Robert Frost as a Nature Poet
Being a pastoral poet, Robert Frost writes about natural scenes and sounds. He deals with rural life, and Nature always provides the background. His description of Nature is a accurate and lively. But Frost is not a Nature poet in the tradition of Wordsworth. To him, it is never an impulse from a vernal wood. Marion Montgomery has observed in this regard,
“His (Frost’s) best poetry is concerned with the drama of man in Nature, whereas Wordsworth is generally best when emotionally displaying the panorama of the natural world.”
And Frost also confirmed this fact in a television interview in the Fall of 1952; “I guess I’m not a Nature poet. I have only written two poems without a human being in them.”
In The Lesson for Today, Frost proposes the epitaph for himself: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” This lover’s quarrel is Frost’s poetic subject. Throughout Frost’s poetry, there are evidences of this view of man’s existence in the natural world. His attitude towards Nature is one of armed and amicable truce and mutual respect interspersed with crossing of the boundaries separating the two principles, individual man and forces of the world.
As Frost believes, Nature is indifferent towards Man. He wants that Man should accept the gauntlet thrown by Nature. Storm or snow ought not deter us, as it could not the preacher in the long poem, Snow. Decidedly, man is to survive by being courageous and fearless in the face of natural barriers.
From the publication of A Boy’s Will down to this day, Robert Frost has indicated a realization that Nature hurts those who love it. The immediate natural world even seems to be moving towards chaos. It even intends to take man along with it if he is not careful enough. But man has an advantage :
“We may doubt the just proportion of good and ill
There is much in nature against us. But we forget;
Take nature altogether since time began.
Including human nature, in peace and war,
And it must be a little more in favour of man.”
(Our Hold on the Planet)
To sustain such injuries as Nature inflicts, “It’s well to have all kinds of feeling, for it’s all kinds of a world.” And Frost expresses all kinds of his feeling toward the natural world. Wordsworth would never, even in his latest view of the natural world, have written-
“I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sings by my house all day;
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.”
(A Minor Bird)
Frost knows, too, that In Time of Cloudburst the much-needed rain has come to “exact for present gain/A little future harm.” But the poet also knows that, despite man’s disadvantages, “The way of understanding is partly mirth.”
At times, Frost writes of the natural world in a cavalier fashion which Wordsworth would consider heretical. “You know Orion always comes up sideways”, says he in The Star-Splitter. He pokes fun at the seasons in Two Tramps in Mud Time. It is no benevolent spirit of Nature that sends Frost’s rain or wind; he never sees in the natural world the pervading spirit which Wordsworth saw. It may be that mountain “had the slant/As of a book held up before his eyes/ (And was a text albeit done in plant)”, but the mountain is not a personality as it is for Wordsworth in The Prelude and other poems.
Frost makes his attitude towards it clear enough when he says in New Hampshire that “I wouldn’t be a prude afraid of Nature”, and again rather flatly, “Nothing not built with hand of course is sacred.”
Frost at times speaks directly to objects in Nature, as Wordsworth did. But what is high seriousness in Wordsworth is fancy or humour in Frost. The final word in this regard is Goodbye and Keep Cold. In another poem and in a more serious vein, he speaks to The Tree at My Window, which he watches tossed about by the winds, and compares it with his own psyche, deciding that-
“That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.”
In these instances of direct address, however, we never suppose that Frost feels the kind of brotherhood for natural objects that Wordsworth expresses through much of his poetry. Always, to Frost, man differs essentially from other creatures and objects. His trees, though he speaks to them, do not take on grave countenances. The weather that buffets them is “outer” only.
It is notable that Frost does not give mind to the “microscopic items” like the speck and the ants. In the poems like A Considerable Speck and Departmental Frost is preparing the way obliquely for direct statement. In the former, we have the final “No one can know how glad I am to find/On any sheet at the least display of mind”, and in the latter we have the comment on the ants, “How thoroughly departmental.”
