Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Contributing Editor: James Guimond
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students generally respond well to the basic emotional or psychological experiences expressed in Frost's poems. Some of them--for example, ones who have had a philosophy course or two--may raise questions about the implications of poems like "Design." Students often have difficulty appreciating (a) the skill and subtlety with which Frost uses traditional poetic devices such as rhyme and meter; (b) the sparse pleasures he discovers in some of his rural and natural subjects; (c) the bleakness and/or ambiguity of his more "philosophical" poems. Sometimes they also have difficulty understanding that the values he presented in his poems were derived from a type of community or society that was very different from their own: one that was rural, fearful of change, distrustful of technology, proud of craftsmanship, and deeply committed to privacy and self-reliance.
Regarding the formal devices and ambiguity, there is no substitute for traditional "close reading." (Quotes from Frost's essays, "The Constant Symbol" and "The Figure a Poem Makes" can be helpful in this regard.) The sparse pleasures can be seen in poems like "The Pasture" and "The Investment," and the bleakness can be discerned in the endings of "Once by the Pacific" and "Desert Places." The social values can be seen in dramatic poems like "The Fear" and "The Ax-Helve," as well as in "Mending Wall."
When teaching the dramatic poems, it is helpful to discuss their plots and characters with students because Frost sometimes presents these elements in an oblique way.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes would include:
1. The limitations and isolation of the individual in either a social or natural environment, plus the related theme of how difficult it is for the self to understand existence.
2. The ambiguity of nature when it is considered as a source of wisdom.
3. Frost's sensitivity to the theme of entropy, doom, and extinction.
Frost usually deals with personal issues so covertly in his poetry that it is not very fruitful to discuss those topics in detail. If the teacher wishes to do so, however, he/she should consult Thompson's biography. For historical issues, the Cowley and O'Donnell essays in James Cox's Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays are helpful.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Special emphasis should be placed on:
1. His skill in synthesizing traditional formal devices with vernacular speech patterns and language.
2. His ability to develop metaphors.
3. How relatively "unmodern" or traditional he was in relation to some of his contemporaries.
I emphasize that during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Frost had a strong appeal for a conservative readership who did not understand or appreciate modernism very well. Since such readers could be quite influential in academic, editing, and Pulitzer-Prize-judging circles, some of Frost's popularity should be considered in this context.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Contrasts with Wallace Stevens, Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot are appropriate; and comparisons with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Edward Arlington Robinson, and the British Romantics and Georgians (e.g., Edward Thomas) can be helpful.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What would it be like to live on an isolated farm in 1900?
(b) Find the rhymes in specific poems and discuss why Frost emphasized these words.
(c) What are the emotional connotations of the images in certain poems?
(d) Who is the speaker of the poem, and why is he/she speaking?
(e) How does Frost develop a metaphor in an assigned poem?
2. (a) Comparison-contrast topics work well if they are focused on specific issues like free verse versus traditional meters.
(b) What is Frost's persona and how does he develop it in a variety of poems?
(c) How does Frost create conflict or tension in his poems and how does he resolve it?
(d) How closely does Frost follow his own poetic "rules" as he states them in "The Figure a Poem Makes"?
(e) Compare the "philosophy of life" which is expressed in a poem like "Directive," "Design," or "Desert Places" with the ideas in an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, such as "Nature."
The books by Richard Poirier and Frank Lentricchia are particularly useful, and there are good essays in the critical anthologies edited by Cox, Gerber, Bloom, and Cady and Budd.