Waiting for Form

How Robert Frost made poetry modern.
A black-and-white photograph of Robert Frost standing outside, surrounded by plants and rocks.

I. A Lover's Quarrel

In the cemetery outside Old First Congregational Church in Bennington, Vermont, among other stone markers that “doubtless bear names that the mosses mar,” is a long, rectangular gravestone embossed with seven names: those of poet Robert Lee Frost; his wife, Elinor Miriam White; and five of their six children. Their daughter Irma, committed to a mental institution in 1947, is the only one not buried with them.

Twin markers flank the grave, each bearing a poem published 100 years ago this past October, as part of Frost’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection New Hampshire (1923). The first marker displays “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which Frost claimed was his “best bid for remembrance.” Though the poem’s bosky, oneiric darkness confers on the gravesite the right pensive melancholy, the lesser-known poem on the other marker, “In a Disused Graveyard,” more directly sets the scene:

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more 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.

The cemetery in which Frost rests is not exactly “disused,” though ever fewer people are buried there. And there is no “Tomorrow dead will come to stay” on the Frost gravestone nor any similar verse to warn of impending death to those living men and women who, like me, visit the burial ground to pay their respects to one of the great American poets. Instead, the words inscribed under Frost’s name on the large oblong stone are less a warning than a confession: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

The epitaph correctly casts Frost in a dual role: both lover of the world and combatant with it. Those who read Frost’s poetry deeply enough to see through the caricature of the simple farmer-poet espousing country wisdom see his dualities and contradictions metastasize. They begin to see him as both authentic Yankee sage and contrived farmer-poser, as Romantic and Modernist, as believer and skeptic, as portraitist and landscape artist, as threatener and rescuer, as avant-garde innovator and arrière-garde nostalgist, as liberal and conservative, as dour stoic and mischievous humorist, as affable companion and self-proclaimed “bad bad man,” as demystifier and remystifier of an unruly universe, whose design—if there is one—seems dark, muddled, and mysterious.

II. Less Farmer Than Fugitive

Even though he admitted privately that “It is not fair to farmers to make me out a very good or laborious farmer,” Frost cultivated a public image of the genial farmer-poet. Though he remains closely associated with the rustic aesthetics and pastoral moralism of the New England countryside, he was born in San Francisco—about as far from New England as was possible in the United States of 1874, both in terms of literal mileage and cultural distance. He lived there until age 11, when his father passed away and the family moved across the country to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to stay with his paternal grandfather.

Frost graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892 and delivered a commencement address as co-valedictorian. His speech, “A Monument to After-Thought Unveiled,” argued that “Not in the strife of action, is the leader made, nor in the face of crisis, but when all is over, when the mind is swift with keen regret, in the long after-thought.” Even in his sapling state, Frost knew that “the poet's insight is his after-thought [. …] And the grandest of his ideas come when the last line is written.”

His high school sweetheart, Elinor Miriam White, was the other valedictorian. He pressured her to marry him immediately after graduation, but she wanted to wait until she completed her studies at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Frost went to Dartmouth College but returned home after just two months—long enough to join the Theta Delta Chi fraternity but not long enough to make any other mark on campus. The campus, though, marked him: in the school’s library, he first encountered The Independent, spread out on a newspaper stick, with Richard Hovey’s poem “Seaward” on the front page: “that was where it grew on me I’d send a poem there sometime.” A year later, in 1894, he sold his first poem—“My Butterfly: An Elegy”—to that very periodical.

His confidence boosted by the boon of first publication, Frost assembled five poems into a bound pamphlet titled Twilight. He made just two copies: one for himself and the other for Elinor. He traveled to Canton, New York, to visit her at St. Lawrence unannounced, determined to convince her to finally marry him but was rebuffed. In response, Frost tore up his copy of Twilight and, in a bout of young-poet histrionics, traveled to Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp to end it all. “I was trying to throw my life away,” he later told his authorized biographer, Lawrence Thompson. How close he came to committing suicide is anyone’s guess, but he disappeared for three weeks. Within a year of his return, he and Elinor were married, though Elinor’s disapproving father was absent from the ceremony.

Frost’s grandfather bought the fledgling poet a farm in Derry, New Hampshire. He, Elinor, and their one-year-old daughter, Lesley, moved there in the fall of 1900 in the wake of tragedy: their four-year-old son, Elliott, had just died of cholera. The decade the family spent in Derry, fecund with poetic possibility, carried a certain enchantment for Frost in retrospect. Biographer Jay Parini calls the Derry farm Frost’s “chrysalis,” where the poet sprouted his wings. But they were nonetheless tough years.

Husbandry in New England at the turn of the century was difficult for even experienced and dedicated farmers. For a young poet with a growing family, saddled with the trauma of two dead children—a daughter died at the farm just days after her birth—and always at the mercy of his “daily gloominess,” there was little chance for success: “I was a poor farmer in those days, but rich, too. There was plenty of food, and time. […] Lots of time. I was time-rich.”

Frost’s grandfather had left him a $500 annuity and the deed to the Derry property, with the caveat that he could not sell it for the first decade, and that helped. “I kept farm, so to speak, for nearly ten years,” Frost explained, “but less as a farmer than as a fugitive from the world that seemed to me to ‘disallow’ me.

Frost was not only failing at farming but also seemingly failing at poetry. In fact, Frost’s farmhand, Carl Burrell, published more poetry during Frost’s tenure in Derry than Frost did. But Frost was writing:

During my ten years in Derry, the first five of them farming altogether and the last five mostly teaching but still farming a little, I wrote more than half of my first book, much more than half of the second and even quite a little of my third, though they were not published until later.

Parini argues that “by the time [Frost] emerged at the end of this decade of farming, writing, and teaching, he would be fully formed: a major modern poet who had found his voice.” But thats not altogether true.

III. Sounds of Sense

In 1912, Frost and his family left the United States for Great Britain. After publishing only 14 poems in almost two decades, Frost hoped his fortunes would change in “the land of the Golden Treasury”—a reference to Francis Turner Palgrave’s canonical English anthology. The following year, Frost finally published his first book, A Boy’s Will, in the United Kingdom. Even though he was just shy of 40, the title is apt because some of the poems have an air of juvenilia. Of the debut collection, Frost later said, “You will find me there using the traditional clichés.

Though nature imagery abounds in these early poems, there is little of the texture of place that became so central to Frost’s poetics. According to critic John C. Kemp, this “lack of direction may have been the most important trait camouflaged by the Derry myth. Taken as a group, the poems of A Boy’s Will indicate that prior to the trip to England, he had no clear, stable vision of his role as a poet.”

