North of Boston, Frost's second book, came out in England in 1914. A few poems go back a decade to Frost's years as a chicken farmer in New Hampshire ('The Death of a Hired Man', 'The Black Cottage', 'The Housekeeper'); others ('The Mountain', 'After Apple-Picking', 'The Woodpile') were largely completed before Frost left for England in 1912, where the remaining ten poems were written 'on an inspiration compounded of homesickness and the delight of new friendships' (Cramer, 1996, pp. 28—9). It is striking how early in the century these poems appear. The major work of the firstgeneration modernists is still years off, yet Frost is already writing in his mature style and has found his own way through to the directness valued by Pound and the Imag-ists. There is another reason why these poems might seem to have arrived early: Frost does not develop as a poet after the publication of this book. He would often write as well, but he would seldom write differently. Other poets would experiment and make breakthroughs, but from 1914 through to 1962, as Jay Parini puts it, each new volume has him adding rings 'like a tree' (Parini 1999, p. 262). The lyric and narrative norms of this collection are the cornerstone of a remarkably homogeneous body of work.
It is curious, too, that Frost would stick with much the same setting in the fifty or so years left to him as a writer. 'The Pasture', a prefatory poem to this and other volumes, begins with a farmer's everyday tasks — 'I'm going out to clean the pasture spring' — and an invitation: 'I shan't be gone long. — You come too'. It has sometimes been urged that a paucity of interest beyond such places and occasions reveals the poet as hayseed. An established response to these reservations has been to look beyond the apparent simplicities of setting to the psychological depth of Frost's 'Landscapes of the Self' (Lentricchia, 1975), or to the epistemological sophistication of the 'Work of Knowing' (Poirier, 1977) his poems perform. These are key insights, but it is also the case that the restricted setting of Frost's poems is as much of its time, and as similarly codified, as their popular counterpart, the Western.
Not that there are cowboys or Indians, gunslingers or sheriffs, in Frost. But there are desert places where a lone human being confronts nature in its immensity and is tested; there are outposts where hopeless farms grind people down; there are arenas where men value physical skill and emotional reserve - and women go mad. Even so, it may go against the grain to locate 'Westerns' north of Boston. That city is reputedly strait-laced, civilized, old. Americans say it's East. We know that forever rolling west of Boston is the new: the promising empty (emptied) space of settlement, 'the land vaguely realizing westward, / but still unstoried, artless, unenhanced' ('The Gift Outright'). There is also a South of antebellum mansions, slaves, rafts and riverboats, a mental co-ordinate from which one might say that North is puritanical, self-reliant, earnest . . . Bostonian. But north of Boston? In a way, it is like saying north of North: surely, as Gertrude Stein might say, there is no there there. The poems themselves suggest a map where roads peter out and towns with far-off names like Lunenburg give way to ominous legends: frozen swamp, dark woods, dead house. Frost's own guide to these tumble-down spaces of America - to the north of the North - is a poem written much later in life called 'Directive'.
Back out of all this now too much for us, Back in a time made simple by the loss Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather, There is a house that is no more a house Upon a farm that is no more a farm And in a town that is no more a town.
People who live in out of the way places whose names begin with 'new' (New Hampshire, New Zealand) know those oxymorons well. In North of Boston Frost is a poet of settlement as ruin.
A dedication note commends 'This book of people' to Frost's wife, but this is not a populous work. We meet people on lonely journeys, people in lonely houses, people for whom the project of making a life and home for themselves has come unstuck. If 'North of Boston' is a place where nature has the upper hand, it is not simply because the climate is cruel and the soil poor, but also because this is a place where the promise of America is exhausted and exposed. The new is blasted in this environment.
'The Black Cottage' concerns a dwelling so run down, 'the warping boards pull out their own old nails / With none to tread and put them in their place'. A Civil War widow used to live there, and the narrator's talkative companion, a minister, tries to explain why the cottage - first glimpsed as a picture framed by cherry trees - seems to him so singularly forsaken. It is not simply 'the lives / That had gone out of it', but something he can't quite put his finger on, and will later misconstrue, even as he senses that it involves unsettling familiar relations between old and new. The widow's husband fell at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg; the minister knows it ought to matter which, but cannot recall whether the carnage in question was the famous Union victory or the famous defeat. He does remember that the woman maintained a touching faith in the proposition that all men are created free and equal, a difficult saying 'each age will have to reconsider', but which she holds to with simple fervour.
