Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Detailed Study & Critical Analysis of Robert Frost's "North of Boston"

North of Boston was Robert Frost's second book of poems but the first to reveal his full dramatic power and moral awareness. It was also the first to explore the culture of rural New England in which these poetic powers had grown to maturity. Published in May 1914 in London, fifteen months after A Boy's Will, North of Boston gained a warm reception in England and by September had made its way to Henry Holt in New York. Holt, buying the American rights from Frost's English publisher, David Nutt, reissued North of Boston in February of 1915 making it Frost's first American book and ending what had been, for him, two decades of obscurity at home. Reviewed by Amy Lowell in The New Republic the very week of Frost's return from England, the volume announced Frost to literary New York and Boston and revealed to America the poetic voice--vigorous and vernacular, yet subtle and complex--for which he would soon be widely known.

North of Boston also established Frost as a poet of people and place. Presenting earthy characters mainly in blank-verse narrative and dialogue, it takes us into the lives of working people in Frost's early twentieth-century New England. Even the volume's first-person lyrics--"Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile"--contain strong narrative and dramatic elements. Structuring the book through their strategic placement, they sound a keynote for the volume in their use of a conversational style, their exploration of character and motive, their emphasis on traditional skills and labor in a life in which winter is always near and survival never assured.

All of the sixteen poems that comprise North of Boston underwent final revision in England during the summer and fall of 1913, when the Frosts occupied a rented cottage in the London suburb of Beaconsfield. Yet the creative sources for these poems and their vernacular style go back to Frost's decade (1900-1909) on a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Frost, having left college a second time and suffering worrisome chest ailments, had, with money from his grandfather, turned away from the factory work and teaching that he already knew to try poultry farming, which promised to leave him time to write while supporting his family in a healthy rural environment.

While the Derry years never quite made Frost either a farmer or a living, they shaped the poet he had determined to become, immersing him not only in the seasonal cycles and "country things" that would saturate his verse, but in the New England speech which he would make his poetic tongue. In doing so, the Derry years also made vivid and real the lives of the neighbors who would people North of Boston and, in wresting a living from hard climate and stony soil, would define a moral center for Frost's poetic world.

Considering his interest in its people, we might ask why Frost's comments on his verse in the year leading to the book's publication focus so thoroughly on matters of technique. The question is answered partly by Frost's immediate situation. The public response to A Boy's Will had raised doubts whether the artistry of his seemingly natural style would be understood by the audience, including the reviewers, of the volume in preparation, which Frost saw as pivotal to his career. In April 1913, for example, the Times Literary Supplement had described the simplicity of A Boy's Will as "naively engaging."

Ezra Pound's review in Poetry the following month had carried a greater sting. Although he had helped to promote Frost's name, Pound had made "the mistake," as Frost would soon complain to John Bartlett, "of assuming that my simplicity is that of the untutored child." Little as he had ever trusted Pound, Frost must still have felt betrayed by so cavalier an assessment from one who styled himself Frost's champion. He may also have worried that Pound had laid a path for others to follow. But perhaps more unsettling was Frost's own realization of how well-concealed his artistry could remain, even--or perhaps especially--to a cultivated audience. If such readers could miss so much in A Boy's Will, he feared what they would make of this next book, which took naturalness so much further, more obviously transgressing conventional boundaries between poetic language and ordinary speech.

The public response to A Boy's Will partly explains the vigorous discussion of poetic prosody that Frost developed over the following year with the English poets Frank Flint and T.E. Hulme and with Sidney Cox and John Bartlett back home. Frost hints at the value of this exchange when, early in July, a few days after the first of their specially arranged meetings, he thanks Flint, saying, "My ideas got just the rub they needed last week." In a letter to Bartlett three days later, Frost is more expansive.

There, the dimensions of Frost's boast--"To be perfectly frank with you I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time. That will transpire presently" (Letters, p. 79)--suggest how much is at stake for him and, thus, how important it was that he articulate the principles at work in the poems. In fact, for much of the latter half of 1913, when he was shaping North of Boston as a book, Frost viewed his remarks on prosody as the dry run for "an essay or two I am going to write" (Letters, p. 113), even suggesting that Bartlett save his letters for that purpose.