Mowing,” the strongest of the bunch, opens:

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered?

Because the connotation of the scythe’s sound, a synecdoche for nature as a whole, is inaccessible, the speaker of the sonnet can only imagine the possible content of the whisper. He first offers up some facts of the moment that the scythe might have murmured—“the heat of the sun” or “the lack of sound”before musing about dreamy, supernatural possibilities“easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.” Ultimately, he returns to the natural world of hard work and naked truth: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

Though Kemp is correct that A Boy’s Will does not have a “clear, stable vision,” poems such as “Mowing” display many of Frost’s mature tropes in their embryonic shapes: the play with ancient forms so that the poem seems always caught half-undressed of its metrical perfection; the seemingly bucolic scene that curdles into mystery; the intrusion of a fabulist mode of mythic possibility, which is playfully mocked or anxiously cast aside; the epiphanic sunflare of a “detachable statement”—the penultimate line in “Mowing”whose clarity flashes so blindingly that for careless readers it risks obscuring the nuances of the surrounding lines; the self-referential quality of the poem, interrogating the labor of its own creation; the vacillation of meaning depending on how one reads the verses, for example, how “Mowing” changes subtly when seen as a Shakespearean sonnet in which the volta occurs at the final couplet or as a Petrarchan sonnet in which the volta occurs between the octave and the sestet, but, most surprisingly for a poem in a debut collection, an ability to herd word sounds so there is a harmonious tension between narrative, theme, rhythm, and tone.

“Mowing” seems to whisper itself; the susurrations of the scythe give the poem its music. The breathy s, sh, wh, and th sounds slither through the poem, forcing the speech into sotto voce:

Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

Frost used particular word sounds and their combinations to build a sense of place, mood, or feeling, but he also pulled cadences from everyday speech, from the common voice, from “the actuality of gossip.” He understood that “there are moments when we actually touch in talk what the best writing can only come near.”

Ezra Pound found in A Boy’s Will “the tang of the New Hampshire woods,” which Frost achieved “without sham and without affectation.” Because the two expatriates had become friends in London, Pound’s reading, undoubtedly, was framed as much by Frost’s postures as by the poems themselves. But by publicly commending Frost as “without affectation,” Pound gave the poet cover to become more and more affected—or, in Frost’s words, to “become Yankier and Yankier.”

Frost had developed a theory of what he called “the sound of sense”:

I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. […] The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. […] It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form.

This non-lexical, or extra-lexical, aestheticization of sound, speech, and structure became a defining quality of Frost’s poetics, especially from his second book, North of Boston (1914), on. Whether in first or third person, whether monologic lyrics or dramatic dialogues, Frost’s poems in North of Boston are almost entirely narrative and incorporate the cadences of the common voice. Conversation, which his wife had argued in her high school valedictorian speech was a “force of life,” became a force of poetry for Frost.

In poems such as “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” and “The Generations of Men,” characters speak with a colloquial sentence syncopation. They say lines such as:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
(“The Death of the Hired Man”)


It’s as you throw a picture on a screen:
The meaning of it all is out of you;
The voices give you what you wish to hear.
(“The Generations of Men”)

Frost understood that just as there are word sounds, there are sentence sounds too:

A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung. You may string words together without a sentence sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothesline between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes.

Frost was “after poetry that talked,” claiming that “Whenever I write a line, it is because that line has already been spoken clearly by a voice within my mind, an audible voice.” The voices gave him what he wished to hear.

IV. Locality Through Composite

Frost cultivated a persona in the year between the publication of A Boy’s Will, whose title implies a subjective individual portrait, and North of Boston, whose title paints a more panoramic picture of a place and its community, becoming the Frost people think of today. So it was ironically in old England—not New—that he gained the clarity and confidence to turn his mind “to run on rusticity” and to propagate a poetry of true regional flavor through a mastery of the speaking voice.

This geographic distance is an oft-overlooked part of the admixture. Frost wrote to friends that he never knew how much of a Yankee he was until he left the Derry farm—and the United States—behind. Much of his poetry emerged out of this long after-thought of his Derry decade:

To a large extent the terrain of my poetry is the Derry landscape, the Derry farm. Poems growing out of this, through composite, were built on incidents and are therefore autobiographical. There was something about the experience of Derry which stayed in my mind and was tapped for poetry in the years that came after.

Many Frost poems inspired by real locations—whether in Derry or not—were written when he was in an entirely different environment:

I never write about a place in New England, if I am there. I always write about it when I am away. In Michigan I shall be composing poetry about New Hampshire and Vermont with longing and homesickness better than I would if I were there, just as in England.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, came about as a “second growth,” written after he was up all night completing the poem “New Hampshire” at his kitchen table on a farm in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. After finishing “New Hampshire,” Frost noticed the dawn outside his window. It was a hot, mid-June morning, so he “went outdoors, got out sideways and didn’t disturb anybody in the house.” As he watched the summer sun rise over the surrounding woods, the poem came to him in a flash of inspiration—“as if I’d had an hallucination.” It was based on a memory of a bygone winter evening in Derry. The story goes that it was almost Christmas, so Frost had hitched up the wagon and gone to town to sell produce to afford presents for his children. He sold nothing, and on the snow-salted ride home, he dropped the reins, despondent, trusting that his horse knew the way. But the horse slowed, as if sensing its master’s despair, and halted. Frost sat there in the snow and “bawled like a baby.” After a time, the horse, of its own accord, resumed the journey homeward, the bells of its harness jingling. “The snow gave me its shelter,” Frost said, “the horse understood and gave me the time.”

Frost claimed, “No poet really has to invent, only to record.” But the recording was often not of a single tableau. Many of Frost’s poems document a bricolage of various experiences amalgamated into one. It’s as if he superimposed place upon place and incident upon incident, picking pieces from whatever he could conjure and creating a diorama in his inner space. A figure in one verse might, like the woman who addresses the man camping on her land in “A Servant to Servants,” be a composite of three different women. The brutal dialogue of “Home Burial,” which Frost claimed was based on a grieving couple he knew from Epping, New Hampshire, is also clearly drawn from his own experiences grieving. Elinor’s phrase “the world’s evil,” which she often repeated in response to the loss of their son Elliott, even makes an appearance.

For a poet known for his regional distinctness, locality for Frost was always composite. And perhaps this had purpose: location was not the end for him but merely the means. He was not a provincial poet; he used his mishmash of New England tropology as metaphors for more universal experiences. As T.S. Eliot said of Frost,

I think there are two kinds of local feeling in poetry. There is one kind which makes that poetry only accessible to people whove had the same background, to whom it means a great deal. And there is another kind which can go with universality: the relation of Dante to Florence, of Shakespeare to Warwickshire, of Goethe to the Rhineland, the relation of Robert Frost to New England.