What are you going to do with such a person?
Strange how such innocence gets its own way.
I shouldn't be surprised if in this world
It were the force that would at last prevail.
The minister feels tender towards this quality in her and goes on to indulge a fantasy:
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish I could be monarch of a desert land I could devote and dedicate forever To the truths we keep coming back and back to. So desert it would have to be, so walled By mountain ranges half in summer snow, No one would covet it or think it worth The pains of conquering to force change on.
The minister imagines a citadel in the wilderness, a place so desert, so wild, that no one would wish to conquer it. He sounds like a founding father. The settlement of any new world requires visions of empty space even as indigenous peoples are conquered and change is imposed: it is another example of how ironclad innocence 'gets its own way'. Frost underlines this by having the minister overreach himself — he imagines sand grains turning to sugar in 'the natal dew' — and then pull up short:
'There are bees in this wall'. He struck the clapboards,
Fierce heads looked out; small bodies pivoted.
The bees are where the honey is — they may suggest a more natural or original mode of habitation in contrast to the minister's arid and solipsistic ideal. Yet because those 'fierce' recolonizing bees have made themselves a home where they will not be wanted, Frost's natural image also catches on the ferocity of human patterns of settlement. In 'The Black Cottage' the American past is housed in a kind of anti-monument that not only yields to time but makes any saving act of commemoration ambivalent and unsure.
Other houses in North of Boston are more private, but also encrypt dead or half-living things. 'Home Burial', perhaps the best known, is motivated by the death, at age three and a half, of Robert and Elinor Frost's first child, and the distressingly different ways each parent responded to this loss. According to one biographer, Amy, the woman in the poem, in her implacable grief speaks words spoken repeatedly at the time by Elinor ('the world's evil'), while Frost once said of himself: 'And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies' (Cramer, 1996, pp. 35—6). In the poem, she goes quiet, he copes; he wants to penetrate her envelope of silence, she feels he is too brutish to be let in. Every line elaborates the double-binds and tightens the drama another notch. There is a virtuoso close reading by Joseph Brodsky that should not be missed, but it might also be said that few poems permit beginning readers to make their own 'close-reading' discoveries quite so readily. I think this is because the compelling human drama at the centre of the poem fits so well with practical or new critical styles of reading that 'see' through language, as it were, to the human consciousness at the heart of the poem. How does the husband feel? How does Amy feel? What does the poet make of them both?
One answers such questions by being sensitive to image, subtext and tone, and by allowing the detail of the poem to sharpen one's perceptions of emotional states. The woman says:
I saw you from that very window there, Making the gravel leap and leap in air, Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
What we are hearing is not only words in sequence but also a 'sentence sound' — Frost's 1913 term for the way voice carries extra-semantic meaning. In these lines, the repetitions of 'leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that' signify more than just what is said — it is as if we also hear an unspoken grievance jolted into hostility. Or consider the way Brodsky draws the reader into the poem (and into his performance of it) by elaborating the visual implications of the first line and a half.
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs Before she saw him.
... It is an extremely loaded scene — or, better yet, a frame. . . . He's looking up at her; she, for all we know thus far, doesn't register his presence at all. Also, you've got to remember that it's in black and white. The staircase dividing them suggests a hierarchy of significances. It is a pedestal with her atop (at least, in his eyes) and him at the bottom (in our eyes and, eventually, in hers). The angle is sharp. Place yourself here in either position - better in his - and you'll see what I mean. Imagine yourself observing, watching somebody, or imagine yourself being watched. Imagine yourself interpreting someone's movements - or immobility - unbeknownst to that person. That's what turns you into a hunter, or into Pygmalion. (Brodsky, Heaney and Walcott, 1997, p. 21)
Frost is especially amenable to this quality of attention, and that may be one reason why his poetry is sometimes patronized by poets and critics who have 'moved on' from expressive realism. Yet, as Brodsky goes on to explain, 'Home Burial' is a poem that is sceptical of the very empathy its reading would seem to invite. The reader, like the husband, ought to be able to say 'I see', but in the poem this little verb and its cognates (understand, ask, speak . . . 'let me in') lose their standard meaning through repetition; instead, they either perform his wish to 'explicate' her as a form of violence or become instances of the sound one makes when one is, as Brodsky puts it, 'reeling from the unnameable' (ibid., p. 27). In his view, 'Home Burial' is not about the couple's tragic failure to communicate, about their not finding the right words, but 'a tragedy of communication' in which each would like to imprint their understanding on the other, and each has words to bludgeon the other. 'This is a poem about language's terrifying success', he adds, 'for language, in the final analysis, is alien to the sentiments it articulates' (ibid., p. 39).
