Chapter 7: Early 20th C. American Lit
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| A Brief Biography |
An Essay: "To what extent do Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers convey the core ideas of Transcendentalism in their portrayal of the spiritual relationship between man and the wilderness?"
Senior, Gillingham Comprehensive High School
North Dorset, England
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(permission from the Columbia University Bartleby Library Copyright Restrictions)
Source: 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, the Bettmann Archive
"I'm always saying something that's just the edge of something more." - RF
A Boy's Will, 1913; North of Boston, 1914; Mountain Interval, 1916; New Hampshire, 1923; West-Running Brook, 1928; A Further Range, 1936; A Witness Tree, 1942; Steeple Bush, 1947; In the Clearing, 1962.
Collected poems, prose & plays. NY: Library of America, 1995. PS3511 .R94 A6
Complete poems of Robert Frost. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. PS3511 R94
Family letters of Robert and Elinor Frost. Edited by Arnold Grade. Foreword by Lesley Frost. Albany: State U of New York P, 1972. PS3511 R94 Z52
In the clearing. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. PS3511.R94 I5
Interviews with Robert Frost. Ed. Edward C. Lathem. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. PS3511 .R94 I55
The letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. PS3511.R94 Z53
North of Boston : poems. Ed. Edward C. Lathem; woodcuts by J. J. Lankes. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1977. PS3511 R94 N6
Robert Frost videorecording. South Carolina Educational Television Network, a New York Center for Visual History production; director, Peter Hammer; producer Robert Chapman. Video Cassette PS305 .V65x 1988 no.5
The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Faggen, Robert. ed. Boston, MA: Harvard UP, 2007.
The Collected Prose of Robert Frost. Richardson, Mark. ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007.
Selected Bibliography: Biographical 1980-Present
Fleissner, Robert F. Frost's Road Taken. New York : Peter Lang, 1996.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: a biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. PS3511 .R94 Z788
Newman, Lea, and Jay Parini. Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories behind His New England Poetry. Shelburne: New England Press, 2000.
Oster, Judith. Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991. PS3511 .R94 Z857
Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: a life. NY: H. Holt and Co., 1999. PS3511 .R94 Z868
Spencer, Matthew, and others. eds. Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another. NY: Handsel, 2003.
Selected Bibliography: Critical 2000-Present
Cohen, Milton A. Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics: Stevens, Cummings, Frost, and Williams in the 1930s. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010.
Dreese, Donelle N. "Robert Frost." in Bryson, J. Scott and Thompson, Roger. eds. Twentieth-Century American Nature Poets. Detroit: Gale, 2008.
Francis, Lesley L. Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900-1918. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2004.
Hass, Robert B. Going by Contraries: Robert Frost's Conflict with Science. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2002.
Heuston, Sean. Modern Poetry and Ethnography: Yeats, Frost, Warren, Heaney, and the Poet as Anthropologist. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Kendall, Tim. The Art of Robert Frost. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2012.
Naugrette, Jean-Pierre. "The Master of Ballantrae, or the Writing of Frost and Stone.: in Ambrosini, Richard and Dury, Richard. eds. Robert Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2006.
Sanders, David. A Divided Poet: Robert Frost, North of Boston, and the Drama of Disappearance. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011.
Stanlis, Peter J. Conversations with Robert Frost: The Bread Loaf Period. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2010.
Timmerman, John H. Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity. Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 2002.
Tuten, Nancy L., and John Zubizarreta. eds. The Robert Frost Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.
| Top |Robert Frost (1874-1963): A Brief Biography A Student Project by Ben Ho
Among the brightest names in the vast and expansive collection of great American poetry, few individuals have attained the stature, widespread recognition, and distinguished position of Robert Frost. Even more than 35 years after his death in 1963, Frost is still remembered by many readers, according to Donald Greiner, as the "grandfatherly, white-haired old bard of the nation." (Harris 1) From the publication of his first book to his death, Frost created an unprecedented literary legacy that remains his own and unlikely to be matched or forgotten.
Though associated with New England, Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, to William Frost, Jr., and Isabelle Moodie, according to Jeffrey Meyers (1-2). Tragedy struck the family when Frost was only 11; his father, whose health had been gradually declining, died in May 1885, leaving his family a huge financial burden. The loss of William Frost, Jr., would have a startling effect upon Robert, who, according to Parini, acquired his father's drive to make something of himself and his passion to excel in whatever he did.
Without a husband and father, the Frost family--Belle and her two children, Robert and Jeanie--traveled from San Francisco to Massachusetts by train, a journey that Frost would recall later in life as "the longest, loneliest train ride" he ever took, displaying the impact of the loss of a vital figure in Frost's childhood. But Frost would continue to seek the promise of the future in New England, where the seeds of knowledge and inspiration were planted for his massive career as a poet. Having completed several grades of education on the West Coast, Frost was a fifth-grader at a Salem elementary school, where he displayed a gift for learning, as Parini writes. His mother, then his teacher at school, read aloud to him from such noted authors as Poe, Wordsworth, and Emerson, the last of whom was Frost’s favorite. But in addition to reading these more “recent” authors, Frost also read Virgil, Homer, and Horace extensively as a student at Lawrence High School. It was there that Frost met Carl Burell, a student who had a strong interest in books and introduced Frost to such American humorists as Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings. Burell, who was interested in botany, was also an aspiring writer, contributing verse and prose pieces to the High School Bulletin, which inspired Frost to try writing poetry himself; the result was a poem entitled “La Noche Triste,” based on the night when the Spaniards retreated across the causeway over Lake Tezcuco from the city of Tenochtitlan, as described in Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico. The poem was published in the Bulletin in April 1890, when Frost was only a sophomore. During that summer, the Frost family briefly moved to Maine, where Frost and his mother and sister were employed by a hotel in Ocean Park; Frost performed such tasks as retrieving groceries and mail, carrying suitcases, and mowing lawns to support his family financially (Parini 18-26).