One can imagine something like Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that would assert the method and sophistication behind his poetic experiments. In the end, Frost, who disliked writing prose, did not write the essay, perhaps trusting that the principles needed to appreciate his work were well enough understood by a few of the book's likely reviewers. Or perhaps he found that, in bolstering his own confidence, the important work was already done. But Frost may also have felt that the poems, like the people in them and the language they spoke, would be diminished by any effort to explain them and could only distance him from a world of values that the poems had made his own.

Even in this pivotal year, then, Frost's reasons for stressing poetic technique are hard to disentangle from the moral aims embodied in his book. I stress the connection because, unlike his two most prominent models, Wordsworth and Emerson, Frost admits to these moral corollaries only rarely and obliquely. It is true that over the longer span of the book's development, roughly 1905-1913, Frost's most definite aim was to capture the sense of living speech within a metrical frame. Granted, too, that for an unproven poet measuring himself against both traditional and modernist rivals, technical mastery had a natural priority. And so, with an extravagance noted by William Pritchard and John Walsh, Frost announces himself to Bartlett as "possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out ... principle ... of versification" (Letters, p. 79) and, a month afterwards, as "one of the few artists writing ... who have a theory of their own upon which all their work down to the least accent is done" (Letters, p. 88).

Still, there are many moments when Frost's pronouncements on prosody reveal something more than his pride of mastery and analytical insight. Consider, for example, his "new definition of a sentence," which he announces to Bartlett in February 1914 as "a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung" (Letters, p. 110). With "a sound in itself" Frost puts grammar and logic aside for the moment to de-familiarize the written sentence. And, with these "other sounds called words," he even sneaks a backward glance toward the nature and origin of language itself--to the "expressiveness" that came "before words," the "brute tones of our human throat that may once have been all our meaning." At the same time, Frost engages us visually, asking us to imagine some fact on which these abstracted sounds "may be strung," only in the next moment showing us why:

"You may string words together without a sentence hypersound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together ... and stretch them ... between two trees, but--it is bad for the clothes" (Letters, p. 111).

In this washday image, Frost--buoyed by Flint's response to his poetic theories and a growing belief in his own poetic future--sets himself not only against the "worn out" prosodies of established contemporaries such as Robert Bridges, but also against the cultural pretensions that he felt in Pound and a whole aura of refinement that much of late nineteenth-century esthetics had cast over poetry. In this sense, just as Frost's concern with technique reveals itself as more than defensive, so it is more than technical. When he says that "An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer" (Letters, p. 80) and that "The most original writer only catches them fresh from talk" (Letters, p. 111), Frost, like Wordsworth, is claiming a respect and an authority for the language of ordinary people from which poets, he felt, had too often set poetry apart. In doing so, he challenges an embedded view of culture that gives precedence to the written word.

Just a few years later, in distinguishing between "our everyday speech ... and a more literary, sophisticated, artificial, elegant language that belongs to books," Frost would claim that he "could get along very well without this bookish language altogether" (Collected Poems, p. 694). For Frost, who had found a touchstone for his craft in the talk of his Derry neighbors and who would always "say" rather than "read" his poems before audiences, ordinary speech was inseparable from those who spoke it, and the question of words not a question of words alone.

When, for North of Boston, Frost avoided the singing harmonies of Tennyson and Swinburne that remained part of A Boy's Will, he was rejecting an aestheticism largely English and upper-class in favor of a poetry that would speak to Americans, and for them, in a language that Americans spoke. It was a language of labor and use by which a literary culture could affirm the values of an oral, vernacular one, placing cultivation of the soil at least on a par with the cultivation of the drawing room.

Once back on American soil, where such populist strains might sound more sweetly, and with his poetic investment in England paying well, Frost is more direct about the human and social dimensions of his book. Finding North of Boston actively promoted by Henry Holt and himself courted by editors who had ignored his work for a decade, Frost may have felt less compelled to prove himself an artist and freer to claim the democracy of spirit central to his vision. After the painful experience of feeling unappreciated and misunderstood, he may also have been eager to expand or correct earlier statements of his artistic concerns. Thus he writes in March 1915 to William Stanley Braithwaite of the Boston Evening Transcript, giving him material for his weekly poetry column:

