Frost at Midnight

William Logan

Vol. 30, Nos. 1 & 2, 2008

 

Robert Frost. The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Edited by Robert Faggen. Harvard University Press 2006. 809 pages. $39.95

 

When the flesh departs, when the reader can no longer ring up the author to badger him about an obscure line or quiz him on his influences, there are only the material remains of his workshop. For Shakespeare we have virtually nothingno foul papers (apart from the scraps of Sir Thomas More and what might be the palimpsest of revision in his own plays), no letters, only tittle-tattle from years after his death and the elegies of his friends: in other words, so little matter that speculation conquers all. Other poets, whether by accident or design, have been less stingy with their disjecta membra—Milton left the drafts to “Lycidas” that so shocked Charles Lamb, Coleridge enough trunkfuls to overturn the myths he told about himself, and many modern poets warehouses of overdue bills, tattered school-essays, and airline tickets, so many aisles of flotsam and jetsam that scholars get lost and never emerge.

To go behind the scenes of the poems, to find out how they came to being, gratifies impulses contrary and even conflicting. There is the simple curiosity to know how brilliant things began (few readers want to examine the drafts of a hack), to see if they are within reach of the ordinary grinder or the pure result of inspiration; there is the scholar’s hunger to discover, in the backwaters of the poem, the source of the Nile; there is the critic’s itch for context and explanation (the same longing that would ferret out the “original intent” of the authors of the Constitution, rather than settle for the homely ambiguity of words on the page)these motives share an exhaustion of means, of wanting to know all that can be known. (The metaphors of scholarly attention derive from gluttony rather than other deadly sins.) More darkly, consider the village gossip’s appetite for the dirty secrets of composition, the suspicion that there is less than meets the eye, the prurient desire to tear off the fancy dress to show the poem’s shabby underdrawers.

The draft of a poem can reveal too much but is always doomed to reveal too little. Poets sometimes consider wild alternatives, reject weak phrases even while scribbling them down, complicate by ambiguities they did not intendlooking at the trace evidence of drafts and notebooks may give the critic too much confidence in devising a meaning of his own. Drafts are always what has been rejected, the pentimenti of abandoned hope; and the crooked path to meaning may, in its course, leave only a trail of bread crumbs a poet wanted to brush from the page. W. H. Auden loved to trouble a line by simply tossing in a not—that doesn’t mean he was equivocal. Like most great poets, he wanted to see what happened when he played with words. Sometimes a reversal of meaning betrays a deeper meaning.

Robert Frost was the most American of American poets after Whitman. When poets love their country, their poems usually suffer from nickel-plated patriotism (even good poets go bad in time of war) or a taste for writing down myths and calling them history; but you forgive Whitman and Frost their moments of naïveté and touches of sentiment because they saw squarely, unmistakably, the figures in that imagined landscape. If every trace of the continent were to vanish, you could almost reconstruct America from the clues left in Leaves of Grass (1855) and North of Boston (1914). These poets saw their country through an alien eye, with a sympathy few foreigners have grantedand it is through those few, like Alexis de Tocqueville and Frank Marryat and Isabella Bird, that we have known America for what it was.

Frost relished the country he found and lamented the country ways already vanishinghe was an adopted New Englander, but became more of a Yankee than most Yankees. Even now, almost half a century after his death, when people reach for a poet plain spoken and plain dealing, who says what he means and says it rare, they reach for Frostyet Frost was never as simple as he seemed. His poems are full of anger, betrayal, wrenched pride, foolishness, all the frailties of men; and he brooded upon weakness like a philosopher.

You have to drag younger readers to Frost todayin part because he’s so badly taught, represented in anthologies by some of his most egotistical and kitsch-befouled verse. Even his darker poems, rubbed into lessons by generations of high-school teachers (something there is that doesn’t love a symbol), have lost their murderous under-thoughts. Some of his best poems leave a sour aftertaste, because there’s nothing worse than poetry gnawed down to meaning. (Frost famously said, “Poetry is what is lost in translation”; but it’s usually forgotten that he added, “It is also what is lost in interpretation.”) In the fluorescent light of the classroom, even “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” can seem genial as Whittier, a buggy ride with a cup of hot eggnog at the end. It’s a poem that should be read only at midnight, and in freezing temperatures.

Frost was a dull, generally unrevealing letter writer who guarded his workshop door by destroying most of his rough drafts. From the days when he was a young man, however, he kept tablets and memo books in which he scrawled the private thoughts he worked into public speech. The raw sources for The Notebooks of Robert Frost form a seventy-year exhibit of American stationeryaccording to the descriptions, there are stitched pages in black buckram, loose-leaf binders, various strip-bound pads, a clothbound notebook that includes a calendar for 1910, a record book, a diary book bound in green canvas and another smaller than a man’s palm, theme books, and spiral notebooks of the kind you can still pick up at Wal-Mart, some forty in all surviving, with scatterings of loose pages besides. Frost not only failed to destroy these homely volumes but, for reasons that are unclear, gave some of them away; even so, many have pages torn out, and a scattering of stray sheets comes from notebooks now lost or destroyed.

Frost picked notebooks up and threw them down as it suited him, used and abused them, wrote sideways or upside down, skipped pages, started at the rear and worked his way backthe poet, in other words, has not cooperated with those after his secrets. (You could say that Frost’s brilliance in poems was where he refused to cooperate.) The editor, Robert Faggen, has made informed guesses in dating these worn survivals; but, as in all cases where the author is not by nature compelled to order, the difficulties quickly become impossibilities. An occasional date, a datable draft, a drafted occasionthese are rare anchor posts for the editors conjectures. Some of the books must have stayed within reach for decades, so the editor can only throw up his hands and say, “1890s-1950″ or “1910-1955.”

What we find in this stolid volume are notes on teaching (the only things the editor has suppressed are lists of students and a grade roster, though even these might have proved of interest); notes toward lectures of the poet-takes-the-podium type, a genre that has almost died out; a mass of tedious philosophizing on man’s place in society, from which the weaker strain of Frost’s poems descends; much pointless noodling in prose, or whatever interim form the poet’s thoughts assumed before they were pressed into verse; a few half-worked, pretentious dialogues (between, for example, a pair of Romans soon to be short-lived emperors); and the usual detritus and waste matter of notebookspotential titles, addresses of acquaintances, scraps of conversation. Only rarely, amounting to perhaps a quarter of the whole, are there drafts of poems, some of them unpublished. (It’s good to see Frost sawing away at half an idea for a poem without much chance of succeedingit makes his best poems seem the more remarkable.) Every twenty or thirty pages the poet says something extraordinary, something you don’t quite find in the poemsthe stray and straying thoughts emphasize the governors Frost put on his poetry, or the filters he found there. The best of his poems, those dark and divided affairs, must have emerged from the same slovenly rumpus seen in the notebooks, their internal disorders intact.