During his senior year at Lawrence High School, according to Meyers, Frost became editor of the Bulletin and was acquainted with Elinor White, who would incidentally share with Frost the honor of class valedictorian at graduation. Frost courted White in the latter half of his senior year (Meyers 19-20). After the graduation ceremony, for which Frost delivered a speech called “A Monument to After-thought Unveiled,” his feelings for White became intense, and the two secretly pledged to marry; while Frost asked that White marry him immediately, White decided that a more appropriate time would come for marriage, since Frost intended to attend Harvard University and she would enter St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, at the decision of her parents (Parini 31).
Though Frost was admitted to Harvard, his father’ s alma mater, his grandparents objected to his studying at the university that “ruined” his father, as reported by Meyers; it was at Harvard that Frost’s father began to revolt against his puritanical heritage, reject religion, and behave wildly (1, 22). Even Frost’s mother, Belle, considered Harvard to be full of freethinkers, individuals who might lead her son in the wrong direction (Parini 32). Thus, Frost was sent to Dartmouth, which failed to meet his expectations for academic and intellectual stimulation; as Meyers writes, Frost was “bored with his classes and disillusioned with the conformist attitude of his classmates.” By January 1893, when competition was intense and Frost was under heavy pressure to do well on his midterm exams, Frost had lost focus and direction, later deciding to leave Dartmouth after spending less than one semester there.
It was after leaving Dartmouth that Frost drifted from one job to the next, all of which increased his knowledge of rural and urban New England and provided the kind of experience that Frost valued more than a college education, Meyers maintains (27). Frost first assisted his mother, still a teacher, in Methuen, providing punishment to disobedient students whom she couldn’t control. Later, he became a temporary substitute for his mother during the spring (Parini 38). Frost spent the summer of 1893 doing chores for Elinor White’ s family on a farm in New Hampshire, and soon worked for a mill in Lawrence (Meyers 26). According to Gould, Frost was responsible for fixing the lights at the mill and placed himself in danger’ s way since the job entailed scrambling up tall ladders and fitting one’ s body in awkward angles. It was during this time that Frost wrote his first “real” poem, “My Butterfly,” after walking home from work (52).
According to Parini, Frost continued trying other jobs such as writing for the Lawrence Daily American and Sentinel, but found that working for a newspaper involved too much prying into others’ business. He decided to teach at a Salem school, which paid him $24 a month for his service (53).
In December 1895, Frost married Elinor White, whom he had courted before graduating from high school. The couple moved into a small apartment, and their first child, Elliot, was born in September 1896. The following year, Frost realized that teaching would not provide him with the necessary funds to support his family and attended Harvard to study classic literature, which he had always admired. At Harvard, Frost performed so well that he earned a prize for excellence in classical studies, but due to health problems and his wife’ s pregnancy with another child, he left Harvard, in similar fashion to the way he left Dartmouth (Parini 54-64).
Attending to himself and his family, Frost decided to try his hand at raising poultry after receiving a loan from his grandfather to pay for a farm in Lawrence. Shortly before settling on their new farm, the Frosts celebrated the birth of their daughter Lesley, who was born in April 1899. However, their first child, Elliot, who suffered from stomach cramps and digestive problems, died in July 1900 after being infected by typhoid fever. Frost would eventually move from the current farm to another one which contained a farmhouse, barn, peach and pear trees, and an apple orchard, located in the town of Derry (Parini 66-71).
During their years spent on the farm, the Frosts welcomed other children into their lives: their son Carol, born in May 1902; and daughters Irma, born in June 1903; Marjorie, born in March 1905; and Elinor Bettina, who was born in June 1907 but only lived for two days. The combination of the farm environment and personal tragedy at this stage in Frost’ s life would have an impact on his poetry of later years. Though Frost enjoyed farming as a leisure activity, it certainly didn’t provide him a salary that would allow his family to live securely. In March 1906 Frost joined the Pinkerton Academy, earning $1000 a year for teaching English. In addition to his courses, Frost also coached the debate team, advised the school newspaper committee, and helped with the athletics program (Meyers 57-64).
Searching for a way to have more of his work published and begin a poetic career, Frost gave up teaching in 1912 and traveled to England with his family; Frost chose England because he needed a change of scenery and also considered the nation to be a birthplace of great literary tradition and poetry. Settling in London, Frost met Ezra Pound, who praised and promoted Frost’ s work, understood his ideas, and encouraged his literary development. With Pound’ s help, Frost completed A Boy’s Will, a collection of mainly autobiographical poems published in 1913. Many of Frost’ s well-known and frequently-used natural elements, such as the stars, clouds, and leaves, are found within these poems (Meyers 86-100).
| Top | As Gould presents, Frost’ s next work to appear after A Boy’s Will was North of Boston, which Frost composed to show New England as more than just Boston’ s industrial, cultural, and shipping center. The work, published in 1914, was hailed in the London Daily News as a masterpiece of modern poetry, destined to be a classic. These two works would introduce Frost to the world and set the stage for his immense career. While Frost was stubborn to leave England, he and his family departed from Liverpool in February 1915 (125-45).
After Frost returned to the United States, another collection of his poetry, Mountain Interval, was published. While Frost felt the work lacked formal unity and was a set of poems “slapped together,” Meyers states that Mountain Interval is firmly rooted in English pastoral tradition and contains themes common in Frost’ s poetry, such as isolation, loneliness, and fear. The work also contains some of Frost’ s most famous poems, such as “Birches” and “The Road Not Taken.” (136-8)
In June 1920, Frost purchased a farm in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, attesting to his great love of the outdoors and farming. His experience at this farm would lead to such poems as “Maple,” “Wild Grapes,” and “Fire and Ice.” (Parini 145) Around this time he was invited to teach at both Amherst College and the University of Michigan, between which he switched numerous times before finally settling at Amherst (Meyers 168).
