Seamus Perry: Welcome to Close Readings, a series of LRB podcasts about British and American poetry drawing on the rich archive of essays and reviews and memoirs of poets that have appeared over the years in the London Review of Books. My name is Seamus Perry. I teach English at the University of Oxford and I'm talking with MF, poet, critic and professor of English at University College, London. And our topic today is the American poet Robert Frost, who I suppose is as famous for being a New Englander as Hardy was for being a man of Wessex. And yet, Mark, he was not anything to do with New England in terms of where he was born.
Mark Ford: No. He was born in San Francisco and he was named after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. So the notion of Frost as this Yankee is contradicted by his very name. He was born in San Francisco to a rather feckless father who had grand ambitions and had been to Harvard, but who worked in newspapers and also tried to get into politics, but rather failed, particularly in the latter. He lost all his elections, and he was also an alcoholic. And his wife was Scottish, in fact, so not American at all. And it wasn't a marriage that was particularly of similar temperaments. She was very religious and he wasn't.
And I think a lot of the disruptions and the voids and the uncertainties and the anxieties played out in Frost’s poetry can be traced back to this rather rackety childhood, which ended when his father died, when he was only 11 or 12. And the family moved from San Francisco to New England where Frost senior’s parents lived, and after that they had a very hand to mouth existence. His mother worked as a school teacher and he worked at a variety of jobs in his teens, so they weren't at all settled or part of the gentry.
SP: He's a very unsettled young man, isn't he. He goes to Dartmouth College, but gives up after a few weeks and enters Harvard, but only there for two years, marries his childhood sweetheart. But you get the sense, don’t you, in those early years of someone who's sort of drifting, and hasn't really found themselves or learned what they are.
MF: Certainly. I think the attraction towards Eleanor White, whom he married eventually was the search for some kind of anchorage or some sense of belonging, some connection. And there’s a striking anecdote, or more than an anecdote, that when she turned him down the first time when he wanted to marry her, he went off to a place called the ‘dismal swamp’. And in the dismal swamp he was very morose, and so on. He writes about this comically, or talks about it comically, but so much of his poetry is set in a dismal swamp, and a swamp is something that has no bearings. You can't find out where you are, where you're supposed to be going, what you're allowed to do, what you can't do. And part of Frost's obsession with borders and boundaries and control is because of his awareness of this other side of things, chaos, formlessness, and a complete sense of drift. And I think that the polarity of being completely at sea or in a dismal swamp in comparison with his search for form… as he famously described, form was crucial to him. And he said, writing without form was like playing tennis with the net down. And I think that can be seen as a form of choice. But I think you can also relate it back to his psychic makeup, which really needed things to connect to, otherwise he could feel completely disconnected. And I think that disconnection is what in some ways makes him a 20th-century poet, even when his idiom, as in his first volume A Boy’s Will, looks rather 19th-century.
SP: Yes. And there's a lot of domestic tragedy, isn't there. Two children die. Helen Vendler in her piece in the review talks about it as a long and harrowing life, and that's certainly the case, isn't it. When you go back to the biography, there's an awful lot of unhappiness there. And I suppose you can see quite a lot of the poetry, as you've just been saying, as an attempt to cope and somehow understand that pervasive unhappiness.
MF: I think the fear of madness is lurking there as well. His sister ended up in an insane asylum, as did his second daughter, Irma. His eldest son, Carol, committed suicide. His youngest daughter died shortly after giving birth. In the thirties in particular, it reads like an unending series of disasters culminating in Carol's suicide. And his wife Eleanor died in 1936.
So that's to look a long way ahead. But I think that sense in which Frost's poetry is holding back some anxiety or fear of complete catastrophe is what is the undercharge of poems which on the surface are quite simple, and which appealed to an audience, a massive audience eventually in America, as rather stirring and uplifting poems.
SP: Yes. Sort of wholesome, and full of New England fresh air, as it were. But underneath, as I suppose Randall Jarrell was the first person to fully explore, lurking all these darker currents that I guess we'll touch on as we move through the career.
So the big shift in his life, I guess, is 1912, in September, when he ups sticks and brings the family to live in England. Tell us a little bit about that. What's the context for that sort of decision?
MF: The important thing to say is he's 38 by this time. A lot of poets’ careers are long over by the time they’re 38, we tend to peak early! So he lived this existence…he tried school teaching. He worked in a leather shop.He worked in a shoe shop. He worked in a factory. He got sacked actually from that job because he didn't show up on time, and all sorts of things.
