Robert Frost and the “Thrill of Sincerity”: Notes on “Home Burial”
N.B., February 22, 2014: The first part of the following entry appeared here four years ago; I add to it now a second part, devoted entirely to “Home Burial,” which is fitting in this, the centennial year of North of Boston (1914). The whole of the entry derives from a disorderly talk I was lucky enough to give at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, in 2008 (and to The Friends of Robert Frost, there, I’m indebted).
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Most readers place the often-taught (because ubiquitously-anthologized) “Home Burial” among Frost’s most remarkable achievements in making literary art out of “sentence sounds,” as he called them: the sounds of animated speech, in all its changeable tones (from under- to overstatement; from the subtlest irony to the bluntest sarcasm; anger; surprise; teasing and flirtation; anguish; fear; queryings both closed and open; and so on, if not into infinity, then certainly into the human). Here, I assume some familiarity with the poem. (The text is readily available via the link laid in above.)
Frost composed “Home Burial” in England at precisely the time when he was composing also a remarkable series of letters, dating from mid-1913 to 1914 (though also beyond), outlining his interest in what he called, variously, “the abstract vitality of our speech”; “the sound of sense”; “the intonation [of the voice] entangled somehow in the syntax, idiom and meaning of a sentence”; “sound postures”; or “real cave things” in the “cave of the mouth” that “were before words were.” “Home Burial,” in addition to being a poem composed almost entirely out of talk—that is, out of those “real cave things” that inhabit the cave of the mouth—is also in some sense about the possibility of “talk,” about the outer limits of talk. It’s a poem about the limits (moral and sympathetic) of a husband, the father of a dead child, who stands accused not merely of thinking that “the talk is all,” but of living as if it were—even in the face of his own child’s death. The possibilities in this for a vocational parable of some kind are hard to mistake, as I see it anyway.
What distinguishes a man like the one in “Home Burial”—who stands accused by a grieving and aggrieved wife of “thinking the talk is all,” even unto the point of heartlessness—from a man (a poet, say) who concedes, as Frost did in a 1915 letter, that “his conscious interest in people was at first no more than an almost technical interest in their speech”? What distinguishes a man who “thinks the talk is all” from a man (a poet, say) who, above all things, likes his talk “fixed to the page” with all the “body heat” out of it (which is to say, all of the confessional, and personal, sincerity out of it)?
A merely “technical interest” in the speech of men and women may, let’s suppose, abstract a man from his fellows—may withdraw him from them at one or two removes. Some such retrospective worry doubtless accounts for the beguiling, apologetic air with which Frost describes this youthful tendency of his in the aforementioned 1915 letter, addressed to William Stanley Braithwaite, editor, at the time, of the literary pages of the Boston Evening Transcript. I have in mind not merely Frost’s teasing impeachments of himself, as when he reports to the genteel Bostonian, with easy confidence, that A Boy’s Will (1913), his first book, “is an expression of my life for the ten years from eighteen on when I thought I greatly preferred stocks and stones to people.” I have in mind also this engaging confession:
I say all this biographically to lead up to Book II (North of Boston). There came a day about ten years ago when I made the discovery that though sequestered I wasn’t living without reference to other people. Right on top of that I made the discovery in doing The Death of the Hired Man that I was interested in neighbors for more than merely their tones of speech—and always had been. I remember about when I began to suspect myself of liking their gossip for its own sake. I justified myself by the example of Napoleon as recently I have had to justify myself in seasickness by the example of Nelson. I like the actuality of gossip, the intimacy of it. Say what you will effects of actuality and intimacy are the greatest aim an artist can have.