Tragedy struck Frost later in life, as misfortune affected his family in various ways. Meyers writes that Frost’s daughter, Lesley, married a man who was unfaithful and who suffered from a nervous breakdown (201); his daughter Marjorie died of puerperal fever in 1934 (204); his son Carol, who was unable to make friends and sealed himself from others, committed suicide in 1940 (273-4); his daughter Irma suffered from a mental breakdown and was placed in an asylum (287-8); and his wife, Elinor, died in 1938 of a heart attack that she had suffered two days prior to her death (230).
Parini asserts that the death of Frost’s wife had a tremendous effect upon Frost, who had thus far dedicated all of his works to her. After his wife’ s death Frost became increasingly attracted to a woman named Kay Morrison, whom he had met in 1918. Frost proposed to Morrison, who was already married and refused his offer (303-15). But Meyers writes that Frost, who had even composed and dedicated A Witness Tree to her, employed her as his secretary and manager. Further yet, she was Frost’s “manager, mistress, and muse” for the remainder of his life (241).
Frost spent the latter part of his life reading his poetry in front of audiences and remaining in the public eye. The constant touring he underwent to share his work brought upon him physical discomfort and strain, but Frost continued nonetheless (Meyers 181-2). In 1961 Frost had the distinct honor of reading his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President Kennedy, and Frost traveled to the Soviet Union the following year as part of a diplomatic exchange, meeting Soviet premier Khruschchev in the process.
Frost maintains a distinct position in American poetry. John Lynen asserts that Frost stands apart from other poets in the modern era in that his sentences are clear, his verse forms traditional, and language similar to everyday speech. In fact, Frost’ s simplicity in his poetry was so strong that one might find it difficult to classify him as a “modern” poet (2). Furthermore, as Parini argues, Frost used New England as a frequent setting or backdrop for much of his poetry, and very few poets have so consistently evoked a particular location in their work, almost bringing the region to life. Parini adds that in Frost’ s poetry, the physical world is a boundless source of metaphors and images, with nature as a symbol of the spirit. The natural cycle from fall to spring, for example, represents the transition of destruction to regeneration in life (443-7). Philip Gerber stresses that Frost’ s poetry retains its freshness even today because it doesn’t depend upon the topic of the day, but rather explores aspects of humanity that are timeless and universal. In dealing with the individual, Frost emphasizes that man remains single, alone with his fate. Life for the individual can hold the possibility of terror, but also contains the potential of beauty (117).
For his work Frost earned numerous awards. According to Parini, some of these include an Academy of American Poets prize in 1953 (390), the Bollingen Prize for poetry from Yale in 1962 (439), honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge in 1952 (399-403), the gold medal for “distinguished work in poetry” by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1939 (325), and four Pulitzer prizes--for New Hampshire in 1924 (227), Collected Poems in 1930 (267), A Further Range in 1937 (308), and A Witness Tree in 1943 (347).
At 88, Robert Frost died of infected blood clots and pulmonary embolisms on January 29, 1963 in Boston (Meyers 347). He had established for himself a remarkably prolific career and prominent position in American poetry.
Gerber, Philip. Robert Frost. 2nd ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Gould, Jean. Robert Frost: The Aim was Song. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1964.
Harris, Kathryn, ed. Robert Frost: Studies of the Poetry. Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1979.
Lynen, John. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.
1. Why do you think Frost chooses the subjects and settings that he does? What does the rural setting provide for Frost that amore urban one would not? In what way is this setting appropriate for the plea or emotions Frost is attempting to express in his poetry?
2. The theme of loss recurs in various guises and ways in a number of Frost's poems. Compare the ways in which loss is portrayed in these poems. How do Frost's characters deal with their situations?
3. "Directive" advises its readers to get lost to find themselves. How does this poem reflect Frost's twentieth-century worldview? What are the relative values of disorientation and reorientation? How does "Directive" offer a modern version of the American dream?
4. Analyze the narrator's attitude toward death in "After Apple-Picking" and in "An Old Man's Winter Night." How does each poem serve as a buffer against mortality and meaninglessness?
5. Analyze one of the following poems to show how Frost's poetic technique itself serves as his own "momentary stay against confusion": "Once by the Pacific," "Desert Places," or "Design."
6. Discuss the limitations and isolation of the individual in either a social or natural environment, plus the related theme of how difficult it is for the self to understand existence.
7. Discuss the ambiguity of nature when it is considered as a source of wisdom.
8. Discuss Frost's sensitivity to the theme of entropy, doom, and extinction.
Senior, Gillingham Comprehensive High School
North Dorset, England
Transcendentalism is in actuality an umbrella term for a wide variety of interconnecting philosophies, often the personal philosophies of individuals. With roots in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant, it developed primarily in New England in the 19th century. In my discussion of Transcendentalism in reference to the relationship between man and the wilderness, I shall primarily concentrate on two key scholars: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau Transcendentalism will provide the framework for my analysis, rather than be the subject of it; I will extrapolate key principles and use them to analyse how the poetry of Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers explores the spiritual relationship between literature and the wilderness. The fascination of the Transcendentalist with nature‚"s spiritual significance is what makes their philosophy an ideal framework; many key Transcendentalists were drawn to the wilderness as a conduit for the development of the individual. For Thoreau, it was his retreat into the woodlands around Walden Pond (which formed the basis of his work Walden) that helped him grow into being a self-aware individual. Thoreau is not alone in this; the concept of "going into the wild‚" to find oneself is deeply embedded in the human consciousness. This seems particularly true in America, a country in which capitalism at its most ferocious and vast wild spaces somehow coexist. This paradoxical aspect of American society is pointed out by Ramachandra Guha, who observes that "the rapid increase in visitations to the national parks in postwar America is a direct consequence of economic expansion.‚"1 A rejection of urban capitalism has seemingly provoked a renewed obsession with the wilderness, as in John Krakauer‚"s Into The Wild2, in which Krakauer chronicles how Chris McCaudless‚" rejection of contemporary society and obsession with the wildernesses of Alaska manifested themselves in his retreat from civilisation and contributed to his tragic death. The wilderness may well be on the decline both in America and internationally, but it‚"s allure clearly remains just as strong.
