“Too many poets delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well, the mind is dangerous, and must be left in.” — Robert Frost

“[The poem] begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” – Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”

It’s Frost’s birthday today.

I’m with Lionel Trilling. I have always thought Robert Frost was dark as hell. He’s become so “acceptable” his poems could hang on the wall in a cross-stitch pattern. And maybe, yeah, some of his poems have an almost cheery homespun tone, but “homespun wisdom” is not what moves me about his work. His “philosophy” is present, you can feel it … but somehow (maybe because I’m a depressed person?) I feel his philosophy is a defense against chaos. Which, maybe most philosophy is. But I don’t feel like people talk about Frost that way. He “goes there” in his poems: his awareness of death, of the other world beyond, of events we can’t understand … and then he usually wraps things up with a bit of wisdom, an aphorism, a two-line ending that seems to say everything is going to be okay, or at LEAST: “we understand the world we live in”. Well, okay. But I can’t forget the rest of the poem, where he hears the quietness of the house around him, or his awareness of how things could get prickly with his neighbor across the way, or where he knows the long journey ahead of him before he will arrive home. Or that the road not taken really isn’t all that different from the road he took.

What does all this mean?

What I get is the sense of Frost erecting a defense against the madness of not choosing. He is the type of man who makes a decision and then erects all the justifications and reasons afterwards. He looks back on the “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” – and what is NOT said is (for me) the most obvious: What if you contemplate the possibility that the other road was actually better? Well, therein lies chaos and upset.

The uneasy tension in something like “Road Not Taken” – the feeling present that he’s being so certain about the rightness of his choice because he is afraid to look at the alternative – makes Frost very different than his reputation would suggest. Frost puts this tension into all of his poems.

He said he didn’t like big idea poems, or he didn’t like there to be big ideas without actual objects (dirt and shovels and turnips). He was fully aware of what he was doing: “saying one thing and meaning another”.

His life is a mixture of great joy, determination, lackadaisacal indecision (he dropped out of college multiple times) and unbelievable tragedy. The mid-30s was a series of tragic events: his daughter and his wife died in quick succession. In 1940, his son committed suicide and then in 1947 his daughter had a breakdown and was put into an institution. Horrifying. Just reading the bare bones of those events makes me shiver. Not to mention WWII exploding. It must have been unbearable for him.

He won the Pulitzer four times. He was born in the 19th century and he read a poem at the inauguration of President Kennedy.

Because Frost is so casually quoted, by high-brow and low-brow, by college professors and wall hangings … I went back and re-read a lot of his stuff as an adult. I felt I wanted to re-encounter it. I knew many of his poems by heart because, of course. I mean, a generation of kids – two, three generations! – raised on The Outsiders can recite “Nothing gold can stay.”

It was well worth the trouble to re-read Frost’s poems. As a New Englander, his landscape and cadences and weather are all as familiar to me as my own neighborhood at home. I love his local-ness, but I love the complexity hidden beneath the folksiness, the confusion underneath the too-easy truths spouted forth. I mean, “The Birches,” people, the birches.


When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

In that poem I feel a poet needing to assert his truth, not because he knows it is true, but because he fears it is not true. And “that has made all the difference” in how I read him.

I love this poem. It is not what it seems to be. He’s just picking apples, right? But … look at where the poem goes.

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

And finally, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Frost wrote the poem in June, when the weather was, to put it mildly, not wintry. The poem was not at all an immediate response to the immediate environment. He had had a sleepless night the night before, working on a longer piece which was giving him a lot of trouble (eventually “New Hampshire”). He stayed up all night, struggling with the poem, finishing around dawn. He got it to a point where he was pleased. And when he looked up, back aching, coming back to the real world, he realized the sun had come up. He had never stayed up all night with a poem before, so there was a sense of novelty in the experience. He was happy, and walked outside to watch the sun come up. As the sun rose, he suddenly felt an idea come – a new idea – and the sensation was so urgent he rushed back inside, sat down, and wrote “Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening” in about 3 minutes. He said later that he wrote the poem almost without lifting the pen off the page. He compared the feeling later to a “hallucination”.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


Robert Frost, “Education by Poetry”:

Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, ‘Why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections–whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

Poets frequently identify more with one trope than with the others. Among major American poets, Robert Frost (despite his mass reputation) favors irony, while Walt Whitman is the great master of synecdoche.

