Robert Frost

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Robert Frost
Air Date: April 20, 2010

Everyone thinks they know Robert Frost. Everyone knows a few of his poems, like “Stopping By Woods,” or “The Road Not Taken.” Some people hear the voice in his poems as the voice of a simple New England farmer. Other people, the ones who think they’re wiser and more erudite, think of him as a crafty, ironic sophisticate. My guess is, both are true. As we all do, Frost used the tools he had at hand. He was born in San Fransicso, but after the death of his father—who had been a newspaper editor—his family moved to New England to be near his grandfather, who was the overseer of a mill. He did have New England, then, as a subject, but the image of a country boy who turned into a poet is pretty far from the truth.

Frost did love farming. Or, I should say, Frost loved living on a farm. He tried but failed more than once as a farmer. Thank goodness he had money from his father to get him over the hump. He had a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire that has since become “The Frost Place”—where many famous –and not quite so famous poets such as me, for example, have come to read and give classes. There’s the house, where guest poets are invited to stay for several weeks, even months, and work. And there’s the barn, where poets come to read. There’s a small stage and the audience sits in front on folding chairs. There’s a path through the woods behind the house with wooden signs along the way with quotes from Frost’s poems on them.

I want to read you a poem, not a very long one, called “Acquainted With the Night.” Frost was definitely acquainted with the night. His life was full of grief and loss. His father died of tuberculosis in 1885, when Frost was 11, leaving the family with just $8. His mother died of cancer in 1900. In 1920, Frost had to commit his younger sister, Jeanie, to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later. Mental illness apparently ran in Frost’s family, as both he and his mother suffered from depression, and his daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. Frost’s wife, Elinor, also experienced bouts of depression.

Elinor and Robert Frost had six children: their son Elliot died of cholera, their son Carol committed suicide, their daughter Marjorie died from puerperal fever after childbirth, and daughter Elinor Bettina died three days after her birth. Only daughters Lesley and Irma outlived their father. Frost’s wife Elinor, who had heart problems throughout her life, developed breast cancer in 1937, and died of heart failure in 1938.

Here is the poem:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

I want to read this one again, since it’s short. It’s 14 lines, actually, like a sonnet, but it has a terza rima rhyme scheme, which follows the complex pattern aba bcb cdc dad aa. The form was invented by the Italian poet Dante for his epic poem The Divine Comedy.

Italian’s a language in which a lot of words have vowel endings, so terza rima is easier to write in Italian. Few American writers want to tackle the form. But Frost was a master of many forms. and “Acquainted With The Night” is one of the most famous examples of an American poem in terza rima:

Here it is, again:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

That poem is more lyric—in the sense that it is kind of a little song about a feeling. Frost is most loved, though, I’d say, for his narrative poems, the ones that tell a story. I want to read you this one, called “Out, Out.”

It tells the story of a young teenage boy who dies after his hand is severed by a “buzz-saw”. The title comes from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” You’ll see why the title is so appropriate to the poem. As I read it, listen for the even meter, the iambics—ta duh, ta duh, five times in each line (that’s iambic pentameter). Notice how that meter gives a measured, sane, conversational tone to the poem, that seems to make the event in the poem even more awful:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper’. At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,

Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh.
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all–
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart–
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then — the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing! — and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Oh my. No sentimentality here. But this is the way it is. People have to go on and live, no matter what. I hear the lines from Macbeth again: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

What I most admire about Frost’s work is in this poem: There’s no grandstanding at all. Just that ability to make a conversational voice open up depths we hardly know are there.

Last, I’d like to read this little poem called “Fire and Ice.” Again, it seems so simple. But listen to it carefully. It’s deeply ironic. Frankly, Frost says, everyone has this idea that the world will end in fire—meaning passion of some sort will do us in—and probably it will, the speaker says. But, well, you know, ice—or hate—would do pretty well, too. Notice how he uses the simple rhyme and the meter to make it seem like almost a nursery rhyme, which is exactly the opposite of the speaker’s tone:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

This is hardly the Frost with a blade of hay in his mouth, hauling stones to brace up a wall, is it?

This is a complicated man with the skill to make his work sound simple.