Despite the broadness of Transcendentalism, there are a few basic ideas common across the movement. Professor Paul Reuben (Professor Emeritus, Department of English, California State University) lists them as follows:
"1. An individual is the spiritual center of the universe - and in an individual can be found the clue to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. It is not a rejection of the existence of God, but a preference to explain an individual and the world in terms of an individual.
2. The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self - all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge. This is similar to Aristotle's dictum "know thyself."
3. Transcendentalists accepted the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs - nature is symbolic.
4. The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization3‚"
From this we can extrapolate these core fundamentals of Transcendentalism: individualism, self-knowledge, self-realization and the spiritual importance of nature in revealing these qualities. But how do we define a wilderness? The online Oxford English Dictionary defines "wilderness‚" as "an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.‚"4 In British society, there are perhaps few places that meet this definition; certainly it is more easy to find a "wilderness‚" in the vastness of America than in the densely populated United Kingdom. In literature, the wilderness often seems to be characterised as devoid of human activity. The root of the word "wilderness‚" helps to expand on this; the dictionary tells us it comes from the Old English wildƒýornes, meaning 'land inhabited only by wild animals'.5 In the works of the American poets Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers the wilderness exists in various states, but always with this unifying characteristic. It is a landscape in which nature exists as absolutely separate from humanity and a landscape that provokes reflection on the individual observing it, an environment in which a Transcendentalist can potentially flourish.
The landscapes that dominate Robert Frost‚"s poetry are near-identical to those of the New England Transcendentalists, albeit a few decades onwards. Frost is known for his poems concerning the New England countryside; whilst New England itself may not be regarded as a wild place in the same way as, say, Alaska, Frost still finds wildernesses and voids within the landscape. These wildernesses provoke important spiritual experiences from the individuals who enter them or observe them.
Individualism is a key facet of Frost‚"s poetry. The individual is often also the narrator, personalising the connection between narrator and poet and thus stressing the importance of these specific individuals. The Sound of Trees6 is somewhat typical in how it is written in the first person singular, featuring an individual whose reflection on a facet of nature (in this case, the sound made by trees) leads to reflection on the individual themselves. However the extent to which self-knowledge is achieved in The Sound of Trees is debatable. The overall tone of the poem is one of uncertainty; the juxtaposition of an irregular rhyme scheme against a relatively regular yet awkward syntax of three stressed syllables per line emphasises the unease underlying apparent confidence. The "sound of trees‚" seems to in itself isolate the narrator, for "We suffer them by the day/‚"Till we lose all measure of pace‚"; the time word "pace‚" further emphasises the tension between the static trees and the forward-looking desires of man. The noise hence dislocates the individual from regular order; this sense of dislocation is furthered by how the sound "talks of going/But never gets away‚". Although it is the sound of the trees rather than the trees themselves that is personified, sound is not a strong feature of this poem; whereas in poems such as Birches Frost employs various sound devices in his description of trees, here there is little more than a touch of sibilance in "the noise of these‚". The Sound of Trees is thus intellectualised beyond being a poem based on description; the noise of the trees is less important than the effect that it has upon the individual.
The individual here does not so much espouse Transcendentalist principles so much as it edges towards them. On the one hand, the noise of the trees has worn on until the individual acquires "a listening air‚", implying a sort of communion with nature. Their understanding that the trees talk "of going/But never [get] away‚" seems to have pushed the individual to action; the listless nature of these phrases perhaps inspiring the individual to act. The individual‚"s movements mimic that of the trees, as shown by how "my head sways to my shoulder/Sometimes when I watch trees sway‚", suggesting that a closeness or bond has been developed between the trees and the man. This in turn seems to have pushed the narrator to decide with certainty, as apparent in the definite verbs, that ‚─˙I shall set forth for somewhere,/I shall make the reckless choice/Some day when they are in voice‚". The rhyme that links the second and third lines also links the trees to the individual‚"s decision, hence showing it to be a case of cause and effect. On the one hand, this decision can be seen as one in line with Transcendentalism; contemplation of the trees has led the individual to decide to move into the unknown. To venture into the unknown in search of self-knowledge is practically at the heart of the movement; as John C. Elder remarks, it is "the teaching of Emerson and Thoreau that solitude in nature is the state most conductive to genuine enlightenment.‚"7 It is arguable that the individual is not particularly self-aware, as indicated in his final vague declaration that "I shall have less to say/But I shall be gone.‚" However it is also worth noting how the language of this statement closely resembles the earlier description of the trees as "They are that that talks of going/But never gets away;/And that talks no less for knowing‚". Here the description of the trees is essentially inverted: the individual will be gone whereas the trees never will. The individual will also say little, whereas the trees "talk‚" in the same manner regardless of how they grow "wiser and older‚", indicating a lack of self-knowledge. Thus the implication seems to be that the individual, in order to avoid falling into the same state as the trees, has decided to take the less well-defined path into the unknown so as to acquire self-knowledge. The narrator does admittedly only profess an intention to do so; as Richard Poirier notes, "the young man‚─Â is still trapped at home ‚─ý restrained from extra-vagance beyond form even while imagining what it might be like to wander‚".8 However even if The Sound of Trees contains only the intent to act, it is an act of which Emerson and Thoreau would doubtlessly approve.
