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Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance

Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance

GEORGE MONTEIRO
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jjzs
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    Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance
    Book Description:

    "A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written." So said Robert Frost in instructing readers on how to achieve poetic literacy. George Monteiro's newest book follows that dictum to enhance our understanding of Frost's most valuable poems by demonstrating the ways in which they circulate among the constellations of great poems and essays of the New England Renaissance.

    Monteiro reads Frost's own poetry not against "all the other poems ever written" but in the light of poems and essays by his precursors, particularly Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson. Familiar poems such as "Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," "Birches," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "The Road Not Taken," and "Mowing," as well as lesser known poems such as "The Draft Horse," "The Ax-Helve," "The Bonfire," "Dust of Snow," "A Cabin in the Clearing," "The Cocoon," and "Pod of the Milkweed," are renewed by fresh and original readings that show why and how these poems pay tribute to their distinguished sources.

    Frost's insistence that Emerson and Thoreau were the giants of nineteenth-century American letters is confirmed by the many poems, variously influenced, that derive from them. His attitude toward Emily Dickinson, however, was more complex and sometimes less generous. In his twenties he molded his poetry after hers. But later, after he joined the faculty of Amherst College, he found her to be less a benefactor than a competitor. Monteiro tells a two-stranded tale of attraction, imitation, and homage countered by competition, denigration, and grudging acceptance of Dickinson's greatness as awomanpoet. In a daring move, he composes -- out of Frost's own words and phrases -- the talk on Emily Dickinson that Frost was never invited to give.

    In showing how Frost's work converses with that of his predecessors, Monteiro gives us a new Frost whose poetry is seen as the culmination of an in¬tensely felt New England literary experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5701-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE: Raking the Leaves Away
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ONE Directives
    (pp. 1-6)

    THE CONCLUDING LINES of “Directive,” a poem collected inSteeple Bush(1947), speak imperatively to those who have successfully made the journey back through space and time to the brook by “a house that is no more a house / Upon a farm that is no more a farm / And in a town that is no more a town.” “Here are your waters and your watering place,” directs the poet; “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”¹ Frost had drawn extensively in this poem upon Henry David Thoreau’s great New England source book,Walden.² But the most important lines...

  5. Part One. Dickinson, Etc.

    • TWO Dangling Conversation
      (pp. 9-23)

      THE FROST ROOMS in the Jones Library are high-ceilinged, fenestrated on three sides, spacious, and ample. The library’s Dickinson rooms are spare, small, low-ceilinged, and spottily fenestrated. That Frost inherited the better quarters can be attributed largely, of course, to his having been a living presence when the decisions to create and to find quarters for a Frost Collection were made. By the time arrangements were made for the Emily Dickinson Collection, the poet’s fortunes were in the hands of a proud niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and a few well-meaning but disorganized strangers, who were no match for the living...

    • THREE One Hand Clapping
      (pp. 24-33)

      OF COURSE Robert Frost was the one they should have asked. But no one asked him. Instead the committee invited three other poets: Louise Bogan, Archibald MacLeish, and Richard Wilbur.

      The occasion was the bicentennial celebration of the town of Amherst in 1959. The event was a panel discussion organized by Amherst College to honor Emily Dickinson as part of the town’s festivities. Frost was miffed. To him it was a serious matter, perhaps an insult. He did not attend the panel discussion, and there is no evidence that when, a year later, the talks were collected in a slim...

    • FOUR Designs
      (pp. 34-43)

      LECTURING IN 1834 on the theme of man’s relationship to the globe, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked:

      The snail is not more accurately adjusted to his shell than man to the globe he inhabits; that not only a perfect symmetry is discoverable in his limbs and senses between the head and the foot, between the hand and the eye, the head and the lungs,—but an equal symmetry and proportion is discoverable between him and the air, the mountains, the tides, the moon, and the sun. I am not impressed by solitary marks of designing wisdom; I am thrilled with delight...

    • FIVE Roads and Paths
      (pp. 44-54)

      “THE ROAD NOT TAKEN” can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that might be called “The Choice of the Two Paths,” reaching not only back to the Gospels and beyond them to the Greeks but to ancient English verse as well.¹ InReson and Sensuallyte, for example, John Lydgate explains how he dreamt that Dame Nature had offered him the choice between the Road of Reason and the Road of Sensuality. In art the same choice was often represented by the letter “Y,” with the trunk of the letter representing the careless years of childhood and the two...

  6. Part Two. The Thorosian Poem

    • SIX Education by Metaphor
      (pp. 57-65)

      WHEN AMHERST COLLEGE presented Frost with his twenty-first honorary degree in 1948, the poet was cited for having “taught generations of Amherst students that for gaining an insight into life, a metaphor is a sharper and brighter instrument than a syllogism.”¹ This remark was meant to characterize the poet as well as the teacher that Frost, try as he might, could never cease to be. But the same comment could have been made, and undoubtedly was made in some form or other, about other native poets: Emerson, for one, whose work, especially his finest essays and lectures, overwhelmed its audience...

    • SEVEN Bonfires
      (pp. 66-75)

      “EVERY MAN LOOKS at his wood-pile with a kind of affection,” writes Thoreau inWalden.¹ An abandoned woodpile might evoke other feelings and lead to different thoughts. Hawthorne, for example, has Miles Coverdale, the poet who narratesThe Blithedale Romance, react in this way:

      In my haste, I stumbled over a heap of logs and sticks that had been cut for firewood, a great while ago, by some former possessor of the soil, and piled up square, in order to be carted or sledded away to the farm-house. But, being forgotten, they had lain there, perhaps fifty years, and possibly...