These remarkable sentences merit close attention. But first I’ll address the allusion to Napoleon; it’s cunning in the way Frost’s allusions often are, given that the letter playfully mocks the poet’s youthful pose of misanthropy, the merely instrumental relation he purports to have entertained to his neighbors as a literary artist, and his Napoleonic ambition to “measure his strength,” as he says elsewhere in the letter, “against all creation.” Frost likely has in mind Emerson’s essay on Napoleon in Representative Men, and I take a brief look at it here because it associates Napoleon’s interest in gossip with all kinds of behaviors (manipulative, ambitious, secretive) that Frost comically adopts—and winks at even as he adopts—in the letter to Braithwaite. “Bonaparte was singularly destitute of generous sentiments,” Emerson says. “He is a boundless liar. The official paper, his ‘Moniteurs,’ and all his bulletins, are proverbs for saying what he wished to be believed.” In addition to everything else he is attempting to do in the letter, Frost is enlisting the literary pages of the Boston Transcript to propagate what he “wished to be believed” about him and his first two volumes of poetry. If ever a poet wrote with the “theatrical éclat” Emerson ascribes to Napoleon, Frost does in this letter to Braithwaite—and does so, in fact, precisely with a roguishly charming allusion to Napoleon.
But there is more of interest in that essay from Representative Men: “[Napoleon] has a passion for stage effect,” Emerson says. “Every action that breathes of generosity is poisoned by this calculation. He was thoroughly unscrupulous. He would steal, slander, assassinate, drown, and poison, as his interest dictated. He had no generosity; but mere vulgar hatred; he was intensely selfish; he was perfidious; he cheated at cards; he was a prodigious gossip; and opened letters; and delighted in his infamous police; and rubbed his hands with joy when he had intercepted some morsel of intelligence concerning the men and women about him, boasting that ‘he knew everything.’”
“In short,” Emerson concludes, “when you have penetrated through all the circles of power and splendor, you were not dealing with a gentleman, at last; but with an impostor and a rogue; and he fully deserves the epithet of Jupiter Scapin, or a kind of Scamp Jupiter” (the epithet was first applied to Napoleon by his secretary Abbé de Pradt, who borrowed it from the name bestowed on the valet in Molière’s comedy, Les Fourberies de Scapin). I have no way of knowing what Braithwaite made of Frost’s allusion to Napoleon in that 1915 letter. I can hardly be certain Frost was inviting him, or anybody else, to recall what Emerson said of the Little Giant. But anyone at all acquainted with Lawrance Thompson’s biography of Frost can see where the poet’s talk of “justifying” himself “by the example” of Napoleon might lead an ungenerous (and tone-deaf) reader like Thompson;—especially if, as Thompson was, a reader who knew Emerson. Letters of the kind we are reading, here, are precisely what led Thompson to paint his portrait of The Poet as Scamp Jupiter in the second volume of his perniciously iconoclastic three-volume biography of Frost—as a poet who (to borrow Emerson’s words) “pulled the ears and whiskers of men”; who was “a prodigious gossip”; an impostor and a rogue “who rubbed his hands with joy when he had intercepted some morsel of intelligence concerning the men and women about him”; a poet whose chief aim in life was to “dazzle and astonish” (“I only go / When I’m the show,” Frost often said); who felt instinctively that if he were “to give the liberty of the press” his “power could not last three days”; a poet and a man whose “passion for stage effect” meant that his every generosity was “poisoned” by “calculation.” As it happens, Thompson saw in his own reading of the letter to Braithwaite a perfect instance of all of this: a poet’s cynical courtship of an influential literary editor well situated to advance his Napoleonic ambitions, as Frost mischievously puts it in the letter, to “measure” (again) “his strength” if not against “all creation” than at least against all the other poets vying for notice in the pages of The Boston Evening Transcript in 1915. Thompson calls the letter to Braithwaite “a thoroughly successful campaign strategy.” The biographer thought he found the “poison of calculation” tainting most all the letters Frost addressed, with notably winning ease and charm, to editors, anthologists, and critics on his return to the United States in 1915.
But Thompson misses the point: Frost’s “calculations” are entirely above-board, and most winningly charming. Letters such as the one to Braithwaite invite their recipients—Braithwaite, Louis Untermeyer, Sidney Cox, John Bartlett, and others—into complicity in what is not simply a “campaign” to advance one poet’s career, but a knowing parody of the “campaigns” poets are forever on to advance their careers and to cut a figure.
