Robert Frost (1874-1963) lived long enough, and wrote long enough to give critics something to talk about – late Romantic and modern, 19th and 20th century, developing modern idiom but in the voice of nineteenth century, avoids traditional verse and erratic use of rhyme, adopts New England regionalism and avoids provincialism. Oh, Robert Frost, you are so you and only you!
That’s what’s called ‘finding one’s voice’ and so few do it’s worth praising. Unfortunately, it’s also cause for imitation – the irony. How Frost found Frost’s voice is typically a combination of critics’ criticism and poet’s self reflection – both of which bring into question whether the ‘voice’ is genuine or simply a figment of the imagination (both critics’ and poet’s).
Frost said, in true romantic form, “It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-frost). For instance, when Frost gave an account of his most famous verse, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, (published on March 7, 1923 in The New Republic), he called it “My best bid for remembrance” (whatever that means, and what it means is whatever Frost says it means – thus, ‘tantalizing vagueness’).
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The night before Frost composed “Stopping”, he had stayed up all night to complete a poem he named “New Hampshire” which he was very happy about. It was June, no snow at all, and a pleasant dawn so Frost went out to watch the sun rise; an idea struck him and he (in contrast to his long labors on “New Hampshire”) wrote “Stopping” without pause (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621).
There’s a horse, a farmhouse, bells, a frozen lake, wind and snow (of course). Frost said “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.”
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
In other accounts Frost’s long struggle with poverty and notoriety (he lacked it, he said), serve as psychological explanations of the “miles to go before I sleep”, while occasionalist critics note the sleepless night working on “New Hampshire” as a more obvious explanation. And others ‘hear’ the voice of death at the heart of life in the “woods are lovely (life), dark and deep (death).” Frost said in still another account that “Stopping” was the kind of work for one page with forty pages of notes on it following. Everything is nothing and everything – that’s Frost’s voice, according to Frost.
Here’s my own Frost-on-Frost version of Frost:
Frost and Boots
I ran across Robert Frost in the woods
and he commented on my boots –
how fine they were for such a day
and the excellent way in which they
carried me about in this snowy way
lacking a horse bedonned with bells
on this darkest night of this year
and I thought it queer if not varied
he noted, with such a simple cheer
they’d be great in which to be buried.