Marianne Moore:

If emotion is strong enough, the words are unambiguous. Someone asked Robert Frost (is that right?) if he was selective. He said, Call it passionate preference. Must a man be good to write good poems? The villains in Shakespeare are not illiterate, are they? But rectitude has a ring that is implicative, I would say. And with no integrity, a man is not likely to write the kind of book I read.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Robert Frost had long admired Yeats, and while Frost was living in England from 1912 to 1915, Pound introduced the two poets. During this time, Frost also met the leading Imagists and Georgians, and he befriended Edward Thomas and persuaded him to write poetry. In England, Frost found his first sympathetic audience and published his first two books, in 1913 and 1914, but because of the war, he returned to the United States. Traces of Georgian tendencies can be found in his work, but Frost renewed pastoral by toughening it. When he returned from England, he bought a farm in New Hampshire and consolidated his reputation as American’s greatest pastoral poet. On the one hand, he tapped the seasoned country wisdom of New England; on the other, he converted his self-disgust and loneliness into verses of classical Roman dignity phrased in the accents of New Hampshire and Vermont. Tormented and lonely men and women, “stiff and sore and scarred,” often speak his dramatic monologues, experiencing “hurt” that their homely folk wisdom cannot assuage: “Now no joy but lacks salt / That is not dashed with pain / And weariness and fault” (“To Earthward”). Though he little resembles the polyglot, craggily allusive high modernists, he too shifts mercurially in tone and complicates poetry with undercurrents of rhythms half heard and meanings half spoken.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Robert Frost was an extraordinary American phenomenon: a great poet who was also immensely popular. Though he exulted in his fame, he was also wary of the audience’s effect upon his art. He learned to write between the lines (as it were) and became a subtle master, far more difficult than he appears to be.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Frost’s biography is a contradictory story, the generous man and the selfish, the jealous and the loving. The craggy old man, windswept, reading a poem at the inauguration of President Kennedy, the nation’s favorite poet, and the man who lived the real life and wrote the letters as well as the poems, hardly seem to coincide.

Ezra Pound:

I don’t know whether it is his own or whether it is a gem that he collected, but at any rate one of the things Frost said in London in 19–whenever it was — 1912, was this: “Summary of prayer: ‘Oh God, pay attention to me.'”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

I remember Robert Frost, at one of his readings, starting off by reciting Shirley’s “Dirge” from memory, remarking that it was a favorite poem.

Robert Lowell:

“I’d gone to call on Frost with a huge epic on the First Crusade, all written out in clumsy longhand on lined paper. He read a page of that and said, You have no compression. Then he read me a very short poem of Collins, ‘How Sleep the Brave,’ and said, That’s not a great poem, but it’s not too long. He was very kindly about it. You know his point about the voice coming into poetry: he took a very unusual example of that, the opening of Hyperion – the line about the Naiad, something about her pressing a cold finger to her cold lips, which wouldn’t seem like a voice passage at all. And he said, Now Keats comes alive here. That was a revelation to me; what had impressed me was the big Miltonic imitation in Hyperion. I don’t know what I did with that, but I recoiled and realized that I was diffuse and monotonous.”

Robert Frost on writing free verse, 1956:

I’d just as soon play tennis with the net down.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Many American poets have sought to embrace all of America. What attracts them is perhaps that the country is so large, sprawling, and hard to handle. This grandiose sensuality goes back to Walt Whitman, who wrote, “I embrace multitudes.” In the twentieth century, America’s chief lovers included William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. For both, America seemed a center of intense, multifarious feelings. They differ from regionalists, such as Edgar Lee Masters and Robert Frost, whose relations even to their regions were more ambiguous.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, June 25, 1961:

I had read some of the [Paris Review] interview with Frost which was chiefly interesting for the way he didn’t answer the questions but turned them into speeches about his own poems and how good they are.

