Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Robert Frost as a Modern Poet

In spite of the Pastoral element predominant in Frost’s poems, he is still a modern poet because his poetry has been endowed with the awareness of the problems of man living in the modern world dominated by Science and Technology. However, he was a contemporary and friend to such modernist greats as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. But as a modern poet Frost is different from other modern poets.

While modernist poetry is sometimes associated with an elitist culture that takes poetry away from the general public through experimental forms and esoteric references, Frost’s is a mordern poet in his rural, working-class persona, his traditional, metered voice and use of colloquial phrases, as well as the mundane subjects of most of his poems.

The major modern themes

The modern elements of his poetry are those of capitalism, the self-centeredness of the modern man, the bored existence, isolation, dilemma, and symbolism.

Two major poems

The poems that seemed to me most striking modern in nature are The Death of the Hired Man and Home Burial. The two poems are similar in nature that in both of them there is a conflict between the husband and the wife. Here the husbands represent a view of life which is very antithetical to wives’.

In the former poem there are three characters: Warren, Mary and Silas. Warren, the domineering husband represent the capitalism ,Mary, the cowed wife is a foil to her husband and Silas represent the lot of the millions of the workers who are the victims of the modern capitalistic society .Like Silas there are millions of the workers around the globe who toil and toil ,but remain unrewarded and die an unlamented death.

Thus the central figure of the poem is Silas, whose death the poem records. The character of Silas is very pathetic and sympathy arousing. Silas in his old age, helpless and useless, is a pathetic decrepit figure alienated from the world, with no shelter over his head and with no home to go to. His self respect makes him feel ‘ashamed to please his brother’ and as a result he is also isolated from his rich banker brother.

It is true that Warren has some accusations against Silas that he left the farm during the busy days. But in this case Warren also can’t fully understand Silas’s character. Why did he leave? He left for ht higher wages. It shows that Silas was very poorly paid for his labor. So, Warren does not find any fault in his own capitalistic manner by which he tried to buy the labor of Silas in return of the little wages. In this way he represents the capitalist society of the modern world.

The poem Home Burial is also based on a modern theme namely the self-centeredness. Here the over-wrought wife is a foil to the practical husband. They hold two diametrically opposite views of life. The wife ,under the burden of the grief over the death of her first new-born ,can’t forget that her husband himself dug the grave of their own child in their little grave-yard and himself buried him there. But to the husband, it seems a normal act that he should have dug the grave of his own son. He has come to accept the death of his son as an accident whose grief can be submerged beneath the everyday existence of life.

In order to make his wife accept the accident the husband gives some arguments. He says-

No, from the time when one is sick to death
One is alone and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave
But before one is in it, their mind is turned.

Thus the husband speaks out the selfish nature of the modern men who even betray with the dead. All human sympathy is gone and it has been replaced by selfishness. In this way the poem is a modern domestic epic, which exposes some modern crises to our eyes.

Mending Wall

The poem Mending Wall is also very modern in its approach. The poem is based on the modern theme of isolation. Modern men built boundaries and made themselves isolated from each other. Frost’s metaphysical treatment of this physical and psychological isolation is also an evidence of his modernity. In “Mending Walls”, Frost juxtaposes the two opposite aspects of the theme of the poem and then leaves it to the reader to draw his own conclusion. The conservative farmer says:

Good fences make good neighbor
and the modern radical farmer says:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

But the question remains unsolved. And it is up to the readers if they will keep the wall or pull down it.

Modern approach to Nature

It is true that Frost’s poetry abounds in pastures and plains, mountains and rivers, woods and gardens, groves and bowers, fruits and flowers, and seeds and birds. But his approach to nature and this natural phenomenon are different from the Romantics and is very realistic and modern in nature. His retreat to the country side is not the romantic escape from the harsh, unpleasant realities of modern life. The rural world, the world of nature into which he withdraws, is not a world of dreams ,a pleasant fanciful Arcadia ,but harsher and more demanding than the urban world.

Unlike Romantics he has taken notice of both the bright and dark aspects of nature as we see in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”. Beneath the apparently beautiful calm there is lurking turmoil and storms:

Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath

In fact the world of nature in Frost’s poetry is not a world of dream. It is much more harsh, horrible and hostile than the modern urban world. Hence his experience of the pastoral technique to comment on the human issue of modern world his realistic treatment of Nature, his employment of symbolic and metaphysical techniques and the projection of the awareness of human problems of the modern society in his poetry justly entitle him to be looked up to as modern poet.

Problems of Modern life

In fact, Frost’s poetry portrays the disintegration of values in modern life and the disillusionment of the modern man in symbolical and metaphysical terms as much as the poetry of great, modern poets does, because most of his poems deal with persons suffering from loneliness and frustration, regrets and disillusionment which are known as modern disease. In “An old Man’s Winter Night”, the old man is lonely, completely alienated from the society, likeness, the tiredness of the farmer due to over work in “Apple-Picking” and as a result of it his yielding to sleep:

For I have too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of great harvest I myself desired.

The Poem The Road Not Taken also deals with the dilemma of the modern mind. The poem depicts the confusion which prevails in modern life. The modern man does not know which way to go and it is difficult for him to make a choice. He is confused and his life does not have a clear purpose. The speaker in the poem represents the modern man, who habitually wastes energy in regretting any choice made, but belatedly and wishfully sighs over the attractive alternative which he rejected:

I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.


The symbolic technique followed by Frost is also very modern in nature. The poems that are rich in symbolic meaning are Mending Wall, The Road Not Taken, Stopping by Woods by Snowy Evening, Birches etc.

Mending Wall is a symbolic poem in which he describes an anecdote typical of the conservative approach of the rural people in New England, but it has the universal symbolic implication.

The poem Stopping By woods on a Snowy Evening is also full of symbols. The poem symbolically expresses the conflict which everyone feels between the demands of the practical life and a desire to escape into the land of reverie. The closing stanza of the poem is especially symbolic.
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.

“The Road Not Taken” symbolizes the universal problem of making a choice of invisible barriers built up in the minds of the people which alienate them from one another mentally and emotionally thought they live together or as neighbors in the society. Similarly the Birch trees in “Birches” symbolize man’s desire to seek escape from the harsh suffering man to undergo in this world.

Critics have a difference of opinion over considering him a modern poet. Frost is a pastoral poet – poet of pastures and plains, mountains and rivers, woods and gardens, groves and bowers, fruits and flowers, and seeds and birds. They do not treat such characteristically modern subjects as ‘the boredom implicit in sensuality’, ‘the consciousness of neuroses’ and ‘the feeling of damnation’.

But the recent critical conversations have resuscitated a little noted argument from the late seventies in favor of viewing Frost as modernist.

While Frost does not place the whole course of Western history into doubt or experiment with innovative formal structure and with the position of the reader – characteristics of the work of other modernist poets -- he does tend toward a critique of the increasing alienation of modern life, as well as foster a sense of the visual that is so important to some groups of modernists like the imagists (who favorably reviewed Frost’s work).

According to J.F.Lynen the use of the pastoral technique by Frost in his poems, does not mean that the poet seeks an escape from the harsh realities of modern life. He argues that it provides him with a point of view.
Frost uses pastoral technique only to evaluate and comment on the modern lifestyle. His pastoralism thus registers a protest against the disintegration of values in the modern society and here he is one with great poets of the modern age like T.S.Eliot, Yeats and Hopkins.