The 1915 letter inasmuch as says to Braithwaite:
Here I am, a freshly minted poet—a poet hailed already as among the two or three most promising to have emerged from America in a generation. Here I am, giving you, a literary journalist, the straight dope on how the last twenty years of my life are to be “measured against all creation.” How about it?
I doubt Braithwaite felt he was being used, or that Frost was using the pages of the Transcript as Napoleon used the pages of the Moniteur. We have no reason to suspect Braithwaite of a being so dull a reader as not to the see the mischief in a poet who “justified” himself, in a single sentence, with reference both to Napoleon and to Nelson (the admiral who defeated Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar).
And yet there is a certain wiliness in the letter, though of a “theoretical” kind. The narrative it lays out is not what it appears to be—and this fact Braithwaite may not have discerned. How much does an interest in gossip “for its own sake”—that is, for the sake of what is said—really differ from a “technical” interest in gossip for the “tones of speech” it “somehow entangles” in its “syntax, idiom, and meaning”? The question is the more intriguing given that Frost’s Napoleonic interest in poetry is not, in fact, an interest in “gossip” per se, but instead in “effects” approximating the “actuality” of gossip. We arrive at the point, here, where theme and technique merge—the point where the “subject” and the “enterprise” of poetry merge; the point where what the poem concerns and how the poem works amount to the same thing; the point where the “subject matter” of a poem becomes merely one more resource for making it sound as different from every poem ever written (to borrow Frost’s way of putting it in “The Figure a Poem Makes”).
I’ll venture a suggestion. Not much separates Frost’s youthful interest in his neighbors “merely” for “their tones of speech” from his mature interest in “effects” that approach the “actuality” of their “gossip.” I don’t think I’m picking nits, here. On the account given in the letter to Braithwaite, Frost’s interest in his neighbors’ talk was as vocationally instrumental (so to speak) as Napoleon’s ever was. The difference is that no Russians, no Britons, and no Frenchmen, ever died because of it. In short, the letter to Braithwaite outlines not so much a development or progression in Frost’s life as an artist—though that is what it first appears to do—as it describes a sophistication of his life as an artist. Which makes it harder, at first anyway, to understand the story he tells about this poet who matures out of a “great preference” for solitude—this poet who was fugitive from a world that seemed to him to disallow him—into a love of, and a delight in, communion. The poet’s vocational investment in his fellows never really alters. The talk is still all. Frost had found, in his art, a way to reconcile the imperative of solitude with the experience of communion, or of “correspondence,” as he calls it in his “Introduction” to E.A. Robinson‘s King Jasper. He would live not so much with people as not without reference to them. He would have it both ways. He would fold his subject matter into his form.
The narrative Frost tells in the letter to Braithwaite is one he would retell, all differences allowed for, twenty-four years later in “The Figure a Poem Makes.” “Abstraction is an old story with the philosophers,” Frost says in that essay. “But it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day”:
Why can’t we have any one quality of poetry we choose by itself? We can have in thought. Then it will go hard if we can’t in practice. Our lives for it. Granted no one but a humanist much cares how sound a poem is if it is only a sound. The sound is the gold in the ore. Then we will have the sound out alone and dispense with the inessential. We do till we make the discovery that the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, meter are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety.