It would seem absurd to say it (and you mustn't quote me as saying
it) but I suppose ... that my conscious interest in people was at
first no more than an almost technical interest in their speech--in
what I used to call their sentence sounds--the sound of sense....
There came a day about ten years ago when I ... made the discovery
in doing The Death of the Hired Man that I was interested in
neighbors for more than merely their tones of speech--and always
had been.
(Letters, pp. 158-59)

By placing this discovery in 1905, when he drafted the earliest North of Boston poems, Frost makes it a cornerstone of the volume itself. Later he would say that the realization that "I was after poetry that talked" had "changed the whole course of my writing" and would even call it "providential." Aided by so weighty a term, Frost implies that, since any vernacular is rooted in its culture, a poetry that "talked" could never be a purely technical achievement. A poetry that "talked" would not only sound like conversation. It would really say something--something human, basic, and significant. Seeking a poetry that talked in the accents of his Deny neighbors gave Frost a way both to test and to convey such realities. In addition to evoking a specific culture in which to ground the human conflicts which he wished to explore, the search gave Frost a language free of false refinements in which anything inauthentic would prove weak or untrue.

While Frost is increasingly candid about the human and moral dimension of his poems after his return from England, these concerns reveal themselves even before his exit from obscurity. Writing from England in July 1913, as he was shaping the book for publication, Frost conveys this interest to Thomas Mosher, an American collector and publisher, when he describes the "volume of blank verse ... already well in hand" with "some character strokes I had to get in somewhere" (Letters, p. 83). Feigning apology for having "dropped into an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above," Frost tries at once to tweak and reassure, prompt and flatter the fastidious Mosher:

I trust I don't terrify you. I think I have made poetry. The
language is appropriate to the virtues I celebrate. At least
I am sure that I can count on you to give me credit for knowing
what I am about.
(Letters, pp. 83-84)

"The language is appropriate to the virtues I celebrate": this unqualified assertion stands definite and tall amidst Frost's more calculated postures ("I trust ... I think ... At least I am sure") and underlines the importance which he attached to the human substance of these poems.

We see much the same emphasis in Frost's note to F. S. Flint written earlier that July, after their first discussion of "sentence sounds." Delighted as he is with Flint's response to his thoughts on prosody, Frost makes clear his greater concern with what his language is saying when he asks Flint, who had read eight of the longer narratives:

Did I reach you with the poems[?] ... Did I give you the feeling
of and for the independent-dependence of the kind of people I like
to write about[?] ... The John Kline (16) who lost his housekeeper
and went down like a felled ox was just the person I have described
and I never knew a man I liked better....
(Writing, p. 82)

A more pregnant comment on the kind of people whom Frost liked to write about and--on the way that character enacts itself through language--surfaces in the letter to Sidney Cox written in September 1913, after a family trip to Scotland. The passage is notable partly for Frost's first mention of the local stone walls that would soon prompt the writing of "Mending Wall." More remarkable still is the way it associates various facets of Frost's life--his experience of England and New England, his early exposure to Scots writers by his mother, his social and moral attitudes--with the volume in preparation and the hopes attached to it. He writes:

The best of the adventure was the time in Kingsbarns where
tourists and summer boarders never come. The common people
in the south of England I don't like to have around me.
They don't know how to meet you man to man. The people in
the north are more like Americans. I wonder whether they made
Bums' poems or Burns' poems made them. And there are stone
walls (dry stone dykes) in the north: I liked those. My mother
was from Edinburgh. I used to hear her speak of the Castle and
Arthur's seat, more when I was young than in later years. I
had some interest in seeing those places.
(Letters, pp. 94-95)

This web of associations makes clear enough that the Americans whom Frost has in mind are those in the poems that he is readying for publication--another "common people" who "know how to meet you man to man" and have made their mark in stone across another northern landscape. Equally revealing is Frost's comment about Robert Bums, another poet of democratic and vernacular impulse whom Belle Frost had read to her son from early childhood and whose 1786 Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect had also asserted the worth of a rural people and their language. In the alchemy of Frost's memory and imagination--with thoughts of home stirred by the Scottish hills and people, and the whole process aided by his Scots mother and her literary legacy--Frost merges Burns's people with his own and, implicitly, himself with Burns. Perhaps most striking is Frost's surmise about the mutual act of making between one's poems and one's culture.

