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Settling the Issue of Doubleness in Robert Frost

By Harriet Staff

New York Mag Vulture writer Kathryn Schulz reflects on The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press 2012), by British professor Tim Kendall (“In the annals of Frostiana [and they are vast], Kendall’s book is an unusual hybrid, part anthology, part critical study: 65 poems with two or three pages of understated, illuminating commentary about each”). Schulz writes about Frost’s early reputation as a “plainspoken” poet “of a rural, artisanal America,” and an opposing view, that his poetry is terrifying:

Frost is the great poet of—in the original sense of the word—duplicity, of doubleness. “Never satisfied with saying one thing when he could be saying two or more,” Kendall writes, “Frost encourages multiple answers without giving precedence to any of them.” The last clause is the crucial one. Frost is an exacting, serious, honest poet, but he is neutral to the point of scariness. Seamus Heaney spoke (admiringly) of “the crystal of indifference at the core of Frost’s being.”

As with many assessments of Frost, that strikes me as half-right. Frost is crystalline and cool, but indifference implies amorality, and he is not amoral. On the contrary, his refusal of resolution is consummately moral. This poet of apparent simplicity asks us to do something that is, ethically and intellectually, extremely hard: to think and feel more than one thing at once. In this sense, his poems are like his famous mended wall. From a distance they appear sturdy and plain, but up close they are a small victory, or hiatus, in a war of opposing forces, a minor miracle of equilibrium: “we have to use a spell to make them balance.” That is Frost’s wizardry, that ability to keep everything stacked up when most of us would topple to one side. So how does he pull off the trick?

Though Schulz admits that a poem like Frost’s “Birches” next to anything from Pound’s Cantos (Frost was born in the same generation as Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and Pound, she notes) is almost “prelapsarian,” she pushes past comparison to look closely at “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

…Forget your childhood associations with the poem. Forget whatever antipathy you have to nostalgia. Forget to cringe at “lake” and “shake” and “here” and “near.” Forget everything you rationally deduced about it—because, after all, even kids can figure out that Frost is up to other tricks here. We are not here to figure. We are here to feel. Note how deftly Frost sets us down in a place (“between the woods and frozen lake”) and a time (“the darkest evening of the year”). Note how hushed it is, how mustered all our senses. Bells fill the air, briefly: audible snowflakes, a glittering of sound. In the silence afterward, the real snow sifts downward over everything.

We are just standing there, looking. And then, suddenly, that quality kicks in: the ulteriority, the both/and, the this and this and this. We are on a routine journey home; we are on the threshold of the universe, serenity mingling with awe; we are far from civilization and terribly near the ancient fears: separation, insignificance, darkness. (“He will not see me stopping” is one false step from “He will not hear me screaming.”) The boundaries between these conditions, never more than what we impose in order to stay sane, evaporate. And then comes the end, and another doubling—the most explicit one Frost ever wrote:

And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

It is the greatest pan-out in the history of verse. We draw away from a man alone in the woods and see man, alone in the woods. As the scale expands, the world diminishes, becomes a snow globe, shaken. And right then, just as we are grasping the nature of our situation—we’re fine; we’re exhilarated; we’re terrified—Frost has the balls to vanish. But he brought us here in the first place! He said we were about to head home!—but no. We are stopping here. We are midway through our journey, no Virgil, no nothing, alone, and this place we are in (like this poem we are in) is lovely. And it is dark.

Read the entire feature here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, June 14th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.