Nature's Extra-Vagrants: Frost and Thoreau in the Maine Woods

Article excerpt

The connection between Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau has been observed by several critics. Frost himself encouraged this association through public acknowledgment of his deep respect for Thoreau's achievement in Walden (1854): first, he listed Walden third in a list of ten books which he felt should be included in every public library (738); second, in a 1915 letter Frost remarks that a passage in Walden "must have had a good deal to do with the making of me," and in 1922 Frost wrote that Walden "surpasses everything we have had in America" (Selected Letters 182, 278; cf. Bagby 390). Still, though many critics have noted the Thoreau-Frost connection, they frequently misunderstand Thoreau by aligning his own blend of optimism and skepticism too closely with the much more positive and progressive metaphysic of Emerson--which, in turn, results in a misunderstanding of the subsequent ties between Frost and Thoreau. For instance, when Elizabeth Isaacs writes that Frost "has the practicality of Arnold, Thoreau, or Hardy; yet he is not as one-sided as they are in his beliefs," she is justifiably pointing toward Frost's complexity, but she does so at the risk of underestimating a similar thematic complexity in Thoreau (39). Likewise, when J. Donald Crowly writes that "although Frost found Thoreau's modulations equal to many of his own purposes, there is in the Thoreauvian voice an ultimate confidence in the solid bottoms being everywhere, in the making snug in the limitless, that Frost often questions and goes beyond" (305), he is correctly noting Frost's "extra-vagant" struggle to "go beyond" the limits of this world, but his reading of Thoreau does not account for the many passages in both Walden and especially The Maine Woods where Thoreau pursues a similar "extra-vagant" quest. In fact, it is, in part, because we have poems like "For Once, Then, Something," and "The Woodpile," that we can look back at Thoreau and better understand the complex questioning of Nature that Thoreau exhibits in some of his writings.

Although Thoreau and Frost are traditionally seen as relatively optimistic in their exploration of Nature, both are in many respects dark romantics; they both question at times the optimistic and comparatively monistic vision of Emerson, and they both express a certain skepticism concerning the ability of the poet to reconcile man and Nature, or the subject and object. For instance, in his essay "On Emerson" Frost writes: "A melancholy dualism is the only soundness," and "I don't like obscurity and obfuscation, but I do like dark sayings I must leave the clearing of time to" (860, 862). Moreover, writes Frost, "In practice, in nature, the circle becomes an oval. As a circle it has one center--Good. As an oval it has two centers--Good and Evil. Thence Monism verses Dualism" (865). Aside from this dualistic interpretation of the world, Frost's "deep skepticism about the possibilities of human life" (Bell 70) can be seen in his essay "Education by Poetry." In this essay Frost writes: "Greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter, to make the final unity. That is the greatest attempt that ever failed" (723). Unlike Emerson, who likewise attempted the unification of subject and object but posited success, Frost sees attempts at such a unification at once heroic, and doomed.(1) Thus, while Frost's theory of "symbol" and "metaphor" seems Emersonian in theory, in practice Frost's uses of symbol and metaphor resemble those of the dark romantics, particularly Hawthorne, Melville, and the Thoreau of The Maine Woods. Frost's symbolism and metaphor tend not toward Emerson's revelatory union with Nature, but tend toward multiple interpretation, indirection, and ambiguity.

Roberts French, in "Robert Frost and the Darkness of Nature," is one of a few critics who has seen the dark romantic within Frost. He writes: "While Frost has written poems that express a certain joy in nature . …