Individualism is stressed in an inverted manner in Two Looking at Two9, but it is not to be found in the human presence in this poem. The couple whose journey the poem centres upon are consistently referred to in the plural and without an established presence. This belongs to the doe and buck who appear individually to the couple and provoke the epiphany upon which the poem ends. Frost‚"s couple are shown to be somewhat ignorant with the opening declaration that "Love and forgetting might have carried them/A little further up the mountainside‚─Â but not much further up.‚" Moreover the couple, when confronted with the rather insignificant obstacle of "a tumbled wall‚" declare that "‚─˙This is all‚─¨‚". There is discontent is the early stages of the poem, as supported by the descriptions of the obstacles facing the couple; the clash of harsh and soft sounds in "rock and washout‚" disturbs the poem. Furthermore the doe views the couple as like "some up-ended boulder split in two‚", in a clear image of violent disharmony. The reaction of the "antlered buck of lusty nostril‚" to the couple is particularly pronounced. He immediately identifies what is so unsettling about the couple, moving his head "As if to ask, ‚─˙Why don‚"t you make some motion?/Or give some sign of life? Because you can‚"t.‚" The stress of the latter line damningly falls upon "can‚"t‚"; the doe and the stag have both detected the absence of vitality within the couple as apparent in their apathetic behaviour. The use of rhetorical questions to frame the deer‚"s thoughts further elevates them by demonstrating that they are knowledgeable whereas the humans are not. In an intriguing inversion of individuality, Frost has presented the deer as both symbols of the wilderness and as strong individuals.
Yet there seems to be hope for this listless couple; in true Transcendentalist form, their confrontation with the wilderness seems to spark at least the beginnings of self-knowledge. Their declaration of "This is all‚" does sustain itself to the end of the poem, but "Still they stood,/A great wave from it going over them‚". Their somewhat ignorant declaration is thus undermined by their actions, as if on a deeper and spiritual level they are moving out of their state of ignorance. The couple had previously given little thought to their connection with nature but, having observed the confident and fulfilled deer, they are taking greater note. Two Looking at Two ends with then couple realising that "the earth in one unlooked-for favour/Had made them certain earth returned their love.‚" These final lines sing with a rush of energy. The couple have gone only to the edges of the wilderness, but their reflections there have revitalised them and brought them towards self-knowledge.
However Frost‚"s poetry does not consistently reflect Transcendentalism. William T. Moynihan argues that "the predominant Frostian tone is a cautious transcendentalism and a Puritan stoicism. The sacramental quality of fall typically expressed the transcendentalism, and the bleakness of winter conveys the stoicism.‚"10 The Wood-Pile11 is, to a degree, an expression of this in which Frost again shies away from espousing principles of Transcendentalism. Frost‚"s individual again enters the unknown as he walks in "the frozen swamp one gray day‚". The clarity of a cold winter scene is exquisitely realised as scenery comprised "all lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees‚", creating an austere and frozen beauty. However there is a darkness to the landscape in how it disconnects the individual from human society; he is without any landmarks "to make or name a place by/So as to say for certain I was here‚"; he is "just as far from home.‚" The individual is both isolated within nature and from nature. Richard Poirier refers to this dislocation as "the kind of paranoia that goes with any sense of feeling of being lost and of losing thereby a confident sense of self.‚"12 As Poirier goes on to note, this instability stresses the actions of a "small bird‚" that alights before him and is "careful/To put a tree between us when he lighted‚". The bird is afraid of the human on an intellectual level; the personification indicates that the bird is making a conscious choice to create distance between itself and man. Frost‚"s individual is thus reminiscent of Thoreau in Walden; he is an observer who is shown that he is not truly part of the wilderness around him. Yet there is another human presence in this wilderness; the individual stumbles across a wood-pile "older sure than this year‚"s cutting,/Or even last year‚"s or the year‚"s before‚". This man-made presence seems more at ease within the wild environment as, unlike the individual, nature seems to have accepted it for "Clematis/Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle‚". The language Frost uses here seems to humanize the hold of the clematis around the wood-pile, implying mingling of the presence of man with nature. Yet this sight does not appear to comfort the individual, nor does it lead to an epiphany or moment of self-knowledge. Frost‚"s individual falls to pondering how "Some who lived in turning to fresh tasks/Could so forget his handiwork.‚" Moreover the poem ends on a decidedly bleak of "the slow smokeless burning of decay‚". Here the sibilance of "slow smokeless‚" reflects on the soft, insubstantial nature of smoke, adding to a restrained and bleak atmosphere in which Transcendentalist principles do not so easily survive.
The conflict between man and nature is indeed decidedly bleak in much of Frost‚"s poetry. However perhaps the most crucial difference between Frost and Jeffers, and what allies Frost more closely to the Transcendentalists, is that Frost prefers to dwell on man rather than nature in his poetry. This is apparent in A Cabin in the Clearing13; whilst Reginald Cook noted that Frost once described this poem as being "about knowing ourselves‚"14, it is arguably also about not knowing oneself. Despite the fact that the humans in the cabin have "been here long enough/To push the woods back from around the house‚", the mist still doubts "If they know where they are.‚" If one takes the mist to be a symbol of the natural world and the human-generated smoke as a symbol of man‚"s presence, then the tension between these two forces becomes more apparent. The mist is critical, suggesting that "they never will‚" know where they are, whereas the smoke counters this by stating "I will not have their happiness despaired of.‚" The strange evolution of this conversation, which twists on itself as it circles the topic of the humans, never becomes particularly animated but stays conversational in tone, an indication of Frost‚"s "stoicism‚". It observes the plight of humanity somewhat complacently.