V. A Cloud of All the Other Poets

Although Frost appears retardataire in comparison to more stereotypically “modern” Modernists such as Pound and Eliot, he too believed a poem must be new: “The object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other.” But he also understood that the new ways of making poetry new were not the only ways; there were also old ways that did not involve getting rid of classical forms. “Tennis with the net down is not tennis,” he often sniped, usually as a dismissal of free verse.

Many Modernists were innovating in anti-narrative ways—think of the fragmentary “epics” such as The Cantos, Paterson, and The Waste Land or the image-soaked distillations of the Imagists. Frost was innovating in a different direction: toward new forms of narrative and new articulations of sound.

Newness, for Frost, came through movement: “In poetry and under emotion every word is ‘moved’ a little or much—moved from its old place, heightened, made, made new.” He pointed to Keats’s use of the word alien in “Ode to a Nightingale”—“She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” I think of Frost’s own use of the word down in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” in which “Dawn”—somehow—“goes down to day.”

But newness can sometimes be as simple as holding onto an oldness until it shines again. In “The Black Cottage,” one of Frost’s characters makes this exact argument. The poem’s speaker, who barely speaks, stops with a minister at the titular structure surrounded by “ancient cherry trees,” offset from the main road. The cottage is intact despite being empty; the woman who once lived there had passed away. The minister, who knew the woman, tells her story: her husband was killed in the Civil War, and her sons moved far away. The sons kept the house, intending to use it as a summer place, though they haven’t returned. The minister admits that had she not attended his church, he would have slightly altered his preaching, but he didn’t so as not to offend her:

I’m just as glad she made me keep hands off,
For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
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.

This image of a desert of worn-out truths and forgotten fragments from the past presages Eliot’s wasteland. It is also, more generally, a presentation of the province of poetry. Poets—certainly the Modernists, but, also, all poets—are the monarchs of desert lands, with fragments shored against their ruins. Poets build their poetry not only from all they have done but also from all they have read.

In this way, Frost imagined “a poet’s germination” as “a waterspout at sea”:

He has to begin as a cloud of all the other poets he ever read. That can’t be helped. And at first the cloud reaches down toward the water from above and then the water reaches up toward the cloud from below and finally cloud and water join together to roll as one pillar between heaven and earth. The base of water he picks up from below is of course all the life he ever lived outside of books.

The initial shape Frost’s cloud took must have had the contours of a pillowy Golden Treasury (1861), that iconic poetry anthology on which most young minds in the Victorian era were weaned. In 1894, Frost listed some of his favorite poems: Keats’s “Hyperion”; Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’sMorte d’Arthur”; and Robert Browning’s “Saul.” The Romantic sensibility—toward William Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea of poetry as “the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man”; and William Blake’s ability “to see a world in a grain of sand”—captured the young poet’s imagination. Frost later claimed, “Many of the world’s greatest—maybe all of them—have been ranged on that romantic side.” Because of this lineage, some critics see Frost as a neo-Romantic, but this is an incomplete picture. Frosts work certainly emerges from Romanticism, but it is both an extension of it and a reaction against it.

VI. The Road Less Emersonian

Though Frost devoured the giants of Romanticism, Ralph Waldo Emerson was his colossus. Frost ranked Emerson as one of the “four greatest Americans” alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Transcendentalism, the Emersonian strain of Romanticism, offered Frost a uniquely Yankee heritage for his poetry, particularly through his engagement with the American ideal of freedom. “I owe more to Emerson than anyone else,” Frost admitted, “for troubled thoughts about freedom.”

Frost learned to appropriate the transcendental mode of the “cheerful Monist,” but when it appears in his poetry after A Boy’s Will, it is almost always tongue-in-cheek—or quick to be subverted. When he dropped an Emersonian line in “New Hampshire,” such as “The groves were God’s first temples”—which is actually borrowed from William Cullen Bryant—he followed it with an anti-Emersonian line: “Nothing not built with hands of course is sacred.” The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

It’s not that Frost wasn’t drawn to the feelings that undergird the Emersonian conception of nature but that the benevolence and unity of the god for whom nature was merely some worldly expression no longer seemed to apply in a post-Darwin/post-Marx/post-Nietzsche “modern” world. To be fair, Frost certainly felt a stronger kinship with Emerson than with any of those three thinkers, but the reliability of the Emersonian model had to be questioned. His own life did the questioning. Parini explains:

In many of Frost’s poems one encounters a worldview grounded in Emersonian presuppositions. The certainty is missing, of course, replaced by a rueful skepticism; the assumed benevolence of the creator seems missing too—that dogged faith of Emerson’s in a mysterious ‘unity’ underlying nature.

In a 1958 speech, Frost quoted a line from Emerson’s “Uriel”: “Unit and universe are round.” He argued that

I dont believe it. Im skeptical about that. Itll be some other shape fore you know it. You know, the ideal form at rest is the circle, but just soon as you introduce action into it, it becomes an oval.

The ovoid shape of Frost’s stretched Emersonian universe no longer has a single center of benevolence but two poles: good and evil. Frost claimed that Emerson was probably “too Platonic about evil” for he saw it as something “that could be disposed of like the butt of a cigarette.” But good and evil have equal weight in Frost’s universe and seem devoid of moral implication in his disorienting natural world. This is not to say that they are the same thing. If so, his world view, like Emerson’s, would be circular, with one center, not ovoid with two poles. In the poem “There Are Roughly Zones,” from A Further Range (1936), Frost explains that “there is no fixed line between wrong and right,” but “There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.” Elsewhere, he simply wrote “We look for the line between good and evil and see it only imperfectly for the reason that we are the line ourselves.”

Thus, “Emerson’s mistake about nature”—a phrase that pops up in one of Frost’s journals—is his view of nature as a unified whole that is ordered, benevolent, and divine. In another journal entry, Frost puts it plainly: “Nature is chaos.” For him, the woods are not—or at least not only—Emerson’s “plantations of God.” They are plantations of uncertainty, ambivalence, and disquiet. Consider, for instance, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which has earned its place as the most misread American poem. The final three lines trumpet an Emersonian appeal to individualism:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

They’re the kind of faux-inspirational claptrap now found on posters in an academic advisor’s office or stitched onto a grandma’s pillow. Less observant readers hear in these words an echo of Emerson’s “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” and salute in agreement. But even the most cursory reading of the rest of the poem undercuts such banal drum-circle transcendentalism.

