Profiles in Poetry: Robert Frost
“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” —Robert Frost
To many in America, Robert Frost is the grandfatherly originator of “The Road Not Taken,” and a few other selected quotations printed on motivational posters. He is relegated to the status of Mahatma Gandhi—a respected figure by reputation, but understood little beyond his selected quotations for popular consumption.
The real Robert Frost, though, is a much deeper and more serious poet than the mawkish inspirational use of his lines lets on. Not only was Frost a master of poetic craft in general and formal verse in particular, but his poetry sprung from a very profound and developed philosophical consideration of the nature of poetry. Indeed, Frost was one of the only true classical poets in twentieth-century America. This essay seeks to shed light on that particular aspect of Frost to give him the credit he is due for maintaining classicism in poetry during one of its darkest epochs.
Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874 in San Francisco, the first child of a father originally from New Hampshire and a mother who was a native of Scotland. (Fagan, pp. 3-4.)
As a youth he moved to New England, where he briefly attended Dartmouth and Harvard, dropping out of both without receiving a degree. (Id., pp. 7-9.) He received a farm from his paternal grandparents in Derry, New Hampshire, which he worked until he sold it in 1911 to take a local teaching position. (Id., pp. 8-9, 11.) In 1912, Frost and his family moved to rural England, where the following year his first book, A Boy’s Will, was accepted for publication. (Id., p. 11.) Frost was 39 years old, and it was the beginning of a career in poetry that would last 50 years. (Id., p. 3)
A Boy’s Will captured the praise of reviewers, including Ezra Pound, who asserted that Frost was “yet another great artist who had been rejected by American editors and had to seek refuge and recognition in Europe.” (Id., pp. 11-12.) In 1914, Frost learned that an American publisher would publish his books, and the following year he and his family returned to New Hampshire. (Id., p. 12.) His return stirred some controversy: some critics saw him as an example of an American of exceptional talent who had to go abroad to find recognition, while others dismissed his British-made reputation. (Id., p. 13.)
Frost then taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he would teach throughout his life, and moved to Shaftesbury, Vermont, in 1920. (Id., p. 13.) Aside from Amherst, he would teach at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Dartmouth, and the Bread Leaf School of English in Vermont, and accumulate more than 40 honorary degrees. (Id., pp. 13-14.)
In 1958 he was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—the U.S. equivalent of Poet Laureate. (Id., p. 416.) The following year he was appointed to a three-year term as Honorary Consultant in the Humanities at the Library of Congress. (Id., p. 15.) In that role, he was invited to travel to the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program, and even met with Nikita Khrushchev and spoke with him for ninety minutes about, as Frost described it, “matters of huge cultural import.” (Id., p. 400.)
Perhaps most famously he recited a poem for John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, the first poet so featured. (Id., p. 120.) Frost was unable to read the poem he had written for the occasion because of the glare from the snow in the bright sun, so he instead recited his 1936 poem, “The Gift Outright,” from memory. (Id., pp. 120-21, 137.)
Despite his professional successes, Frost’s personal life was beset by tragedy; he lost his father when he was eleven years old, his wife and four of his five children all predeceased him (one by suicide), and he was forced to commit his sister to a state mental hospital. (Id., pp. 5, 6, 9, 10, 14.)
Upon Frost’s death on January 29, 1963, President Kennedy wrote, “His death impoverishes us all; but he has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding.” (Id., pp. 16-17.)
II. Views on Poetry
Frost detailed his theory on poetics in his essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” which first appeared as the preface to the 1939 edition of his Collected Poems. (Id., p. 113.) Frost begins the essay by noting, “Abstraction is an old story with the philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day,” and asking, “Why can’t we have any one quality of poetry we choose by itself?” (Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” para. 1.)
He explores sound alone as such a singular quality, but notes that English has really only two types of meter: strict iambic and loose iambic. (Id., para. 2.) Next, he explores “wildness” of recitation as such a quality, but finds “modernist abstractionists . . . to be wild with nothing to be wild about.” (Id., para. 3.) The problem is twofold: “just as the first mystery was how a poem could have a tune in such a straightness as metre, so the second mystery is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.” (Id.)
Frost resolves these mysteries with his famous maxim, explained with very insightful context:
It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and 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. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood-and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad—the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground.
(Id., paras. 4-5) (emphasis added).
Here Frost’s views approach the Platonic. The “something” he remembers without knowing he knew is a plain-spoken description of the Platonic ideal —a concept existing eternally independent of human conception that the human mind is able to perceive and understand.
This “figure” of a poem “must be more felt than seen ahead like a prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” (Id., para. 6.) To achieve this, the poet must have “the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.” (Id.) This is not political freedom, but freedom of mind and body. (Id.)