In the letter to Braithwaite, Frost makes his youthful self out to have been an “abstractionist” who toyed with a merely “technical interest” in speech—an interest merely in the “abstract vitality” of speech. He wanted to have the sound of it out alone and dispense with the inessential. And it fared with him as it does with the abstractionist in “The Figure a Poem Makes”: he ran smack up against the fact that he could never have his “sentence sounds” out alone, abstracted. He discovered, at last, an interest in talk for “its own sake,” as against talk merely as a medium for “the sound of sense.” The idea, I take it, is as follows. We can’t make good talk—we can’t make good gossip—about nothing; we must have the help of context, meaning, subject matter. And yet “meaning” and “subject matter” are never the end of any poem we might make out of talk. They are instead one of its best means toward “variety” in sound—that is, given the relative poverty (in English) of harmonized vowels and consonants, metrical variation, rhyme, and so on. Frost never repudiated his commitment to what he called “the abstract vitality of our speech”—his commitment to “pure sound” and to “pure form.” But he acknowledged, he accounted for, the necessary impurity of meaning, of talk “for its own sake,” if he were to realize the kind of art he wanted to make in North of Boston. As he says in the letter to Braithwaite, he “liked people,” and needed them, “even when [he] believed [he] detested them.” No poet, no literary artist, whose aesthetic demands that all poems “sound different” from one another can sequester himself from the world.
Frost’s almost technical interest in the talk of his neighbors (here’s the essential point) led him into a larger kind of communion: an “intimately impersonal” communion (so to speak); a communion in which he might retain his fugitive sequestration; a communion that might replace the too intimately personal one he forsook as “fugitive” from a world that “disallowed” him. In short, a communion with and through the common repertory of the “brute sounds” we men and women make—the sounds we’ve made in “the caves of our mouths” since “before words were.” In speaking of an “intimately impersonal” communion, I have in mind something that Margery Sabin, in a brilliant essay published in Raritan, describes better than I so far have: “a life-force more than personal, more than private, and more than socially conventional—a force of human life, transmitted over time and from person to person through the intonations of a given language.” Frost wanted to believe, says Sabin, “that human vitality takes on a supra-personal existence in the established intonations of speech, intonations which the individual may draw on for personal expression and, perhaps even more important, for the reassuring recognition that his single life is connected to other lives. The connection need not have anything to do with love or sympathy.” That latter point is what I would stress here. The “connection” in question instead “invokes, more radically, the shared possession of a repertory of gestures that is the sign of a common range of human experience. What Frost calls ‘the abstract vitality of our speech’ gives reassurance that the life within us in not eccentric or monstrous. It ceases to be monstrous once it participates in the verbal forms through which other people also enact their lives.” I think Sabin is right about this—more perceptive, in fact, than any other person who has put pen to paper on the subject. This is where Frost sought his refuge as fugitive from a world that disallowed him. And it is what brought him back, in thought and in vocation, to the world he never left: communion through a medium that is not personal but “supra-personal,” a medium that need have nothing to do with intimacy or sincerity—with love or even sympathy—but which instead has everything to do with being “human.” His vocational commitment to the sound of sense was at once his abstraction from community and his substantiation in it. His vocational commitment to the sound of sense allowed him to be both fugitive and available.†
In this Frost is like the husband in “Home Burial,” who says—in trying to preserve, to shore up, his failing communion with his wife Amy—”Tell me about it, if it’s something human” (my emphasis). That is perhaps the most curiously forbidding remark any husband is on record as ever having made (at least in my acquaintance). Amy, for her part—and she’s responding to a felt impersonality in her husband, for whom, as she says, in her most damning remark, the “talk is all”;—as I say, Amy, for her part, all but arraigns him of having fallen well out of love, and even sympathy. That’s one of the problems—one of the moral problems, so to speak—that “Home Burial” brings into view. What are we to make of people who believe that the talk is all, and who hold this belief, moreover, because they suspect that the life within may be, or may become, “eccentric” and “monstrous,” and need some reassurance against that possibility? What are we to make of people who—to make matters even more complex—seek that reassurance in a conversation not personal but (somehow) supra-personal—who seek that reassurance not so much through intimacies as through “effects” of intimacies? The worst that can be said of the husband in “Home Burial,” as it happens, is the best that can be said of Frost as a literary artist: “He seeks not so much the possibility of greater sincerity or a fuller communion with a listener,” as Sabin puts it, “but a connection of a more indirect sort, as when our physical gestures—ways of bending or stretching, lying back or keeping stiff—join us to others because they are, recognizably, the forms of their physical life too.” Sabin speaks advisedly. Frost is dealing in what he himself called vocal “postures.” Good talk is simply another kind of “body language,” and, like body language, it is intimate without ever being confidential or confessional.