But he was interested in education from quite a young age and he worked as a school teacher. His mother was also a schoolteacher, a famously bad one. Parents often complained because she couldn't keep the class in control. Frost was better at that, and he developed into a very individual and in some ways rather erratic educationalist. He liked to run down teachers often, but it was in teaching that he established himself in his twenties and early thirties. But he also worked as a poultry farmer. He always claimed not to have been a very good farmer! And he wrote a number of stories, actually, for various poultry newspapers, which have been exhumed. He was always ambitious and he always knew, always felt that he had the goods to be a great poet, but he was biding his time. And he really did bide his time. I can't think of…well, I suppose Whitman was in his mid-thirties before he started writing Song of Myself. But really Frost was a very late starter, and all the modernist poets with whom he is now often grouped, though much younger, had got going by then and published books. So he comes over when he's 38 in 1912, because London was the centre of culture at this time. We tend to think of 20th-century America as being full of these great poets, this great poetic culture, but I always keep in mind Gertrude Stein's comment. When asked what it was like ‘back there’ in America, she replied ‘there's no “there” there!’ And something of that I think permeates Frost's figurations in America, it's a kind of blank canvas. He conveniently forgets the people who lived there before the Europeans colonised it, but it's a blank canvas in which you have to improvise your existence. And in this he's following in the lines of transcendentalists like Emerson. He actually wrote some of the poems in A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, he was working on many of them on the farm in Derry, but he realised that nothing was going to happen if he stayed on the farm in Derry and he sent them out to provincial American papers where about five or six had been published. So he arrives in London in 1912 with A Boy’s Will and much of North of Boston in the safe box, the locked box, as he used to call it, where he kept his drafts. And he met a lot of crucial important figures in London.
SP: So he's got twenty years of poems, really, in his pocket when he arrives in England. And he's first published as a poet by a British publisher, isn’t he. So he appears on the scene, as it were, in the midst of Georgian poetry.
MF: And he met lots of them. He met Lascelles Abercrombie and Edward Thomas and Wilfrid Gibson, and established good relationships with them.
SP: And in some ways, would you say that his style, his voice as a poet also grows out of some of the things that the Georgian poets were influenced by, such as preeminently Hardy and Wordsworth, and that sort of tradition?
MF: I think undoubtedly. And also Tennyson, whom he often taught when he was a university teacher and a schoolteacher. And so unlike the other poets we associate with American modernism, he wasn't looking for this decisive break with the idiom of 19th- century poetry. He came to England. He thought of it as the land of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Well, that's not how Eliot conceived it, though actually if you go through The Wasteland, it's amazing how many of those quotes are in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury! He definitely read that when he was in St. Louis. Anyway, Frost is divided in some ways between the modernist vision of the world, which is in some ways a rather dispiriting or depressing one as you get in The Wasteland, and the Georgian idiom, which is much more connected to Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and the traditions of English verse.
SP: So in a way it strikes me that Eliot leaves America to come to Europe and Frost leaves America to come to England, so that they're arriving in slightly different destinations, aren't they, within their own trajectory. Anyway, so A Boy’s Will, as you said a moment ago, is the first book of poems that he casts in a way that makes it feel quite autobiographical, doesn't he. And the very first poem in it, I think I'm right in saying, is a poem called ‘Into my Own’, which establishes all sorts of themes that are going to recur throughout his long writing life. What do you make of ‘Into my Own’?
MF: Well, yes. He was self-consciously aware of the traditions of rugged individualism, which had emerged in the 19th century as the dominant way of expressing the ideal of the American hero, someone who was disconnected and was somehow self-reliant, to use Emerson's term, and ‘Into my Own’ very obviously fits into that particular myth. But it's also disturbing in terms of…well, I'll read it so that our listeners get a sense of what's going on in it.
Into my Own
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
SP: So that strikes many of the characteristic Frost notes, doesn't it, that we'll touch on in the course of our conversation, I'm sure. The allure of dark trees and that whole sense of undiscovered territory, that idea of America that you were referring to earlier on which tempts you out, the whole darkness of the poem is also wholly Frostian, isn't it?
MF: Yes. The archetypal journey into the wilderness, which creates your sense of selfhood or re-establishes your sense of selfhood. It wouldn't find him changed, but more sure of everything he knew. So his self would already exist in some form, but the voyage into the wilderness will... this is such a corny, or such a standard American trope that it's interesting to find the spin that he gives it. I think the spin comes in that sense of the sublime, or some sense of wanting these trees to stretch away to the edge of doom, that there is some kind of disaster lurking in these woods, that these woods aren't the wholesome woods or wilderness that you find in Huckleberry Finn, for instance, or in James Fenimore Cooper's novels, although those are full of lurking dangers, but this is a kind of apocalyptic wilderness in which there are no landmarks, to test his selfhood, or to create his selfhood, or to establish and perform his selfhood. I think the element of performance is absolutely crucial to Frost’s whole persona and his personality, that he performs himself, and that this is a ritual whereby he performs himself so as to make that selfhood, establish it in the minds of those who care for him and who then appreciate the performance of selfhood, which the poem has dramatised.
SP: I suppose the note of sureness on which that early poem ends isn't fully characteristic of some of the greater Frosts to come, is it, which is much more interested in ‘perhaps’s and uncertainties and intimations and intuitions rather than the sureness of knowledge that you know is true.