We consider Frost a modern for dragging speech out of the preciousness of the fin de siècle and the studied airs of the Georgians into an idiom that a century later still sounds colloquial; except in his plastic and conversational handling of meter, he was the most formally conservative of the moderns, one who could call Pound, with a devilish wink, “Bertran de Bornagain.” Frost sought a language that captured his own rhythm and intonation, and it took him a long while to find it. At the turn of the century, at an age when Keats was already dead, he was writing humdrum and decorative verse, prettily rhymed, that said nothing a florist doesn’t say when he tries to sell you wilted flowers. A Boy’s Will (1913) contains a good deal of such verse (“Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too, / And the daft sun-assaulter, he / That frighted thee so oft … “); but Frost already understood that the American character could not be recorded in diction so tear-stained and thumbed-overit had to come from the “real language of men,” as Wordsworth had called it more than a century before. However different their temperaments, in the depth of Frost’s notice of the poor he was Wordsworth’s heir (he preferred a vocabulary “not too literary; but the tones of voice must be caught always fresh and fresh from life”). In that first book, published when Frost was almost forty, there is already a scheme of human attention amid a naturalist’s observation, though he has not yet purged the outdated syntax (“the laborers’ voices late have died”) or the stock ballad-figures of “maidens pale” and the “bravest that are slain.”

Even the earliest notebook displays an ear for American English that obeys a rhythm Frost found superbly adaptable to pentameter.

I preached a sermon on him once He didnt come

 

Dont preach it now

 

He says dont preach it now.

Hes listening to usevery word  we say […]

 

Im feeling better since I had my spell.

 

Thats probably his son. He’s state police

 

He said we were as good as under arrest.

Frost was listening to the voices around him and shaping them into verse. (Here and in the quotations that follow, for reasons that will become plain, I’ve made corrections to the editor’s transcripts after consulting copies of the notebooks.) It’s unfortunate that we cannot date such lines precisely; though they probably come from the period of North of Boston or later, they show how easily he molded homely speech into meter.

Once he had freed himself from the stale perfume of the nineteenth century, Frost created a vernacular flexible within the limit of his expectationthe limit of what he wanted the poem to provide. He was capable of vivid descriptiona woodsy altar’s “black-cheeked stone and stick of rain-washed charcoal,” a man’s hand “Like a white crumpled spider on his knee”but he never let himself be lavish with metaphor. He parceled out his figures like a Yankee his nickels. Frost was not attracted, like Pound, to the romantic argot of the troubadours (hence “Bertran de Bornagain”) or, like Eliot, taken with tormented metaphors of the soul. The New England poet is unsettling more than he admits to being unsettled: Compare “Desert Places,” a slightly terrifying poem, with “Hysteria,” where Eliot seems, as elsewhere, frantic and overemotionalthe differences of temper are instructive.

Some of the best passages in Frost’s notebooks are a register of overheard conversationwe can make inferences from what he set down, because poets record what they fear to forget. (Frost was always on the lookout for cheating clerks and calculating egg-salesmen.) If his eavesdropping reminds us how sharp-eared the poems were, in the notebooks you have to wade through a lot of woolgathering and cracker-barrel philosophizing to get to it. Frost thought a lot about man and society; he read Darwin, Marx, and Freud while claiming to be an anti-intellectual; he wrote many lectures and essays that might have been herded together under a heading like “CivilizationWhat Is It?” or “Man! Has He a Future?” He spent decades at this and managed almost never to say a memorable thing. It’s a pity these notebooks are largely the repository for Frost’s musings on government, social justice, the idea of America, the problems of rich and poor, the experiment of Russiahis analysis and commentary are tedious to the extent that they are virtuous. You wish he could have seen what prose did to him; it turned him into the dullest of town councillorsgarrulous, petty, a little mean-minded, but keenly interested in the improvement of the town curbstones. This side of Frost didn’t make him a thinker; it made him a bore. If the poems came from such necessary tedium, we are the worse for being exposed to it; if such passages prove irrelevant to the imagination that so often exceeded them, we are no wiser for having read them.

Frost knew a lot about making poems, but as little as most people about political philosophy. He mulled over the same questions a long while, coming to no conclusions, or far too many conclusionsin part because he didn’t have the right intellect; in part, more sadly and humanly (the self-delusion in Frost makes him likable), because he fancied himself something of a backwoods philosopher. Being able to settle the antique questions of mind and matter is difficult even for a brain of a philosophical turn, which most poets lackof the moderns, only Eliot could write convincingly about such things, and he had been trained in Harvard’s graduate school. (Frost’s virtues lie outside his thoughtthere’s nothing here about government or society that couldn’t have been written better by a self-educated garage mechanic.) Frost may have felt Eliot his rival philosophically as much as poeticallyEliot’s sophistication and originality in writing about the designs of verse make him, on long acquaintance, all the more compelling as a poet.

Frost’s insights are psychological, not philosophicalhis philosophy is of the Yankee “good-as-most, better-than-some” variety. You feel that, ten minutes after meeting him (the Frost of the poems), you’d be chewing his tobacco and he’d be chewing yours. He was canny about people as no poet of his day except Eliot, who looked at others the way an entomologist looks at bugs, a little hungrily. Eliot scrutinized people with bland curiosity and the gifts of subtle analysis, though he never forgot that they were bugs, as in a way were Prufrock and Sweeney and Phlebas and the rest. (You might say that from the start Eliot suffered a condition common to people ripe for conversionthe men and women around him seemed hollow flawed creatures, sinners all. But then at the start he was drawn to sinners.) Eliot was interesting as an anatomist only in the dissection of the soulthis makes Four Quartets one of the most mournful instruments of precarious faith. Frost, who had in him a touch of the Jeffersonian Deist, took sad delight in men because of their foibleshe recognized their defects and registered their small triumphs. He presented the human side of men as only a skeptic can, but a skeptic can be very hard to live with.

“Does Wisdom Matter?” was a fond topic for Frost’s lectures, the editor reminds us, though it’s hard to think of a subject more antithetical to the poet’s gifts. His genius came, not in offering what might be called homespun horse-sense, but in rendering the quarrels with self that complicate, and even destroy, the characters in his poems. Frost is the great poet of human failing, limitation, stoicism, bleak outlook, frustration, and blind pride. Though he was not as bleak as Hardy, that acid-bitten pessimist, you read Frost on men and shake your head sadly and say, “It’s so. It’s so.” He wanted to think well of men, but he flinched a little from them (think of the professor in “The Hundred Collars,” who was perhaps a crude and knowing self-portrait)he knew their limitations and through them, at least in his verse, something of his own. Then you read Frost on women and wonder what other poet since Shakespeare knew women so well. (Frost is the master-mistress of American verse.) There’s a lot of hokum in Frost; but it’s dry, wrenched-from-the-heart hokumsometimes it’s mere play-acting, as in the sentimental poems (these represent the Frost Frost wished he were, or for a moment thought he was). His best poems come when the poem distracted him from the way he thought.

