Robert Frost and the Modern Narrative

I. Frost as a Narrative Poet

“. . . the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other.”
—“The Figure a Poem Makes”

Robert Frost’s second book, North of Boston (1914), has almost universally been considered the defining moment of his literary maturation. First published in England when the poet was forty years old, it reflected twenty hard and lonely years of quiet artistic development. Thirteen months earlier Frost had published A Boy’s Will (1913), a collection of thirty-two mostly short lyrics. Widely praised in England, A Boy’s Will had demonstrated Frost’s mastery of the tunefully lyric, bucolic, and metrically conventional Georgian poetic style. North of Boston, however, represented something unmistakably new and distinctively American. Over twice the length of Frost’s first book, North of Boston contained only sixteen poems—four lyrics and a dozen long narratives, all set in rural or small-town New England. The new book also sounded different. All but one of the poems in A Boy’s Will rhymed. Only three poems in North of Boston did. The rest of the book was written in a deliberately low-key, conversational blank verse. As Frost wrote John Cournos two months after its publication: “One thing to notice is that but one poem in the book will intone and that is ‘After Apple Picking.’ The rest talk.”

Inevitably Frost still remained on the far side of the great Modernist fissureAlthough North of Boston has been praised as an American classic and received abundant critical analysis, it has never been adequately appreciated for its radical reinvention of the modern narrative poem. Critics have carefully studied the book’s innovative use of speech rhythms (Frost’s celebrated “sound of sense”) and its austere “Yankee” diction. They have explored Frost’s stark regional subject matter and his dignified portrayal of the rural poor. Critics have understood the author’s decisive break with soft and sentimental Georgian romanticism. All of these hard-edge qualities demonstrated a modern, if not quite Modernist, sensibility. At the same time, however, critics have said little about Frost’s use of the narrative mode itself—surely the book’s most notable feature—probably because it made him seem like a retrograde figure, a poet glancing backward at tradition rather than advancing boldly with his younger contemporaries such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Frost’s commitment to narrative verse (as well as to rhyme and meter) linked him instead to the slightly older Edwin Arlington Robinson. Together they have seemed the two major transitional figures in American poetry between traditional and Modernist aesthetics. Frost may have been recognized as the greater poet—broader in range, more modern in style and outlook. He may have commanded more pages in the anthologies and more sustained critical attention than the perennially neglected Robinson, but inevitably Frost still remained on the far side of the great Modernist fissure.

A nagging question in Frost criticism in the half-century since the author’s death has been where to place him in the larger narrative of American poetry. There has been no question about the magnitude of his achievement. Realizing “the utmost of ambition,” he lodged more than a few poems “where they will be hard to get rid of.” He ranks high on the short list of great American writers. Moreover, he remains one of the few modern poets in English still read, esteemed, and quoted by all types of people from elementary school kids and chaired professors to journalists and politicians. But after Modernism, popularity itself seems suspicious—an attribute associated with Longfellow and Whittier not Pound and Stevens.

Frost’s defenders—from Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, and Louise Bogan in mid-century to such later champions as William Pritchard, Jay Parini, and Mark Richardson—have instinctively supported Frost’s major stature by finding ways to link his work to Modernism. In his controversial speech at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday, Trilling praised the poet’s “ultimate radicalism” and “terrifying” view of cosmic emptiness. Viewed by some guests at the Waldorf Astoria banquet as an affront, these judgments were pure praise from the Partisan Review contributor, making the elderly poet sound like Franz Kafka or Albert Camus. Another strategy has been to demonstrate how richly Frost’s lyric poems respond to the analytical scrutiny conventionally brought to High Modernist texts. Poems such as “Design” or “Directive” have been celebrated for displaying the same complex patterning of sound, imagistic integrity, intertextual richness, provocative ambiguity, and existential alertness as anything by Eliot or Stevens. By contrast, when critics discuss Frost’s narratives, it is mostly for the thematic content—their dark psychology, bleak depiction of isolated rural poverty, and anti-poetic (hence modern) diction—not for their form. Narrative is not presented as central to Frost’s artistic identity since narrative verse is not a point card in the Modernist game.