This is likely entirely intended, for Frost here seems to accept that humanity will always have something of a gap in its knowledge regarding the wilderness. It is implied that self-knowledge is necessary for a broader understanding of humanity‚"s place in the world, for "If the day ever comes when they know who/They are, they may know better where they are.‚" The simplicity of the syntax here creates a casual tone; Frost seems content to accept that humanity will make its way to this state of knowledge slowly, by "talking in the dark‚" and by "fond faith.‚" This seems to veer away from Transcendentalism in that it does not care to advocate or inspire. Indeed, the fact that humanity "also ask the philosophers‚" without results could be construed as a rejection of the relevance of philosophical movements such as Transcendentalism. Perhaps because Frost wrote this poem later in life15, there is a decided lack of intensity to this poem. There is instead a quiet recognition of the "inner haze‚" separating man and the natural world, and the simple hope that in time, through learning, this haze may gradually clear.
The poetry of Robinson Jeffers even more markedly swerves away from the optimism and idealism of Transcendentalism. Somewhat rejected by the literary establishment until recent years, Jeffers often explored dark, nihilistic themes in his depictions of his immediate surroundings: the North Californian coast. Jeffers‚" poetry is infused with his own personal philosophy which he called "inhumanism‚", explaining this to be "a shifting of emphasis from man to not man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.... It offers a reasonable detachment as a rule of conduct, instead of love, hate, and envy.‚"16 Jeffers‚"s philosophy is arguable more abstracted and heightened than Frost‚"s common-sense philosophy, and his poetry is thus more dramatic. This is furthered by the influence of Christianity on Jeffers; his education was supervised by his father, a Presbyterian minister and a professor of Old Testament Literature and Biblical History17. His depiction of the spiritual relationship between man and the wilderness contains religious themes as well as many elements similar to the fundamentals of Transcendentalism already discussed, such as the importance of nature as a conduit for self-knowledge and the significance of an individual narrator. However his approach can touch on far darker ideas, and at times even approach nihilism. Perhaps it is this infusion of harsh, savage landscapes with bleak philosophy that makes Jeffers the wilder of the two poets.
That is not to say that Jeffers cannot be positive about the spiritual relationship between man and the wilderness. In Night18, the spiritual relationship between man and the wilderness is particularly apparent, as magnified by the soothing presence of darkness. From the first stanza the atmosphere is one of tranquillity; the "ebb‚" that "slips from the rock‚" is mimicked by the ebb and flow of the stanza, as created by enjambment such as "lift streaming shoulders/Out of the slack‚" and "the prone ocean/On the low cloud.‚" The pattern of tension and release is soothing in its similarity to the regular rhythm of waves. Jeffers‚" view of nature moves from the shoreline into the forest, where night‚"s presence is shown through the repetition of "dark mountain‚", "dark pinewood‚" and "dark valley‚". This presence is not threatening but soothing; the night is personified as a "she‚" and "Quietness/flows from her deeper fountain‚". The stature of the night grows and grows throughout the poem as she is infused with spirituality; "she is immortal‚" and the small presence of lights is dismissed as "the blasphemies of glowworms‚" disturbing her sacredness. Despite these human characteristics, Jeffers creates an environment that is utterly wild, as demonstrated in the animalistic description of "the slender/Flocks of the mountain forest‚" that "dip shy/Wild muzzles into the mountain water‚". The wilderness can sometimes be aggressive in Jeffers‚" poetry, but here the pastoral connotations of "flock‚" nullify this. This landscape is devoid of any human presence, barring the narrator himself, and unlike "the fretfulness/Of cities‚" it is a landscape absolutely at peace.
It is this landscape that Jeffers‚" narrator can contemplate his own position. In the penultimate stanza we see how the wilderness has made him "passionately at peace‚" and this he is able reflect on "life, the flicker of men and moths and the wolf on the hill‚" and how life in its passionate and fleeting forms is intrinsically linked to "The calm mother‚" that is "dear Night‚" and "the charm of the dark‚". Yet, as did Frost, Emerson and Thoreau, Jeffers‚" narrator understands that man and the wilderness are ultimately separated. He loves this landscape infused with darkness, but "as a sailor loves the sea, when the helm is for harbour‚", thus noting the dangers of a prolonged existence in the wilderness. This is not his only realisation; in prophetic tones Jeffers end by declaring that "Life is grown sweeter and lonelier,/And death is no evil.‚" In his isolation in a wild landscape, Jeffers is thus able to contemplate and, to a degree, better understand humanity‚"s existence and presence.
In his essay Jeffers and Merwin: The World beyond Words, Neil Bowers argues that part of Jeffers‚" uniqueness as a poet comes from how he does not just "use nature as an object of contemplation and an avenue of transcendence for the self.19 Whilst I agree that Jeffers‚" poetry values nature highly without relating it to man I would argue that the immanence of nature to Jeffers means that he cannot contemplate nature without considering the relationship between man and nature. This is perhaps exemplified by Jeffers‚" home Tor House, "the stunning, invincible granite cottage Jeffers built with his own hands in Carmel, Calif[ornia]‚".20 Jeffers‚" own relationship with the wilderness he lived in is apparent in much of his poetry, in particular in his poem about this home, Tor House21. If the house is taken to be an extension of Jeffers‚" presence, for it is his fingers that "had the art/To make stone love stone‚", then the poem clearly becomes a contrast between the wilderness‚"s permanence and man‚"s impermanence. Stone, with its connotations of strength and endurance, is emphasised as a prominent element in the landscape, present in "foundations of sea-worn granite‚" and "the granite knoll on the granite/And lava tongue‚". These elements endure beyond man‚"s influence, for "after ten thousand years‚" they "will remain/In the change of names.‚" They hence exist for so long that man‚"s labels cannot contain them. In both life and poetry, through his attention to nature‚"s immanence, Jeffers goes further than even Thoreau in immersing himself in nature. As Alan Brasher notes, "With respect to the values‚─Â that man can learn from nature, Jeffers and Emerson are very much in agreement; however the nature of man‚"s intercourse with nature clearly separates the two poets.‚" Jeffers‚" attention to the physicality of the wilderness here has the effect of emphasising his preference for nature over humanity.
