A Divided Poet

A Divided Poet: Robert Frost, 'North of Boston,' and the Drama of Disappearance

David Sanders
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 176
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1x72xb
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  • Book Info
    A Divided Poet
    Book Description:

    ‘North of Boston’, Robert Frost's second book of verse and arguably his greatest, brought him suddenly into national prominence in 1915. Though completed and first published in England in 1914, the book was rooted in the decade, 1900-1910, that Frost spent in Derry, New Hampshire, where he witnessed the decline of its traditional farming culture. In presenting this "drama of disappearance," twelve of the book's fifteen principal poems are literally dramatic, composed mainly of direct dialogue. Among them are three of Frost's most famous lyrics, each featuring a signature task of New England life and underlining the book's tribute to a fading culture. Collectively, the poems bring the diction and tones of a New England vernacular within a traditional metric frame, making "music," as Frost boasted, "from the sound of sense" and poetry of "a language absolutely unliterary." Such adaptations of ordinary language and experience to blank verse drama made Frost a founder of American modernism and ‘North of Boston’ one of its monuments. Exploring Frost's complex connection to his poetic characters, this study provides new readings of the individual poems and a new look at ‘North of Boston's’ development. To a degree no other study has done, it addresses the book's design as an artistic whole while placing it in the context of Frost's unfolding career. David Sanders is Professor Emeritus of English at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-814-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations Frequently Used
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: The Poet, His People, and the Drama of Disappearance
    (pp. 1-6)

    Published in England in 1914, North of Boston brought Robert Frost to national prominence overnight, astonishing almost everyone but the poet himself, who six months earlier had declared himself ready “to do something to the present state of literature in America” (SL, 88). His first book, A Boy’s Will, had come out the year before to unexceptional reviews and Frost, approaching forty, with a family to support and funds for his stay in England running low, understood that a literary career depended on what he did next. By April 1913, when A Boy’s Will appeared, Frost had a good idea...

  6. 1: Frost in Derry
    (pp. 7-18)

    This story of a vanishing New England farming culture Frost knew personally and well, and it affected him deeply. In 1899, at twenty-five, he had taken his family to the farm in Derry, New Hampshire, that his paternal grandfather, William Prescott Frost, had purchased for his use. There Frost, more through his temperament and values than his work raising chickens, soon developed strong ties with various neighbors trying to maintain traditional ways of life in a rapidly changing economy. Many of these New Hampshire people in and beyond Derry appear in North of Boston, where even Frost’s unsentimental view of...

  7. 2: Buttering One’s Parsnips
    (pp. 19-33)

    That Frost saw North of Boston as the keystone of his poetic and economic success is clear in a letter he wrote John Bartlett from Beaconsfield in November 1913, as he was completing his work on the book. There Frost seems most excited by the growing literary friendships he had formed during his first year in England, which by the summer of 1913 had begun to bear fruit. One June discussion of his poetics with Frank Flint had included Robert Bridges, and Frost felt especially encouraged when he placed his own ideas on prosody alongside those of England’s Poet Laureate....

  8. 3: Winners, Losers, and the Poet
    (pp. 34-48)

    I suggest that as Frost left behind the Derry friends who lacked his opportunities, and as he turned their hardship and poverty into his own success, he felt vulnerable to the charge of opportunism. Just as the lyric “Reluctance” calls it a “treason . . . to the heart” to “accept the end / Of a love or a season,” no matter how necessary that end may be, so we might imagine Frost’s own turning away from his Derry attachments, however right for himself and his family, to carry underlying feelings of betrayal.

    “Nature is always more or less cruel,”...

  9. 4: Living One’s Democracy
    (pp. 49-71)

    In emphasizing the heartlessness of corporate interests and the human costs of economic change, “The Death of the Hired Man” and “The Self-Seeker” map a divide straddled by Frost’s own sympathies and ambitions. Two more of the book’s dramatic poems, — “A Hundred Collars” and “The Black Cottage” — further illuminate Frost’s conflicted feelings about the Derry neighbors that, by 1904, were already becoming the subject of his poems. As these two narratives — one mainly dialogue, the other nearly a monologue — portray the social and economic hardship he witnessed in his Derry years, they reflect the discrepancies in...

  10. 5: The Poet and the Burden of Reproach
    (pp. 72-108)

    Both “The Death of the Hired Man” and “The Self-Seeker” portray the antagonism between the rural New England culture championed by Frost and the industrial capitalism with which his literary ambitions required an alliance. “A Hundred Collars” offers two characters, Lafe and Magoon, who in their different ways reflect Frost’s position between these opposed forces. Of all Frost’s North of Boston protagonists, the one most like the poet himself is the minister of “The Black Cottage,” whose relation to the widow reflects Frost’s own relations to his Derry neighbors, and who must, like Frost, steer a course between his own...

  11. 6: North of Boston’s Major Lyrics
    (pp. 109-137)

    When we consider the design and coherence of Frost’s volume, we should almost be surprised if his uneasiness about the people of his book did not find expression in the first and last of its principal poems, as, in fact, it does. Both “Mending Wall” and “The Wood-Pile” — two of the three major lyrics that punctuate this volume — make overt though ostensibly joking references to theft. And though these accusations are buffered by elements of satire, hyperbole, and humor, they nonetheless convey a discomfort in the speakers of these poems that parallels the poet’s own feelings of debt...

  12. 7: Welcome and Farewell: Prologue and Epilogue
    (pp. 138-152)

    Both “Mending Wall” and “The Wood-Pile,” the first and last of the book’s principal poems, present speakers who are “inside outsiders” in their rural world and whose mix of connection and detachment provide clear parallels to the poet who needed both involvement in and distance from the rural culture that inspired his verse. This dynamic of division, written into so much of the book, reaches even to “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” the shorter lyrics used as prologue and epilogue to the New York edition — though “Good Hours,” in closing the volume, expresses this division more fully and openly...

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 153-156)
  14. Index
    (pp. 157-162)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 163-163)