The opening image of “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” is easy enough to discern: the speaker tells readers that at some point in the past he faced a choice—and he was “sorry” that he “could not travel both.” He looked down one road, as far as he could, but a bend “in the undergrowth”—a prepositional phrase laden with psychoanalytic burdenobscured his sight. Whereas Emerson in the woods claimed to be “a transparent eye-ball” that could “see all,” Frost’s speaker could not see all, could not travel both roads, and there is disappointment in that. David Orr explains:

He isn’t, for instance, sorry that he won’t see what’s at the end of each road. […] Rather, he’s sorry he lacks the capability to see what’s at the end of each road—he’s objecting not to the outcome of the principle that you can’t be two places at once, but to the principle itself. He’s resisting the idea of a universe in which his selfhood is limited, in part by being subject to choices.

My only disagreement here is with Orr’s use of resisting. It’s not that the speaker resists this fact of life—if anything, he accepts itbut laments the need for such acceptance.

Strangely, the speaker “then took the other”—a road he doesn’t even tell readers he looked down. His indecision“long I stood” shifted suddenly to impulsive decision-making. The second and third stanzas track the zigzagging of a consciousness trying to convince itself that it took the better road while acknowledging it has no real basis on which to make such an assessment. The roads were “just as fair,” “worn […] about the same,” and “that morning equally lay.” These descriptions become only more certain about the roads’ mutual indistinctness.

The key to the final stanza is found not in the final three lines but in the two that precede them:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Notice, first, the change in tense: the previous three stanzas are written in past tense, but the final stanza jettisons readers far into the future. The time of the poem—a morning in autumn—marks a similar tension: morning representing youth and autumn old age.

What is the speaker admitting here that he will do in the future down the road? He’s saying he will lie, or, to phrase it more generously, will self-mythologize. The sigh, though, lends the scene a bit of mystery. Moralizing about his prevarication is hard unless one can pinpoint the cause of that sigh. Is it a sigh of regret? Of acceptance? Of relief? A sigh from tiredness? A “mock sigh,” as Frost once claimed in a letter? A sigh of sadness, nostalgia, frustration? Each sigh shifts slightly the motivations behind, feelings toward, and implications of the self-mythology.

Just as the sigh remains enigmatic, so too does the road in the poem’s title. Most scholars recognize two obvious possibilities: “the road not taken” could be the road the speaker does not go down, which, then, highlights the regret in his inability to travel both, or it could be the road the speaker does take but that is “less traveled” and, thus, in the Emersonian individualist sense, “not taken” by the conformist majority. What often gets overlooked is a tantalizing third possibility: Is “the road not taken” the road the speaker does take but is “not taken” because his description of it ages and ages hence will be a lie? In other words, is “the road not taken” a third tine in the fork—the self-mythologized, “less traveled” road that never actually existed?

Deciding which road the title invokes diminishes the capability of the poem. It’s less “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” and more “whoso would be a man must be a nonconfirmist.” Doubt is the road to truth because it is no road. Is “doubt” itself the real (fourth?) “road not taken”? We think of certainty as the inamorata of truth; once truth is known, we can be certain of it. But this is “true” only in theory; the world offers no such certain truths.

VII. Beware of Detachable Statements

Those final three lines of “The Road Not Taken” are the kind of maxim Frost was talking about when he warned readers to beware of “detachable statements.” Frost’s poetry is full of these moments of seeming pastoral moralism: epigrammatical phrases that proffer yokel insight. Some of these aphorisms are genuinely wise, others are clearly meant to be read in a mocking tone, but all are complicated by the lines that surround them. Out of context, they seem like Frost’s sincere pronouncements; in context, they are never to be taken at face value.

In “The Road Not Taken,” the detachable statement of the final three lines muddles everything that came before. “Mending Wall” includes two conflicting detachable statements. Each undermines, but also, through contrast, reinvigorates the other. The title of this dramatic monologue, which opens North of Boston, perfectly exemplifies the poet’s interest in aporia, for the two words work in opposite directions. Mending implies a repair, a synthesis, a coming together; it is an action verb, a movement, a process. A wall, on the other hand, is a thing—a seemingly static noun—that separates, divides, and delineates.

Ostensibly about two neighbors being neighborly “at spring mending-time” by fixing—together—the wall that segregates their respective properties, the poem begins by immediately evoking a more mythic and mysterious force:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The syntax of that opening line is gnarled like an old oak root. A lesser poem by a lesser poet might begin with a simple pronouncement: whether personal—“I do not like for us to build the wall”or universal“Nature does not have any love for walls.” But, no: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”—a line that walls us off from a definitive understanding.

The vagueness of the syntax allows the speaker and the reader to pack in potential causes for the “gaps,” both physical and metaphysical, natural and supernatural. The speaker does not mention just the frozen-ground-swell as the cause for the spilling boulders but also hunters and even elves, though the latter thought quickly embarrasses him: “it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather / He said it for himself.”

Some critics have argued that the “frozen-ground-swell”—which is, quite literally, frost—is the poet answering the question of that strange syntactic statement by saying coyly, “It me!” Frost was a mischievous poet who often used puns to toy with readers. There are certainly other instances in his poetry in which he punned on his own name—as in “Afterflakes,” in which “frost knots on an airy gauze”—and he likely was doing so here. But the syntax of the sentence makes clear that the frost (and, thus, Frost himself) is not the “something […] that doesn’t love a wall”; rather, the frost/Frost was sent by the “something […] that doesn’t love a wall.” The “something” is not material then but a force, feeling, or form that urges the wall’s disintegrity.

Even though the speaker registers doubts about walls, it should not go unnoticed that he is the one who “made repair” when hunters moved stones to get a “rabbit out of hiding, / To please the yelping dogs” and who sets this whole mending wall ritual in motion:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

Frost often finds deconstructive aporia in individual words—where a word wars with itself. The preposition between, which repeats in successive lines, can work in two ways: first, as something that comes between people (separating them) and second, as something that’s shared between people (uniting them). The wall, as a physical object, is the former, but the work of mending the wall, as “just another kind of out-door game,” is the latter. These relations become easily confused too: the wall also brings them together, and the mending also separates them.

The neighbor says only that “Good fences make good neighbors.” This line, which Frost did not invent, was likely culled from a Farmer’s Almanac. The two detachable statements couldn’t be more different. They advocate opposite positions with regard to walls and are also formally at odds: the vagueness of the speaker’s “Something there is …” with its unorthodox structure has the texture of a question; the directness of the neighbor’s “Good fences make …” is an argument and an answer. It’s not even the neighbor’s own personal answer; it is received wisdom, passed down from his father, cliched yet unquestioned by the man who says it.