MF: I think he needed them both. Randall Jarrell has a great phrase that captures this. He talks of Frost's ‘cast iron whimsy’. So the idea that on the one hand there's this really steely sense of selfhood, and on the other there's this provisionality, which is, as you say – I would totally agree – absolutely central to the way not only that his poems work, but the way his theories about poetry were all about the block of ice that rides the flame and melts in the process of becoming, that you don't know where it's going, it's all provisional. That of course itself is, is a standard American trope. The sense of making yourself up as you go along, that your selfhood is fluid. But in Frost, the two polarities are fused, or meet or interact with each other, like two chemicals. And that's what is going on in a Frost poem: on the one hand, the kind of ambition, the conviction and the sense of election or sense of his own self would be very strong; on the other, this casting himself onto the Birch. He climbs the Birch and swings it and who knows where it's going to take him, and so on. So this is casting yourself to the winds. And they're both standard American myths, but Frost’s version of them is in line with much American mythology. But the point about it for Frost is it meant a lot to him, that he felt it. That this was his way of surviving empirically, not just performing himself as a poet. He needed to perform himself as a poet to survive in the face of disaster. The dismal swamp, the chaos, the endless spaces.
I think one of the pieces, the Leo Marx piece in the LRB talks about Frost’s vision of the world as in some ways bleaker and more relentless than that of Stevens, Eliot or William Carlos Williams. In comparison with the other modernists, his actual vision of the world was closer to that of, say, Samuel Beckett than it is to Eliot, Stevens or Williams, who all find comforts in various systems or structures. Frost is on his own. As this poem, he's ‘into his own’. And that sense of the naked self really was one which he experienced, as well as performing.
SP: Yes. So as you say, as Leo Marx says in his excellent essay, within this general rather gloomy – Marx even says moral nihilism characterises the Frost universe – there is an important element, isn't there, which is the kind of tenacity that comes from labour, comes from work as a great Frostian investment, the idea of just doing things. And I guess from that first volume of poems, A Boy’s Will, perhaps ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ captures that ethic of the virtue of labour. And from the next volume, perhaps his best known book North of Boston which was published again in England in 1914, the poem ‘Mending Wall’ I guess also touches on that theme of the virtue of labour as something to occupy you in this otherwise rather dark and troubling moral universe.
MF: And labour is in some ways analogous to poetry for Frost in that sense. ‘Mowing’ is probably his most famous early poem. And that concludes with those ringing lines:
And he's often called the great poet of labour. I think it's interesting to trace the influence of this, the way that Frost creates a poetry out of labour in a region, a particular region, to see its influence on Seamus Heaney and other Irish poets such as Paul Muldoon, whose father was a mushroom farmer, and the importance of Frost to those Northern Irish poets. That's actually how I first came at Frost, through Heaney, Muldoon… also Derek Walcott wrote a great essay about him. So there are poets in some ways who figure themselves on the margins in relation to the centres of cultural production and who celebrate certain kinds of industry, rural industry, but make it into a kind of existential experience rather than just hymning strong good mowers. So every Frost poem, in some ways it seems to me, is also about poetry. His ars poetica is bound into his whole way of describing labour. And he often makes that quite explicit as in ‘Mowing’ or in ‘The Tuft of Flowers’.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
SP: Say something about the significance of walls. Because you mentioned the Irish poets who were all moved by Frost, and in some senses emulate his manner, which is at once pastoral, but also political, and the metaphor of a wall as something that divides people in a way which may or may not allow them to co-habit successfully or contentedly. That's something that Frost is quite drawn to, isn't he, and ‘Mending Wall’ has that repeated tagline which American libertarians are always very keen to repeat about good fences making good neighbours. But the poem as a whole, it seems to me, isn't exactly as upbeat about the virtues of rugged individualism as maybe its more optimistic readers like to think.
MF: No. I think all Frost’s good poems take these kinds of stereotypes and they explore them and they inhabit them in a way in which you are pulled in two directions. So there is an enigmatic aspect to almost all his great poems, which means you can pull them in one way or pull them in another, and no reading is final. And yet they need something final like a wall to enact their uncertainty or to explore their own sense of uncertainty. And they need characters as well. I think Frost is one of the great introducers of character into 20th-century poetry. The neighbour with whom he mends the wall is brilliantly hit off as someone coming from a kind of dark age:
It's fabulously effective. Partly because on one level, we've got this kind of wry, ironic, intelligent, sophisticated person who's a farmer, or playing at being a farmer, against the genuine farmer. And he's teasing out the implications of ‘good fences make good neighbors’. And yet also somehow endorsing it or allowing us to think that we would like to endorse it, but also making us aware of all that's involved in endorsing it, all that that leaves out, all the ways in which that is complex or unsettling. And Frost at the height of his popularity was the cold war in the postwar era, and good fences make good neighbours! That was precisely what Frost often said, a strong America depends upon its ability to go to war. And in that sense, he chimed particularly in the postwar era very much with the cold war mentality.
I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
SP: Yes. As you've just been saying, it's good that this aphorism, as it were, comes to the surface of this poem and is placed in the voice of someone who's obviously a bit thick! So he's sending up his own tendency to a certain kind of American folk wisdom, isn't he?
