North of Boston was the second book that Frost published, the title pointing to its subject matter of the men and women living on the land in New Hampshire and Vermont, beyond the urban sophistication of Boston. Frost had arrived in England with his family in 1912, having had difficulty finding an American publisher for his poems. His first book, A Boy's Will, was published in London in 1913, but it was with North of Boston the following year that he got the attention and respect of the poets writing in London, and was able to find an American publisher, Henry Holt, eager to publish his work.
A Boy's Will is composed largely of autobiographical lyrics. The poems contain many features characteristic of late Romantic nineteenth-century poetry: formulaic contractions, archaic diction, and sometimes contrived inversions. Some of the poems in North of Boston also have origins in Frost's own life, but the incidents are conceived as dramatic monologues using colloquial diction, in the manner of Browning and Kipling, and with an earlier model in the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth - although Keats and Hardy are also important predecessors. Frost observed of this book that he "dropped to an everyday level of diction even Wordsworth kept above." Instead of stiff inversions, the lines in North of Boston catch the speakers' hesitations, repetitions, and second thoughts. In this book, which contains a number of Frost's best-known poems, the style and material that would characterize his poetry for the next 50 years found expression. Frost had been working on his poetry for some 20 years before these first books, and so did not go through the process of hesitant development in a series of early books before reaching his mature style, as is the case with many poets. Of the 17 poems in this book, Frost had written "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Black Cottage," and "The Housekeeper" while still farming in Derry in 1905, and "The Wood-Pile," "The Mountain," and "After Apple-Picking" before he left for England. North of Boston stands both as the first announcement of a major poet's distinctive style, and also the finest summation of the themes and material upon which he subsequently built the career that made him a national icon and won him four Pulitzer prizes. That material, Frost's regional subject, is the hard life of the farmers and other country people of New England, their battles with nature and with each other - neighbors, spouses - the power of their own imaginations, and also the world in which they lived, the decaying cottages and farmhouses, and the world of nature that was always ready to undo the tenuous order that human imagination, ingenuity, and need had tried to impose upon the earth.
North of Boston is dedicated, like Frost's first book, to "E.M.F.", his wife Elinor. On the dedication page he calls the book "This Book of People," and although the poems are more about social relations than those in A Boy's Will, the "people" are usually isolated, often fearful or misguided figures, although they are treated sympathetically in the poems, sometimes achieving a kind of triumph over their oppression or oppressors. In a footnote, following the invitation of the opening poem "The Pasture," Frost comments that the second poem, "Mending Wall," "takes up the theme" where the earlier book's "The Tuft of Flowers" had "laid it down," and the relationship indicates the difference between the complexity of the two books. The charming "The Tuft of Flowers" finds a comforting sense of closure and resolution beneath its surface paradox when the hay-gatherer finds that the mower has earlier spared a group of wildflowers for their beauty: " 'Men work together,' I told him from the heart, / 'Whether they work together or apart.' "Mending Wall," on the other hand, takes a more complex position on the same themes of nature, community, and order. "Good fences make good neighbours" not, as the narrator's neighbor thinks, because they create a wall that divides them, but because they meet to mend it each year after nature has tried to knock it down. The narrator himself initiates this mending, and it is the repairing ritual itself - two humans trying to keep order against a nature that undermines their work - that brings them together, even if the neighbor does not recognize the wall's true communal status.
"The Death of the Hired Man" and "Home Burial" dramatize domestic strife, both centering upon definitions of "home." In the former, the wife Mary sees a more organic connection between domestic order, human community, and the broader cycles of nature, than her husband, and sees an obligation to the unreliable and dying worker Silas who has come to them. Her husband, Warren, takes a harder, more practical position, although his wife's arguments and tenderness finally win him over. In "Home Burial," based upon the death of Frost and Elinor's first-born son at the age of 3 in 1900, the wife also takes a broader view of "home," wanting to share her grief outside the home with someone other than her husband. But both husband and wife take a narrow view of the ways in which the other deals with grief, for she condemns his attempt to cope with the loss by continuing with his routine, while he insists that she keep the expression of her grief within the emotional confines of the marriage and the physical confines of the home (a position easier for him to hold, since the poem makes clear that the house is that of his family, and thus the new grave in the family burial ground outside the window is part of a larger continuity of birth and death as far as his history is concerned). These two poems begin a series of dramatic explorations of marriage and definitions of home that include, in later books, such well-known poems as "The Witch of Coos" and "West-Running Brook."