About the poem, Frost told a friend: “I played exactly fair in it. Twice I say ‘Good fences’ and twice ‘Something there is—.’” There’s a symmetry, a balance, to the poem. The danger in analyzing “Mending Wall” is in choosing a side, yet that is precisely what walls force on people. Because the speaker aligns most with Frost, readers often assume an endorsement of his view over the neighbor’s. But the poem undercuts such an endorsement. The speaker initiates the spring mending ritual and also ends the monologue with the neighbor’s line, not his own.

Just as the speaker questions the neighbor’s judgment, so too might readers question the speaker’s. His prejudices can be somewhat off-putting: comparing the neighbor to an “old-stone savage” who “moves in darkness.” But perhaps the comparison is apt? Rituals are inherently vestigial, and we all move like old-stone savages as we perform their forms.

VIII. Whose Alien Entanglements These Are I Think I Know

If the environment of Frost’s poetry is the New England countryside, then the locus for much of its literal and figurative conflict is the forest that wreathes it. The woods are not a static symbol in Frost’s poetic universe. They breathe like creatures—and are as multiform. Indeed, Frost not only varies the portrayal of forests across his work but also, even within a single poem, usually makes the woods a motley metaphor. They entice and repulse, represent venturing into the self and losing one’s self in the other, offer solace and freedom but also uncertainty and destruction.

This convoluted nature is established in the first appearance of woods in Frost’s oeuvre. In “Into My Own” from A Boy’s Will, the speaker wishes to “steal away” into the forest, which he imagines could be “stretched away unto the edge of doom.” For him, “those dark trees” represent the uncertain future, which can seem gloomy and daunting, but they also suggest in “their vastness” the hope of self-discovery and the freedom of endless possibility away from societal expectation. The final couplet devolves into adolescent certainty as the speaker pictures how others would view him once he took this heroic quest of introspection into the boundless forest:

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

But such conviction reads like a flight of fancy, a longing for a stable self, which, like the trees that are his idée fixe, might manage to be so firm that his self would “scarcely show the breeze.”

The forest offers Frost such images, pregnant with poetic significance—forking paths and bent birch trunks—but this is an offering of obfuscation rather than clarity. If Frost’s poems are, in his own words, “a figure of the will braving alien entanglements,” then the forest and its forest-imagery best pictorialize that uncertain encounter. The woods provide this not only for the poems speaker but for Frost and his readers as well—and they challenge each of those encounterers to fall back on themselves and their own jungle interiors. These woodlands of Frost’s poetic universe ask readers questions about themselves:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” hinges on the forest symbol, but, as is standard in Frost’s symbolic encounters, the precise metaphorical tenor of the woods is ever out of reach. The poem begins with a supposition whose inverted syntax makes it seem more a question than a statement: “Whose woods these are I think I know.” Again, a line’s snarled structure augments the metaphysical possibilities of the poem. The woods are owned—the speaker thinks—by someone whose “house is in the village.” But, as Emerson’s “plantations of God,” the forest might have an altogether different proprietor. Or perhaps the woods belong—even if only for the precise moment of the encounter—to the encounterer?

As in “Into My Own,” the woods offer respite from the demands of daily life, but they might also represent something more sinister. With their loveliness, the woods tempt the speaker to stay—but to what end? His only response to the “lovely, dark and deep” woods, after having braved in brief the alien entanglement, is a sense of obligation and movement:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The woods, here and elsewhere in Frost, are shaded with uncertainty, ambivalence, and disquiet, dyed in the darkness of the unknown.

IX. Here Be (Designs of?) Darkness

When ancient cartographers were unsure of uncharted areas on their maps, they wrote “Here be dragons” to imply that unknown dangers existed in those regions. These “dragons” were shorthand for uncertainty. Frost sometimes included mythical creatures in his poems, usually in a similar fashion to “here be dragons,” as a way to warn of or ward off mysteries, uncertainties, doubts: the elves in “Mending Wall” and “Mowing” come to mind. But Frost’s mythical explanations usually come with some embarrassment. He never gave fantasy the weight of an answer but used it as a way to acknowledge the absurdity of the mystery.

Yet what Frost used more often than here be dragons–style mythical imagery to symbolize the alien entanglement was darkness. Unlike other images in poetry, the anti-image of darkness blunts the image-gathering sense of sight. Because of this, it tickles the most primal terrors. All people are nyctophobes at core. But Frost affixed to the darkness not just the standard bleak metaphoric possibilities that have been braided into it for all of human existence—fear, death, decay, evil, chaos, uncertainty, impenetrability, unknowability, the subconscious, nightmares, sleep, etc.but more positive associations as well. Darkness in Frost’s world can be beauty, mercy, freedom, and escape. Indeed, though darkness, like the woods it suffuses, is the site of the alien entanglement—and, thus, a stranger—there is also something familiar and fundamental in it. It offers companionship in correspondence for people see within the darkest darknesses their own internal darknesses:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

In Frost’s collection West-Running Brook (1928)under the section “Fiat Nox,” Latin for “Let there be night”—is a sonnet titled “Acquainted with the Night,” written in Dante’s terza rima rhyme scheme. The poem begins and ends with the same pronouncement: “I have been one acquainted with the night.” Though the poem is woven with images of isolation and gloom, the acquaintanceship mentioned in the title, the first line, and the final line gives the darkness the status of an old friend. In its own way, darkness becomes a comfort, much as “these dark days of autumnal rain” are a comfort in “My November Guest”another euphemism for Frost’s depression.

Because darkness is as lovely and alluring as it is unnerving and dangerous, it’s not necessarily the most horrifying part of such woodland encounters. What terrorizes most is that the darkness might actually have a design.

X. Something White, Uncertain

“Design,” from A Further Range, is arguably Frost’s best dark poem, yet its darkness is not black but deathly white:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

This Petrarchan sonnet is a micro-Moby-Dick. It gets at, in miniature, what Herman Melville writ large in his whale. Just as Ishmael reports that “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” it is the whiteness of the spider, the heal-all, and the moth that implies the appalling design of darkness.

The poem, originally titled “In White,” was revised over a number of years, but the central scene remained the same throughout its many permutations: a white spider sits on a white flower, holding up the white cloth-body of a dead moth. This “albino catastrophe,” as Randall Jarrell called it, undermines the traditional cultural coding of whiteness as emblematic of innocence, purity, light, and god. These “Assorted characters of death and blight” are incongruous with white’s typical symbolic register, which heightens the morbidity of the scene. In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a chapter in Moby-Dick, Melville delineates this exact ability of the color, “when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.” Just as darkness in Frost is often divorced from its more sinister implications, the meaning of whiteness, too, is often flipped. 

