One of the things people often get wrong about Robert Frost is assuming he was a New Englander. He was a Californian, which is useful to keep in mind when you suppose what you are seeing in his work is a wintry stoicism rather than the formal high jinks of the son of an editor at the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, who spent his first decade among flamboyant western bohemians by the sea. We think of him as a pastoral poet and mistake his great theme, which was form. It is like calling Newton a pastoral mathematician.
In 1894, when he was 20, Frost had his first poem published, in the newspaper the New York Independent. He was paid $15 for “My Butterfly. An Elegy” – $450 in today’s money – and with the windfall proposed marriage to Elinor White, his fellow high school valedictorian, then toured the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. He experimented with form. He saw the virtue of plainness. Much later he would say of free verse, “I’d just as soon play tennis with the net down.”
Ninety-seven years ago, in the issue of The New Republic of March 7, 1923, Frost, 48 years old, published one of the simplest and most defining poems of his career, “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though ...
With its precise, monosyllabic rhymes – “queer,” near,” “year” – capped with the repeating “sleep,” it became an aural portal to poetry for generations of American students. The form brought them close.
The aim of the poet and the artist in all ages is to impose such forms on a fragmented world. Some poets do it with meter, some with diction, some with rhyme, and with all the possible combinations; and even by their absence, hoping to mirror the flux. They want to catch it, apprehend it, net it like a lepidopterist, make a barricade against disorder.
Shortly before his 60th birthday, Frost received greetings from the editors of the undergraduate newspaper where he had taught for decades, The Amherst Student.
He responded in a letter published in the Student 85 years ago, on March 25, 1935. “It is very, very kind ... to be showing sympathy with me for my age,” he wrote. “But 60 is only a pretty good age.” He went on:
“You will often hear it said that the age ... we live in is particularly bad. I am impatient of such talk. We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world’s history. Arnold claimed the honor for the age before this. Wordsworth claimed it for the last but one. ... I say they claimed the honor for their ages. They rather claimed it for themselves. It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.”
It is amazing how well that insight ages. But Frost was just warming to his theme.
“Fortunately,” he said, “we do not need to know how bad the age is. There is something we can always be doing ... There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it.
“We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself. When in doubt there is always form for us to go on.”