That is not to say that Jeffers neglects to consider the place of man; he extends his dark vision to contemplate his own being at a spiritual level. Man‚"s presence is not obliterated from this poem; the anonymous "ghost walking‚" exists as a representation of how mankind‚"s presence is fading away; it moves "by daylight‚" and is "wider and whiter than any bird in the world‚". However this is not how Jeffers presents himself in this world; his spirit seems to share the nature of the landscape in how it is "a dark one, deep in the granite‚". Moreover it is not impermanent, for it is "not dancing on wind/With the mad wings and the day moon.‚" Jeffers had thus portrayed himself as sharing the brooding permanence of the landscape. What he has created, such as his "planted forest‚" of which "a few/May stand yet‚", has not endured, but some intangible part of Jeffers has. Tor House thus supports the argument of Alan Brasher that "any sense of immortality, for Jeffers, derives from the participation of the human body in the natural order.‚"22 It is not the traditional afterlife that has been achieved, for Jeffers‚" portrayal of the landscape is too dark for that, but still Jeffers has found a permanence of self in his relationship with the wilderness.
However Jeffers does often challenges man‚"s permanence in comparison to that of the wild‚"s. It is here that Jeffers moves further away from the optimism of Transcendentalism, taking a much bleaker approach to man‚"s existence within the wilderness in poems such as The Deer Lay Down Their Bones23. Rather than unity, here there is conflict between man and nature; Jeffers discovers in the midst of a small clearing "bones lying in the grass, clean bones and stinking bones,/Antlers and bones.‚" The natural rhythm of this line places the stress repeatedly on bones; they are presented to us as an obvious symbol of death and decay. More subtle is Jeffers‚" reference to how these bones belong to injured deer that "escape the hunters and limp away to lie hidden‚"; this morbid scene is hence of man‚"s creation. Deer are thus symbolic of the wild not only in Frost‚"s poem Two Looking at Two.
In definite Transcendentalist form, contemplation of these elements of the wilderness is shown to be essential to Jeffers‚" self-knowledge. However the conclusions Jeffers comes to are seemingly not in line with Transcendentalist principles. The principle message of this poem is "that life/Is on the whole quite equally good and bad, mostly grey neutral, and can be endured‚". As in Frost‚"s The Sound of Trees, Jeffers here is moved to keep going in rejection of a particular element of nature; in this case, it is the realisation that life can be endured "no matter what magic of grass, water and precipice and pain of wounds/Makes death look dear.‚" Despite the pain of life, one must endure and "use it all‚"; this is Jeffers‚" message, delivered in stoic tones that shy away from the idealism sometimes associated with the Transcendentalists. Jeffers seems bound to accept the great and the terrible elements of life, for "who drinks the wine/Should take the dregs.‚" Indeed, Jeffers‚" ends his poem in almost Frostian tones of weariness: "The deer in that beautiful place lay down their bones: I must wear mine.‚" Here Jeffers‚" lonely individual (this poem was written after the death of Jeffers‚" wife, Una24) is made all the more tragic in his own awareness of both the pain of human endurance and the divide between man and the wilderness that he cannot overcome. As Alan Brasher noted, whereas "Emerson goes to nature only for what he may bring back to share with other men‚", "Jeffers seems to prefer the company of animals to that of men‚"25, as is clearly the case here.
There is thus a disconnect between the savage beauty of the wild, in which their seems to be peace, and the difficulty of human existence. As Tim Hunt states, "For Jeffers the pain of nature is its flux, yet this constant alternation of death and renewal‚─Âis also its beauty.‚"26 This is where I find myself more in agreement with Neal Bowers when he states that "Jeffers says nature is utterly beyond us, though we may sense its awesome beauty.‚"27 Whilst Jeffers‚" contemplation of nature leads to contemplation of man, it is not as divorced as some of Frost‚"s work can be. The wilderness remains in the forefront of Jeffers‚" mind as an unachievable state, where the promise of peace that is inexorably intertwined with brutality shimmers just out of reach.
In the first two stanzas of Apology for Bad Dreams28, Jeffers reaches perhaps his bleakest in how he portrays the relationship between man and the wilderness. Here, the wild may be savage and brutal but, unlike the human presence in this poem, it is not despicable. In the second stanza from Apology for Bad Dreams, humanity is "The beast that walks upright, with speaking lips/And little hair, to think we should always be fed,/Sheltered, intact and self-controlled?‚" As shown through the actions of a mother and son when dealing with a horse, man can be nasty. The language is brutal in its description of how the mother and son "Noosed the small rusty links [of a chain rope] round the horse‚"s tongue‚", resulting in "The blood dripping from where the chain is fastened,/The beast shuddering‚". The simple syntax lends this description the possibility of it being a commonplace occurrence, whilst the plosive sounds of "blood dripping‚" and "shuddering‚" emphasise the crude actions. To Jeffers, man is cruel.