At first sight, 'The Death of a Hired Man' might seem to offer a radical contrast to 'Home Burial'. It is another dialogue between husband and wife, between the practical man and the woman of feeling, but rather than assail each other as they air these differences, they build relationship as they talk. But their conversation on the front porch is in counterpoint with what happens off stage, inside the house. Silas, an old farmhand, like a hound 'worn out upon the trail', has returned to Mary and Warren's farm. In the past he has done a little unpaid work for them in return for food and lodging. Times are hard, there is not enough money to pay him, but at haying time, when there is real farm work to be done, Silas always finds he can work for cash somewhere else. This time, Warren has vowed not to take him back. Silas is waiting in the parlour, where he has been reminiscing about the time he and a young college boy named Harold were haying together. They used to argue over such things as the good of learning Latin, and Silas, concerned the young man is becoming 'the fool of books', aims to teach him the practical art of building a haystack, his 'one accomplishment'. This opposition between the practical and the impractical is in keeping with another: Mary and Warren's different understandings of home. He shrewdly reckons, 'home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in'; and she counters, 'I should have called it / Something you somehow haven't to deserve'.
Norman Holland, in The Brain of Robert Frost, comments: 'Frost conceives his poem, his thought really, in twos. He pairs man and wife, father and mother, Republican and Democrat, hardness and nurturing, obligation and lack of obligation' (Holland, 1988, p. 31). We could add talk and action, volubility and bluntness, to that list of twos. Which side wins? I expect it seems to most readers that Mary has the best of the argument, that her husband's attitude softens over the course of the poem. He goes in to talk to Silas:
. . . returned - too soon, it seemed to her, Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited. 'Warren?' she questioned.
'Dead', was all he answered.
Their whole conversation is overshadowed by that one stark word. In so far as Silas dies while they are talking, it is as if death were itself a kind of home, a finality that dwarfs both their human concerns. The balance between Warren's and Mary's view of things is probably intended to settle back toward even with this ending, but I would say the scales tip all the way over onto the man's side. What is at stake is a secular, masculine, pared-down view of life and language, versus a feminine, Christian and sentimental one.
Frost differs from Pound in that his modernism is nativist rather than cosmopolitan, but he is as opposed to the 'Aunt Hepsy' strain in turn-of-the-century American poetry as Pound had ever been. He once said that with North of Boston he 'dropped to an everyday level of diction even Wordsworth kept above' (Thompson, 1965, pp. 83-4). It is a kind of manly anti-writing that proves one is not 'the fool of books'. Frank Lentricchia puts it this way:
Frost's struggle against canonical forces was a struggle carried out on behalf of a new lyric diction . . . for the purpose of reengendering lyric for 'masculinity', a word in Frost's and other modernists' lexicons signifying, not a literal opening of the lyric to actual male voices and subjects, but a symbolic shattering of a constrictive lyric decorum that had the effect, in Frost's America, of denigrating poetry as the province of leisured women. (Lentricchia 1994, pp. 86-7)
I would add that this 'reengendering' is not only, and not mainly, the work of high culture. It also defines the difference between turn-of-the-century novels of morality and sentiment and emergent popular forms like the Western. 'There are times in life when the fancy words and pretty actions don't count for much', says the Western, 'when it's blood and death and a cold wind blowing and a gun in your hand and you know suddenly you're just an animal with guts and blood that wants to live, love and mate, and die in your own good time' (cited in Tompkins, 1992, p. 47). In 'The Death of a Hired Man' something like that view brings questions of home into final perspective.
People who are away from home, or whose homes have become 'buried' in one way or another, allow Frost to examine some of the adventures and misadventures that can befall the self. 'The Fear', a study in paranoia, begins:
A lantern light from deeper in the barn Shone on a man and woman in the door And threw their lurching shadows on a house Nearby, all dark in every glossy window.