MF: A word he loves is ‘mischief’. He talks about his poems as being mischievous. He writes poems with lots of doors in them, but the doors are all shut! Or he talks about how what he wants his poems to do is to be like walking through a dark room with lots of objects placed down there so that you fall forwards in the dark, forwards and in the dark, he reiterates that in an interview, this idea of being a mischievous poet. But he had a notion of play, which I think is again carried over, particularly in the work of Paul Muldoon, a notion of play as being of the utmost seriousness, and that seriousness and play can't really be dissolved from each other. But the play, the freedom you get from play is what gives you the imaginative expansiveness to be able to see around issues or to dramatise them and to engage with them. Again, it's a very empirical experience that Frost asks. He was a good theorist of poetry, but his poetry works… the reason that it appealed, sold out, 50,000 copies would sell out in a matter of weeks and so on, the reason why he would fill auditoriums with 3000-4000 people, the kind of audiences that pop stars would get, was because it connected with some fundamental yearning in the American public for some kind of reassurance, which he both gave them and didn't give them. I must quote here one of my favourite quotes from one of the pieces in the LRB – and I should say the four really outstanding pieces by Matt Bevis, Helen Vendler, Leo Marx and Peter Howarth, his terrific piece on the Notebooks – one of them quotes Frost saying to Robert Lowell: ‘Hell is a half filled auditorium.’ And you can see footage of his readings and it's as if the Rolling Stones are playing. Well, not quite, but still…
SP: A sentiment to which every professor's heart returns an echo, I'm sure! It's very interesting what you're saying about his elusiveness. He's at once an extraordinarily successful public figure and seems to represent something very solid and substantial that popular America can respond to and perhaps even identify with, but at the same time, all his remarks about poetry, as you say, have an almost Borgesian kind of playful, self-counselling, identity, joking quality to them. And he's fond of saying things like ‘the more I say “I”, the more I always mean someone else.’ So there is a kind of paradox, isn't there, about this sort of rugged white-haired New England integrity, and at the same time an absolute slippery evasiveness of manner, which is actually the real subject of most of his great poems.
MF: Yes. And he inhabits these voices, but North of Boston is my favourite, I think, of his books. It was the breakthrough volume, and he wrote a lot of it in England, in fact. ‘Home Burial’, which I think is probably his greatest poem – and also inspired one of the very finest pieces of criticism ever, Randall Jarrell's long analysis of it – a lot of it was written in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, or in Dymock in Gloucestershire. So his two and a half years in England were not only useful for his promotion of his career, but he got into his groove in his most kind of satisfactory way. And the poems in North of Boston, which make use of characters – in ‘Home Burial’ characters very close to his own, his own first son Elliot died at the age of three of cholera. And ‘Home Burial’, which is, I think, a genuinely terrifying poem as well as a brilliant analysis of a marriage between two people who are failing to understand each other, is a genuinely unsettling poem. And it's got homes, which he also talks about in ‘Death of the Hired Man’, which gives you two wonderfully contradictory aphorisms about home. ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ That's one, the other is ‘I should have called it something you somehow haven't to deserve.’ And both are resolutely negative versions of home. It's a place where they have to take you in where you don't have to deserve it, even if you behave very badly. He's a great poet of interiors, of internal marital conflict.
SP: Yes. We should say something about the dramatic situation in ‘Home Burials’, shouldn't we. It's a married couple talking about, as it were, the destruction of their home or the idea of their home because of the death of a child who, as was commonly the practice at the time, was buried by the father in the land around the house. And what the woman can't forgive him for is the way in which he's used the labour of digging the child's grave as a kind of therapeutic measure for dealing with his grief, and she interprets his labouring and the solace that he finds in labouring as a kind of heartlessness. So it's getting to things absolutely at the heart of Frost, isn't it, about the virtues of labour and work. And whether or not those can be emotionally evasive as well as emotionally helpful for the person who is enjoying them.
MF: And the particularity of the poem is what is so heartbreaking. I think it's the phrase which he says when he comes in having dug the grave for the three-year-old, and he's buried it with his own ancestors, in the ancestral grave. And she describes very brilliantly his digging. She has watched him
Like much of Frost he uses monosyllables absolutely all the time:
from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And what's worse is when he comes in having dug his eldest son's grave, he says
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs
It’s like ‘good fences make good neighbors’, it's a New England aphorism, which he is saying in a fit of absent mindedness, we could call it ‘cast iron whimsy’, and this absolutely drives her around the bend.
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
SP: But at the same time, it's a brilliant Frost moment, isn't it? Because it's a poem all about how things can rot, how things can be completely destroyed and undermined from within by the events that can happen in life. It's a wonderful poem. And the Jarrell essay, you're right, is an absolute masterpiece.