One of the early notebooks has a long list of titles, probably for articles in a farm journal to which the poet contributed, though you wish he’d written poems on them instead: “The Thankless Crime,” “Ace & the Pigs,” “The Philosophy of Potato Bugs,” “The Moral Struggles of My Home Neighbors,” “Nothing Lost in Sod,” “Lives for a Poet in Business,” “Crows & Potatoes,” “The Worst Chicken,” “The Question of a Feather.” (Frost did write an essay with the last title for Farm-Poultry, as the editor neglects to mention; so it’s likely that other titles were used as well.) You can detect, in the etiology of such titles, the pressure toward lesson, example, and homily that drives the poems, and that produces the occasional maxim that keeps the reader in hope through deserts of philosophizing. Frost possessed an aphoristic intelligencehe was a splendid composer of epigrams and apothegms and the like, perhaps too good for his own good, because once he settled on an idea he found it hard to get rid of (he was rarely, however, in the league of Heraclitus and Pascal, to whom the editor compares him). Frost would rub the old coin over and over until it shone, like the neighbor in “Mending Wall” who, against all evidence, keeps muttering, “Good fences make good neighbors.” If a maker of sayings and saws believes his own wisdom, he becomes hidebound, because aphorism prevents more thinking than it provokesfortunately most aphorists suffer from wit more than wisdom.

Frosts humanity was half invented by language; but the other half lay in the length he hauled a thought as it formed itselfhe liked to go a furlong or two farther than expected.

If its a good thing to be dead it must be half as good to be half dead

 

In unicellular life what is the difference between eating each other and marrying

 

Whenever I doubt if my letters {to a friend} are numerous or long enough I am sustained by the thought that it was not at a friend of anybody that Luther threw ink by the bottlefull.

 

I wouldnt trust a preacher any further than I could throw a church by the steeple.

 

Paints cost more than ink.

His night thoughts on writing, on the other hand, aren’t disappointing so much as accidental and unconvincingthey seem mused upon, left-handed, not untrue but not quite true, either, as if the plumb hadn’t dropped straight.

A poem is a triumph of association

 

A poem is a run of lucky recalls

 

You can always get a little more litterature if you  are willing to go a little closer into what has been considered left unsaid as unspeakable just as you can  always get a little more melon by going a little closer  to the rind or a little more dinner by scraping the plate  with a table knife.

Such thoughts seem not to derive from long meditation or profound insightthey’re chance occurrences or “lucky recalls.” The poet was brilliant almost despite himself (Frost’s knowledge of self was always his insight into others); his cracker-barrel cheese-paring got in the way of that black-browed, unremitting Frost from whom the major poems came; and yet the major poems needed a little of the cheeseparing in order not to descend too far into despair. Frost’s lesser self helped his great to be greater. In these notebooks, perhaps only when he wrote “How many pains make an agony?” or “Mercy is illogical kindness” did he reveal, or seem to reveal, something that lay troubled beneath the surface of the verse.

Occasionally, very occasionally, you see in the prose that instinct for the half-articulated that animates the poems:

The saddest is not to see the poor longing for what they cant have: but to see a poor child happy in the possession of some thing too trifling for anybody else to want.

 

Story of the blind old gardener. I guess them aint a going to bloom. We’d a heard from them fore before this if they was.

The blindness catches at the anecdoteyou might say such blindness is more metaphysical than physical (hearing would be the blind man’s most trusted sense, even as metaphor). I’d trade five hundred pages of these notebooks for two more pages where the poet noticed people in so quirky and broad-hearted a fashion.

Frost’s aphorisms almost never work unless dramatically rendered, which makes “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” gnostic and shrewd, its mysteries not expunged but exposed in syntax, while “The saddest thing in life / Is that the best thing in it should be courage” is static, a dead fish of wisdom, and not that interesting as wisdom. The younger Frost knew how to give such sayings a darker face, how to invest them with the same frailty that led to his monologues and dialogues, those playlets he called poemsthe older Frost was too busy saying important things. The memorable quotations here are so obscurely buried, it might reasonably be asked whether a selection a quarter of the length would not have served the reader better. Some of the aphorisms are malicious when they mean to be wry, as when Frost suggests that both rich and poor are a bad business; but the poet had a meanness in him he knew (and makes calculated use of in his most desolate verse) and a meanness he did not know. Vain, selfish, jealous, Frost was a nasty piece of work to his family; and all the Yankee warmth in his poems could turn jellied and cruel toward those around him. (In the days she lay dying after a heart attack, his wife pointedly never asked to see him.) Yet think of the other moderns-Eliot the cold fish whom Virginia Woolf accused of wearing green face-powder, Pound iffy about Jews (Eliot, too), Stevens a monster to his underlings, Moore an emotionally stunted terror who sneered at her American Indian students and used racial slang like “coon,” and Williams the small-town philanderer. You might think great poetry was a side effect of personality disorder.

Frost was not much possessed by a sense of humorhe could be mordant, yes, with a Yankee distrust that sometimes reads like humor. He could manage a gruesome pun, but that’s as far as humor usually took him (this makes a reader wonder about the forms of attention Frost preferred). It adds a layer to that mysterious onion Frost to find the notebooks pierced by doggerel and light verse, though his light verse comes in any color you want, as long as it’s black. There are some sixty lines in boisterous couplets, unfortunately too scrawled over and revised to quote, spoken by a Columbus four hundred years at sea, and a draft of couplets in the voice of a dead Roman, which begins:

A thousand years ago in Rome
And I was in a catacomb
Stretched out upon a stony shelf
I had entirely to myself.
I lay apparently becalmed
From having died and been embalmed
With toes upturned, arms composed,
And you would never have supposed
What I lay there a-thinking of—

Of everything but mostly love.

(To make this and the next three quotations more readable, I’ve removed canceled words and supplied punctuation where necessary. In the penultimate line here, I’ve also removed an extraneous “they,” which must have been an error of anticipation Frost neglected to delete.) These lines remind us how strangely tender Frost could be. He saw just how weak men were, and knew how weak he was himself; all that imperfection, all that taut resistance to apology and ameliorationthe unction, in other words, of walking around and being a manmakes his crustiness likable. What he knew about men who wanted to be certain about things produced one of his most ambivalent poems, “The Strong Are Saying Nothing,” which admires the stoic’s philosophy, but understands the limitation of hope it imposes. There are also, from the notebook, these unpublished lines:

Aries, Taurus,

Gemini, Cancer,

Arise in chorus,

What’s the answer?