Imagine the movie: lights and camera are placed behind the actors, whose long shadows are thrown on the wall of a house nearby. It could only be a horror film. A generic example might start with the heroine safe inside the house, and a lurching menace outside, wanting to get in. Soon enough, the ghoul, monster, axe-murderer gets inside, and the film is likely to end with the expulsion of a threat, with an inner sanctum safely restored. But compare the situation of the woman in this poem. She is alarmed because she feels she is being watched — if not by her previous husband then someone he has sent. Yet her companion, Joel, has seen no one and her behaviour seems out of proportion as she takes the lantern and prepares to confront this supposed menace. Oddly, and in contrast to the usual conventions, her sense of threat is first associated with something inside the house, with the spooky feeling that a 'key rattled loudly into place' could warn an intruder 'to be getting out / At one door as we entered at another'. This chasing out then leaves a residue of fear:
Let him get off and he'll be everywhere Around us, looking out of trees and bushes 'Till I sha'n't dare to set a foot outdoors. And I can't stand it.
Something bad that was in the house is sent outside the house; once outside, it terrorizes the one who sent it out. This is the logic of projection: something bad inside me is sent outside me; once outside, it terrorizes me.
It turns out, however, that there really was someone there, a father with a child, out for a 'long-after-bedtime walk'. But rather than be relieved that her anxieties had a cause and were not just imagined, the woman continues to be agitated:
You won't think anything. You understand?
You understand that we have to be careful.
This is a very, very lonely place.
Joel!' She spoke as if she couldn't turn.
The swinging lantern lengthened to the ground,
It touched, it struck, it clattered and went out.
In the darkness, the woman has no object for her fear. It is as if she has lost her sense of having borders — as if the fear, now, is both inside and outside the house. Why is she like this? Frost gives the reader one or two hints to work on. Joel doesn't believe the watcher could really be her former lover — 'It's nonsense to think he'd care enough'. Her reply suggests that Joel is actually speaking about himself — 'You mean you couldn't understand his caring' — but when she adds: 'Oh, but you see, he hadn't had enough' it is herself she gives away. She has not been loved but used. Her delusion that someone once loved her enough to watch her jealously has been the fragile refuge of her self-esteem. If I may borrow from one of Frost's later, famous definitions of poetry, it is her 'momentary stay against confusion'.
In 'A Servant to Servants', in another house haunted by the past, a depressed and bone-tired farmer's wife complains:
It seems to me I can't express my feelings any more Than I can raise my voice or want to lift My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to). Did you ever feel so? I hope you never. It's got so I don't even know for sure Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything. There's nothing but a voice-like left inside That seems to tell me how I ought to feel, And would feel if I wasn't all gone wrong.
The 'sentence sound' conveys a heavy sort of lassitude as she describes a feeling of emptiness or hollowness where the self should be; it is as if the part of her that knows how she ought to feel is out of touch with anything that can do the feeling. Her husband, Len, has a more common affliction: the part of him that knows how he ought to feel, fully defines his emotional range. Like the neighbour in 'Mending Wall' he is a fount of bright pithy sayings like, 'One steady pull more ought to do it / . . . the best way out is always through'. A pathological optimist, 'he looks on the bright side of everything', his wife notes mordantly, 'including me'.
Mary, in 'The Death of a Hired Man', stresses the psychological need for houses that are safe enclosures, that offer sanctuary, as it were. But this woman's house is not only a place where there is a never-ending round of work, it is also an environment where she can feel neither private nor safe. She is the servant of her husband's hired men and, prompted in part by the sexual menace they represent to her, she goes on to explain how her mother, as a new bride, had to care for her husband's mad brother, who was kept in a cage in the attic of the house.
That was what marrying father meant to her. She had to lie and hear love things made dreadful By his shouts in the night. He'd shout and shout Until the strength was shouted out of him, And his voice died down slowly from exhaustion.
He'd pull his bars apart like bow and bowstring, And let them go and make them twang until His hands had worn them smooth as any oxbow.
Initially the woman sees herself repeating her mother's situation, but as she goes on the energy of her voice changes, and she seems to identify rather more with her uncle.
I often think of the smooth hickory bars. It got so I would say - you know, half-fooling -'It's time I took my turn upstairs in jail' -Just as you will till it becomes a habit.