MF: And he focuses on the doors quite a lot. There's lots of doors in Frost as well, but at the end of it, ‘she was opening the door’ – she's going to flee – ‘opening the door wider. “Where do you mean to go? First tell me that,”’ he says. This is a really brilliant characteristic of male domination, rage, however you want to characterise that particular phenomenon. ‘I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will.’ I thumped the table there because it's in italics, ‘I will’. And what is meant in that ‘I will’ – A Boy’s Will was his first book – this idea of the will was central to Frost and the will involving itself in ‘alien entanglements’, as he put it in an essay. But how far can the will go? He needed these frontiers because the will could only discover itself by coming up against these frontiers, or through its attempt to find some kind of consolation in the abyss of misery, which is, I think, so brilliantly captured in this poem because it's a misery that's not shared. They're both miserable, but they're miserable in their different ways. And there's no bridging the gap between them, which is why she goes out the door at the end.
SP: He's very good, isn't he, about the loneliness that can exist within relationships. Not just the relationship of marriage, but also the relationship of neighbours or the relationship of fellow citizens of a town or whatever it might be. And I think what's so interesting about his treatment of it is that he laments it in some sense. The loneliness of the married couple in this poem is devastating. But another part of him actually rather embraces loneliness, doesn't it? And loneliness is the precondition, really, for being Robert Frost.
MF: Yes, I would totally agree with that. And that, I think, goes to the idea of the performance, that the connections he makes are performative ones, which somehow don't last. Everything is provisional in Frost and a lot of the connections are actually ones which are almost speculative, like in ‘A Tuft of Flowers’. The flowers have been spared by previous workmen. Or in ‘The Wood-Pile’, which is the last poem in North of Boston. He finds a wood-pile and he thinks ‘who made this wood-pile in the middle of this dismal swamp?’. And he feels a sort of transitory connection with this person who has also engaged in labour, which he can then respond to. But it's provisional and it exists in the moment. And what he thinks is how different he was from the person who made the wood-pile. And we feel the momentary connection with the person who left the flowers in a slightly more sentimental vein, but often the actual connections established are very provisional and temporary and are moved on from quite fast.
SP: Yes. And ‘The Wood-Pile’ is another lovely poem about wandering out into terra incognita, as it were, isn’t it. So many of these poems are about wandering into different sorts of wilderness, either literal or figurative wilderness, and discovering traces of human lives with which you have a kind of connection, but also a disconnection.
MF: Well, that's the great point Leo Marx makes, isn't it, in his piece about them as failed romantic encounter poems, or parodies of the romantic encounter poem rather than some kind of sense sublime, something far more deeply interfused, like you get in Wordsworth. You just get a sense of blankness, momentary recognition, which is then swallowed up by the void.
And the opening of ‘The Wood-Pile’ is your archetypal Frost landscape. ‘Out walking in the frozen swamp one grey day’... it's almost parodying his own characteristic landscape.
This is where he's so different from Thomas, isn't it. Thomas’s landscapes are always story. There's a history to them – a poem like ‘Fifty Faggots’ or something, which has a whole history of how those faggots got there. The woods, and the history of the field and so on, that sense of the history of England. And Frost is the opposite. He takes away the history. Because there was a history to America, but he deliberately erases it to create this kind of tabula rasa, this blank canvas in which one must quest, almost like someone in space, for some kind of sign of life or meaning.
I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through
ie it didn’t hold him, it partially held him!
The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
There's no way you can tell them from each other.
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
That word again, ‘home’.
SP: So you mentioned Thomas there, and the person we're talking about is Edward Thomas, who of course is known to us as a war poet killed in the Great War, although I don't think Thomas thought of himself as a war poet remotely. And this is perhaps the most significant friendship in Frost's life, would you say?
MF: Yes, undoubtedly, and he liked to characterise it as that. And they were equals to the extent that, after Thomas, Frost had what he used to call his boys, his disciples, and they all looked up to Frost and he would educate them, Louis Untermeyer and Sidney Cox and so on. And Thomas often called Frost his only begetter. Frost said, you can turn this prose into poetry and you'll be a good poet. And Thomas said, that's not a bad idea. And he wrote in two and a half years what is one of the most enduring and valuable bodies of work of the 20th century. But Frost’s encouragement was central to Thomas making that break. And it was the conversational tone which Frost had pioneered, and he really had pioneered it. There was no one else who had captured what he called the sound of sense in poetry. It's a slightly vexed term, but he talks a great deal about it in letters and in essays, this idea that the poem must be in some kind of relationship to the speaking voice, which you couldn't say is quite the case in Tennyson, though you could say it is the case in Browning, undoubtedly. But he takes it one step further in terms of the banality of the conversations, which many Frost characters get involved in – ‘he died in Fredericksburg or Vicksburg. I can't remember which it was, it should make a difference. Does it make a difference?’ And so on, you can almost parody. And he himself sometimes does parody his own garrulousness. And the garrulousness is a way, I suppose, of establishing his authenticity as, to use the Wordsworth phrase, a real man talking to real men. And Thomas ran with this and a lot of his great poems similarly make use of conversation and fit it into a blank verse, which is just recognisable as blank verse, but is always undoing one's expectations in relation to the iambic pentameter. And that was the springboard for North of Boston and those great poems like ‘A Servant of Servants’, ‘Death of a Hired Man’ and so on. And I think those are the most original of his poems in my book.