 

Tell, oh, tell us,

If it be a

Blend of Hellas

And Judaea.

 

Who and what’ll

Solve the poser,

Aristotle

Or Spinoza?

Frost cast a wary eye upon religion, the eye of an atheist who refuses to blink, all the while professing to be an orthodox believer (some think him as much an Arminian heretic as Milton). How hard he wrestled with the invisiblethis was an old Yankee inheritance, to be sure, but we simplify the past by forgetting its subtleties; and in Frost there is at least as much religious conscience and torment as in Donne, or Eliot, or Geoffrey Hill. The notebooks allowed him to be a little more unbuttoned on the subject than in print, especially as he grew famous and became ROBERT FROST in capitals big as tenpins. He was willing to ask the metaphysical questions, the questions to which there are never answers (he was in any case a poet more suited to questions than answers); but the poems didn’t always find that a diet of philosophy agreed with them.

Frost was not a systematic thinkerthank goodness, I’m tempted to saythough there are a few places in the notebooks where he tries to categorize experience in the manner of Auden or Kierkegaard. Frost had a curiosity about science (he seems to have taken his ideas from popular articles), which is not surprising, when science offers so much to a poet for whom homily mediates between scientific hypothesis and the certitudes of faith. There are numerous notebook pages that puzzle over some scientific notion or try to mold it into poetry, as he did in “Desert Places.” Such poems remind us, not just how rarely poetry borrows from science now, but how reluctantly it is drawn to homily. Frost was interested in what the individual revealed to the general, not how each peculiar soul suffered his torments. The public record exceeded the private caseyou can see Frost’s crippled private life, but darkly.

Sometimes the darkness was too dark. It’s tempting to think that Frost could write poems so gloomy even he couldn’t publish them, their sourness shot through with a sardonic glee at how awful the human condition can be:

There were two brothers come home from their trial.

They took of[f] their coats with a terrible smile,

And one of them calmly said to the other,

“The court says we didn’t kill father and mother.

 

The court’s word in such things is final for men.

Our neighbors can never accuse us again.

The worst they can say to us under the laws

Is Som[e]one was guilty: if we weren’t, who was?

 

With the judgement of God, we may still have to cope,

But not for a good many years, let us hope.”

There are many such amusements in the notebooks, places where Frost unbuttoned his vest, or took the road less traveled, or rattled on endlesslyand then abandoned such things to the dead matter of the spiral pad or the buckram-covered pages. You sense that in the notebooks Frost felt he was milking himself, as Milton’s daughters milked Milton. (Notebooks are where a Protestant confessesor were until poetry became the confessional.) Little of this, however, gets us much closer to Frost the poet, so it is fortunate that the books house substantial drafts of two long poems he never published, “A Bed in the Barn,” which was meant for Steeple Bush (1947), and “Old Gold for Christmas,” which struggles through a few incomplete drafts and discards fragments elsewhere.

“Old Gold” begins on a freezing night, when a stranger helps an elderly man who has fallen to the icy pavement. The good Samaritan, who serves as narrator, has little to do but listen to the old man’s tale:

“You stand and let me lean on you a minute

Till I can think. Don’t ask me who I am.

I’m all mixed up from having been retired.”

He rued a bloody knuckle in the street light

As a girl gloats on her engagement ring.

I helped him shoulder one of his suspenders.

“I’ve been down on some ice and lost my coat.

The empty busses at this time of night

Are so insane to get home to their car barns

They’d as soon knock you down as pick you up.

I must have thrown my coat away at one.

The place I’ve got to get to is a farm

That’s out here on a side road with two rows

Of sugar maples leading up to it

The air, lit up by seven burning maples,

In case you had a mind to take me there

Or rout out someone else to do it for you.

You’re on foot walking so you can’t yourself.

It’s where I live and claim my residence

To vote at when there’s any need to vote.

The house is not much, but the barn is standing.

There! midnight I suppose or one o’clock!”

This is from the second draft we have; but no doubt there are drafts missing, as the opening lines in the initial draft have been neatly transcribed. Frost begins the story with all the confidence of the poems in North of Boston. The details have that roughed-up pathos that makes his characters seem party to the injury that is the worldthe old man looking at his knuckle with pride, the way a “girl gloats on her engagement ring”; the furious, fruitless gesture of hurling his coat after the departing bus (a horse-drawn trolley bus, perhaps, or one of the electrified sort that still runs on the streets of Boston); the foxy Yankee rectitude of “It’s where I live and claim my residence / To vote at when there’s any need to vote.” And then the farm with its “burning maples” (seven of them, and burning, details haunted by the bush of Moses, the seven branches of the menorah), yet modified by the old man’s disarming modesty, a modesty almost proud: “The house is not much, but the barn is standing.”

Frost was agile at hard-grained detailshis characters live, not just at the mercy of the trivial, but through its quiet, insistent force. The poem is the observation of distress and rock-bound pride found in “The Death of the Hired Man” or, more pertinently, “Snow,” where a local preacher stops at a house and then, against the pleas of the couple there, pushes on into a blizzardhe does it because he has to, because it’s a sort of calling. Frost loved such charactersyou sense he tried to find stories for them. The tale in “Old Gold” starts so well, it’s a mystery why the poet couldn’t finish it. The delicacy of Frost’s judgment lies in the observation “I’m all mixed up from having been retired.” The confusion of meaning is part of the old man’s confusion; but you feel he has it right, that retirement had made him lose his bearingsand he has been retired, as he says. It may be just an acknowledgment that time has passed, but it sounds involuntary. There’s a mark of attentive charity in “I helped him shoulder one of his suspenders,” where the disheveled man’s awkwardness, his slight haplessness and hopelessness, make him the more vivid. He isn’t beyond anger at his plight, at his treatment by the buses. Partly this is a poem about the future. The old man has been turned out of his job, or turned himself out; and the world rushes onward, in the progress of those buses that will not stop and the street lights (now electric, because they go out “on one sudden breath”) to which the old man objects. Frost handles the symbols so quietly, you hardly noticethe lights are going out for the man; and the poet has the right simile, “Like candles on a birthday cake.” Frost knew a lot about being old, even when he was young.

Once you start noticing, it’s hard to stop. I love the old man’s selfish practicality: “The thing for us is to stay propped together”it’s good for him, but he tries to make it seem good for the stranger, too. And the narrator, though he wants to get away from this grasping elder, can’t quite resist him (the narrator is the wedding guest and the old man the Ancient Mariner). The stranger wants to bring the man to a house nearby, the only one with a light still on. The old man knows who lives there:

“No one I’d care to introduce you to.

