became the foundation of Frost's poetic theory, and his early work, combining emotion and rural seclusion into solitude, was such a fresh note for modern and American poetry as to propel Frost to prominence.
Before embarking on identification of solitude in the poems of the early Frost, a few biographical notes are helpful, not generally known until the authorized biography appeared after Frost's death (as planned). Frost suffered nervousness and depression that he himself attributed to inheritance. His father was arrogant, depressive, violent, and an alcoholic; his mother was weak, meticulous, and spiritually-minded in the mystic Swedenborgian sense. Frost's children, too, reflected the ill-health and psychological instability of their father: one daughter was schizophrenic and was institutionalized, as was Frost's sister, and his son committed suicide. Frost was perpetually restless, frequently quarreled with or was obsessed about rivals, and several times in his early adulthood stormed out of his household to "escape," threatening suicide, including one week-long flight from New England to the Chesapeake.
Poems of Solitude
A Boy's Will, Frost's first published collection, consists of 30 poems, published in 1913, not merely about youth but unresolved hauntings and psychological specters. The very first poem, "Into My Own," establishes the mood of introspection and the theme of disappearance, of leaving the world behind to enter an infinite forest. Of anyone who would search for him,
They would not find me
changed of from him they knew --
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
"Ghost House" presents a lonely dwelling inhabited by a "slow and sad" lad and lass, perhaps Frost and his wife, "as sweet companions as might be had." In the next poem, depression is the poet's "November Guest," called "my Sorrow," which wanders the withered pasture and the "desolate, deserted trees." But the poet has learned to appreciate these sights, not admitting it to his guest, for "they are better for her praise."
Though "Storm Fear" is the raw emotional reaction to winter isolation, Frost deftly weaves themes of contagious claustrophobia with introversion. The fantastic images of nature are well grasped in the picture "To the Thawing Wind" of late winter rain melting the ice on the window:
Melt the glass and leave the
Like a hermit's crucifix. ...
In Frost, nature intersects with emotion. After a quarrel with his wife, the poet dreams of withdrawing to the forest ("A Dream Pang"), watching clandestinely as his wife looks for him but hesitates as if to go no further and appear to relent.
And the sweet pang it cost
not to call
And tell you that I saw does still abide;
But 'tis not true that thus I dwell aloof,
For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof.
"Trial by Existence" reveals what Thompson calls Frost's "cautiously skeptical, personal, eclectic set of beliefs, ... a turning point in the poet's attitude toward the kind of promises he wanted to keep, toward himself and others, and the attitude that would be necessary for him, if he were to keep them." (The poem was one of Frost's earliest poems separately.)
"My Butterfly" was composed at 20 years of age, and reveals the poet's strong sense of identity and empathy. The butterfly is the trembling soul, abandoned by sun and flowers and gentle breezes, alone to face the coming of fatal winter and death.
Thou didst not know, who
tottered, wandering on high,
That fate had made thee for the pleasure of the wind,
With those great careless wings,
Nor yet did I.
The book culminates with the world-weary "Reluctance," the poet returning home when the land is bleak in winter, flowers gone and dead leaves huddled, all things quiet and resigned. The poet has returned reluctantly, from what sad journey the reader only senses.
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a 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?
North of Boston was published the following year, 1914; both A Boy's Will and North of Boston were published in England, where Frost, his wife, and their children had gone on an excursion prompted in part by the vicissitudes of employment and lodging in their diurnal life in New England.
The title of the book of 16 poems announces the theme of New England character, at once stoic, frugal, rooted, without worldly aspiration or severance from nature, detecting truths in the cycle of the seasons, the precariousness of social existence clinging to the cooperation with nature, now explored descriptively not as subjectively and expressively as A Boy's Will. Here the poems are chiefly narrative in structure.
North of Boston opens with the famous "Mending Wall." Critic James M. Cox calls this poem one of Frost's self-defining poems because the stark solitary of A Boy's Will now intersects with society and others, and the poet must lay down principles for the encounter. The image of a wall between neighbors, of repairing that which separates in order to maintain separateness, challenges the poet's thought that the whole business is but an "outdoor game." The poet retains the separateness in kind: "He is all pine and I am apple orchard," a self-defining description in natural coexistence of botanicals. "My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him." But rooted separation cannot be trusted to mere nature, the gruff neighbor counters. "He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors."" The poet's skeptical musings are dispelled by the neighbor's return with a stone in each hand, "like an old-stone savage armed," a visual transformation of healed separation dispelled, of the fear of violence taken in offense and reasserted as a wall, a "good fence." As critic Wallace states:
The poem explores the meaning and difficulty of Frost's sense of separateness, the difficulty of community. [It invites the reader] to think about the nature of walls, and to make the recognitions -- of our own and another's boundaries, and of our capacity and willingness to overcome those boundaries -- which must precede by dismantling of limits.