    • EIGHT Economy
      (pp. 76-81)

      “TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME” was first published in 1934. At the time Frost remarked that he considered the poem to be “against having hobbies.”¹ Two years later, when he collected it inA Further Rangeas one of ten poems to be “taken doubly,” he added to its title in the list of contents the thematic phrase, “or, A Full-Time Interest.” In both instances Frost provided a clue to his intended meaning. Unfortunately, critical interpretations of the poem have seldom pursued the leads suggested by the poet.

      Two such commentaries, published twenty years apart, are particularly instructive regarding the...

    • NINE Smoke
      (pp. 82-89)

      SAFETY AND COMFORT against the elements is Thoreau’s subject in “House-Warming.” Toward the end of the chapter he turns to answer those who criticized his decision to move to Walden Pond.

      Some of my friends spoke as if I was coming to the woods on purpose to freeze myself. The animal merely makes a bed, which he warms with his body in a sheltered place; but man, having discovered fire, boxes up some air in a spacious apartment, and warms that, instead of robbing himself, makes that his bed, in which he can move about divested of more cumbrous clothing,...

    • TEN Solitary Singer
      (pp. 90-98)

      IN “THE OVEN BIRD” the poet transposes the creature’s midsummer, midwood sound into words: “the highway dust is over all.”¹ Indicative of the onset in midsummer New England of seasonal dessication, this image contributes metaphorically to our emotional acquiescence in the larger import of the theme posed in the question he “frames in all but words”: “what to make of a diminished thing.”

      The almost casual reference to “dust,” however, links this poem to others in the Frost canon. A look at poems such as “Dust of Snow,” “My Butterfly,” and “Dust in the Eyes” will usefully precede a fuller...

    • ELEVEN Swinging
      (pp. 99-112)

      SEVERAL TIMES inRobert Frost: A Living Voice, his account of the poet’s talks at the Bread Loaf School of English, Reginald L. Cook quotes Frost’s remarks on “Birches.” Frost’s words on one such occasion are given a context by Cook, who writes:

      In spite of his deprecatory view of explication, Frost revealed a good deal about his art. When he disclosed his feeling about certain words in “Birches,” he gave a searching insight into what makes a poet’s use of descriptive words stand up. And how cavalierly he did it! He offered “this little note on ‘Birches’ before I...

  7. Part Three. Mainly Emerson

    • TWELVE Nature’s Gold
      (pp. 115-122)

      INNature, at the beginning of the section on “Language,” Emerson writes down his audacious syllogism:

      1. Words are signs of natural facts.

      2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.

      3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.¹

      Later on, Emerson insists: “A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit.”² Frost put it another way: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”³

      There is almost too much inNatureabout what particularly and spiritually matters to be helpful in our understanding of the specifics of a poem such as Frost’s “Mowing.” Either directly or somewhat obliquely, much...

    • THIRTEEN Linked Analogies
      (pp. 123-129)

      CONCERNED ABOUT possible responses to his first collection of poems,A Boy’s Will(1913), Frost set about hedging his bets. Fearingunderinterpretation above all, he provided straightforward hints to the themes of thirty of the thirty-two poems in the volume. After each entry in the table of contents he added a gloss. “The Demiurge’s Laugh,” for instance, carried the note that it is “about science,” and “Pan with Us” is “about art (his own).” “The Tuft of Flowers” is “about fellowship.”¹

      Encouraged by the reception accordedA Boy’s Will, however, Frost found it unnecessary to add such glosses to his...

    • FOURTEEN Dominion
      (pp. 130-137)

      JUST BEFORE its publication in 1936, Frost wrote that his latest collectionA Further Rangemight well “shock” his readers for its “novelty.”¹ As things turned out, the volume shocked its readers less than it gave them fresh evidence of the author’s poetic prowess. In fact, it brought forth several poems that would enter Frost’s canon, including “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind,” and “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” as well as two of his most popular “insect” poems, “Departmental” and “The White-Tailed Hornet.” Both of these typically Frostian poems could have been furnished with...

    • FIFTEEN Substantiation
      (pp. 138-144)

      WITH FULL PROPRIETY, on the occasion of his receipt of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1959 from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Frost insisted that he was there “out of admiration for Emerson and Thoreau.¹ His subject that day was to be Emerson, and he intended to make himself on that “proud occasion” “as much of an Emersonian” as he could.²

      Frost’s brief talk that evening is a storehouse of self-revealing perceptions and teasing observations. He returns to certain lines in Emerson’s poem “Brahma” that had long baffled him and explains how he finally came to understand the poet’s...

  8. Part Four. Coda

    • SIXTEEN Tributaries
      (pp. 147-152)

      WHEN FROST SPOKE at the Browne and Nichols School on March 13, 1918, we should recall, his theme was “the unmade word, or fetching and far-fetching.”¹ As a poet, he insisted, he had a predilection for “a figurative fetching of fresh words” for his own use. He added: “The word lies in our everyday speech, practical, hard, and unliterary; and that’s the way I like the word—there’s where my fun with it begins. I don’t care for the word already made figurative.” If it is clear that Frost believes the poet has a duty to take the language of...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 153-170)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 171-178)