Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Frost at Midnight

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Frost at Midnight

Article excerpt

Frost at Midnight Robert Frost. The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Edited by Robert Faggen. Harvard University Press 2006. 809 pages. $39.95

"WHEN the flesh departs, when the reader can no longer ring up the author to badger him about an obscure line or quiz him on his influences, there are only the material remains of his workshop. For Shakespeare we have virtually nothing-no foul papers (apart from the scraps of Sir Thomas More and what might be the palimpsest of revision in his own plays), no letters, only tittle-tattle from years after his death and the elegies of his friends: in other words, so little matter that speculation conquers all. Other poets, whether by accident or design, have been less stingy with their disjecta membra-Milton left the drafts to "Lycidas" that so shocked Charles Lamb, Coleridge enough trunkfuls to overturn the myths he told about himself, and many modern poets warehouses of overdue bills, tattered school-essays, and airline tickets, so many aisles of flotsam and jetsam that scholars get lost and never emerge.

To go behind the scenes of the poems, to find out how they came to being, gratifies impulses contrary and even conflicting. There is the simple curiosity to know how brilliant things began (few readers want to examine the drafts of a hack), to see if they are within reach of the ordinary grinder or the pure result of inspiration; there is the scholar's hunger to discover, in the backwaters of the poem, the source of the Nile; there is the critic s itch for context and explanation (the same longing that would ferret out the "original intent" of the authors of the Constitution, rather than settle for the homely ambiguity of words on the page)-these motives share an exhaustion of means, of wanting to know all that can be known. (The metaphors of scholarly attention derive from gluttony rather than other deadly sins.) More darkly, consider the village gossip's appetite for the dirty secrets of composition, the suspicion that there is less than meets the eye, the prurient desire to tear off the fancy dress to show the poem's shabby underdrawers.

The draft of a poem can reveal too much but is always doomed to reveal too little. Poets sometimes consider wild alternatives, reject weak phrases even while scribbling them down, complicate by ambiguities they did not intend-looking at the trace evidence of drafts and notebooks may give the critic too much confidence in devising a meaning of his own. Drafts are always what has been rejected, the pentimenti of abandoned hope; and the crooked path to meaning may, in its course, leave only a trail of bread crumbs a poet wanted to brush from the page. W. H. Auden loved to trouble a line by simply tossing in a not-that doesn't mean he was equivocal. Like most great poets, he wanted to see what happened when he played with words. Sometimes a reversal of meaning betrays a deeper meaning.

Robert Frost was the most American of American poets after Whitman. When poets love their country, their poems usually suffer from nickel-plated patriotism (even good poets go bad in time of war) or a taste for writing down myths and calling them history; but you forgive Whitman and Frost their moments of naïveté and touches of sentiment because they saw squarely, unmistakably, the figures in that imagined landscape. If every trace of the continent were to vanish, you could almost reconstruct America from the clues left in Leaves of Grass (1855) and North of Boston (1914). These poets saw their country through an alien eye, with a sympathy few foreigners have granted-and it is through those few, like Alexis de Tocqueville and Frank Marryat and Isabella Bird, that we have known America for what it was.

Frost relished the country he found and lamented the country ways already vanishing-he was an adopted New Englander, but became more of a Yankee than most Yankees. Even now, almost half a century after his death, when people reach for a poet plain spoken and plain dealing, who says what he means and says it rare, they reach for Frost-yet Frost was never as simple as he seemed. …

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