But the successive poem, "The Mountain," enlarges the wall into a mountain whose looming presence circumscribes the village and its pastures and waters. It especially affects the human inhabitants, who like the character in the poem speaks tersely and moves on. Each poem in North of Boston is a vignette of social encounters. The famous "Home Burial" conjures murder, adultery, burial, and haunting, a radical set of circumstances with the chilling matter-of-factness of style informed by the classics but modern in expression and cadence, based simply on the sound of human speech and interaction.
As Frost himself described his poems (quoted in part above) in a 1915 letter:
It [a poem] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a love sickness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is tantalizing vagueness. It finds its thought or makes its thought and succeeds or doesn't find it and comes to nothing. ... It finds the thought and the thought finds the words. Let's say again: A poem positively must not begin thought first.
"The Black Cottage" and "A Servant to Servants," the latter with its gothic twists, are narratives. And then the silence is renewed by "The Wood-Pile." The narrator is alone and "walking on the frozen swamp one gray day" when he encounters a neat cord of maples, "cut and split and poled" -- and mysteriously neglected, evidently for years. The woodpile must have been forgotten by someone easily turned to "fresh tasks," forgotten past efforts, or simply gone. Like the remnants of memory, time, and age, the woodpile sits far away,
To warm the frozen swamp as
best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
Mountain Interval, published in 1916, is highlighted by "The Road Not Taken," which establishes the individual with a fundamental decision from which there is no alternative -- and for which there is no social input or companionable advice. Some decisions in Frost's life were like the alternative roads, others, like his family, he clung to with fierce loyalty. When he composed "Hyla Brook," referring to the brook along the property line of his Derby , New Hampshire, farm, he could not know that one day he would bring his wife's ashes back there to scatter at her request, yet refuse to do so at the last moment, for by then the property had not only long changed hands but the brook had been overrun by weeds and vines, and Frost had concluded that Elinor would not have liked it there anymore.
"Birches," too, was a domestic poem remembering himself, a homeschooled boy's play there:
Whose only play was what he
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
Frost writes of vegetables and cows and weather. "The Hill Wife" however, depicts the interior solitude and mental deterioration of a woman in loneliness and unspoken fear of shadows, strangers, imagined stalkers -- who one day disappears into the forest, and never returns. What great burden had she been unable to communicate to her husband, who never found her.
Yet these tragedies are narrated matter-of-factly, avoiding the emotion of terror and of uncertainty they provoke. In "Out, Out" a boy happily wielding a buzzing chain saw is briefly distracted by his sister's call to supper, and the mad saw slips and cuts deep into his hand. A doctor cannot save him, and the boy dies. "And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."
In 1917, Frost wrote a short story titled "A Way Out," not published until 1929, and even then in a small literary magazine. The story features a hermit living in a remote farmhouse in humble conditions. A man comes to the door and invites himself in, demanding food and acting belligerently. The hermit tries to put up with him, unsure of the stranger's motives. The stranger reveals that he is a fugitive murderer and needs a place to stay. He sizes up the hermit in appearance, remarks on his isolation, his lack of human contacts. After a brief struggle, the fugitive kills the hermit, puts on his clothes, and imitates his appearance. He conceals the body just as a search party of police arrive at the farmhouse door, as the fugutive had just hours before. They know of the old hermit and ask him if he has seen a fugitive. The fugitive deftly points away, to the woods, where he thinks he saw a man flee -- and the story ends. The tale evokes Frost's own despairing moments seeking to change his identity (but to what?) and find "a way out."
With New Hampshire (1923) came Frost's two final signature poems: "Fire and Ice" and "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," both representative poems of insight, reflective of the familiar theme of decisions made in life. But other less known poems consolidate the concept of solitude and explore it creatively in regard to previous evocations. The books distends again, like its predecessor, to encompass social exchanges. "Two Witches" introduces the solitude of women, called witches because they are "old-believers" or simply because, as Wallace point out, they see and hear and sense things that men do not. "The Witch of Coos" alludes to the female protagonist of "Home Burial" and "The Pauper Witch of Grafton," refers to the magic powers of the feminine: her husband "got more out of me / By having me a witch."