Jorge Luis Borges:

“If you don’t mind my saying so, I think Frost is a finer poet than Eliot. I mean, a finer poet. But I suppose Eliot was a far more intelligent man; however, intelligence has little to do with poetry. Poetry springs from something deeper; it’s beyond intelligence. It may not even be linked with wisdom. It’s a thing of its own; it has a nature of its own. Undefniable.

Michael Schmidt:

Frost’s rural characters have prejudices but no traditions – they seem without roots in their landscape.

Robert Lowell, obituary for Frost, New York Review of Books, February, 1963:

Randall Jarrell has a fine phrase about Frost’s “matter-of-fact magnificence.” He writes that the poems’ subjects are isolation, extinction, and the learning of human limitation. These three themes combine, I think, in a single main theme, that of a man moving through the formless, the lawless and the free, of moving into snow, air, ocean, waste, despair, death, and madness. When the limits are reached, and sometimes almost passed, the man returns.

Marianne Moore:

Shouldn’t we replace vanity with honesty, as Robert Frost recommends?

Ezra Pound

A man who fits in his milieu as Frost does, he is to be considered a happy man.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1962:

I think it would be a good idea to have mimeographed copies of the poems you speak of, to hand out…In general [the Brazilians] know Frost and Millay and E. Dickinson–Pound, Cummings–And Eliot, well.–He has been a great influence on some of them, like Vinicius de Moraes, in his early books (The “Black Orpheus” poet). (D. Thomas–yes–but they don’t really understand him.) Wallace Stevens, vaguely, and Marianne not at all–at least until I got here, and I certainly have done very little propagandizing.

Robert Frost:

The best way out is always through.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Poetic implication became his characteristic mode. “The Oven Bird” gives us Frost’s surrogate, a builder of an oven-shaped nest, also known as “the teacher bird.”

Michael Schmidt:

Frost, in his grasp of his vocation, is the purest of the heirs of Walt Whitman. He has lost the glow of optimism that marks Whitman, he lives in a declining century, but he retains unalloyed his patriotism and his sense of commonwealth. Whitman had personal secrets, and so did Frost, who fostered a public image of himself as the sage, goodhearted farmer-poet. He was more than that, brighter and darker in his heart.

Robert Frost on poet Edward Thomas, killed in WWI:

Who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word?

Edward Thomas on Robert Frost, reviewing 1914’s North of Boston:

This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive. It speaks, and it is poetry.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Frost, like the later Emerson of The Conduct of Life, makes a cosmos of a reductive or nihilistic vision.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, February 10, 1963:

I suppose you have read about Frost’s death, though we, through the absence of New York papers, had to be told by telephone. He has been much with me. I’ve written a short piece on him for a new review (guided by us which will be a sort of intelligent New York Times section), talked on television, re-read quantities and talked on him to my classes at Harvard. Walking by his house in Cambridge last Thanksgiving, I thought with some shame about how wrong I was to be bothered by his notoriety and showing off. Under the great display, the life was really very bounded and simple. Pound’s daughter was here … She saw Frost the day before he died. “I wanted him to know that some one who loved Father didn’t have bad manners.” Frost said that he loved Ezra and hoped to see him in Venice, where he now is in a rather better state.

Robert Frost:

Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, ‘Why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections – whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

Michael Schmidt:

[Frost] has read Hardy, but his poems are more regular than his. He has read Arnold, but his spirit is less philosophical. He has read de la Mere, but his verse is more real than his.

Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes” (the whole thing is excellent: read here):

For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may Want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.

