The modernist period saw a departure from traditional modes and ways of thinking and creating art. Occurring shortly after the Victorian period, the modernist period deliberately moved away from its corseted ancestry, aiming to tell the same stories but in different modes. Among these poets was Robert Frost, whose life spanned from the end of the Victorian period into the mid-1960s. Frost was a notable poet, although not necessarily a modernist: he celebrated individuality, man’s connection with nature, and a simplicity in basic truths—he also never completely broke away from traditional forms of poetry. In his poems “The Pasture,” “Mowing,” and “The Oven Bird,” we can see Frost’s use of his own ideas to convey meaning through simple scenes of objective life. Through sound devices and metaphor, Frost asserts his message of truth and individuality among the philosophically fractured age of the modern and post-modern era. In this way he is both modern and not modern; in his adherence to objectivism and realism he stands alone and yet through his realism he communicates deep meaning.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California, but he moved to New Hampshire at the age of 10. Throughout his life, the scenery and nature of New England influenced his poetry and his metaphors. Born in 1874, Frost saw the end of the Victorian period, “several groundbreaking theories such as Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Einstein’s theory of relativity” (Kirschen). He also saw the movements of the Modern and Post-Modernists, and was a contemporary writer of Modernist legends like Ezra Pound and James Joyce. However, it is highly debatable that Frost was, in fact, a Modernist. Modernism, essentially, was a rejection of 19th century traditions, a breaking of conventions: “Ezra Pound captured the essence of Modernism with his famous dictum, ‘Make it new!’” (Kirschen) Modernists believed that every story had already been told, but that those stories could be told in new, experimental ways, and they strove to find those ways that had not yet been discovered. Frost, in this way, is both Modernist and not—he made “no marked departure from poetic practices of the nineteenth century” (Poetry Foundation), yet still “took 19th century tools and made them new” (Poetry Foundation). He borrowed bits and pieces from traditional Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet forms, and used meter as a way to liberate meaning, instead of restricting it. Basic structure gave a poet, Frost argued, a basis in which to fill with mood and meaning. One characteristic of Frost’s poetry was his imitation of the spoken word in order to enhance meaning. Frost often used the diction and accent of a New Englander, striving to find the most simple way of asserting something profound. He eschewed an expansive vocabulary and brought prestige to simple labor and farmwork.
Eventually, Frost’s poetry came to embody the American set of ideals: they were simple, yet stoic; realistic, but still beautiful. They told simple truths and discussed the truce between man and nature. President Kennedy praised Frost for his works, and on his 75th birthday the Senate passed a resolution in his honor which said, “His poems have helped to guide American thought and humor and wisdom, setting forth to our minds a reliable representation of ourselves and of all men” (Poetry Foundation). Frost also staunchly rejected the fantastical, and instead held that the natural world could provide a bridge to spiritual understanding. His strong use of metaphor shows that Frost found those things around him to reflect the profundities of life. When American magazines rejected him, Frost moved to England with his family, and immediately gained notice and fame. Critics noted that “he goes his own way, regardless of anyone else’s rules, and the result is a book of unusual power and sincerity” (Poetry Foundation). However, as he got older, Frost’s poetry got more political and discussed more heavy topics like religion—it is Frost’s earlier poetry that we renown today as his best. He died in 1963.
In his poem “The Pasture,” Robert Frost uses both sound devices and metaphor to deliver his message. The poem is from the point of view of a speaker who is going out to clean the spring of leaves, and on second thought, invites the object of his words to come with him. There are many instances in this poem of internal rhyme. For instance, in the refrain, Frost writes: “I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.” The basic rhyme scheme of ABBC is consistent throughout the poem, and recalls a sing-songy, lullaby-esque rhythm. This rhyme is like one for a child, with basic language that would appeal to a child. Frost wrote this poem after taking a walk with his wife and daughter, and we can assume that he is writing to his baby girl. The assonance in “The Pasture” is seen very egregiously in line 3: “And wait to watch the water clear, I may,” another indicator of a poem written for a child’s delight. The metaphors that Frost uses are in the pasture, the spring, and the water. The word “pasture” evokes a feeling of retirement, a time to enjoy and connect. The word “spring,” along with the action of physically cleaning out a spring to clear the water (an action only performed in the spring-time), is a symbol of renewal and hope (Suttor). Water provides a purifying feeling to the poem, and when juxtaposed with these two words evokes a sense of renewal of relationship, a time to devote to loved ones. The baby calf that “totters” brings to the poem a subject that is vulnerable and innocent, perhaps a metaphor for his little daughter. The refrain ending in “you come too” brings a sense of comfort, for the speaker is not leaving the subject, he is asking her to come along. Here, using these metaphors and sound devices, Frost communicates the beauty of being with loved ones in nature, and how something as simple as little chore in the pasture can bring about an appreciation of renewal and vulnerability. This poem follows the characteristics of Frost’s poetry, as it is a very literal, realistic scene, but is actually about loved ones and the compromise of man and nature.