Nature, however, is sublime: "The ocean/Darkens, the high clouds brighten, the hills darken together. Unbridled and unbelievable beauty.‚" The cyclical nature of this phrase, moving from dark to light to dark, gives it the grandeur man lacks. It is due to the horrifying nature of man that Jeffers seeks to "magic/Horror away from the house‚" that he has built next to the ocean, for he does not want the awesome beauty of nature corroded by man‚"s presence. Yet Jeffers understands the tragedy of this element of savagery within humankind. Jeffers concludes this portion of the poem on the reminder that "It is never good to forget over what gulfs the spirit/Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seawater by the night wind, floats to its quietness.‚" That is to say, one must not forget the terrible truth of the "gulfs‚" that the human spirit can fall into on its journey to peace, and that the human spirit is as delicate as a flower petal. This is perhaps the ultimate tragedy in Jeffers‚" poetry, how humanity succumbs to horror and leaves Jeffers siding with the wilderness.
Perhaps this is the crucial difference between Frost and Jeffers; as succinctly put by Kyle Norwood, "Frost sides with pragmatic humanity against human abjection and unsignifiable, chaotic nature; Jeffers sides with beautiful inhuman nature against abject ‚─˙incestuous‚─¨ humanity.‚" 29 As did the Transcendentalists, both poets have a great appreciation not only for the beauty and majesty of the natural world, but also for its importance as a conduit for intellectual thought and development. Returning to the core principles of Transcendentalism as individualism, self-knowledge, self-realization and the spiritual importance of nature, it is apparent that Frost and Jeffers do espouse these to varying degrees in their work. However it cannot be said of either poet that they are Transcendentalists. Frost himself seems too attached to humanity; his retreat into the wilderness is never a complete one and ultimately his individual narrators will never choose the wild over human society. With Jeffers, a sharp contrast is apparent. Humanity‚"s very nature, in all its squalor, makes the unification between man and nature desired by the Transcendentalists undesirable to Jeffers; he would not sully the wilderness with such an association. Perhaps it can be said that neither poet can be qualified as a Transcendentalist as Frost loves humanity too much, whereas Jeffers loves it too little.
Word Count: 5077 (excluding footnotes)
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Faggen, R. et. al,(2006) The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jeffers, R., (1987) Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition, Manchester: Carcanet press Limited
Jeffers, R., (2003) The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press
Krakauer, J., (2007) Into the Wild, London: Pan Books
Thoreau, H. D., (2000) Walden, London: Random House
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Zaller, R. et. al. (1991) Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, Cranbury, New Jersey: University of Delaware Press
Zubizaretta, J et. al., The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, Greenwood Publishing Group 2001
Bartini A. G., (1985) Whiteness in Robert Frost‚"s poetry, The Massachusetts Review, 26, 351-356
Clemmer, R., (1969) Historical Transcendentalism in Pennsylvania, Journal of the History of Ideas, 30, 579-592
Moynihan, W. T., (1958) Fall and Winter in Frost, Modern Language Notes, 73, 348-350
Elder J. C., (1981) John Muir and the Literature of Wilderness, The Massachusetts Review, 22, 375-386
Wheeler, O. B., (1959) Faulkner‚"s Wilderness, American Literature, 31, 127-136
New York Times (2013) How Chris McCandless Died, New York Times. 12th September 2013
Perspectives in American Literature: Transcendentalism http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap4/4intro.html
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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds Bird Guide, The Ovenbird http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ovenbird/lifehistory
Poetry Foundation: Robinson Jeffers http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robinson-jeffers
Academy of American Poets: Robinson Jeffers http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/robinson-jeffers
Pico Blanco: Climbing, Hiking and Mountaineering: SummitPost http://www.summitpost.org/pico-blanco/154509
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1 Baird Callicott, J., et al, The Great New Wilderness Debate, University of Georgia Press (1998)
2 Krakauer, J., Into the Wild, Pan (2007)
3 Perspectives in American Literature: Transcendentalism http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap4/4intro.html Accessed 18/07/2014
4 Oxford Online Dictionary http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/wilderness Accessed 24/08/2014
6 Frost, R., Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (1998)
7 Elder, J. C. (1981) John Muir and the Literature of Wilderness, The Massachusetts Review, Inc., 22, 375-386
8 Poirier, R., Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, Stanford University Press (1990)
9 Frost, R., Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (1998)
10 Moynihan W. T, (1958) Fall and Winter in Frost, Modern Language Notes, 73, 348-350
11 Frost, R., Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (1998)
12 Poirier, R., Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, Stanford University Press (1990)
14 Zubizaretta, J et. al., The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, Greenwood Publishing Group 2001
16 Poetry Foundation: Robinson Jeffers http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robinson-jeffers Accessed 14/08/2014
17 Academy of American Poets: Robinson Jeffers http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/robinson-jeffers Accessed 07/10/2014
18 Jeffers, R., Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition edited by Colin Falck, Carcarnet Press Ltd (1987)
19 Thesing, W. B., Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honour of William H. Nolte University of South Carolina Press 1995
20 Stanford Alumni Magazine November/December 2001: A Black Sheep Joins the Fold, http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=38909 Accessed 5/10/2014
21 Jeffers, R., Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition edited by Colin Falck, Carcarnet Press Ltd (1987)
22 Thesing, W. B., Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honour of William H. Nolte, University of South Carolina Press 1995
23 Jeffers, R., Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition edited by Colin Falck, Carcarnet Press Ltd (1987)
24 Jeffers, R., The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press (2003)
25 Thesing, W. B., Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honour of William H. Nolte University of South Carolina Press 1995
26 Jeffers, R., The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press 2001
27 Thesing, W. B., Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honour of William H. Nolte University of South Carolina Press 1995
28 Jeffers, R., Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition edited by Colin Falck, Carcarnet Press Ltd (1987)
29 Thesing, W. B., Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honour of William H. Nolte University of South Carolina Press 1995
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