Christopher Benfey, “The Storm over Robert Frost”, The New York Review of Books:

Lionel Trilling shocked the guests at a dinner celebrating Robert Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during the spring of 1959, by suggesting in prepared remarks that Frost, everyone’s favorite genial Yankee uncle, was a “terrifying poet.” Trilling claimed that the Frost he admired expressed “the terrible actualities of life,” and was different from “the Frost who reassures us by his affirmations of old virtues, simplicities, pieties, and ways of feeling.” According to Trilling, the sunbathers looking out to sea in Frost’s apparently anodyne “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”—

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

—were in fact confronting “the empty immensity of the universe.”

Sensing perhaps some resistance among the guests to his portrait of Frost as existential philosopher, Trilling left the party early, and later apologized for possible hurt feelings. Frost told him not to worry. “You made my birthday party a surprise party,” he wrote.

Octavio Paz, on visiting Frost:

With his white shirt open – is there anything cleaner than a clean white shirt? — his blue eyes innocent, ironic, his philosopher’s head and his farmer’s hands, he looked like an ancient sage, the kind who prefers to observe the world from his retreat. But there was nothing ascetic in his looks, rather a manly sobriety.

Wallace Stevens:

His work is full (or said to be full) of humanity.

Edward Thomas, review of North of Boston:

The poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric [and] poetical words and forms… Many, if not most, of the separate lines and separate sentences are plain, and, in themselves, nothing. But they are bound together and made elements of beauty in a calm eagerness of emotion.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

For all his irony, teasing, and quizzical understatement, Frost is different from other poets who practice indirection. He is countrified where Wallace Stevens is not; he is conclusive where William Carlos Williams is not. Unlike Yeats and Eliot, he has almost nothing to say in prose, whether from guardedness or economy, except for some aphoristic statements. Aside from long meditative poems and two masques, he wrote only lyrics. Although no poet need do more than Frost did, and few can do so much, he presents, in comparison with other eminent writers of his time, an impressive example of reserve or holding back in genre, diction, theme, and even philosophy. This at times bitter man left his readers poems that they quite simply love; and to love a poem by Frost is to begin, at each rereading of a poem, to hear a voice that does not set aside its task before that task has been performed.

Michael Schmidt on “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

It is easy at one level, but once you are inside, the world it makes is full of sinister shadows, unredeemed, unforgiving.

Thanks, Robert Frost
by David Ray

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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5 Responses to “Too many poets delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well, the mind is dangerous, and must be left in.” — Robert Frost

  1. david says:

    This post is a beautiful resource and teaches much about Frost and poetry. Glad for all your posts.

    • sheila says:

      David – thanks so much. It’s been fun building out my poetry archive – never wrote about him before, and in the process figured out I had some shit to say!!

  2. Aslan's Own says:

    I enjoyed this so much! (I’m from New England too.) Loved your insights and the sharing of the quotes from Frost and others about Frost.

    I was interested in how the David Ray poem reflected the idea of looking back at the past, the way the poem “The Road Not Taken” also does, trying to find hope and peace when looking back. (“There’ll be peace when you are done.”)

    “After Apple Picking” leaves me almost dizzy, hazy, as if cut off from life even while observing it. And “Out, Out –” – so tragic and understated with the end so bluntly practical, which makes it all the more heart-breaking.

    I couldn’t remember the title. I just googled “Buzz Robert Frost” and there it was, with its reflection of Shakespearean tragedy (I watched the Michael Fassbender version of Macbeth recently and was struck at how the filmmaker used children as a motif – and this poem is about a child), its imagery of a beautiful, flickering candle snuffed out.

    “The buzz saw snarled and rattled.” And another New Englander – “I heard a fly buzz when I died” and now I’m thinking of New Hampshire cemeteries and the quiet acceptance of the dead waiting there. I am half-drunk on poetry right now.

    • sheila says:

      // “After Apple Picking” leaves me almost dizzy, hazy, as if cut off from life even while observing it. //

      I know!!

      // “I heard a fly buzz when I died” and now I’m thinking of New Hampshire cemeteries and the quiet acceptance of the dead waiting there. I am half-drunk on poetry right now. //

      I love how one thing leads to another. Like these dead poets are talking to each other.

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