Narrative poetry, however, does not occupy a secondary position in Frost’s oeuvre, especially in the first half of his career. The majority of verse he published between 1914 and 1928, arguably his most productive and innovative period, was narrative. This remarkable fourteen-year span included North of Boston, Mountain Interval (1916), New Hampshire (1923), and finally West-running Brook (1928). Only in that last volume does the poet’s narrative impulse begin to falter. Despite his mastery of the short lyric, Frost was consistently drawn to longer forms. Until his early fifties, narrative was his expansive mode of choice. (After 1930, the poet shifted to verse drama and verse epistle—what Jarrell dismissed not altogether unfairly as his “Yankee Editorialist side.”) In Frost’s first Collected Poems (1930), the narrative verse from the four collections runs 153 mostly full pages versus only ninety-three mostly half-full pages of lyric and discursive verse.

The narrative mode was not only central to Frost’s imaginative enterprise. It was also the form in which he worked most innovatively, though his remarkable originality has been only partially recognized. To borrow a phrase from his introduction to E. A. Robinson’s King Jasper, Frost had found an “old way to be new” so unobtrusively experimental that most critics and readers missed its sheer originality.

The reason for this neglect is not difficult to discover. The narrative mode, which had stood at the center of traditional poetic expression since Homer, suddenly seemed marginal with the advent of Modernism. Starting with Imagism, the various strains of Anglo-American Modernism celebrated intensity, compression, allusive density, and associational organization—the qualities long related to the lyric mode. Even Modernist “epics,” such as The Cantos or Paterson, eschewed narrative structure to become what are essentially sequences of lyric moments. Of the major American Modernists, only Frost and Robinson Jeffers used narrative as a central form of expression. In both cases the decision complicated their literary legacies. A careful examination of Frost’s narrative work, however, not only demonstrates precisely what he has been habitually denied—a record of bold innovation and originality; it also provides the strongest case for his Modernist identity.

II. Types of Narrative Poetry

“What poem in N. of B. comes nearest in form to the short story?”
—Letter to Lewis N. Chase

Frost’s narrative poems fall quite unevenly into four categories—ballads, linear narratives, dramatic monologues, and dramatic narratives. Although it might strike some as pedantic to categorize and count his narrative poems, the results of such a census are immediately illuminating and useful. The exercise demonstrates the particular nature of his achievement in narrative, which has been poorly understood despite the wealth of Frost criticism.

The first category of Frost’s narratives is ballads, which represent his weakest body of work in the mode. His first five books contain only four narrative ballads—two in A Boy’s Will and two in Mountain Interval. They differ from his other narrative verse not merely in their use of rhyme and stanza, but also in their conventional diction and syntax, which seem traditional to the point of being derivative. Their lack of stylistic individuality is particularly conspicuous in Mountain Interval where neighboring poems, such as “The Road Not Taken” and “Birches” speak in suppler, subtler, and unmistakably Frostian cadences. Meanwhile the language of “Brown’s Descent” sounds stiff and generic.

Brown lived at such a lofty farm
That everyone for miles could see
His lantern when he did his chores
In winter after half past three.

And many must have seen him make
His wild descent from there one night,
’Cross lots, ’cross walls, ’cross everything,
Describing rings of lantern light.

There may be a hint of Frostian phrasing in that last line but not enough to redeem the previous seven. Frost himself admitted in a letter it was “not a good poem,” though it was popular with his early readers. Lacking both the personality and originality of Frost’s narratives in blank verse, the ballads rank among the poet’s most negligible works—demonstrating that even a great poet finds not all forms equally congenial to his genius. Significantly, all but one of the other narrative poems in Frost’s first five books employ blank verse.