He’s a church preacher and a baseball pitcher

Combined. He pitches for us Saturdays

And preaches to us Sundays. He can pitch.

Only they claim he’s too wild for his strength.

Catchers cant hold him, or he’d make the league.[“]

These lines were deleted from the first draft. You feel that the two occupations are reciprocal and collusive, pleasure one day, preaching the next, strikeouts then sermons. “He can pitch,” the old man says mildly of the preacherhe’s silent about the preaching. The very thing that spoils the pitching probably makes the preacher overzealous at the pulpit (he’s the kind of preacher who might turn the Devil into Casey at the Bat). No wonder the old man doesn’t want to be dragged to the house. When we do meet the preacher-pitcher, or pitcher-preacher, it turns out that the old man was once his catcher, “In the bare handed days before the mitt.” That pushes their acquaintance back to the 1870s or thereabouts (the first major-league player to wear a glove was in 1875, and he was embarrassed to do so).

Frost’s method, so far as method reveals itself here, is to drive the action of the poem forward until the lines grow fragmentary, then start again, not necessarily at the beginning, trying to consolidate passages as he goes along or striking off into a later passage that might be included. (Frost formed his lines into pentameter as he wroteyou sense this even in the shattered phrases where narrative breaks down.) He seems to have felt that “Old Gold” was too digressive; but the character of Frost lies in digression, and he should have given way to his impulses.

Something goes wrong with the story, and the drafts begin to thrash about trying to find a solution. Part of the problem is the old man. He’s a little “touched,” and there turns out to be no farm. He worked for forty years firing the furnace at a local factory, given a wage so paltry that the entire sum could be paid once a year in goldprobably with a single coin, a double eagle. He never asked for a raise; indeed, he became proud of his status, as though aristocratic, of being paid just once a year at Christmas. Frost can’t seem to settle on a way to tell the old man’s story, how much to render through other characters (in “The Death of the Hired Man,” the other characters do all the talking). Once it’s revealed that he’s partly mad, something must happenbut nothing much can happen, other than the inevitable tragedy. Perhaps the revelation of madness, handled with Frost’s usual judgment of the off-center center, would have proved enough to set the tragedy in motion. Instead, he plunges into further drafts, changing the story slightly but getting further away from what made the earliest draft affecting. Frost tries various shifts: In the first draft, the preacher tells the old man’s story, while the man sits doltishly by; in the second, the old man himself tells it, and the preacher-pitcher and his wife become simply “some people in the nearest house” and then are written out entirely. A son, silent in the first version, does duty in the secondbut he’s a less interesting character than the Billy Sunday-style preacher.

There’s an ending, the right endingsome weeks later the old man fools another passerby into taking him out to the farm he claims to own (“The place I’m trying to get to all my life”it is a kind of Paradise, but it’s also death), and freezes to death. There’s the ending, but Frost can’t quite get there from where he is. The third draft is even more fragmentary than the second. Frost returned to the poem briefly in a later notebook, but then seems to have given it up.

The reader who watches closely as the poem emerges from the ruck of composition (emerges, only to sink back unfinished) will know much more about Frost the craftsman, about how feelingly he manipulates the lines and how what he sought was the force of plainness, not the vigor (or waste, a favorite theme) of decoration. Poetically speaking, he was a clapboard Presbyterian, not a gilded Catholic. The notebooks, though they are not at all devoted to poems, at least in the surviving pages, nevertheless give a sense of how the poems were assembled. Perhaps, in a way, all the dead matter of these notebooks proves merely what the poet needed to discard or discharge before he could write poetry. It would be a mistake to view them as waste without purpose (Eliot, Frost’s bête noire at times, once referred to a poet’s “necessary laziness”). The poet’s task is to find a purpose for what others call waste, and to the poet all chronicles are chronicles of wasted time.

***

Robert Faggen deserves every credit for taking on a difficult, unenviable task, the sort where thousands of small successes go unpraised but every slip is damning. The paleographer is the drudge of academic scholarship, though the most useful book for a reader is a good edition of a poet’s letters, drafts, or fragmentsmost volumes of theory will be out of date by the week after next, but the editions of Coleridge’s notebooks or Dickens’s letters may never be superseded. Faggen is one of the leading figures in “Frost studies,” as they are amusingly called (leading to meteorological phrases like “new directions in Frost studies” and “possible futures for Frost studies”), an editor with long practice reading Frost’s difficult, geometric hand. He should be a trustworthy guide to this crabbed, private, willful poet; but in just about every way possible the edition goes wrong.

The reader’s confidence is shaken by the strained reading, on the first page of the introduction, of Frost’s comparison of his poems to a child’s “ordinaries,” meaning toys and small possessions. Faggen calls this an “extraordinary use of ‘ordinary’ as a noun”; but it’s not extraordinary at all, though the meaning has fallen out of use. He then compares the word to religious ordinariesdevotional manuals or long-headed ecclesiasticswhich is hardly what Frost had in mind (you might as well say it “resonates” with other old uses, the ordinary as courier, or customary meal, or lecture, or part of a fleet laid up and not in commission). One can ignore the blather the editor feels obliged to spout (“Robert Frost’s poetry has long compelled readers with its clarity, dramatic tension, and vocal presence. Its pleasure arises from the promise of cognitive order”) but not the plague of typographical errors that infects the text, so many the reader begins to doubt that all the misspellings in the transcription are Frost’s. (At one point the editor refers to a “jllegible phrase,” though it isn’t “jllegible” at all.)

From the start, there are problems of pagination. The notes and index refer to page numbers notebook by notebook, so ” 1.1r” means Notebook 1, page 1 recto. Unfortunately, there are two pages known as 1.1r; wherever Frost included some loose sheets or jumped to the back of a notebook and soldiered forward, similar confusions occur (in addition, the numbering of Notebook 26 starts over halfway through without explanation, and there is a bad case of misnumbering in the middle of Notebook 31). The group of loose and miscellaneous sheets called, somewhat unhappily, Notebook 47 has no fewer than fifteen pages that could be termed 47.1rbut the editor is too canny for that. When reference is required, he blithely refers to “47,” which means the poor reader must paw through thirty-seven pages of text to find the passage he seeks. (Worse, this “notebook,” for no good reason, collects sheets from two different librariesbest of luck to the researcher who doesn’t notice a footnote to that effect, buried in the middle of the text. Worse still, some pages allegedly at Dartmouth are either missing or at some other location.) The editorial practice is baffling in other ways. Frost sometimes skipped a page while scribbling down his thoughts (perhaps the following page was filled already or contained some pertinent digression). The editor rarely points out where the passage continues a couple of pages later, leaving the reader mostly to fend for himself.

