Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Robert Frost, Romantic

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Robert Frost, Romantic

Article excerpt

Although Frost once called himself a romantic, he usually used the word pejoratively.(1) In a letter to Louis Untermeyer in 1915, for example, he referred to Edgar Lee Masters as "too romantic," by which he meant too "false-realistic" (Letters 189). In 1938, in a letter to R. P. T. Coffin, he called Edwin Arlington Robinson a Platonist and a romantic: "By Platonist I mean one who believes that what we have here is an imperfect copy of some woman in heaven or in someone else's bed" (Letters 462). It is hardly surprising, then, that an overwhelming majority of Frost's critics believe that, whatever else he may have been, Frost was not a romantic. Like Lawrance Thompson (43, 93, 98), they are willing to grant that he grew up in the romantic tradition.(2) Yet, again like Thompson (43-49), they insist that Frost either greatly modified his romanticism or abandoned it altogether.(3) Hyatt Waggoner (59) and Reginald Cook (214-15), among others, have argued that Frost's poetic vision is fundamentally different from Emerson's.(4) Robert Langbaum (331) and Marion Montgomery (140-41) have made the same point about Frost and Wordsworth.(5)

This view of Frost is based on two assumptions. First, Frost's critics tend to define romanticism as metaphysically naive, morally irresponsible, and epistemologically regressive.(6) Second, most of Frost's critics see the poet as a skeptic who regarded nature as an antagonist, stoicism as a moral ideal, and visionary experience as an illusion.(7) To many of them, Frost saw the external world as indifferent, alien, hostile. To most, he proffered religious affirmations only equivocally or ironically. And to some, he used poetry not as a means of discovery but as a defense against nature - therapeutically and self-protectively. Of course, if romanticism is defined as a simple-minded picture of human experience that no sane and sober adult would take seriously, then Frost was not a romantic. And if Frost's poetry shows him to be a tough-minded realist who believed that no affirmation can be more than "a momentary stay," then, once again, Frost was not a romantic. However, I believe that both of these assumptions are wrong for reasons that I hope to make clear.

Not that the case for Frost as realist and skeptic cannot be made. Frequently, as in "Spring Pools," "Reluctance," and "Nothing Gold Can Stay," his poems deal with the irreversible change of seasons and the mutability of things. The joys of summer are brief, and the losses brought about by the fall (both seasonal and theological) are experienced in winter as a kind of spiritual death. Indeed, in many poems, such as "Stars," "Design," and "Once by the Pacific," the universe is portrayed as indifferent to human needs and even destructive of human life. The world of human beings, too, as Frost suggests in "The Bear," "Pod of the Milkweed," and "The Vanishing Red," is replete with evidence of vanity and violence. The fears that separate men from women, the miscommunications that keep them apart, and the loneliness that makes hatred harden into hostility are documented in the dramatic narratives of North of Boston and throughout Frost's poetry. In all of these poems, the realms of the real and the ideal are separated by a barrier that cannot be penetrated, transcended, or circumambulated.

Yet, although this worldview is prominent in his poetry, Frost did not always espouse it. In his letters and essays, for example, he often contradicted his own antiromantic statements. After saying in "On Emerson" that "a melancholy dualism is the only soundness," Frost added, "The question is: is soundness of the essence[?]" (Prose 112). Having defined romanticism as a futile yearning for the ideal, he said, "Many of the world's greatest - maybe all of them - have been ranged on that romantic side" (Letters 462). In a letter to Thompson in which he called himself a dualist and questioned Arnold's enthusiasm for Emerson, he suggested that Arnold "was probably carried away by the great poetry. …

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