When we realize how suddenly Burns's 1786 volume brought this farmer-poet to the attention of his nation's literary elite, we get a sense of the degree to which Frost's feelings of gratitude and obligation toward his Derry neighbors are entwined with his own poetic hopes: that their "making" of his poems would also "make" him as a poet, bringing him home to Boston and New York, just as Burns's second book had taken him to literary Edinburgh; that if they did so, these poems would impact the Derry neighbors to whose lives and speech they owed so much; that his book might bring their voices alive to readers who would not otherwise know them, gaining them a respect and recognition which they could never win for themselves, thus perhaps saving some part of their disappearing world. The poems might even show them some of their own substance and value, which Frost had seen and tried to capture in his poems.

Frost's concern for his human subjects and his wish to make them known is implicit in the book's dedication to Elinor--"to E.M.F. This Book of People"--and by the other titles that he considered for the volume: New Englanders, New England Hill Folk, or the one originally listed by his London publisher M.L. Nutt, Farm Servants and Other People. It may seem curious that, in the end, Frost chose a title that does not mention these people directly. Yet, as in so much of Frost's work, this reticence is eloquent. Like the book's language, the words "north of Boston" say something about its people not only by pointing to the region and culture that have shaped their lives, but by making clear what they are not.

Posed against "Boston," with its history and urbanity, what lies "north" is simply out there, provincial and exposed, somewhere between the capital and the pole, so that, even before we have read the book, North of Boston suggests the fortitude of its people by hinting at the cold and emptiness that they face. And, by the time we have finished its poems about failed and failing farms and the families who have left or will be leaving them, we see that their traditional way of life takes definition and value in opposition to the urban wealth and power to which it literally loses ground each year. With just a little the help from his dedication, Frost's title trusts the poems to bring his people to our notice, just as he has trusted their language to shape his poetic voice, and just as the poems, with their sparing narration, trust so largely to the speech of the characters themselves.

It is both ironic and revealing that Frost took the phrase "North of Boston" from a real estate advertisement in The Boston Globe that he recalled in England. For, the sale of these once-working farms in an urban market confirms the change witnessed by the poems: a culture of independent farmers pushed toward extinction by an expanding, capital-driven economy. Yet this real estate heading, when converted to poetic use, becomes part of the book's assertion that what must be lost in fact may be saved in imagination and need not pass in silence--indeed, that a culture that might seem dead remains alive in Frost's poems and, through them, in us. In this way, Frost's use of the commercial heading "North of Boston" epitomizes the book it has named, enacting not only the "renewal of words" that Frost considered essential to poetry, but with it a renewal of values by recalling us to a world more manual in labor and more personal in scale than the culture of mass-production from which the phrase had come.

There is a further and complicating irony in the fact that this mass culture is precisely the one within which the poems would have to find a place if they were to be read as Frost hoped that they would be--from books printed by the thousands. In a letter to Bartlett in November 1913, he makes clear that for him all other forms of poetic recognition will be hollow without such large-scale economic gains. "[T]here is a kind of success called 'of esteem,'" Frost writes,

and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical
few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive when I can
stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside
that circle to the general reader who buys books in their
thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing
it--dont [sic] you doubt me there.
(Letters, p. 98)

Frost's depreciation of a privileged class who is "supposed to know" about poetry in favor of "the general reader," who presumably knows economic necessity, corresponds with his feeling for the people of his poems--working people whose virtues he celebrates in a language that they could call their own. As Frost discounts the "esteem" of "the critical few," we may well be reminded of his claim that he could "get along very well without [their] bookish language" rejected in favor of "our everyday speech." To Bartlett, he continues:

I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a
merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound
does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do
by taking thought.
(Letters, p. 98)

Here, as Frost slights Pound both for slighting the ordinary reader and for slighting him, we may think ahead to his later resentment at the condescension toward the people of his poems that he sometimes detected in college audiences. But as much as he would like to leave behind the judgments of a privileged class, he could not ignore them any more than he could, as a poet, wholly dispense with the more artificial, elegant language of books. And much as he might wish it, he cannot reach a wider general audience simply "by taking thought." To get beyond that exclusive literary world, he must go through it--must first get its attention. To get published, especially by an American house back home, he needed the help of "the critical few"--their referrals and introductions, their readings and reassurances, their favorable reviews; understanding that need, he sought and exploited such connections.