The index is helpful as far as it goes, and it goes only as far as being unhelpfulthe reader will soon discover that it is very difficult to find anything. Frost mentions a man named Bendy or Bentley, but the notes offer no assistance and the index fails to include him; context suggests this is simply Richard Bentley, the cantankerous seventeenth-century classicist. Where is the entry for the poem “The Bed in the Barn,” or for one of Frost’s earliest poems, “The reason of my perfect ease,” or for the essay notes titled “Education Seventy Years Afterward”? If you want to look at all the pages containing drafts of “Old Gold for Christmas,” the index refers to some lines in Notebook 35 that seem from another poem altogether, while there are half a dozen or more pages in Notebook 1 that belong to the poem and go unrecognized. Where are the index entries for Lenin and Quisling, Josiah Royce and Mary Wollstonecraft, Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr, among a crowd of other unhappy absentees? Indeed, where are the entries for Athens and Sparta (there’s one for Greenwich Village); or Dartmouth, Vassar, and Chapel Hill; or Jove, Jesus Christ, and God? Or the Bible? In notebooks that speak so much of religion, these last are unforgivable omissions. There are incomplete entries for Chesterton, Einstein, Emerson, Freud, Job, Jonah, Keats, Lindbergh, Wordsworth, and far too many others. Worse, Walter Pater appears as William Pater; but by this time that’s hardly surprising.

Say you recall reading an anecdote about Agassiz. The index and one of the notes steer you confidently to 6.24r (Notebook 6, page 24 recto), a page that does not exist. Or, should you be curious about Frost’s notion of Kipling, the index entry reads, in part, “Kipling, Rudyard, 4.33r; 66r, 25r; 6r; 15; 17.32r. (Entries in the same notebook are separated by commas, different notebooks by semi-colons.) The first and last of these references are perfectly clear and happen to be correct. “66r” is a mystery; “25r; 6r” should be “7.25r, 6r”; and “15” should be “15.11r.” Even if the middle pair were corrected, you might start thumbing through Notebook 7, find that page 6r is blank, and give upbut you should have kept thumbing, because there’s a second “6r” further on. It might have seemed precise to adopt this mode of reference; but the many ambiguities of pagination should have suggested the folly being indulged. (The editor seems not to have considered that convenient device, the page number of the volume itself.) Two other index entries for Kipling steer the reader into the thirty-seven-page swamp of Notebook 47, without compass or direction.

Many of the notes are splendidly well informed. Faggen has nosed out inviting connections and provided much of the basic matter for understanding Frost’s stray references and allusions, without ever being the sort of editor who condescends to the reader. Nonetheless, after a while I wondered if he possessed the basic cultural knowledge necessary to interpret Frost. How could anyone of even modest learning transcribe one line in these notebooks as “Sog Magog Mempleremagog” and then, to compound ignorance with inattention, fail to make note of it? Gog and Magog famously appear in Ezekiel; though Frost’s capital s resembles his capital g, there is no excuse for this. (Memphremagog, the word Frost actually wrote next, is the name of a glacial lake between Vermont and Quebec.) What should the reader think when Frost writes “Co ex co ex co ex”? Or, in some light verse,

To sit there on a waterlog

And with your Breck a Re ok co ex

Ventriloquize the tranquil bog?

He should think Aristophanes! These lines imitate the famous chorus of frogs in The Frogs, “Brekekekex koax koax”; but they go unnoted.

If ignorance of the Bible and Aristophanes is no bar to being an editor, perhaps some acquaintance with the historical and cultural milieu in which Frost flourished might be considered an advantage; yet the editor misses an obvious reference to FDR’s attempt at court-packing and fails to note that a “tumbledown dick preacher” alludes to Tumbledown Dick, the nickname given Richard Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s son and hapless successor. Frost says he reads obituaries, according to the transcription, in the Times and the Tribute—that should of course be the Tribune, as a look at the notebook page confirms. And how does an editor with any knowledge of eighteenth-century printing manage to transcribe a sentence as “No one ever took a wife for wise except by mistake in reading old print Wife Wife”? This makes no sense. Frost has in fact painfully printed out, to make the distinction clear, “wife wife” to show that printer’s type for the old long s was easily mistaken for f, as any first-year grad student knowsthe title page of Paradise Lost looks like Paradife Loft. No editor is perfect, but such errors suggest a level of incuriosity fatal to a good editor. (The blindness to typography, for which the carelessness of the editor and the complacence of the publisher should be roundly scolded, means that initial apostrophes are habitually reversed.)

Given the hard labor such an edition requires, a tolerance for mistakes might be the price of gratitude. There are few jobs more thankless than that of an editor tasked to decipher a dead man’s hand. Faggen has slaved thousands of hours over writing often snagged like old fishnet. Frost usually wrote with a fountain pen, his script stiff, juddery, hairpin angled; and he did his editor no favors (though who in the privacy of his notebooks would think to do such favors?) by occasionally dropping a letter while writing at speed or malforming letters, especially at the end of a word. His terminal r can be mistaken for s, his d confused with cl, his a with ci, and his p identified with no letter known in this world (it looks like the design for a billhook). He failed to cross t‘s or dot i‘s and left punctuation for the most part to the imagination. These are just the things, however, that bring torments of joy to the paleographer’s heart. There are lines where the editor has made sense of what to most readers would look like chicken scratches.

Editorial procedure, however it is understood, must aim for clarity of description and accuracy of transcription, both of which this edition fails to achieve with a certain consummate brilliance. Obliged though readers must be for this unknown Frost, the transcription is a scandal. To read this volume is to believe that Frost was a dyslexic and deranged speller, that his brisk notes frequently made no sense, that he often traded the expected word for some fanciful or perverse alternative. Even a casual comparison of the text with the five photo-facsimiles included in the introduction shows a discomforting degree of inaccuracy. I would not normally stake my eyes against those of an editor who has spent years in company with these notebooks; yet, having requested a dozen or two xeroxes from the Dartmouth library, where most of the books are housed, I shook my head in wonder at the editor’s wild suppositions, casual sloppiness, and simple inability to set down what was on the page before him. Words are added or subtracted, punctuation missing where it is present and present where it is missing, canceled words unrecorded, and sense rendered nonsensical. In this long volume, there are typographical errors that suggest a failure to proofread the final text against the notebooks and enough highly inventive misreadings to fill a phone book. Frost wrote in a rush and was not a perfect speller (“literature” comes out at least three different ways), but he was not the maniac speller the editor makes him. He suffered, as most writers do, the occasional stretch of wayward syntax; yet, in most of the cases where Frost’s words seem deranged, a glance shows that it was not Frost but his editor who was mad.