SP: So in 1915, he returns to America and he's beginning to be quite successful now, isn’t he. By 1916-1917, his first two books of poems are re-published in America. In 1916, he brings out a book called Mountain Interval. And one of the poems in that, I suppose, is one of his most famous poems – and we've just been talking about Edward Thomas – a poem called ‘The Road not Taken’, which is partly inspired, is it not, by his observing Edward Thomas’s inability to decide which path to take whenever he went on a walk!
MF: Well, whenever he tried to do anything, Thomas could never make up his mind. And his melancholy was about not being able to make up your mind. And Frost, I think, was trying to point up that you can decisively not make up your mind in a poem. And this is a poem about decisively not making up your mind, but it's also a poem that guys the standard American mythology of ‘I did it my way’. So on the one hand it's taken as a celebration of self-reliance and the notion that the way you did it was the hard way, but that's what made you who you are. This poem rather parodies that, but as in ‘Mending Wall’, it also makes use of it. So it needs that particular kind of crass myth to expand its own kind of ambiguities and uncertainties. And, as Frost is always attempting to do, to have it both ways.
SP: Yes. To lead a life which is shadowed by the life that you haven't led. And the poem at once seems to think that that's a good attitude to have, but also to think that it was a very bad attitude to have. It's one of those fantastic Frost poems that exemplifies what Peter Howarth says in his piece in the LRB about the way that the great Frost poems are made out of undecidable conflicts about two good things that are clashing with each other, even though on the surface at least the poems often look as if they are very even and steady and even perhaps a bit banal or homespun.
MF: You can find a sort of mischief, can’t you, when he keeps talking about the two roads and how similar they looked. It's not as if they're really different.
And then in the last stanza he shows how this random choice is then transformed by the poet into some act of Emersonian self-reliance in a rather devious and deceptive way, and in a manner which is a lie, really.
... as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So he's parodying that sense in which you make out that you did it the hard way. And that's what made you the hero that you are. So that's the mischief in Frost poems, that's the play. And the brilliance is the way you can get it both ways, and the way this was consumed by the American public. And he writes a letter in which he talks about how poems butter no parsnips, that he needs to make money from his poetry. And he distanced himself from Ezra Pound quite dramatically because Pound reviewed his first book. And he said to Frost, I hope you don't mind me liking these poems, and then reviewed the book twice, once in America and once in Britain. But he didn't want to be caviar to the general. Frost wanted – knew – that he wanted to be a professional poet. And he was in many ways the first 20th-century professional poet who managed to make a living through his connection with universities, as well as selling books. Allen Ginsburg, I think, called him ‘the great entrepreneur of poetry’, and he had a similar notion that everything had to come to market. If it didn't go to market, it wasn't worth anything. Nothing could be a kind of succès d’estime, that didn't mean anything to him. It had to be bought, and that guaranteed that it was valuable. Even if those who bought it didn't know what they were buying, or understand it when they had bought it!
SP: Yes. Auden says in an essay in the 1930s that what distinguishes Frost is that he's not only a poet, but he's also a farmer. But of course by that stage Frost hadn't been a farmer for years. And as you say, in a way he is a very modern figure because he's a poet who makes his living not only by selling his books of poems, but also by being a professor. He teaches at Amherst for many years. He's the centrepiece of a very famous English school called the Bread Loaf School of English, which was run out of Dartmouth college in Vermont. And in a rather unexpected way for someone who casts himself in so many of his poems as being a homely and earthbound poet, he's actually an extraordinarily professional campus poet.
MF: And also as an outsider. He's always figuring himself as an outsider, as somebody outside the establishment, and of course the American hero has to be outside the establishment, but he is the most canny. And it’s hilarious if you read his biography, all these universities vying, giving him more and more money, the universities of Michigan, Florida, Amherst, all offering him more and more money. And this was the guy who 10 years ago couldn't make a living from his chickens and was being paid as a teacher! So the gamble has paid off. And the astronomical sums which he starts being paid both for his readings and for his professorships… but he was there one day every fortnight, often, in these places, or one day a month, he'd give a reading and talk to some bright students. He did it his way. He really did do it his way in that sense, but it brokered the whole industry of the poet in residence, no Lowell or Berryman or Auden…
SP: So as his success grows, he continues to publish. He published a selection of poems and collected poems. A new volume called New Hampshire comes out in 1923. And that's the volume in which perhaps his most famous poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ appears. Do you think this poem deserves its celebrity, or do you think it's been rather over celebrated?
MF: No, it's a terrific poem and it works. And everyone in America knew it. There's an amusing clip of a Frost giving a reading. And he says, I'm going to read ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. I read it the other day, he said, to 3000 people, and I asked if anyone did not know the poem. One boy, intrepidly put up his hand. So he's at the same time celebrating his own fame, but also his own sense of himself as an institution.
SP: This poem plays quite a large part in him becoming an institution, doesn't it, I suppose, because it's so famous and it seems to capture so much of what Frost means for his increasingly wide readership. But what do you think it is about the poem that makes it a typical or an exemplary Frostian poem?