In "The Lockless Door," the narrative's metaphor is the solitary's private self. After many years, a knock comes at the door of a dwelling. The narrator turns out the light, tiptoes to the window, and climbs out, from there bidding the knocker enter:
so at a knock
I emptied my cage
To hide in the world
And alter with age.
Finally, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" presents a forlorn house gutted by fire long ago, leaving but the now-abandoned barn, spared by a shift in the wind. Birds fly in and out of the house through its broken windows. The murmur of birds is like a human sigh over a sad forgotten past, but to the birds themselves, unconscious of past damage or present forlornness, there is really nothing sad "about the abandoned house's fate."
But though they rejoiced in
the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
The sense of solitude and isolation, even in the presence of others who after all do not constitute a community, is underscored by Frost in these earlier poems. Wallace also cites several noteworthy poems from A Further Range (1936), which, however, approach social criticism, abdicating the solitary for the disloyal or skeptical. Frost's theme of separateness is not novel in American literature but also "belongs to the traditions of Thoreau, Melville, Crane, and Dickinson. Frost us the strain in our literature which seems most easily Whitman's antithesis," notes Wallace. And pointedly rejects Sandburg's lofty notion of "the people." Frost resists sentimentality, persuasiveness, concurrence. The physical setting of rural isolation -- better, desolation, at times -- is authentic if not lived, Frost having been no farmer. He is "a critic of a cultured false connection," seeing society absorbing the individual, using people and casting them away.
Frost's solitude "is separateness seen upside down, or from the other side, where what are sometimes felt as limits are not barriers at all" (notes Wallace) but to be embraced, enjoyed, accented as the real, not as deprivation, loneliness, or alienation. The sweetness of "Birches" is delivered short of cloyingness; the inexorableness of loss in "The Wood-Pile" falls just short of anguish.
It was not always cold aloneness. In Frost's Witness Tree (1943) the first book published after his wife's death, two poems address the solitary's loss. "The Most of It" owns that "He thought he kept the universe alone" but knows that what he sought was, rather, a response, a reciprocation. In "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same," Eve's voice (that is, his wife's) was in the birdsong "out of sleep and dream" now, persisting in the words so long it would not be lost, but "Never again would birds' song be the same. / And to do that to birds was why she came."
Robert Frost once wrote to his daughter that sorrow "overcasts my poetry if read aright. No matter how humorous I am, I am sad. I am a jester about sorrow." And later in life he candidly described (to editor and friend Louis Untermeyer) his disposition as a disease: "My disease I guess is accidia (Fr. acede) ... a loss of faith, undue retreat into one's self, a sense of futility and a paralyzing estrangement from God and man." This is essentially the condition of the true solitary.
Critic and biographer Jay Parini writes that for Frost, "Every major poem was ... a feat of rescued sanity as well as 'a momentary stay against confusion' as he memorably put it." The description of Frost's characters offered by Bidney as perpetually pursuing "lonely epiphanic searches" are searches for and away from solitude, hiding from solitude while seeking it, like nature's shapes and shadows. Even Frost's high-school essays reflected this somberness, as in the 1891 "A Monument to After-Thought Unveiled": "We are away beneath the sombre pines, amid a solitude that dreams to the ceaseless monotone of the west wind. ..."
Throughout his earliest years, before the fame and folksy persona and the sobriquet of "poet-philosopher," Robert Frost dealt with the compelling themes of solitude, and so built his lasting reputation.¶
The definitive collection of Frost's work is Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays by Robert Frost. New York: Library of America, 1995. A definitive edition of the poems is The Poetry of Robert Frost: the Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, c1969. Editions of selected poems are numerous. Among secondary sources (books) are Lawrance Thompson and R. H. Winnick: Robert Frost: a Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, c1981; Jay Parini: Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999; and the chapter on Robert Frost in Donald Hall: Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992, Among articles are Patricia Wallace: "Separateness and Solitude in Frost," Kenyon Review, NS v. 6., no. 1, Winter 1984, p. 1-12 and Martin Bidney: "The Secretive-Playful Epiphanies of Robert Frost: Solitude, Companionship, and the Ambivalent Imagination" in Papers on Language & Literature 38.3 (2002): 270-294.