Related to "The Death of the Hired Man" and "Home Burial," two poems in which women, with varying degrees of success, confront what for them is the very real oppression of the male partner, are the female figures in "The Fear," "The Housekeeper," and "A Servant to Servants." The women in all five of these poems have powerful, sometimes potentially destructive or paranoiac, imaginations. But whereas the wife in "The Death of the Hired Man" can incorporate her broad sense of community within definitions of home that make room for the seasons, the moon, and the privacy of the marriage bed, in "The Fear" the wife finds the home a terrifying place and the source of threats that also surround it, imagining that she is being watched by a former husband. She discovers the source of what she hears, this time, to be an example of a more controlled domestic scene: two males, a father out showing his son the night, a discovery which by no means assuages her fears. The very title "A Servant to Servants" reveals the double sense of entrapped obligation that the wife of this poem feels towards her husband and the hired men she must provide for. Her sense of oppression is revealed to a traveler, one free to move on, and this oppression is paralleled in a chilling story she tells of the confinement of a lunatic and violent uncle, jailed within a home-made cage, whose nakedness and raging against "love things" can be heard in the bedroom of the new bride and husband - the speaker's parents. In "The Housekeeper," the younger oppressed woman has escaped, to the fury and puzzlement of her narrowly practical and selfish husband. He returns to demand explanations from the mother/housekeeper, who has just shared them with a visiting friend.
The clash of the practical and the imaginatively expansive is explored between male figures in "A Hundred Collars," "The Code," "The Mountain," and "The Self-Seeker." The last-named poem is based upon an accident which left Frost's friend Carl Burell crippled, and centers the conflict upon the different meanings of value and price. The crippled man refuses to put a price on the priceless - his enjoyment of the many varieties of wildflowers.
Significantly a young girl, the female imagination again, will help him counter the limitations imposed upon this joy by his handicap - her response to nature equally beyond price. The same themes of the practical and imaginative, nature and human order, become multi-layered in the justly famous "After Apple-Picking," where the imagination takes over from exhausting and unfinished labor in a poem that has been variously interpreted as about artistic creation, the possibilities of salvation following the Fall, the need to acknowledge human limitation, and the acceptance of inevitable death.
Such a poem is also concerned, in its allusions to Eden and the Fall, with origins, another theme that Frost would take up throughout his career. One way in which this exploration of origins is dramatized in his work is through abandoned and derelict houses - an inverse of the vibrant but potentially oppressive domestic spaces of the marriage poems discussed above. The two examples in North of Boston are "The Generations of Men," in which the extensive Stark family gathers in large numbers to explore its origins in a way that the poem gently ridicules. It is left to a young couple, meeting by a ruined cottage, to use an imagining of the past as a playful way to begin a courtship that looks to the future. The young girl's role is particularly important, as is the imagined presence of a long-dead female relative, both female presences qualifying the gender limitations of the poem's title. The other poem is "The Black Cottage," a domestic space kept vital when she was alive by a Civil War widow, the ruined cottage now viewed from the outside by two men. The cottage has been inherited by the widow's two sons, now in the west, whose plans to spend some time in the house remain only vague intentions. The real homeowners are the bees, whose presence ends the poem:
"There are bees in this wall." He struck the clapboards,
Fierce heads looked out; small bodies pivoted.
The final poem of the volume, "Good Hours," is a short lyric describing the narrator going out for a "winter evening walk" beyond the "cottages" whose lighted windows provide a kind of company on the outward journey. By being darkened when the walker retraces his steps they leave the narrator alone, but, the title suggests, not too disturbed. Frost would later write more threatening lyrics about such a walk beyond human habitation, for example in his "Acquainted with the Night."
The dramatic narratives in North of Boston explore the depths of human fears, love, needs, and despair in colloquial speech that is set against the rhythms of blank verse. The counterpoint between the syntactical stress of the speaking voice and the formal qualities of the verse parallels the narratives of an order or containment being tested, pushed, either to a greater level of incorporation or, in some of the poems, to reinforce, like an animal pacing the confines of its cage, the nature of the imprisonment. This was a theme and formal device that Frost exploited for the rest of his career.
The central theme in this book and in subsequent volumes of the role and status of human order as it confronts a nature perhaps indifferent, perhaps hostile, perhaps sympathetic to such human attempts to shape it, is paralleled by Frost's general attitude to poetic form. In a famous statement in his essay "The Figure a Poem Makes" Frost called a poem "a momentary stay against confusion." The tentative "momentary" shows the distance between Frost and the Romantic poets of a hundred years earlier, who viewed the relationship of man and nature as more harmonious. The theme is a central aspect of Frost's questioning of Romantic assumptions about the relation of nature to the human, and the possible special status of humankind. Frost accepts the parameters of the Romantic discussion, as such modernists as Pound and Eliot did not, but questions the Romantic conclusions - as well as the comfortable restatements of the Romantic relationship by the English Georgian poets - in much the way that Thomas Hardy does in his poetry. The claim also shows his distance from a modernist poet such as Wallace Stevens, who also argued with the Romantic poets, but saw the poem as bringing order to a world otherwise unknowable.
Following North of Boston Frost stayed with the themes and form he had found there. Pound and the other modernists soon lost patience and wrote him off as belonging to the past, but to the American public Frost came to embody the essential American poet. He went on to be feted by Congress and presidents, his reputation survived critical and political fashions, and he remained an irritant to the modernist poets throughout his career. He rejected their call for free verse, and for the urban, cosmopolitan subject matter of writers like Pound and Eliot. Perhaps it was no accident that the first poem of his next book following North of Boston began with "The Road Not Taken" - Frost had decided what road he wanted to take.
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