MF: Well, it's a pause in the routine. Many of his poems are a moment when he pauses doing something and has some kind of existential recognition of something beyond the ordinary, but it sticks. He conveys that sense of the extraordinary through a very ordinary language and it almost seems to be gesturing towards the Frostian when he says ‘whose woods these are I think I know’. And I think you know too, they’re Frostian woods, we're approaching Frostian woods to have a Frostian experience. We're going to be on our own, we're going to be in the middle of the snow and we're going to hear something almost otherworldly, but not quite otherworldly.
Nature’s snow and wind take on a seductive lulling rhythm, which is part of this slow approach. It could be seen as a proto-suicidal poem. And that's how a character in The Sopranos…it features in one of those episodes, he’s set it for homework, and he says, yeah, it's about death, isn't it?
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
It's about the lure of suicide. So like ‘Into my Own’, it's a kind of invitation to slide into some kind of chaos, but it enacts the resistance to that chaos rather than the triumphant return from that chaos as ‘Into my Own’ does, he reminds himself of the promises that he has to keep and the miles to go before he sleeps, all his obligations.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
SP: One of the things that strikes me as being very characteristic about that poem is the way that Frost sets it in evening. An awful lot of his poems are set in eventide or night-time, aren't they.
MF: Yes. There's ‘An Old Man's Winter Night’, which he thought his best poem, which is a terrifically bleak and remorseless poem about how an old man spends his night afraid of things clomping around. And there's ones like ‘Desert Places’ or ‘Acquainted with the Night’ or his very early poem ‘Storm Fear’, night-time often incarnates the sense of chaos and impending disaster, which is what the Frost poem is attempting to hold off. He described poems as ‘a momentary stay against confusion’, so that these poems, which are like ‘The Wood-Pile’, formed and ordered, are somehow bulwarks against this endless night.
I think that is a very New World experience as well, or the way in which Frost configured the New World, that it was itself morally neutral and completely without any kind of guidelines, so that one had to invent one's own reality there. And the poems are somehow a way of blanking out or a momentary stay against this threat of disaster. You probably know Randall Jarrell very amusingly changed the ‘v’in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ to a capital ‘v’:
the idea of it being Greenwich Village. And this was a kind of joke against Frost's use of the rural, that in fact Frost knew what he was doing and that he was a kind of cosmopolitan who was pretending to be a villager, so to speak. It's a joke that works in showing up how Frost’s idiom can be taken at face value, but also can be taken as the artful construct that it obviously was.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the Village though,
SP: Yes, a great deal of artfulness. But then as you've been saying, underneath it a great kind of abysm of something very dark.
I was very taken, reading around in preparation for our chat today, by something Lionel Trilling said about his little poem called ‘Design’. Trilling said to his readers, why don’t you read this poem and see if you sleep the better for it! So the idea that the night-times of readers are going to be troubled as much as the night-times of Frost’s own characters are troubled.
MF: Well, he had this notion that a good poem would lodge itself in the mind, that he'd written some poems that couldn't easily be dislodged, the idea that these poems had somehow got into the collective unconscious or the psyche and could not then be dislodged. And the reason they can't be dislodged is that the fears that they anatomise and confront are very primal fears, I think. And that goes back to his childhood again, this idea of the very lyrical wind, the only other sounds the ‘sweep of easy wind and downy flake’ and these beautiful rhymes that go throughout ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ are like a kind of seductive hymn. They're almost like a kind of death lament enticing him into the woods. It’s like the onset of frostbite just before you succumb, it's supposed to be a delicious experience.
He was very proud of the way he suddenly hit on the idea of repeating the last line as a way of getting out of the poem.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
SP: Let's say something about a later poem called ‘The Most of It’, which I think takes up lots of the themes that we've been talking about and does something quite interesting with them. It's a poem that purports to be about the meaninglessness of the universe, doesn't it. That's how it starts. It's in some ways quite a portentously metaphysical poem, as it opens.
If you just came across that line on its own, you might think, it might be Stevens, I’m not quite sure what it is.
He thought he kept the universe alone.
So this is, as I say, a very philosophical or metaphysical predicament that he’s placing the anonymous protagonist of his poem in, shouting at the universe to try and persuade it to give him some meaning. And all the universe does, of course, is echo back his own questions. But then the great coup of this poem is the last few lines when suddenly a great big buck deer appears out of the countryside, rushes across the water towards him and has this tremendous visual impact:
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own.
So how do you interpret that last line? Is that a line of ‘this is plenty, this is more than enough’, or ‘and that's all there was and it amounts to nothing’?