Yet, as with darkness, it is never a complete reversal: these “kindly” white associations remain but become distorted, grotesque. Frost’s description of the spider sounds more like a description of an innocent baby: “dimpled […] fat and white.” His chosen flower, the heal-all, has a name of restorative purity, but its hospital whiteness is wrong: heal-alls are usually blue. Moths are drawn to light, like a kite to the sun, but something—was it the whiteness itself?—drew this moth “thither in the night” to its doom. The entire scene interrogates God’s design, leaving readers to question whether the poem evangelizes on behalf of the argument from design but only twists the vantage point to focus on the darkness, malevolence, and terror in such a design—or whether it actually undermines the concept of a grand design altogether.

If Emerson was “thrilled with delight by the choral harmony of the whole,” then Frost is tormented by it. “Design” is one of the poems literary critic Lionel Trilling offered as evidence to prove his assertion that Frost was “a terrifying poet” with a “terrifying universe.” At Frost’s 85th birthday celebration, Trilling advised guests to read the poem and “see if you sleep the better for it.”

Though the poem is indeed terrifying, it is also a gag—and the butt of the joke is Reverend William Hayes Ward, a prominent clergyman and the editor in chief of The Independent, in which Frost had published his first poem decades before. Ward’s rigid religious conception of the universe sparked Frost’s subversive take on intelligent design. The poem’s form revels in ironies: in the Petrarchan sonnet, the octave usually creates a conflict or asks questions that are then resolved or answered in the sestet. Frost reversed the design so that he ended with questions rather than answers. This gets at the core of the comedy: for a poem questioning whether there is a designand, thus, a designerthe fingerprints of Frost’s poetic design remain on every line. This is what Frost meant when he claimed that his poems have “a lot of literary criticism in them.” They thematically and formally comment on their own creation.

He used puns, too, in this horror-play: morning right conjures up a “mourning rite.” And appall achieves the exact chiaroscuro needed for a poem of white darkness. The word is proximal to darknessand the darker aspects of lifein its standard definition: “to greatly dismay or horrify.” It also evokes “a pall”—the funereal cloth draped over a coffin. But the word appall actually comes from the Middle French word apalir, “to make pale or whiten.”

If “Design” represents Frost marbling whiteness with darkness, then “For Once, Then, Something,” from New Hampshire, is where whiteness fully recedes into the darkness. The poem’s speaker kneels at a well and, like Narcissus, stares a little too obsessively at the “shining surface picture” of his own “godlike” reflection. The speaker recounts a fleeting glimpse of something else he saw—or thought he saw:

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.

Water ripples then blots out the “something white, uncertain,” and the speaker is left with questions: “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” People experience the world always mitigated by the self. We create God in our own image, but the world also takes on our surface shapes. Yet every once in a while, we perceive something beyond, something we can’t quite access, something we almost see—or sawbut just fleetingly, in an epiphanic flash that sinks immediately beyond our understanding, only to become the memory (or fantasy?) of the mundane material of an ever-receding pebble of quartz. And maybe that’s enough: “For once, then, something.”

If the instigating incident of this poem is, as critics have suspected, a discussion about religion between Frost and his wife, then it makes sense that Frost—ever-playful, ever-punning—would intend the “something white, uncertain” here to not merely be truth or pebble but also White, his wife’s maiden name. Frost’s punning with his own name through elaborate language riddles has been called the poet’s “favorite trick.” Critics rarely mention the potential puns on his wife’s maiden name, though white abounds.

XI. A Jester About Sorrow

Lawrence Thompson’s three-volume biography of Frost—published between 1966 and 1976—completely shifted Frost’s reputation. (Frost died in 1963.) The portrait Thompson painted of a “bad bad man” upended Frost’s self-mythology as a genial farmer-poet.

The description was, admittedly, Frost’s own. After critic Bernard De Voto told Frost during an argument that he was a good poet but a bad man,” Frost’s response was to double down by doubling the word: I am a bad bad man.” Frost’s “goodness” as a poet, though, arose precisely from his willingness to interrogate his own “badness” in verse. It’s perhaps unfair to assume the prejudices in “Mending Wall” and the callousness in “Home Burial” come directly from Frost and have no other origins, but Frost is at least in part their source. The stark blackness—and stark whiteness—that are everywhere in his poetry emerge from within as much as from without. He certainly catalogued what he saw in the universe but also charted the dark interiors of his “own desert places.”

Frost’s bouts with depression lasted throughout his life. In fact, mental illness clung to the Frost family like burrs. Frost’s parents, sister, and some of his children battled various demons. Elinor, too, lived in melancholy’s cold embrace, as Frost implied in a letter to their daughter Leslie after her mother’s passing:

My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children. No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright. No matter how humorous I am, I am sad. I am a jester about sorrow. She colored my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics. It was no loss but a gain of course.

Frost at least had an outlet for hisautumnal mood[s]”—they became the grist for much of his poetry. According to Parini, he regarded his poems as fierce gestures in the direction of sanity. […] For him personally, each poem was a victory over depression, anxiety, fear, and sloth.” But each victory was a trial by fire—or trial by “the slow smokeless burning of decay”—and the poems bear their black scars.

“The Bonfire,” from Mountain Interval (1916), mostly consists of a monologue spoken by a father whose children interject three times. The father suggests they all “go up the hill and scare ourselves.[…] By setting fire to all the brush we piled.” The children wonder if the father too would be scared, so to illustrate that he would, he reminisces on a fire he made before, under similar circumstances, that he almost lost control of. The children then ask, “If it scares you, what will it do to us?” The father responds:

Scare you. But if you shrink from being scared,
What would you say to war if it should come?
That’s what for reasons I should like to know—
If you can comfort me by any answer.

The children say that war is not for children but for men, yet the father knows better:

War is for everyone, for children too.
I wasn’t going to tell you and I mustn’t.
The best way is to come up hill with me
And have our fire and laugh and be afraid.

Courage—for Frost, as for the father in “The Bonfire”—was daring danger and embracing fear. But the laugh is important too. In a private letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost may have admitted that irony is “a kind of guardedness” and humor “the most engaging cowardice,” but—whether cowardice or courage—laughter, comedy, and play are the best animal tricks for coping with the problem of existence. Though sepulchral professors often overlook the humor in Frost’s poems when they push them on their students, nearly every poem is frilled with a darkly comic sensibility. Of “The Road Not Taken,” Frost warned, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem—very tricky.” But the same could be said for almost any poem picked at random from his collected works. It’s not “rueful skepticism” that most separates Frost from Emerson but Frost’s ironist smirk.