Frost then draws a distinction between scholars and artists: both “work from knowledge,” but differ in how they acquire their knowledge. (Id., para.7.) Scholars “get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets get theirs cavalierly as it happens in and out of books.” (Id.) Poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields”—a knowledge “more available in the wild free ways of wit and art.” (Id.)
Frost then concludes by reiterating that the figure of a poem “the same as for love.” (Id.)
Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.
In 1930, Frost delivered a lecture, “Education by Poetry,” to the Alumni Council at Amherst College, based on a lecture he had previously given at Bryn Mawr College. (Fagan, p. 100.) Frost began by denying that he was any sort of advocate, and theorized that the absence of poetry from college curricula partly occurred because instruction involves grading, and instructors are unwilling to admit that their work involves “taste and enthusiasm.” (Frost, “Education by Poetry,” paras. 1, 7-8.)
Frost stated the focus of his lecture: “Education by poetry is education by metaphor.” (Id., para. 9.) Poetry involves “enthusiasm” that is “taken through the prism of the intellect and spread on the screen in a color, all the way from . . . overstatement, at one end—to understatement at the other end.” (Id., para. 11) But that enthusiasm must be “tamed by metaphor.” (Id., para. 12.) “Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace metaphors,’ and goes on to the profoundest thinking we have.” (Id., para. 13.) Indeed, all thinking except mathematical or scientific thinking is metaphorical: metaphor is “the whole of thinking.” (Id., para. 14.)
In October 1946, Frost published one of his best-known essays, “The Constant Symbol,” to which he appended his sonnet, “To the Right Person.” (Fagan, p. 71.) In the essay, Frost set forth many of his theories about poetry. (Id.) As with “Education by Poetry,” Frost begins the essay by presenting “some such folk saying as that easy to understand is contemptible, hard to understand is irritating”—the implication being that “right in the middle, is what literary criticism ought to foster.” (Frost, “The Constant Symbol,” p. xv.) But he professes to be convinced otherwise; he ranks the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid as easy, while contemporary works “surpass all records for hardness.” (Id.) Thus, Frost concludes that easiness or hardness are of “slight use as a test” for poetry, and after examining texture, concludes that it, too, “is not an end in itself. (Id., pp. xv-xvi.)
Rather, Frost concludes, “Poetry is simply made of metaphor”—as is philosophy and science. (Id., p. xvi.) “Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing. And there is a sense in which all poems are the same old metaphor always.” (Id.) He defines metaphor as “saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, [or] the pleasure of ulteriority.” (Id., p. xvi.)
For Frost, every poem “is a symbol . . . of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost.” (Id.) The poet must “make the most of his opportunities,” with his intention “a particular mood that won’t be satisfied with anything less than its own fulfillment.” (Id., p. xix.)
“The freshness of a poem belongs absolutely to its not having been thought out and then set to verse as the verse in turn might be set to music.” (Id., pp. xix-xx.) Rather, “[a] poem is the emotion of having a thought while the reader waits a little anxiously for the success of dawn.” (Id., p. xx.)
Frost concludes the essay with an apology for form: “To the right person it must seem naïve to distrust form as such. The very words of the dictionary are a restriction to make the best of or stay out of and be silent.” (Id., p. xxii.) “Form in language is such a disjected lot of old broken pieces it seems almost as non-existent as the spirit till the two embrace in the sky. They are not to be thought of as encountering in rivalry but in creation.” (Id.) As for rhyme, he says, “I may say the strain of rhyming is less since I came to see words as phrase-ends to countless phrases just as the syllables ly, ing, and -ation are word-ends to countless words.” (Id., pp. xxiii-xiv.) As for writing in form:
Here is where it all comes out. The mind is a baby giant who, more provident in the cradle than he knows, has hurled his paths in life all round ahead of him like playthings given data so-called. They are vocabulary, grammar, prosody, and diary, and it will go hard if he can’t find stepping stones of them for his feet wherever he wants to go. The way will be zigzag, but it will be a straight crookedness like the walking stick he cuts himself in the bushes for an emblem. He will be judged as he does or doesn’t let this zig or that zag project him off out of his general direction.
(Id., p. xxiii.)
In an interview he gave in 1959, towards the end of his life, Frost acknowledged Pound’s influence, but noted that pound wanted to “extirpate” all verse, while he himself was “hard on free verse a little—too hard, I know.” (Fagan, p. 75.) Later in the conversation he famously said, “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” (Id.) Free verse, he believed, was too easy; meter should be “something to hold and something . . . to put a strain on.” (Id.)
Frost defined poetry “guardedly” as “that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” (Id.) It is “dawn”—“something dawning on you while you’re writing it.” (Id.)