A great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
MF: Well, to use one of Frost's own titles, ‘for once, then, something’. Normally you don't get anything. Here you get something. It's a buck. In ‘For Once, Then, Something’, it’s a glimmer of a white stone, a pebble of quartz, which is made much of in Paul Muldoon's great poem ‘The More a Man Has’. This is if you're looking for your romantic counter response you're going to get something which will disconcert in Frost. And I think it is connected to the erotic in some ways. The poem after that in the same collection, ‘The Subverted Flower’, which Lionel Trilling talked about in that famous introduction to the Frost reading in the mid fifties is very much about awkward or inexplicable eroticism and how unnerving it is. And I think the erotic in Frost is rarely something uplifting, it's something which is overpowering, alien in some ways, which cannot help you really make sense of the world. This poem, or most of it, was written in the dreadful decade of the thirties, when Elena died and he had such a long series of losses. And it is the most obvious poem to put against any kind of romantic vision of a pantheistic nature, which would help you make sense of the world. Frost was not an unbeliever. He wasn't a believer either. What you find in his poetry is this relentless scepticism, and an exploration of all the forms that scepticism can take in the context of previous literary idioms or genres. And that scepticism does express great intelligence as well, I think, maybe we haven't stressed that enough, what an intelligent poet he is, and his rhythms and rhymes, though they may look pat are often presenting in some mischievous way an undercurrent that pulls against one's longing to believe. In ‘West Running Brook’ he creates a metaphor for this in terms of the book, which has a wave which pulls back towards the original source, and that sense of contradiction or tension between competing modes of understanding is what gives a Frost poem its energy.
SP: So by the post-war years, as you've been saying, the figure of Robert Frost has become a public figure. And I suppose the most remarkable instance of his public status is when he is invited to address the nation at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Now, I believe the story is that he wrote a poem specifically for the occasion, but the sunlight was so bright, and his eyes were so old and ailing that he couldn't actually read the poem that he’d brought along. But he did know by heart his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’, and so he recited that from memory.
MF: Yes, it was a very lame poem in couplets, a long lame poem in couplets, which no one wanted to hear. So it was very fortunate that he couldn't read it properly. And ‘The Gift Outright’ was one of his greatest hits. And often at these readings he would say his poems. He didn't read them. He said them. And he would say them twice. He’d say, in case you missed that…and he would do it again. ‘The Gift Outright’ is again a poem which engages with the standard myths of America and America's specialness and its sense of its own election and its sense of difference from other countries. Maybe it's not quite mocking enough. How do you respond to it? And that first line,
Your first thought has got to be, well, the land wasn't yours, actually, there were other people living there. So it does rather unthinkingly make use of the concept of America as a land ‘unstoried’, as it puts it. But it does make from the whole experience of the revolution, the constitution and so on a sense of them taking possession of the land, which proves… is the July 4th poem, in that sense, an Independence Day poem.
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.
A very kind of characteristic Frostian notion that you give into confusion. By giving in you somehow achieve some sense of belonging, or at least a momentary sense of belonging.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
That is a brilliant way of visualising pioneer America of the 19th century.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
SP: It's a lovely ending to the poem. You're right. My only queasiness about it is the line that you read out very beautifully, ‘The deed of gift was many deeds of war’, which is tucked into parentheses, which of course you can't voice over a podcast, but it's an odd thing to tuck into a bracket, isn't it? That the cost of all this was actually violence.
MF: It is, but that sort of absolutely goes to Frost’s notion that everything good comes out of competition or rivalry. And the reason when he went to visit Khrushchev – he was sent by Kennedy to talk with Khrushchev, and he wanted to go – and what he said is you are worthy rivals for us, Khrushchev, you do your thing. We'll do our thing. That's all great. It’ll be brilliant.
And the notion was winning. Isn't the Peter Howarth piece titled ‘Win, win’? He talks in interviews all the time of how you've got to score. You've got to score. He saw life, poetry as a baseball game, and you've got to keep scoring and winning. He hated the idea of everyone winning prizes. Only he could win the prizes. And he did win the Pulitzer Prize four times, the only person to do that. Of course he wined and dined the judges beforehand! We should mention that he did make one terrible mistake in his life. And that was choosing as his official biographer Lawrence Thompson, someone who came to viscerally hate Frost, and who after Frost’s death published a three-volume 2000-page biography which describes Frost as an appalling person in every single way. So he may have been a good judge of some characters, but he got Lawrence Thompson's character very wrong. There have been attempts to rewrite Thompson, and Helen Vendler is merciless about a particularly bad one by Jeffrey Myers, but the Jay Perini biography of 2001, I think, or the late 1990s is a pretty sound account, it seems to me, of Frost for better or for worse. And William Pritchard’s 1984 biography is also a corrective to Lawrence Thompson, perhaps rather kind – that's the book that Leo Marx is reviewing – and forgives him a lot. But I think no account of Frost can really do justice to him if it doesn't allow for this really chaotic sense of despair, which lurks around his poems and makes them so powerful. And you get this in the one we briefly mentioned, but perhaps will be a good one to finish with, ‘Desert Places’, which is as resolute in its bleakness as I think any poem of the 20th century.
SP: Why don’t you read it, Mark, because as you say, it's an extremely bleak poem, it's a wonderfully beautiful poem at the same time, I think. And it's such an interesting countercurrent to the big public figure that Frost had become by this stage in his life. This is a poem all about being absolutely on your own and tormented by your own interiority.
MF: And it fulfils that connection that he makes in an earlier poem between inner weather and outer weather. In this poem the landscape absolutely matches onto his own sense of desolation.
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.