The second category of Frost’s narrative poetry is equally traditional—linear narratives composed in blank verse usually told in the third person. The form seems borrowed in equal parts from earlier narrative poetry and the contemporary short story, though more concisely told than in either tradition. However traditional in structure, these poems escape the anachronistic manner of the ballads. Their language is modern and conversational, their tone understated and austere. Perhaps most significantly, they seem hard-edged and realistic rather than soft or idealized. Like the ballads, however, they represent a very small portion of Frost’s narrative work. There are only four such linear narratives in the first five books—“ ‘Out, Out—,’ ” in Mountain Interval, “A Place for a Third” and “Two Look at Two” in New Hampshire, and finally, also in Mountain Interval, “The Vanishing Red,” a brutal and callous tale that is probably Frost’s most controversial poem. (To this quartet, one should probably add “Paul’s Wife,” a rambling tall tale that seems sui generis among the narratives, one not so much linear as spiral in design.) These four poems are all strikingly concise and controlled. “ ‘Out, Out—,’ ” for instance, presents its violent but compassionate and richly observed story in only thirty-four lines, hardly longer than two sonnets. The final seven lines describing the injured boy’s death in simple and understated language—as well as evocative pauses set off by dashes—combine the narrative power of a naturalistic short story with the emotive force of lyric poetry:

The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Appropriately for a poem borrowing its title from Macbeth, Frost’s lines show the flexibility of Shakespeare’s mature blank verse, composed to be spoken on the stage rather than read on a page. “Little—less—nothing! And that ended it”—ten syllables expressively slowed down to evoke a life in collapse. One can hardly think of a better example of Frost’s “imagination of the ear.” Significantly, Frost uses traditional sources to create the essentially Modernist effects of compression, intensity, and ellipsis. Here was a form the poet could both master and transform, and yet seldom used. In Frost’s hands, the form pushed relentlessly toward a specific narrative conclusion—a powerful effect but quite different from the indeterminacy that would become Frost’s signature narrative effect.

Surveying the third category of narrative poems, the dramatic monologues, is especially revelatory. Critics often characterize Frost’s narratives as “monologues,” but the term is usually a misnomer. In the first five books there are only three dramatic monologues—“A Servant to Servants” in North of Boston and “The Pauper Witch of Grafton” and “Wild Grapes” in New Hampshire. In Frost’s formative years, the dramatic monologue had emerged as the leading narrative form. Brilliantly developed by Browning and Tennyson, it provided a narrative strategy that offered both lyric compression and psychological depth of character. Not surprisingly, it became the central narrative form for early twentieth century American poets. Robinson, Pound, Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters, and Conrad Aiken all did major work in the form. Frost’s avoidance of the dramatic monologue cannot be accidental. Unlike the ballad, the monologue was congenial to his talents. “A Servant to Servants,” a dark portrayal of a depressed and exhausted woman on the edge of madness, as Jarrell and Parini have observed, is a poem of memorable intensity. Frost’s hesitation with the form came not from what he could put into it, which was compelling, but from what he couldn’t include.

Frost’s particular innovation in narrative poetry rests precisely on his rejection of the structure of the dramatic monologue, which presents the uninterrupted speech of a character in the presence of a listener (or listeners). Especially in Browning’s model, the presence of this silent auditor creates a dramatic moment that elicits important information about the speaker’s actions and character. Browning and Tennyson perfected the form in part by drawing on the powerful and versatile examples of the Shakespearean and Miltonic monologue, which they removed from any dramatic or narrative context to create an autonomous lyric moment. Consequently, the great Victorian dramatic monologues, such as “Tithonus,” “Ulysses,” “Andrea del Sarto,” or “My Last Duchess,” sustain a rich (sometimes even grandiloquent) verbal texture as well as the subjective sensibility of lyric poems—surely a quality that appealed to Pound and Eliot. For Frost, however, there was too much temptation to let the silent listener join in. In a notebook Frost remarked, “These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.” There is no specific context for this isolated statement, but Frost was almost certainly referring to his own lyric poetry. In his narrative work Frost mostly let the “other part” have its say.