Take, for example, a passage Frost jotted down on the subject of “Education Seventy Years Afterward.” The editor offers this transcription of a few lines (curly brackets enclose words Frost wrote in superscript):

Thus there is another rule of life I never {always think of when} I see a player serving two or three bats once before he goes to the plate to fan pitcher with one bat. Always try to have arranged that you were doing something harder and more disciplinary [illegible] than what you the picktie exhibition you have before you are about  to make of yourself.

This has a jostling, out-at-elbows, stenographic air, the syntax going wherever the thought drifts. The batter metaphorically serves up his bats before, by some topsy-turvy turn of phrase, he fans the pitcher; and there is a country redolence to the “picktie exhibition,” whatever that might beno doubt some blue-ribbon event at a county fair. Unfortunately, this is nothing like what Frost wrote, which I would read as follows (the italics note the differences):

Then there is another rule of life I never {always think of when} I see a m player swing two or three bats at once before he goes to the plate to fan the pitches with one bat. Always try to ha have arranged that you were doing something harder and more disciplinary that than what you the public exibition you have before you are about to make of yourself.

In the course of two sentences, the editor has committed three comical misreadings, overlooked two words and a misspelling (“exibition”), and left strike-outs untranscribed or wrongly transcribedten errors, four of them serious. The editor fails even to mention the ruin of a poem drafted at the top of the page. A large part of the page has been torn out, mutilating the draft; but about forty words remain legible at the beginning of the lines and perhaps another dozen on the reverse. Given how rare Frost’s drafts are, you wonder why in the notes the editor did not even allude to such lines. The transcription is not much better later in the passage: what the editor abandons as “someone who said in [illegible]” is actually “someone who said in Latin.”

Or take these relatively simple and cleanly written paragraphs from Notebook 22. Here is Faggen’s version:

That was are reason Middlebrow! that was a new one to me and I am afraid it was mean to be for my  embarrassment. It was as much as to say invidiously you old [illegible] what of at the level of intellect so to call it where you at which you vote and peddle rhyme sheets. It was invidious perhaps. Anyway I was chastened it was all to the good. I was chastened {brought up dull in my slang} and put in my place. But I it was better than good:  it furnished me a new refrain for a poem some day.

 

High brow

Low brow

Middle brow

And no brow

 

With acknowledgments to Polybius and Pound {the poem} it would the story of the girl Hannof the Carlingian captured  on the coast of West Africa outside the Gates. It would begin:

 

She had no brow but a mind of her own

She wanted the sailor to let her alone

She didn’t like sailors she didn’t like men

They had to shut her up in a pen.

She was quite untractable quite contrary [b.i.]

Hannof the Carlingian? Nothing marked in bold type here in fact appears on this notebook page. That mysterious “[b.i.]” gives a sense of what has gone wrongit’s the editor’s note to himself that the line was written in black ink. He has somehow forgotten its purpose and, instead of using a footnote to record the change in ink, as elsewhere, mindlessly included it as part of Frost’s passage. The lines above might more accurately have been transcribed thus:

That was a new on Middlebrow! That was a new one to me and I am afraid it was meant to be for  my embarrassment. It was as much as to say invidiously {you,} you old skeezicks what at {of} the level of intellect so to call it where you at which you vote and peddle ryhme sheets. It was invidious perhaps. Anyway I was chasened it was all to the good if I was chasened {brought up to date in my slang} and put in my place. But it was better than good: it furnished me a new refrain for a poem someday.

 

High brow

Low brow

Middle brow

And no brow

 

With acknowledgements to Polybius and Pound it {the poem} would be the story of the girl Hanno the Carthaginian captured on the coast of west Africa outside the Gates. It would begin

 

She had no brow but a mind of her own

She wanted the sailors to let her alone

She didnt like sailors she didn’t like men

They had to shut her up in a pen.
She was quite intractable quite contrary

 

That the editor provides an erudite note on Hanno the Carthaginian makes his initial error mystifying (Hannof the Carlingian, indeed). I have again noted the differences in italicshere the editor has fobbed off on Frost misspellings he did not commit and overlooked the misspellings he did (ryhme and chasened herein previous paragraphs the editor accuses Frost of writing ofr, tow, and palin where the poet plainly wrote for, two, and plain). Faggen has been unable to read a couple of difficult phrases that did not take long to puzzle out; has missed strike-outs, capitals, and terminal s‘s; has failed to record where phrases are written in superscript; and has made Frost’s start at a logical phrase like “a new one” into “are reason.” (The editor also has a bad habit of throwing the phrases revised in superscript before rather than after the draft phrases they replace.) I counted some two dozen errors in the three paragraphs leading up to this passage, so the problems are not local. The editor seems to have worked in haste (though not yet repented at leisure). Two sentences later, we find:

 

They they hung it up in the temple of Ashtaroth as hide [linigue] for harriners. Tunique ought to be rhymed somehow with Runic-Runique.
Linigue? Harriners? Tunique? Runique? This should read:

 

They They hung it up in the temple of Astaroth as a hide unique for hairiness. Unique ought to be rhymed somehow with Punie-Punique.

And on it goes, page after page of appalling errors and flat misreadings, twenty or thirty per page at times, some trivial, most trying, too many disastrous. Frost is a much clearer and more sensible writer than Faggen’s transcripts suggest: Two pages after the passage above, we discover this:

It runs poor spirited to wonder if sometimes when half gods go if cant quarter godst that arrive and so on down to no gods at all.

That should read:

It seems poor spirited to wonder if sometimes when half gods go it isn’t quarter gods that arrive and so on down to no gods at all.

Or, early in the notebooks:

History that coming / I [illegible]

 

Every word of this is wrong. Frost in fact wrote:

 

His son thats coming’s / Is State Police

Passages have been so mangled, they bear only dim relation to Frost’s thought. In one of my favorite linesit’s almost mean to quote itthe editor offers “I know someone who has been given money to consider bear one year,” which sounds suitably woodsy. Alas, Frost wrote “to consider fear one year” (fear had been mentioned in the sentence just preceding). It’s as if the editor had forced some grad student to type up the rough notes, given them a cursory glance, and then dispatched them to printhow else explain places where a query meant to remind him of a suspect reading became a question mark never made by Frost’s pen?

The editor does no better with a tangled draft of poetry. Here is his version of a passage in Frost’s rollicking doggerel on Columbus:

My name is Christopher Columbus

I cant be moved by all this {?threat} and rumpus

Put up your knives and go below

We’re members of the O. {HO Hi Ho}       O. Hi. O

A stock exchange affiliate

I know {see} who you are!

