Robert Frost is one of those poets whom almost everyone has read, but usually in small doses of roads less traveled and stopping on snowy evenings.
But the man clearly wrote more than that—four Pulitzer’s worth over his lifetime. His first poem, “My Butterfly, an Elegy,” was published when he was twenty*, although he didn’t start writing full-time until he was thirty-eight** and moved his family to England, or more specifically, the small village of Dymock in Gloucestershire, which was already the stomping grounds of several influential poets, including Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Ezra Pound, an American who helped promote Mr. Frost.***
Mr. Frost prudently returned to America at the start of the first World War and settled in New Hampshire, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the natural images in most of his poems, though his sense of whimsy is often overlooked:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
As a genealogist and confessed taphophile,^ I’m also fond of this one:
In a Disused Graveyard
The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones:
Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.
Even when his poems have urban settings, one gets the sense that he doesn’t particularly want to be there:
Acquainted by the Night
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,
O luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
And he didn’t much care for urban sprawl, either:
A Brook in the City
The firm house lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in.
But what about the brook
That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force No longer needed?
Staunch it at its source With cinder loads dumped down?
The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run -
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water.
But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.
There’s obviously more to Robert Frost than a couple of inspirational poems—not that I’m knocking anything that has such universal, timeless resonance.
I’m just saying that it might be worth it to check out some of his poems less traveled and see which ones speak to you, personally.
Sheldon® is the property of the remarkable, brilliant, and ultimately non-litigious Dave Kellett.
*It’s here if you’d like to read it. The only comment I’m going to make about it is that it’s reassuring to know that we all have to start somewhere . . . and the man shed a lot of purple over the years.
**Something else I find reassuring.
***Until Frost asked him to stop—the reasons aren’t entirely clear, though he may have feared that the reviews weren’t describing his work accurately. Despite this, they remained lifelong friends, which says a lot about Robert Frost’s loyalty and patience, as Ezra Pound was certifiably unstable. I’m not just saying this because I don’t care for most of his stuff—he was at one point arrested for treason and declared mentally unfit for trial. I heard a recording of Pound reading “With Usura,” before I was told his history, and I can’t say I was much surprised that he was institutionalized. He reminds me of a library patron who sounds perfectly sane until he asks you to proofread a letter to his congressman that explains his beliefs that the president was born in Osama bin Laden’s mansion in Paris because they’re secretly second cousins—and when you hand it back, he gives you a special tin foil hat because you’re the only person who understands him.
^Yes, it’s true . . . I like cemeteries. What did you think it meant?