Why might the uncle's situation be appealing? For one critic, his room within a room is 'a horrifying metaphor for the enemy lurking within the sanctuary of self — not really lurking, but more horrible, having a place there of its own' (Lentricchia, 1975, p. 68). In this line of interpretation, 'A Servant to Servants' — like many of Frost's poems of madness — illustrates a dark possibility of imagination, in which a person (usually a woman) risks losing all touch with reality in preferring constructs of her own making. It might be argued, however, that the speaker of this poem has a firm grip on the horrors of her world, and that her taking time off work to talk is a means of warding off emotional collapse. In fancying herself in her uncle's place, she identifies with what she knows she needs: a room of her own, as it were, or, as 'Directive' would have it, a ruined place of which one could say:
Here are your waters and your watering place.
The uncle in his attic, it should also be said, is as naked as Huck Finn on his island, and his twanging the hickory bars like 'bow and bowstring' has a boyish, playful quality to it. It is deeply American of Frost to imagine this attic room as an oasis of the primitive.
'The Wood-Pile' begins where many of Frost's hemmed-in people would like to be: somewhere else, 'just far from home'. The speaker has gone for a winter's-day walk: rather than turn back at an accustomed point, he has kept on walking and finds himself a little out of his depth, in surroundings he does not recognize. It is just scary enough to wonder if he should be frightened. This is evident in his anthropomorphic dealings with a small bird that flits ahead of him, which he imagines imagining him as a threat to tail feathers, 'like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself'. But is it possible not to? Frost is staging a philosophical conundrum to do with the human subject and its objects in his rural vernacular. He is wondering what it would be like to encounter nature as object on its own terms, purely and simply, without our human overlay of perception and thought. Like the bird, he necessarily takes things as 'personal to himself', even as he postulates a 'view' with no trace of human presence beyond the sweep of his perceptual field, advancing, bird-like, a step ahead of consciousness, into undifferentiated nature.
This little epistemological drama not only informs the speaker's dealings with the bird, but also with the next object he encounters: 'a cord of maple, cut and split / And piled - and measured, four by four by eight'. The woodpile has been abandoned long enough for it to seem neither a human structure nor yet a wholly natural one. It is the handiwork of both the person who 'cut and split and piled' the logs and his supplementary helper, clematis, that 'wound strings round and round it like a bundle'. It seems that an effort to imagine nature on its own terms produces a cluster of defences: anthropomorphic projection most obviously and, beyond an inevitable impulse to order, to measure something out in human terms, a more subtle and instinctive need: camouflage or mimicry. Whenever you feel too visible in your environment, chances are you try to fit in, you copy others, you become like the environment. Rather like the bird, the speaker can imagine himself being seen by something bigger than himself - call it Nature, the Real itself, what you will. The result is that the subject is now an object. The sensation of being seen like this is spooky - perhaps the skin creeps or prickles - but there is some protection from Nature's view of the subject in the prospect of camouflage, of somehow blending into the environment. This is what draws the speaker to the woodpile.
I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labour of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
The final image places human doings in an inhuman perspective and makes the prospect seem almost homely. I am reminded of the power of the word 'downy' in a later poem, 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening', where another cold and inhuman scene invites the possibility of merger:
. . . The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
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 North of Boston the role of that repeated last line is the work of the poem that follows 'The Woodpile' in the collection, the very last poem, 'Good Hours', in which the speaker has walked 'till there were no cottages found' and as he returns, it is as if he is trailing the land's emptiness alongside him.
In another season, and in a more plangent mood, the game of imagining the absence of human boundaries is also the concern of 'After Apple Picking' — 'Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off' — while the importance of maintaining them is the theme of the collection's opening poem, 'Mending Wall'. This poem recounts an exchange between the speaker and his neighbour as they go about the spring chore of repairing fences knocked about by the winter. The neighbour repeats the old saw, 'good fences make good neighbours' and preserves a stolid silence as they work. The speaker would like to plant a notion in his head: something mischievous, something unsettling. He conceives his own work of boundary-making to be like, rather than opposed to, the 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down'. The force of that contradiction — to simultaneously make a boundary and outreach it — is what drives manifest destiny. Yet whatever the 'something' that doesn't love a wall is, its most resonant location is not the new horizon (where it would be imperceptible) but what I have called 'north of the North': the ruined or blighted place, the interstitial crypt of settlement. It is 'something' that likes to dwell in 'gaps' opened out in what is left behind, knocked over, or run down. One of the names for it is Frost.
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Articles in journals
Costello, Bonnie (1998). 'What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Modern Nature and Poetic Response.' American Literary History, 10 (4) 569-605.
Muldoon, Paul (1998). 'Getting Round: Notes Towards an Ars Poetica.' Essays in Criticism, 48 (2) 107-29.
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