Frost claimed his poems were

all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark. I may leave my toys in the wrong place and so in vain. It is my intention we are speaking of—my innate mischievousness.

Through this innate mischievousness, Frost understood the absurdity of the human predicament—an eternal fall “head foremost into the boundless.” He is not exactly telling jokes in his poems but opening up incongruities, which, at core, all jokes are. Frost knew that humor works only when it goes by contraries: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do,” he once wrote.

XII. Skirting the Hem of Synecdoche and Metaphor

In 1915, when other Modernist poets were calling themselves Imagists or vorticists, Frost came up with his own ism: If I must be classified as a poet, I might be called a Synecdochist; for I prefer the synecdoche in poetry—that figure of speech in which we use a part for the whole.” Elsewhere, he compared the synecdoche to “skirting the hem of the goddess.”

Frost’s synecdochism is less about the use of word-level synecdoches in the lines of his poetry and more a description of the synecdochal structure of the poems themselves. This was Frosts way of reading and writing the universe like a text, in which local scenes, incidents, and images betray some deeper meaning or connection to the undercurrents of the whole. Thus, it’s easy to see Frost’s synecdochism—where a “little thing touches a larger thing” and there’s “always a larger significance”—as an extension of the Emersonian belief that the entire system of things gets represented in every particle.”

Yet woven through Frost’s writing is a thread of skepticism with regard to the synecdochal relationship between part and whole. For Frost, Poetry is correspondence,” but Its not the correspondence that Swedenborg meant, or Emerson.” Frosts correspondences are more dangerous; he risks more in the alien entanglement because he is not certain of the grand scheme behind it all. Correspondents might get lost or be destroyed in such correspondence—yet correspond they must. That is why metaphor, not synecdoche, might be the true Frostian figure of speech. In the essay “Education by Poetry,” Frost confessed a desire in his “late years” to “go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking.”

However, Frost lamented the writers inability to make lasting metaphors in the face of unending darkness and uncertainty in “The Door in the Dark,” from West-Running Brook. Though the poems speaker goes from room to room in the dark” with outstretched hands to protect his face, still he banged his head into an unseen door and had his native simile jarred.” But jarred similes and broken metaphors are ideal in their own right. As Frost noted, All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it.” The metaphors perfection lies in its imperfection—its inability to fully appropriate all parts, to eradicate all contraries, in order to wholly cohere.

XIII. Going by Contraries

There is something that doesn’t love a system, an ideology, a philosophy, a politics. That wants them down. As Frost aged, he admitted

Im less and less for systems and system-building. […] Im afraid of too much structure. Some violence is always done to the wisdom you build a philosophy out of. Give us pieces of wisdom like pieces of eight in a buckskin bag.

It’s not that these pieces of wisdom should be taken à la carte, excising them from their context within a poem but rather that the wisdom within a poem should not be airtight. No life can live in a hermetically sealed container. There must be flow between thoughts, space for movement and contradiction: The separateness of the parts is equally important with the connection of the parts.” The jingle of the coins in the buckskin bag is the sweet-song conflict between parts and whole.

West-Running Brook” speaks eloquently if elliptically to this part/whole problem. It begins with a question: “Fred, where is north?” Fred points out north to his wife, which he has determined through logic and experience, using the flow of a nearby stream to orient himself: “The brook runs west.” His wife thinks that would make a good name and then muses on the water’s odd directional drift:

What does it think it’s doing running west
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you—and you with me—
Because we’re—we’re—I don’t know what we are.
What are we?

Her view of the brook—and of herself and her husband—is Emersonian. For her, what makes this body of water special is its refusal to flow the way that all others flow. Just as she suggests to her husband that they should let this brook join—as a third party—into their marriage, she sees a white wave in the brook’s current. Though the white water being flung back on itself is caused by a sunken rock, her fanciful personality must personify the brook, so she imagines it is waving to them, as though in consent to the invitation to her ménage à trois. Fred, more analytical in his approach, refuses such silly anthropomorphism: “It wasn’t waved to us.”

His wife responds ambivalently: “It wasn’t, yet it was.” After playfully mocking her feminine approach to the brook, Fred, with a little coaxing, gives his read of the brook, which begins with a poetic understanding of science, particularly the Darwinian theory of evolution. Like his wife, Fred finds kinship with the brook, but it is not the surface-level kinship of the nonconformist; it is a kinship with human origins: “It is from that in water we were from / Long, long before we were from any creature.” Humans carry the vestiges of these waters from which they, like everything, have run away.

Fred’s scientific pessimism is materialist at core: biological material moves through time and space, changing, aging, and decaying into eventual oblivion.

The universal cataract of death
That spends to nothingness—and unresisted,
Save by some strange resistance in itself,
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.

Though Freds pose is more coldly rational than his wifes, readers see in the purple poesy that overtakes his disquisition his secret, romantic sensitivities. Fred’s wife’s romanticization of the brook involves it running counter to all other brooks; Fred’s romanticization of the brook involves it running counter to itself. This internal churn, for him, is the real way to “go by contraries.” There are parts that always resist the whole, currents that run eternally counter to the streams flow but still contribute to that whole. They are like the men in The Tuft of Flowers,” from A Boy’s Will: Men work together. […] Whether they work together or apart.”

The fact that Fred sees possible “regret” in the counter-current shows he feels the tug of his wife’s whimsical anthropomorphism too, which runs counter to his own rationalist sense, but he can’t give into it wholly. The “as if” is his way of holding back slightly; it betrays, like the brook, “some strange resistance” in him. He continues his soliloquy in florid phrases about cycles of existence and the contraries therein until he ends it.

It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.

Without anything to add herself, his wife merely says, “Today will be the day / You said so.” As if embarrassed by the delivery of his lyrical sermon, Fred tells her that, no, it will be the day that she named the brook, which is factual: “West-Running Brook men call it to this day.” But the wife, far wiser than she seems, knows better than to take the win: “Today will be the day of what we both said.”

As with many of Frost’s poems that contain two characters in discussion or conflict, “West-Running Brook” navigates a course between the two positions. It also navigates a course between synecdoche and metaphor. On the one hand, the white wave’s “backward motion toward the source” synecdochally points back to the monistic whole. On the other hand, if the whole contains its counter-currents, then how could it be possible for any particular part to represent the whole wholly? Thus, perhaps, the relationship is always mere imperfect correspondence, which is metaphorical. The surest thing you know,” according to Frost, is that everything in the world comes in pairs that youre living between in great uncertainty.”