III. The Dramatic Narratives

Everything written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself in form, but it is drama or nothing.
—Preface to A Way Out (1929)

The fourth category of Frost’s narrative work is both the largest and most original. These poems were so innovative in style and structure that even a hundred years later there is no conventional name for Frost’s verse form, which I shall call the dramatic narrative. Written in conversational blank verse (with the sole exception of “Blueberries,” which is in rhymed anapestic couplets), the dramatic narratives combine direct dialogue with minimalist narration usually in the omniscient third person. The dialogue predominates and the narration is strictly descriptive, never offering any overt ​authorial interpretation of the characters or situations. The narration both sets the scene as well as describes the characters’ actions when they are not speaking, just as stage directions would in a realist play. Here is a characteristic example of the narration’s role from “Home Burial”:

‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’

The dramatic narrative is Frost’s characteristic form, and it accounts for over two thirds of his narrative verse—twenty-two of the thirty-two narratives in the four key books. The form reads so naturally that it is easy to miss Frost’s extraordinary inventiveness. In literature when an experimental form entirely succeeds, as for example Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, critics often forget how innovative it was. So has it been with North of Boston. Frost, a failed playwright and short story writer, had learned essential things about telling stories in his struggles with prose and brought those lessons into his poetry with transformative effect.

These dramatic narratives have occasionally been called eclogues in recognition of Frost’s one acknowledged source, Virgil’s lyric pastorals, which the poet discovered while studying Latin at Harvard. The term eclogue, however, is conspicuously inadequate in describing Frost’s specific narrative structure and style, or in suggesting its essential modernity. (Frost explicitly based a later poem, “Build Soil,” on Virgil’s First Eclogue, and the result was utterly different from his dramatic narratives.) The eclogue is a polished poetic conversation or monologue by one or more rustic speakers in an idealized pastoral setting. A lyric form, it characteristically presents neither significant action nor sharply individualized characters, but relies on musicality and linguistic charm. By contrast, Frost’s poems are lean narratives which unfold in conversation by two or more sharply drawn characters in highly realistic settings. They avoid the overt musicality of Virgil or Edmund Spenser. There is also nothing antiquarian about Frost’s dramatic narratives, which are more rooted in realist fiction and theater than in neo-classical pastoral verse.

The confusion over the eclogue suggests a continuing problem with understanding Frost’s narrative work. Unable to connect the narrative mode with conventional Modernist theories, critics have looked backward for precedents. The problem is that historical models don’t suffice. Frost’s narratives, for instance, are habitually linked to Browning’s dramatic monologues, but Frost’s work is more notable for its differences than similarities. Browning’s diction is flamboyant and eclectic. Frost’s language is deliberately plain, indeed quite pure in its austere verisimilitude. Browning borrows historical figures or places imaginary characters in specific historical settings. Frost presents average people in quotidian contemporary settings. Browning’s characters are mostly extravagant souls—artists, philosophers, aristocrats, lunatics—who vent their passions and ideas. Frost presents average people who speak of the habitual challenges of their heavily restricted lives. Even his mentally disturbed characters seem oddly mundane and domestic. Frost also betrays an affinity with the diverse characters he presents. However odd or unlikable, they all belong to his northern Yankee tribe. Finally, the very extravagance of speech and passion in Browning’s characters mandates a form like the dramatic monologue where they can perform without interruption. In contrast, the quotidian quality of Frost’s speakers requires them to be interrupted, questioned, and contradicted in order to reveal their real stories. In addition to Virgil and Browning, critics have also noted similarities to George Crabbe, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and Robinson in these poems, but in seeking historical parallels, they have missed the sheer novelty of Frost’s form.

To put the matter simply, there is no exact precedent in English verse for Frost’s dramatic narratives. Compare their style and structure to the narrative verse of Crabbe, Wordsworth, Browning, Hardy, and Robinson as well as other major narrative poets of Frost’s formative years—Longfellow, Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Bret Harte—and his originality is immediately apparent. Frost’s dramatic narratives are more concise, realistic, understated, and dialectical than any available model. Their combination of minimalist narration and direct dialogue with authorial neutrality is something tangibly new in narrative verse. In this sense, North of Boston must be seen as a Modernist endeavor, an experimental enterprise as innovative as Harmonium or White Buildings, and a work all the more interesting because it predates the more celebrated examples of American Modernist poetry.