Let’s hear some more         Vociferate!

For such a husky lot {herd} of boys ghostly noise

You make a very husky {very [illegible]} noise

It does feels us good to strike {you strike and strike and strike and strike}

I end by sailing where I like.

The word in bold type has wandered in from the editor’s imagination. I would transcribe these lines as follows:

My name is Christopher Columbus

I cant be moved by all this {threats and} and rumpus

Put up your knives and go below

We’re members of the [two letters illegible: ?O I.] O. {HO Hi O Ho O. Hi. O}

A stock exchange affiliate

I know {see} who you are!

Let’s hear some more{I know {see} you are}! vociferate!

For such a husky lot {herd} of boys

[in margin: you know} You make a very husky {very feeble} noise {ghostly noise}
[in margin: You See You See {know}] It does you fools no good to strike {you strike and strike

and strike}

I end by sailing where I like.

It’s hard to know which are worse, the misreadings, the omissions, or the outright inventions. Here, even more hilariously, is the last couplet on the page, followed by some marginal couplets, first in the editor’s transcript:

Colundres! Christophes! No less!

What no one left alive but you

 

He boards again in I [illegible]

Till someone comes up over [side]

 

The meekly [?vaunt] single file

Columbus brooch alone awhile

This, however, is what Frost wrote:

Columbus! Christopher! No less!

What no one left alive but you

 

Columbus broods {He broods again} in Spanish pride

Till someone comes up over side

 

They meekly vanish single file

Columbus broods alone awhile

“Columbus brooch alone awhile” ought to have given the editor pause. On the following page, he has “They’ve named it for Americas,” which is pretty obviously “Americus.”

In places above, the editor has given an inaccurate idea of when Frost is revising by superscript and when he’s starting a new line (he can’t even describe his own practice accurately in his pages on editorial procedures). To show how complicated it is to render poetic revision, here’s a complex line in the editor’s version:

But that you {brute} at {illegible]} in the {our} way,

{[illegible]} {desert {seacoast} bars our way}

The editor notes that the last bracketed phrase falls below the line, and the word “seacoast” below that; but he has disfigured the draft in all sorts of ways. Frost originally wrote “But that great [?lump] is in our way,” then substituted “brute” for “great” and tried, successively, “reef” and “coast” for “[?lump]” and then “desert bars our way” and finally “seacoast.” A more accurate transcript, using the editor’s sigla, might be rendered thus:

 

But that great {brute} [?lump} {reef coast} is in the

{our} way {desert {seacoast} bars our way

 

The problems continueon one page the editor substitutes “Who are you marring with now?” for “Who are you marrying me to now?”, on others “And if I did today” for “And if I died today,” “Lets not be persona!” for “Lets not be personal,” “And put in y in some fold of her dress” for “And put it by in some fold of her dress,” and, amazingly, “In colleness or in the quest of fruit” for “In idleness or in the quest of fruit.” He’s at times willing to put down any old rubbish, however nonsensical, rather than stare long enough to see the homely meaning. It’s a pity that the editor has apparently misidentified the location of certain pages in “Notebook 47,” because I’d bet the farm that what the transcript has as “The use of lipstitch and howdy … in public should be forbidden” is the much less inventive “lipstick and powder.”

These transcriptions are full of errors so basic, it’s difficult to see how they escaped the attention of the editor or his editors. Many are trivial; but it makes a difference whether Frost wrote, as the editor has it, that he “may be so attracted to Russian” instead of “Russia” or that players “got know down” instead of “got knocked down,” or that there was frozen ground men might “dig your rave in if your dead” instead of “dig your grave in if you died.” Or, to continue this sad catalogue, Frost wrote, not “all he is parinian” but “all he is poor man”; not “wild hearths and deserts” but “wild heaths and deserts”; not “go to wrack and mine” but “go to wrack and ruin”; not “two rows of rock samples” but “two rows of rock maples”; not “He might have arrested the thinking folk” but “He might have parroted the thinking folk.” I would be surprised if the errors in the whole volume numbered fewer than ten thousand. Not a page of transcription can be considered trustworthy; and Harvard University Press, if it has any regard for its reputation, should withdraw this edition and subject the transcripts to microscopic examinationand the final text to the hawk-eyed copy-editing and proofreading it somehow failed to enjoy.

***

These notebooks are not for the casual reader. But is Frost’s poetry for the casual reader any longer? Is there even a casual reader to attract? Here you have the most technically restrictive of the modernists, who reformed the pentameter line until it became expressively vernacular. (You might think reformers were a dime a dozen, but the list is short: Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Browning, and few others.) Sometimes the Whig narrative of modernism emphasizes only the breaches and ruptures of form, which consoles us in our fallen free-verse ways. This tends to strand Frost as a fuddy duddy, a man who couldn’t play tennis without a net. Eliot and Pound, however, thought of vers libre as a temporary breach in the manners of poetry. They kept the free and the metrical in constant creative tension, Pound writing lines with the memory of meter, Eliot flexibly using tradition where it bore upon his matter (or where it simply suited him). Wallace Stevens’s elegant pentameter is usually ignored in favor of his exotic language and absurdist instinct-free verse earned him forgiveness for his galumphing manner and symbolist mannerism. Marianne Moore used a scaffolding of syllables and rhyme to construct her poems but years later in revision sometimes cheerfully (or distractedly) abandoned them. Only William Carlos Williams came to free verse as if it were home and stayed there contentedly; though the ease and consciousness of rhythm in the later meditative poems suggest that, however much he desired a linoleum-like prose, the subtlety of his ear wouldn’t quite let him. Where does this leave Frost? More in the middle of a group trying out certain tensions in the verse line, tensions between meter and prose unimagined in French vers libre, in the earlier essays at free verse by W. E. Henley, or in the long philosophizing line of Tupper and Whitman.

Frost would not be the first poet to require form to order his imagination. Is the scattered and unhappy organization of his lectures due to a routine of mind the notebooks reflect, a habitual dislocation or relocation of focus, or to the patchwork, crazy-quilt character of the notebooks from which he drew (in which case he lacked some essential integrating faculty in prose)? A notebook is an aide-memoire, an act of self-education, a way to stem the tide of trivia that passes through the writer’s mind, a jump-start for poems, the grave of failed expression, and much elsein notebooks, the poet is often waiting for lightning to strike or the sewers to overflow. It doesn’t diminish Frost that his notebooks are less interesting than those of other writers, just as it doesn’t diminish Beethoven that his rough drafts are less fluent than Mozart’sindeed, you might say that the clutter of sawdust and brown wrapping-paper that compose the notebooks ennobles Frost, because in the poems he rose so far above them.

 

 

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