XIV. Unformulated Formulae 

In 1973, the critic Anatole Broyard admitted that he found Frost’s statements about poetry “fully as poetic as his poems. In fact, I feel that some of them are even more poetic.” In his extrapoetic writing, Frost constellated a whole vocabulary for how to talk about poetry. The only other English-language poet who rivals him in this regard is Keats, whose letters Eliot called “the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet.”

In a review of Richard Monckton Milnes’s 1848 biography of Keats, the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere became the first critic to apply Keats’s phrase “negative capability”—“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—to Keats himself. He saw in Keats’s doubt “not the denial of any thing, so much as the proving of all things; the doubt of one who would rather walk in mystery than in false lights, who waits that he may win, and who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of a delusion.”

Keats and Frost shared this reverence for doubt. But whereas most doubt solidifies into a counter-conviction, as stone certain as the original certainty it doubts, negative capability remains as intangible as lake fog, hovering over the surface of all things without causing even a ripple on the water. This is because it is not a singular, solid denial but a state of perpetual disinterestedness, a cloud of unknowing.

But disinterestedness is not a lack of interest nor an avoidance of thought. Like Keats, Frost understood the importance of “tentatives but not tenets.” Tenets are held onto with white-knuckled certainty, but tentatives are something you live by till you live by something else.” Tenets are set in stone; tentatives are, to borrow a Keatsian phrase, “writ in water.”

Keats did not invent “negative capability,” this ideal of artistic non-egotism; he merely named it. And he did so as a way to characterize “Men of Achievement,” such as Shakespeare. Frost is merely another man of achievement in a long line of poetic non-egotists who wait for form rather than impose it. Frost’s brief, beautiful “Pertinax,” from A Further Range, models the program:

Let chaos storm!
Let cloud shapes swarm!
I wait for form.

For Frost, all the fun is [in] saying things that suggest formulae that wont formulate—that almost but dont quite formulate.” Poetry is not form, but it needs form—just as it needs chaos or wildness. A great poem captures the untenable armistice of form and chaos. This meeting of such unstable opposites always comes with fear: both the fear of the form breaking down and the fear of the form working so well that the poem loses its wildness. “I suppose it amounts to this,” Frost explained:

there are no two things as important to us in life and art as being threatened and being saved. What are ideals of form for if we aren’t going to be made to fear for them? All our ingenuity is lavished on getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued.

Frost often talked about a poem’s ability to discover itself. By this he did not mean the work of elves but the interplay between form and chaos that cannot be “worried into being.” The poem that the poet controls is no poem at all because it loses the very essence of poetry: the immediacy, the wildness, and the mystery of the thought thinking itself. For Frost, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

His best metaphor for this process is of ice thawing: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” The ice-skating of poetic creation is a zigzagging process. Melting ice meanders on a hot stove; it does not run straight, like a sprinter with a finish line in sight. Its finish line is its finish, the melting of a confusion. A great poem, according to Frost, “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

Using another metaphor for this zigzagging process of poetic creation, Frost argued, “The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.” This image of the straight-crooked walking stick resembles an earlier image in Frost, the titular handle in the poem “The Ax-Helve.” The poem paints a scene of natural curves in its speaker’s sentiments toward an enigmatic neighbor, Baptiste: he wavers between antagonism (prejudice, condescension, and threat) and admiration (sympathy, camaraderie, and respect). The poem’s straight crookedness mirrors “the lines of a good helve,” which are “native to the grain before the knife / Expressed them.” The curves of Baptiste’s ax-helve are not “false curves”—“And there its strength lay.”

In an interview from 1916, before the poem was written, Frost clearly already had this metaphor in mind:

You know the Canadian woodchoppers whittle their axe-handles, following the curve of the grain, and they’re strong and beautiful. Art should follow lines in nature, like the grain of an axe-handle. False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves.

XV. Somewhere Ages and Ages Hence

Great poetry—following lines in nature so always teetering like a child’s toy between chaos and form—is perpetually relevant in both its use and misuse.

During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, as Donald Trump was whipping up his crowds into raucous chants of “Lock her up” and “Build the wall,” many people were disturbed by such cultish fanaticism. A literature professor I know posted “Mending Wall” on social media as a kind of affront to the build-the-wall crowd. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he wrote at the beginning of his tirade against then-candidate Trump, his overzealous supporters, and walls in general. Though I understood his anger, I could think only “How do you, a serious reader of literature, so misunderstand Frost’s poem?”

Yet that’s still relevance—of a kind. A great poem affords its misreadings, perhaps even welcomes them, and is misread anew by each successive generation. But, of course, there are other, deeper kinds of relevance. For me, Frost remains relevant precisely because of his ambivalence between the nagging feeling of Something there is that doesnt love a wall” and the received wisdom of Good fences make good neighbors.” If the human species is to go on—and I hope we have miles to go before we sleep—it must go by contraries. Detachable statements loosed of their context and complexity will not do.

Frost does not give readers any answers to the problems of their existence, but he is a suitable dark companion for their alien entanglements. His idyllic idioms may seem quaint, but his poems are not nature poems. Frost claimed he had only three or four pure nature poems. The rest were human portraits with a nature setting.” Their rightful place is in the portrait gallery. But, then again, maybe the poems are landscapes too, for a landscape is a human portrait—a portrait of the perceiver perceiving terrain.

Frost is a poet of contradictions, complexities, and ambivalences—as all great poets are. His view is simultaneously local and universal. He understands as much the mud-soft spaces in the human heart, wet at the firm touch of a workman’s boot, as he does the impenetrable darkness that sits between the stars and mocks people like a mongrel maw. His parts contain the whole, yet his whole contains its counter-currents too.

As I look back on the poet and his poems now, somewhere ages and ages hence, in the keen regret of the long afterthought, just as the figure in “The Road Not Taken” looks back on his own life from some futural distance, I wonder, with a sigh, if all Ive written here is just a similar coping mechanism. Might these words make all the difference in someone’s understanding of Frost? Or might they belie some darker anxiety of what Ive lost, missed, or misunderstood?

Frost is like the guide in his Directive” “who only has at heart your getting lost.” He claimed that Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” If so, then perhaps the only understanding of a poem is a misunderstanding of it. And of Frost, it might suffice to say what he once said of the speaker of one of his own poems: “He is in love with being misunderstood.”

Tyler Malone is a writer based in Southern California. His work has appeared in Artforum, the Los Angeles Times, Art in AmericaLapham’s Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.