Frost also shed light on his own writing process: he did not appreciate a poem that he could “tell was written toward a good ending,” a process he called “trickery.” (Id., p. 76.) Poetry that was predetermined in prose and set to verse is not poetry. (Id.) Rather, he wanted to be “the happy discoverer of [his] ends.” (Id.)
Having examined Frost’s views on poetry in his own words, a close look at one of his poems will not only reveal how he puts his ideas into practice, but illustrate the stylistic hallmarks of Frost the poet.
For such an illustration, Frost’s famous “Nothing Gold Can Stay” from his 1923 volume New Hampshire offers a depth of analysis packed into a paucity of verses. The entire poem reads:
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
Stylistically, this is quintessential Frost. The language is simple, even laconic; the poem consists of eight lines, five sentences, forty words—all monosyllables except for seven disyllables. The tone is direct, conversational, easily comprehensible. Frost has no use for rhetorical flourishes, Latinate syntax, or emotive effusions. It is the voice of a stereotypical New England Yankee: nothing fancy.
Structurally, the poem is formal, written in loose iambic trimeter, with the rhyme occurring in four sets of couplets. Again, this is quintessential Frost, maintaining formal conventions at a time when form-averse modernism was the overwhelmingly dominant trend in poetry.
The meaning contained in the poem, however, is anything but simple or formalistic. It is in the use of poetic metaphor that Frost here demonstrates his poetic genius. True to his poetic theory, Frost constructs the poem around a central metaphor: not even an object, but a color, specifically the golden hue of germinating vegetation.
The color is a metaphor for fleeting youth and all it entails: innocence (“Eden sank to grief”) and hope (“dawn goes down to day”). Though the plant continues to live and grow (“leaf subsides to leaf”), that first golden hue is forever lost. The color gold, too, may allude to the Golden Age of Classical mythology, a vanished age of peace and plenty when labor, suffering, and crime were unknown. The lost ideal age has the same color as the lost youth as idealized from the viewpoint of one having lost it.
Frost begins his poem in wonder, noticing the gold of sprouting vegetation disappear as he mourns it, and ends it in wisdom, likening it to the fleetingness of youth and all its loss entails.
Frost’s œuvre offers many more examples of complex and subtle meaning packed into facially direct, even simple poetic language, but this short work, one of Frost’s best-known poems, offers one of the best opportunities for obtaining a true flavor of Frost’s means of achieving that effect. Its brevity, directness, and depth render it one of the most characteristic representatives of Frostian poetics.
Reading and analyzing Frost, the reader should always remember that he published his first volume in 1913 and died in 1963, at a time when Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, and e.e. cummings dominated American poetry, when form and meter were cast out of the poetic mainstream as fossilized relics, when poets strove for difficult and opaque language. Despite being so utterly out of place in such an age, Frost thrived as a poet.
Perhaps Frost’s success came because he fulfilled a longing for familiar poetic styles, direct descriptions, and easily understood meaning. Frost was not Ezra Pound, freely switching between English and a dozen other languages, or T.S. Eliot, requiring pages of footnotes to explain the allusions in his poem. Instead, he wrote in the familiar voice of his New England, as though he were speaking to friends. But while Frost’s works are accessible, they are never dull not mawkish; they blend poetic craft with layers of meaning.
Frost virtually singlehandedly kept the beacon of classical poetry shining bright in an otherwise dark time. Yet he is more than an historical curiosity. His poems rank among the finest in the English language not only for their craft but for their masterful use of metaphor—and also of irony.
President Kennedy also wrote of Frost:
[I]t is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artists, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
(Kennedy, paras. 7-8.)
It is hard to envision a more elevated or pivotal role for poetry in society. As Kennedy recognized, Frost the poet was far more than the old man who wrote verses ready-made for inspirational posters. He was an expresser of ideas who placed the world and humanity in perspective. As poets, we would do well to maintain Frost’s vision of the nature and function of poetry, both in our own works and in our mission of bringing poetry back to the world at large.
Listen to a recent podcast on Frost's poetry and the timeless tradition.
Fagan, Deirdre. Critical Companion to Robert Frost: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Facts on File, Inc., 2007.
Frost, Robert. “The Constant Symbol.” The Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 1946). Reprinted in The Poems of Robert Frost. Random House, Inc., 1946. xv-xxiv.
—. “Education by Poetry.” Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, Feb. 1931. Available at, http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/edbypo.html (last visited Mar. 21, 2021).
—. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Collected Poems. Henry Holt & Co., 1939. Available at, https://www.poeticous.com/frost/the-figure-a-poem-makes (last visited Mar. 21, 2021).
Kennedy, John F. “Poetry and Power.” The Atlantic Monthly (Feb. 1964). Available at, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1964/02/poetry-and-power/306325/ (last visited Mar. 23, 2021).
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Classical Poet's Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.