Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Learning to Hover: Robert Frost, Robert Francis, and the Poetry of Detached Engagement

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Learning to Hover: Robert Frost, Robert Francis, and the Poetry of Detached Engagement

Article excerpt

In Robert Francis's reminiscence of Robert Frost, A Time to Talk, the entry dated April 4, 1932, contains a poem published the day before in the Springfield Republican and Union. Francis wrote the poem to commemorate Frost's arrival at Amherst. Here are its final stanzas:

Best of all--you've heard?--he comes to stay.

This is his home now. He is here for good.

To leave us now would be running away.

(I too would stay forever if I could.)

While he stays, life that breathless fugitive,

Will stay. While he lives, some things here won't die.

And we, breathing his air, may learn to live

Close to the earth, like him, and near the sky.

An example of Francis's exuberant juvenilia (neither published in book form nor included in the Collected Poems), the lyric was, in his words, "the first pop gun fired in my private campaign to establish a significant relation with this most significant man in town" (48-49). The following January, he befriended Frost in his home on Sunset Avenue in Amherst; thereafter blossomed a relationship in which the younger poet found in Frost a mentor. In fact, he recalled, when he made Frost's acquaintance, he "was still unpublished in book form, a young poet looking for guidance. So Frost took the role of mentor, and much that he said had to do with my own poems and my problems as a poet" (45). [1]

After his second book, Valhalla and Other Poems, was published in 1938, the volume "made no stir anywhere" (21), Francis wrote in his autobiography, The Trouble with Francis. But if the book failed to excite critical notice, it brought "some quiet rewards" (21), one of which was a letter from Robert Frost:

I am swept off my feet by the goodness of your poems this time. Ten or a dozen of them are my idea of perfection. A new poet swims into my ken. I can refrain from strong praise no longer. You are achieving what you live for.... You have not only the feeling of a true lyric poet, but the variety of a man with a mind. (19)

Francis's mention of Frost's letter is important because Frost's praise was a formal recognition of his poetry. The letter also provided evidence of Frost's influence on Francis: note that his praise of Francis's poems is reserved for those that are "[his] idea of perfection" (19). Not surprisingly, then, there is a sort of Frost static everywhere in this volume. Compare a passage from Francis's "Valhalla"-

The valley sees the pasture on the hill.

Below the pasture and above are woods

Up to the wooded peak up to the sky.

The valley sees the darkness of evergreens

Waiting above the pasture to come down

As other evergreens have come or wait

To come to darken pastures on other hills.

--to an excerpt from Frost's poem, "The Mountain":

The mountain stood there to be pointed at.

Pasture ran up the side a little way,

And then there was a wall of trees with trunks;

After that only tops of trees, and cliffs

Imperfectly concealed among the leaves. [2]

As David Graham observes, the echoes of Frost in Francis's early poems helped shape a critical view that Francis was "a minor lyricist perpetually standing in Frost's broad shadow" (83). Reviews of Francis's early volumes focused on the thematic resemblance of his writing to Frost's. Consider, for instance, Louis Untermeyer's critique of Francis's third book, The Sound I Listened For (1944), whose poems accentuate what he asserts is Francis's "gift for seeing minutiae which are anything but trivial." "In this," Untermeyer animadverts, "he reminds the reader of his more illustrious forerunners, especially of one whose background is contiguous. It is nothing against Robert Francis that he often resembles Robert Frost." And though Untermeyer admires Francis's lyrics for the way in which "they blend observation with imagination," he adds, finally, "[b]ut we know who wrote them first" (345). …

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