In his poem “Mowing,” Frost’s speaker ponders the sound of a scythe as it moves through hay, wondering if in fact it is some metaphysical whisper. The repetition of w’s and s’s throughout the poem is an extremely effective sound device that make the poem itself seem to whisper. This sound signifies the scythe, and with this device Frost allows us to hear its sound too. The poem, although it appears to be a sonnet, is neither Petrarchan or Shakespearean: Frost borrows bits from both of these forms to compound his own meaning—a very Modernist choice. In the octet, Frost ponders the possibility of the supernatural speaking to him through the scythe. However, in the sextet, he decides an alternative: that a scythe is just a scythe, but what he learns is that labor is the truth, and to get to the truth, one must work. The internal rhyme in line 9, “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak,” (one of the most important lines in the poem), brings attention to the meaning of its words. Here Frost punctuates that truth is more important than any “dream of the gift of idle hours,” that any idle superfluous musings would actually fail the true message of the scythe. There are a few metaphors in this poem as well. The extended metaphor of the scythe can be seen in its symbolic nature as an object; a scythe can symbolize the passing of time, death, and harvest. However, it can also be just a scythe. Frost rejects the supernatural explanations of its sound. The true things that exist are the “flowers,” “feeble pointed spikes” (buds), the “orchises,” the “bright green snake”—these things, while being metaphors for birth, sex, life, and love, are also beautiful in just what they are and not what they could be supposed to be. Here the common voice is best, what is real is best. In his final two lines Frost writes, “fact is the sweetest dream,” and stresses that “labor” is the only way to know that truth.
The final poem, “The Oven Bird,” uses a very simple sound device: it sounds like the bird it describes. This is both in actual sound and in meaning. The rhyme is simple and plaintive, much like the bird’s fairly unattractive call, and skips every other line. The use of repeated compound words evokes very strong images of fall and its hues. The “mid-summer,” “mid-wood,” “petal-fall,” and “cherry-bloom” make the reader feel as though they stand in the middle of this fall with Frost’s speaker. Frost here also plays on the word “fall”—he is speaking about the season, but also about the natural fall of beings. It is that “other fall” that is the actual season, but the importance of fall in this poem is the “moment overcast” when things die or slip. Frost constructs a metaphor in the bird, whose other name is “teacher bird,” and the nature of this poem is to ask us a question we may not know the answer to. The bird becomes a fable, a beacon of autumn. Things become diminished, so what do we do when that happens? Frost suggests that we take nothing for granted, because all things must end. He is teaching us a lesson through his fabled bird. This poem repeats blunt sounds, using blunt words, and puts the echo of truth in the bird’s call. It is a lesson not only about man’s interaction with nature, but also what man can learn from nature.
The nature of Frost’s poems, as it becomes clear, is nature itself. He writes to imitate life, not to deconstruct past traditions or create a statement. It is simplicity, and not academic complications, that truly teach us what we need to know. Though he may have taken some notes from the Modernist movement, Frost is an individual of his own, adhering to no standard. He stubbornly promotes the virtues of truth and stoicism, doing so through his many sound and literary techniques as well as his extensive use of metaphor. He provides us with deep meaning that is as accessible as it is uncomplicated. And in its simplicity it is beautiful.
Ambleside Online Poems of Robert Frost, 1874-1963 n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
This is a great place to go if you wish to read the poems of Robert Frost. It is all in one place and you can copy and past it if you need to quote it.
"General Introduction to Postmodernism." General Introduction to Postmodernism. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
This online source provides a clear explanation of what is postmodern in terms of culture and theory. In order for the postmodern to be clearly understood, there has to be background reading on the social History of the Western subject.
Kirschen, Robert. "Modernism." Modernism. University of Nevada Las Vegas, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Robert M. Kirschen discusses the aesthetics of Modernism as well as the Modernis literature of poets such as T. S. Elliot. It gives background to the discussion of the works of Robert Frost.
Poirier, Richard. “The Paris Interview.” n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014
A one on one discussion with the poet gives a clear view of the type of person he was. This further clarifies the type of poet he was. It does help with giving the work much more weight.
Poore, Charles. “Books of the Times.” The Completest Poems of Robert Frost. The New York Time on the Web, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014
The book review reflects on the poetry of Robert Frost. He is reflected as a poet in his own right. There is no need to make other poets feel less to make him great.
Pritchard, William H. “Frost’s Life and Career.” Modern American Poetry. n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
There is much to learn form the writers of Robert Frost’s biographies. One such is the one written by Pritchard. It also reveals that there is a large resource of books (especially poems ) by Robert Frost.
"Robert Frost." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
"Robert Frost." Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
The online biography of Robert Frost gives an overview of who he was and what his role was in contributing to the Modern period. His contemporaries such as Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats, places him squarely in this period.
Rothman, Joshua. “Robert Frost: Darkness or Light?” The New Yorker. n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
This is a vital piece to read as it point to the type of person Robert Frost was, and how he used the light side and the dark side of his life to create his work.
Suttor, Marijane. "Poetry Analysis the Pasture by Robert Frost." Humanities 360. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
This is a discussion of one of the poems written by Robert Frost. It helps to understand what the poem is all about.
"Welcome to the Purdue OWL." Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. Purdue University, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014
The Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism at Purdue OWL gives an overview of how literary theory helps with the critique and analysis of poetry and other works of literature.