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  • Professor Langdon Hammer: I imagine that you

  • all have images of Robert Frost and actual images in your mind

  • when you think of this poet.

  • He's a familiar face in American literature,

  • and I've gathered some of them that seemed representative.

  • This is Frost in old age, as an American bard from a

  • magazine. This is the Frost that you

  • probably know, as if he were born with white

  • hair, right? And a kind of,

  • well, kindly and monumental, and yet approachable figure

  • that is familiar from American school rooms.

  • Here's another image of that same guy, Robert Frost,

  • painted by Gardner Cox, reminding us of Frost as a kind

  • of link to nineteenth-century life, to rural Vermont.

  • Another image of Frost, this one from The Times,

  • just a little story: "President Hails Bond With

  • Frost" – that president would be John F.

  • Kennedy – "On TV He Extols Poet Who Calls New Frontier 'Age

  • of Poetry and Power.'" And perhaps you have seen

  • images of Frost reading his poem, "The Gift Outright," at

  • Kennedy's inauguration.

  • It was a kind of powerful moment in American culture where

  • the president allied himself with poetry in this way.

  • Oh, more pictures.

  • This is Frost with grandchildren,

  • Frost with his pet calves.

  • He was kind to animals, and a farmer.

  • This one I like. This is Frost with a stick,

  • or Frost with a branch.

  • You can think about that when you read "Birches."

  • This is Frost boyish, even in age,

  • Frost who also likes to play and even who looks just a little

  • bit, don't you think, malevolent?

  • All of these images would seem to make Frost not a modern poet

  • at all, not a modern poet in the sense that Eliot and Pound

  • established; that is, a difficult poet in

  • ways that I suggested last Wednesday, a poet resistant to

  • ordinary language and common frames of reference,

  • formally innovative, disorienting,

  • urbane, metropolitan.

  • I think of nineteenth-century art as being horizontal and

  • stretched out like agricultural life in New England.

  • And modernism is all about verticality, from a certain

  • angle. This was the Stieglitz picture,

  • City of Ambition, I showed you last Wednesday.

  • Another pairing, this wonderful landscape by

  • Martin Johnson Heade, and we could contrast it with

  • these images of Brooklyn Bridge by Walker Evans,

  • or even underneath the bridge.

  • The bridge seems to – a figure of crossingit seems

  • here to rise up and out of the city and the river.

  • This is Frost before he had white hair, Frost at 18,

  • which is, I believe, 1892 or so: boyish.

  • And his first book is entitled A Boy's Will;

  • A Boy's Will, Robert Frost.

  • This is a cover of the first edition that you can go over to

  • Beinecke and see.

  • When you open it up and look at the table of contents,

  • you see titles of poems, and underneath those titles are

  • little legends and moralizations.

  • "Into My Own" (title).

  • "Legend": "the youth is persuaded that he will be rather

  • more than less himself for having foresworn the world."

  • Or "Storm Fear": "he is afraid of his own

  • isolation." These are poems,

  • in other words, that come with little labels to

  • tell you what they mean and what they're about.

  • Modernism in Eliot and Pound is, in some ways,

  • founded on expatriation, on a kind of internationalism.

  • Frost's poetry seems resolutely American, or at any rate it

  • seems to be. There is, in fact,

  • another Frost, a modernist Frost,

  • a Frost that is, in fact,

  • as international as Pound and Eliot, who began his career,

  • in fact, beside them, as a London expatriate.

  • This is more of the table of contents.

  • You can see how it's laid out.

  • This is the Frost who published that book.

  • This is Frost at thirty-nine, Frost in a suit made by a

  • London tailor in London.

  • And when we go to the title page of A Boy's Will we

  • see that this New England poet publishes his first book,

  • in fact, in London in 1913, there on New Oxford Street.

  • Interesting. North of Boston,

  • a great book that follows A Boy's Will,

  • is a title that locates these poems in a specific place in

  • northern New England.

  • It, too, is published in London, this time on Bloomsbury

  • Street. You don't really think of Frost

  • as part of Bloomsbury, do you?

  • But there he is, publishing his book in that

  • place, just like Prufrock,

  • also published on Bloomsbury Streetthis in 1917,

  • North of Boston in 1915.

  • You remember that table of contents page I showed you a

  • moment ago with the titles and the moralizations that Frost has

  • for A Boy's Will?

  • Well, here's the modernist table of contents of

  • Prufrock, and of course,

  • what would the legend for "The Love Song of J.

  • Alfred Prufrock" be?

  • "He wanders around in a melancholy way,

  • quoting Hamlet for..."

  • Well no, it--Eliot didn't do that.

  • When we look at the table of contents of this book,

  • which is North of Boston, well,

  • it looks a lot like Eliot's.

  • Those little tags that seemed to explain the poetry have

  • disappeared and instead we simply have the titles of these

  • very great poems: "Mending Wall,"

  • "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Mountain," "Home Burial."

  • There's something in Eliot's--the presentation of

  • Eliot's work and indeed in the work itself that is affronting,

  • resistant, impersonal.

  • And the typography, the presentation of the book is

  • part of that. It's part of Eliot's whole

  • aesthetic. But North of Boston,

  • well, you know, when we start looking at these

  • two books together, it seems to share some of the

  • properties of Eliot's book; and indeed the poems that we

  • find when we open that book also have things in common with

  • Eliot's. The other Frost,

  • not the simple, familiar, monumental Frost but

  • the Frost who is a modernist poet who begins writing in

  • London, is really quite as

  • cosmopolitan, quite as learned as Pound and

  • Eliot at this moment.

  • And yet he uses his learning differently.

  • He uses it very often by concealing it,

  • in fact. Well, let me turn from pictures

  • to text. On your handout today,

  • the handout number two, we have--well,

  • there are several quotations from Frost's letters,

  • and let's look at the first one first.

  • Frost says at the time that he's publishing A Boy's

  • Will, to a friend: You mustn't take me too

  • seriously if I now proceed to brag a bit about my exploits as

  • a poet. There is one qualifying fact

  • always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success

  • called "of esteem" and it butters no parsnips.

  • It means a success with a critical few who are supposed to

  • know. But really to arrive where I

  • can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get

  • outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in

  • their thousands. I may not be able to do that.

  • I believe in doing itdon't you doubt me there.

  • I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds.

  • I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the

  • way my quasi-friend Pound does.

  • I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I

  • could doif it were a thing I could do by taking thought.

  • [Frost to John Bartlett, November 1913]

  • Frost wishes to be so subtle as to seem altogether obvious.

  • It's not just that he seems obvious but is really subtle.

  • Rather, his subtlety shows itself in his deliberate

  • concealment of it, in the ways in which he masks

  • himself in obviousness.

  • The problems that Frost's poetry poses for us as readers

  • are not problems of reference.

  • They can't be solved by footnotes.

  • Compare the footnotes in the Frost poems to the footnotes in

  • The Norton that you find next to Eliot or Pound's poems.

  • The problems that Frost poses are problems of interpretation,

  • problems that provoke you to ask not, "what does he mean

  • exactly?" but "how does he mean that?"

  • Is he joking or is he serious?

  • Is there something on his mind that he's not saying?

  • The wonder of Frost is really in his tone, his way of saying

  • things without saying them in so many words.

  • Now, this guile of his, because that's what it entails,

  • this guile is something temperamental,

  • I think. It came naturally to him.