Although Frost’s dramatic narrative verse form was new, many of its components—dialogue, blank verse, descriptive narration, dramatic conflict, unity of place and action, and naturalistic speech—were traditional. Drawing as much from the prose traditions of fiction and drama as from poetry, Frost combined them with novel elements to create a distinctively modern form. To understand the complexity of what seems like a simple and direct narrative form, it is essential to list their component elements, both for what Frost omits as for what he includes.

The first notable aspect of the dramatic narratives is their lack of traditional poetic musicality. They are, with the exception of “Blueberries,” all written in blank verse. Unrhymed, with no stanzaic patterns, they eschew the word music and auditory patterns of repetition typical of Browning or Longfellow. There is the steady metrical beat of iambic pentameter, but rather than overlay it with conventional lyric effects, Frost counterpoints it with “the sound of sense.” This famous concept, which Frost explained to John Bartlett in 1913, refers to the vital spoken sound of English syntax, “[t]he simple declarative sentence used in making a plain statement.” Of course, English-language poets had been contrasting metrical and speech patterns since Elizabethan blank verse. What makes Frost’s method distinctive is that he eliminates most of the other poetic devices to make the counterpoint between syntax and meter more audible. The result is a poetic language very close to everyday spoken English but slightly heightened by the iambic beat.

The effect is further intensified by the plain diction of the poems. As Frost bragged, they employ “language absolutely unliterary.” Frost never condescends to his characters; the country people who inhabit the poems speak plainly but clearly and usually with genuine insight. Since the dramatic narratives consist mostly of dialogue, the realistic use of rural vernacular gives the poems the texture of short plays. Frost’s form and diction also underscore an important quality of his characters—their initial reticence. His characters often have difficulty in adequately expressing their thoughts and feelings. They are also often reluctant to reveal their fears and desires without being questioned or challenged. Only as the poems progress, do the characters begin to explain themselves adequately. In the process they often say the wrong thing. As the desperate husband in “Home Burial” tells his angry and grief-stricken wife:

My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.

Most significantly, the dramatic narratives consist mostly of dialogue usually spoken in a single location—like one-act plays framed by stage directions. The narrative line moves forward dialectically as the characters, usually only two or three figures, converse, argue, cajole, rebuke, and confide. The plot and the dramatic situation are nearly always inseparable—the grieving couple arguing in “Home Burial” or the husband and his terrified wife in “The Fear.” Frost’s focus is mostly on the inner lives of the characters. What would constitute the plot line in a conventional narrative is often left unresolved. Frost’s dramatic narratives mostly just end rather than conclude. The dialogue in “The Mountain” ends in mid-sentence when the farmer moves out of earshot. “The Housekeeper” stops when the old woman insults the hapless middle-aged farmer whose wife ran off, “Who wants to hear your news, you—dreadful fool?” The reader never learns the news. “The Fear” ends as the terrified woman cries for her husband, but he doesn’t answer.

[‘]You understand that we have to be careful.
This is a very, very lonely place.
Joel!’ She spoke as if she couldn’t turn.
The swinging lantern lengthened to the ground,
It touched, it struck, it clattered and went out.

The danger of such a minimalist style is that it can become prosaic. Poetry, even plainspoken narrative verse, needs to intensify language beyond its normal state. Without most traditional poetic devices, Frost employs the essential Modernist techniques of fragmentation, ellipsis, and juxtaposition. Notice how the end of “Home Burial” takes plain statements and almost fragmentary syntax and fills them with emotional resonance by hammering the speech rhythms over the meters and pushing one statement against another.

