The Letters of Robert Frost: Volume I, 1886-1920, is the first of four volumes of the poet's letters to be published, and shows Frost as we've never seen him before. Two of the editors of the book, Donald Sheehy and Mark Richardson, pick Frost's 10 best poems. Links to poems are included when available.
“The utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of,” Robert Frost wrote in 1935. The problem for anyone making a top ten list for Frost is that he lodged (as he said Edwin Arlington Robinson had) “more than his share.” We’ve not named a number that, like the Mona Lisa, have grown hard to see through sheer familiarity (though in many of those Frost shows at his best). But these ten, in any case, we find it very hard to get rid of.
Blank verse at its frosty best, at once Miltonic and colloquial. When we find the parenthetical qualification registered in the penultimate line (“one aged man––one man”) we know what we’re in for. Frost “consigns” everything “to the moon.” Edmund Spenser would know what this means: “Proud Change (not pleas'd, in mortal things, / Beneath the Moone, to raign) / Pretends, as well of Gods, as Men, / To be the Sovereign.” But with what quiet humor Frost brings it off, and with what variety in relation of sentence to line. He once cited as antithetical to the poem some lines from Dryden: “From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began . . . The diapason closing full in man.” Pretty to think so, but––as “An Old Man’s Winter Night” intimates––probably wrong.
“Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length”
The poem––cascading couplets in iambic trimeter––is half over before we catch our breath, its first eleven lines a single sentence. The wry repetition in the opening apostrophe, “Oh, stormy stormy world,” both softens and deepens the litany of woeful weather that follows. With clear days having been so few, the speaker muses, how to explain a lasting sense of warmth and light? “If my mistrust is right,” he responds, as one mystified by his own thinking, “It may be altogether / From one day’s perfect weather.” But even a day sweeping clear from dawn to eve wouldn’t have been sufficient cause, lived alone. “I verily believe,” he declares with greater assurance to one whose presence is now revealed, it was a day when “no shadow crossed but ours.”
A perfect example of how Frost could make music out of harmonized consonants and vowels while also making it out of what he called “the sounds of sense”: the nineteenth century passes through these lines into the twentieth, Victorian poetry into modern. Hard to name a better poem of courtship. Haven’t we all been “in love with being misunderstood,” as Frost’s gloss on the poem in A Boy’s Will has it? Notice how differently the sentences sit in these four stanzas. Hear the poem as spoken (in bemused frustration) to a friend about a lover not present.
Cold comfort one never tires of inflicting on anyone who’ll listen. “Boughten” is perfect as per the OED’s “otherwise”: “Used poet. for the sake of metre; otherwise only dial. and in U.S. in application to purchased as opposed to homemade articles.” The irony set loose in this poem is weirdly unstable, as befits its witchery. “Make the whole stock exchange your own! / If need be occupy a throne.” Sound advice. Never occurred to us to do that.
Perhaps the least appreciated drama in North of Boston, the poem weaves a social and spiritual history of New England in the second half of the nineteenth century into the rambling talk of a well-meaning but diffident minister. In memorializing the stern certainties of the Civil War widow through the gentle ambivalence of the minister’s social gospel, Frost bares the soul of a changed and changing culture.
“In Divés Dive”
Another of Frost’s inquiries into that “hard mystery of Jefferson’s,” as the minister puts it in “The Black Cottage.” No other poem gets so much of America into so few lines, nor with such wile. The nation’s a gambling dive, the house (Divés’s) always wins, and we speak of “equality” to divert ourselves? Is that what’s on offer? (Bear in mind who Divés is, by convention, and what befell him: Luke 16:1931). Hard to decide these questions, as so often with Frost. But had he chosen to recite this little devil of a poem at JFK’s inaugural, instead of “The Gift Outright,” the effect would have been different.
This finely wrought lyric enacts a spiritual quest in two contrapuntal, parallel, but subtly unbalanced stanzas. The first––truncated at eleven lines as couplets give way to a closing triplet––evokes spiritual defeat in a fallen world through natural symbolism carried down from Frost’s Puritan forebears. On a “fated night,” an all-effacing snow falls with the hiss of a serpent, reducing our weary pilgrim to despair. Looking twice, however, at the metaphor of natural process that had confirmed his defeat, the speakerfinds “all precedent” on his side: “Winter death has never tried / The earth but it has failed.” In six couplets, the second stanza summons spring, banishes the serpent as an ephemeral rill, and leaves in white only a birch and a “clump of houses with a church.”
“On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind”
From the window of a train passing through the desert at midnight, a sleepless traveler sees a single distant light and worries at its flickering. Is it burning weakly, soon to die out––a signal of human pathos trembling in “a Godforsaken brute despair”? Or does it only appear to flicker through intervening trees, lit by a self-sufficient couple who put it out nightly when they please? Emotion and reason offer rival accounts, but choosing to see life as not “so sinister-grave,” the speaker bolsters himself and us with a “tale of a better kind.”
“The Hill Wife”
A tale of domestic disharmony and the psychological strain of rural isolation. Here, Frost revisits the scene of North of Boston in a strikingly different form. Dramatic continuity is fractured into five episodes told from shifting viewpoints in various metrical forms. “Loneliness” and “The Smile” are subtitled “Her Word,” identifying the perspective as the wife’s, though the voice is as lyrical as that of the observer who speaks in “House Fear,” “The Oft-Repeated Dream” and “The Impulse.” Intrusive in “House Fear” (“I tell you this they learned”), and privy to disturbing dreams, the observer’s omniscience fails when we seek it most, as “The Impulse” closes––leaving us as baffled as the husband and facing dramatic finalities besides dénouement. Startlingly modern; shaped partly by the wife’s deteriorating sensibility, partly by the observer’s oblique explanations; hinting at paranoia and also genuine threat; alternating darkness and daylight, dream and matter of fact: these episodes offer only glimpses, their interludes empty but fraught.
“The Most of It”
A strange, Schopenhaurian poem, not about a buck, but about what that buck “embodies”: the most of it, to be sure, “and that was all”––or that is all. There’s no end to vitality, and where it’s headed is nobody’s guess, though whence it came the scientists now speak of. As for theologians who say we don’t “keep the universe alone”: the jury’s hung, as this poem suggests; and there’s no appeal, “cry out on life” howsoever we may.