Indeed, in the November 1913 letter to Bartlett, he is eager "to brag a bit" about the recent attentions he had been paid: an invitation to lunch with Poet Laureate Robert Bridges and growing friendships with Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, recognized English poets who had been drawn to Frost through the North of Boston poems which they had read in manuscript. Frost's "depreciation" of these poetic "exploits," interwoven as they are with his eagerness to report them, is perhaps a reminder to himself as much as to Bartlett that even this hard-won "success of esteem," however gratifying and promising, is only a step toward--and not to be confused with--the public success required as much by his personal principles and literary pride as by his economic need.

Frost, then, is connected to the people of his book in ways that reach both back to his personal past and ahead to his imagined future. For the Frost who had labored in schoolrooms, factories, and farmers' fields even before the move to Derry, his farming neighbors were, like him, a part of the country's working class. In the poems, they become an extension of himself, made to embody his convictions about character and self-reliance. Like them he felt the diminished power of the individual in an increasingly corporate economy, and like them he knew the elusive profits of small-scale fanning, which in 1906 had returned him to teaching at considerable cost to his poetry.

In 1913, as he assembled North of Boston, his sense of common cause with the people of this rural world could only have gained strength from the fact that even now, as a poet, he faced the same market forces that they did, for the publishing elite that controlled Frost's future was ruled by the same economic interests that had decided the fate of his Derry neighbors.

But Frost also knew that to succeed as a poet--to gain a hearing for their voices and his own--he would have to make his way in this world antithetical to the values he idealized in his "people." Indeed, Frost's need to gain the support of a privileged class in which he would never feel at home both parallels and partly explains the tensions and conflict that structure every North of Boston poem. These oppositions are introduced as early as "Mending Wall," whose modernist speaker argues against the wall he helps to rebuild and at least seems unresponsive to the claims of a tradition honored by the volume as a whole. In the course of the book, the oppositions take many further forms--individual against corporate, country against city, feminine against masculine--weaving a texture of social and moral drama into the counterpoint of voices found in poem after poem.

"The Wood-Pile," the last of the book's blank-verse poems, brings this drama within a single consciousness, with a speaker who begins by debating whether to "turn back" toward old, familiar ground or to "go on farther" and "see." In this moment of hesitation and choice, Frost reproduces in almost abstract, spatial terms the conflict between old and new, tradition and change, that has structured the volume. The abandoned woodpile that the speaker finds by going on does not resolve the tension, but takes him again in both directions--vividly back to the "labor of [an] ax" that had "cut and split" this now-decaying wood, and vicariously forward with one imagined as "forget[ing] his handiwork" in "turning to fresh tasks." In offering this explanation for why this wood remains "far from a useful fireplace," the speaker skirts a more unsettling one, giving it emphasis by avoidance.

Clearly, the woodcutter has left his work behind, either in living or in dying. But despite the speaker's optimistic assertion, death remains implicit in the "handiwork" on which the woodcutter has "spent himself' and in the ironic "burning" of the wood's "decay" images of the exhaustion and loss that remain among life's inescapable facts.

The understated power with which "The Wood-Pile" develops this opposition is essential to its climactic role in North of Boston, for the terms of the drama both recapitulate and extend the mortal stakes at issue in nearly every poem of the volume. Whether the survival is literal or figurative--social and emotional or physical--these poems present a series of life-and-death alternatives for the individuals in them, for their relationships, and for their culture as whole.

In developing the tensions introduced by "Mending Wall," North of Boston shows that a central feature of our national story--the retreat of independent farming within a growing, impersonal, capitalized economy--took particular and poignant form in New England, the symbolic birthplace of our nation's individualism. Equally significant and intriguing, the tensions traced by this pivotal volume in Frost's career correspond to one within Frost himself, whose poetic and practical aims must somehow span worlds in social and economic conflict and whose move to Derry was a step toward that poetic future by way of our cultural past.

Credits: David Sanders, St. John Fisher College

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am currently studying for my Master's comprehensive exams in English and American Literature, and I found this post about North of Boston to be exceedingly helpful--very insightful, and I appreciated the tensions within the poetry book that you so carefully teased out, especially the conflict between the rural and the urban, and all that those concepts entail. I also appreciated your discussion of the vernacular and Frost's balance of a "colloquial" form (regular, spoken language) and of a traditional form (meter, blank verse). THANK YOU for posting this!

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