In the more direct poem, The Bear, we have “The world has room to make a bear feel free: The universe seems cramped to you and me.” Whenever the poet talks directly to or of natural objects or creatures, we feel that he is really looking atman out of the corner of his eye and speaking to him out of the corner of his mouth. In all these poems, Robert Frost is describing the animal and vegetable natures in man, and reading man’s nature into the animal and vegetable worlds, as Wordsworth did. Frost seems to feel that the natural world is impersonal, unfeeling, and at best animal creation. For him, Nature does not keep in its store the “healing balm.”
Frost holds that man has certain limitations. His understanding of the Nature world comes slowly. “The most existing movement in Nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and the shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind.” Man lives in the natural world and thereby develops his mind so that he may perhaps reach beyond the boundary separating the natural and the supernatural
Some of the most interesting poems of Robert Frost, in which Nature predominates, are: Birches, Mowing, The Oven, Bird, west-Running Brook, Snow, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Road Not Taken, The Tulfi of Flowers, A Minor Bird, The Tree at My Window, etc.
To quote a single example from Birches :
“You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.”
A marvelous imagery indeed! The trees are shown trailing their leaves under the impact of the storm like girls drying their hair in the sun.
Frost’s description of the Nature are vividly effective. Frost’s descriptive power is the most wonderful thing in his poetry. A spring flower, a snowfall, a storm, a bending tree, a valley mist, a brook-these are all brought into the experience of the reader. His method of description is very simple, and so deceptive. In Our Singing Strength, we follow him disputing with birds, and in A Hillside Thaw, we see snow turning into water. With the kind of simultaneity we find in Frost’s poetry, he becomes most fascinating to us. Robert Frost’s lyricism is superbly resented as:
“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”
Apart from the transparency that we find in Robert Frost’s poems, the one remarkable thing about his descriptions of the natural objects and sight did not idealize them. He rather described with the touch of a realist. His poems are not written for townsfolk; they are written mainly for the countrymen.
One of the popular misconsceptions about Frost’s world of Nature is the view that it is a simplification, a strategy of evasion, and an escape from the complex and compelling problems of modern urban life. Robert Frost, thus, creates a mythical world of his own, which he never leaves for fear of encroachment, lest it should be lost.
Frost is pre-eminently a Nature poet, though some critics deny him this. Alvarez said of him, “He is not a Nature-poet; his work has none of that personal interpretative weight. He is a country poet, whose business is to love with Nature rather than through it.” But another critic, John F. Lynen, who wrote The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost, (Yale Univ. Press, 1960), defends Frost’s claim to being a Nature poet.
In Frost’s Nature poetry, we find the picture of lonely man. The solitary protagonists of An Old Man’s Winter Night, The Witch at Coos, The Black Cottage, The Hill Wife, Snow, Home Burial, The Fear and A Servant to Servants are symbolic of alienated human situations and reveal the archetypes of loneliness. Similarly, Desert Places and Bereft express the terror and panic of the emptiness of man. Desert Places highlights man’s tragic situation.
“And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express”
The threatening aspect of Nature is indicated by the deeper roar” of the wind, the “frothy shore”, the “sombre clouds”, the coiling leaves (as though they were serpents) in the poem Bereft. Frost has, therefore, been likened to Sophocles by Trilling. He could evoke the image of the terrible and the panicky in a modern, new fashion. No wonder, therefore, that Frost drew admirations from eminent poets like Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats.
To conclude Frost’s poetry is the poetry of despair and gloom. His poetry is rather the poetry of quiet courage in the face of hardships and barriers, of man’s ability to overcome despair and gloom and assert his dignity through fortitude. There are many poems by Robert Frost which indicate this line of his thought: poems such as The Soldier, The Riders, Brown’s Descent, The Lost Followers, The Courage to be Now, and To a Moth Seen in Winter, Fire and Ice establish man’s heroism over external forces. Frost never ceases to haunt us as the poet of rural New England, with its beautiful spectacle of Nature.
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