‘You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you—’

‘If—you—do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—’

Frost developed and indeed perfected the technique of the dramatic narrative in 1914—before Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Cathay (1915), Harmonium (1923), Spring and All (1923), or Tamar (1924). North of Boston stands as one of the first fully achieved Modernist masterpieces in American poetry. More provocatively, it also precedes by a decade Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), whose narrative style, element by element, Frost’s volume curiously prefigures. Hemingway, who began as a poet as well as a fiction writer, shared Frost’s friendship with Pound. Whether or not Frost had any influence on Hemingway’s celebrated prose style, however, matters less than the simple observation that if Hemingway’s terse, elliptical, understated, dialogue-driven, and minimalist early fiction is considered Modernist, it is time to reevaluate Frost’s equally innovative work in narrative poetry.

IV. Frost’s Narrative Legacy

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence.
—“The Road Not Taken”

One conventional measure of a poet’s importance is the impact he or she has on later writers and through them on the art of poetry. The huge impact of Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Stevens on subsequent writers, for example, is an established fact of literary history. Although Frost has never lacked admirers, his direct influence on later poets has appeared minimal, limited mostly to a few poets with significant ties to New England such as Robert Francis, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, and Timothy Steele. None of these poets have focused on the narrative verse. Joseph Moncure March (1899–1977) studied with Frost at Amherst and wrote two highly successful jazz-age verse narratives, The Wild Party (1928) and The Set-Up (1928), before decamping for Hollywood to help invent the talkies. March’s flashy staccato, slangy verse, and his louche urban settings full of booze, sex, and violence, however, show no trace of his teacher’s influences. Frost’s modest impact on subsequent poets has seemed mostly confined to the New England pastoral lyric.

Narrative was the road not taken for Modernism, and Frost’s powerful examples were ignored by the few poets who did major work in the narrative mode. Significantly, these poets avoided the two most characteristic elements of Frost’s narrative work—the mid-length narrative and blank verse. Robinson Jeffers created long narrative works in loose accentual lines patterned after classical hexameter. Joseph Moncure March wrote book-length poems in rhymed verse libre. Archibald MacLeish’s epic, Conquistador (1932), used a loose accentual version of terza rima. Robert Lowell’s book-length The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) is in heroic couplets. Elizabeth Bishop’s short “The Burglar of Babylon” (1965) is in ballad stanzas. Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” (1962) contains blank verse only in a mix of other meters and free verse. James Dickey wrote short narratives in loose three-beat lines. Louis Simpson specialized in short narratives but almost always used free verse. James Merrill seriously explored the narrative mode, but he characteristically rhymed the poems. When he did employ blank verse, as in much of his culture epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, his style was cosmopolitan, intellectual, and ornate (as indeed were his characters)—the very antithesis of North of Boston. The blank verse narrative seemed reserved mostly for the dramatic monologues of mid-century formalists such as Jarrell, Wilbur, and Anthony Hecht.

Then, in the 1980s, just when it would have been safe to declare the matter of Frost’s narrative influence dead, something unexpected happened. A new generation of American poets began to revive verse narrative, and they chose Frost as their chief model. Born seventy years after Frost and steeped in Modernism, they felt that he had opened up possibilities for a contemporary style of narrative poetry that had never been exploited. They admired both Frost’s technique (blank verse, conversational tone, understated diction, direct dialogue) and his powerfully psychological characterizations. “The New Narrative” became one of the signature movements of the period, and a significant group of young poets emerged, including David Mason, Andrew Hudgins, Mark Jarman, Marilyn Nelson, Sydney Lea, Robert McDowell, and Christian Wiman. All explored the Frostian narrative tradition—often in strikingly different ways. Some of their poems, set in rural locations, such as Lea’s “The Feud,” McDowell’s “The Pact,” and Wiman’s “The Long Home,” pay deliberate homage to their master. Others set in urban or suburban milieu adopt Frost’s techniques to new subject matter. His approach proved both fresh and flexible—​a rich vein of Modernism that had remained untouched. Today it is Frost’s narrative poetry that exerts the strongest influence on contemporary writers. Sometimes influence skips a generation or two, but then, as way leads onto way, poetry explores a road not taken.

First published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2013