Frost felt most at ease, found his deepest and most satisfying rapport, not through anything we might usefully call intimacy or sincerity, but through what, in the letter to Braithwaite, he calls, speaking precisely, “the thrill of sincerity” and the “effect” of intimacy. The phrasing, here, encourages me to suppose that Sabin is quite correct. Frost sought an impersonal, “supra-personal” form of communion—a communion that requires neither sympathy nor love, though it is of course compatible with both. That form of communion, to turn again to “Home Burial,” Amy simply cannot bear. But it is the only kind her husband, as she sees it, has to offer. She must take it or leave it. It’s as if there’s a certain inflexibility there with which she has had to deal, and to which she has had to conform. In reading the poem we watch her escape it.
Let me clarify what I’m not suggesting. I’m not suggesting that Amy’s husband is somehow to be identified with the poet. I am not suggesting that “the child’s mound” in “Home Burial” is that of Elliot, Frost and Elinor’s first-born, who died at the age of three in 1900. I have no interest in biographical claims of that kind, though I can see why some wish to make them. I’m suggesting instead that “Home Burial”—at least for my purposes here—concerns a matter of great interest to Frost as an artist, and perhaps also as a man: namely, what it might mean (again) to commit yourself, vocationally and personally, to something like the idea that “the talk is all.” I am suggesting (to put things still another way) that the poem involves a question of the most immediately consequential kind for Frost. Had his commitment to vocation—to fixing “good talk” to the page, to the abstract vitality of our speech (a commitment he made, and kept, with astonishing intensity);—had this commitment entered into some kind of invidious competition with other possible commitments, among them, those to his family? I don’t say it did. But Frost was self-critical enough to wonder about the matter. He is on record to this effect in several letters dating from the period immediately following Elinor’s death in 1938, and the apprehension had been with him for a long while, even when he was a fugitive from a world that disallowed him—those six or so years during which he made very sound poetry of his life, and of his farm, in Derry; that period during which he began to see how the vitality of a life led “with reference to other people” might be “abstracted” from them into a poetry of vitally “pure form” (as he called his poetry of “sentence sounds”)—a poetry, even in the precincts to which “Home Burial” introduces us, with all the “body heat” out of it.‡
We’re getting deep into Frost’s problem of vocation. I want to return, for a few moments more, to that 1915 letter to Braithwaite, which has so much to tell us about Frost’s calling as a poet and as a man:
I like the actuality of gossip, the intimacy of it. Say what you will effects of actuality and intimacy are the greatest aim an artist can have. The sense of intimacy gives the thrill of sincerity. A story must always release a meaning more readily to those who read than life itself as it goes ever releases meaning. Meaning is a great consideration. But a story must never seem to be told primarily for meaning. Anything, an inspired irrelevancy even to make it sound as if told the way it is chiefly because it happened that way.
If anyone would specify, or try to specify, what “effects” of intimacy are like, he need look no further than the letter we now are reading. “I’ve got as far as finding you the copy of Book I I promised you,” Frost begins. “Perhaps as a busy man you won’t resent my telling you what to read in it if you are going to read it at all. It is the list I always give to friends I wish the minimum of suffering: pages 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 14, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 34, 41, 42 (once printed in The Transcript) 45, 46, (8-18—first poetry I ever wrote that I could call my own—year 1892) and 49. Don’t read those unless you have to, but don’t read the others on any account.” Start a letter like that and you’ve got your man; you’re holding him. He now numbers himself among the friends you wish the minimum of suffering. Frost shows himself—and the showing himself is essential—to be perfectly at ease disparaging his own work in ways that he tacitly assumes Braithwaite will know how to discount. What’s more, Frost deftly brings Braithwaite into complicity in his enterprise, with his confidences off the record, so to speak: “You are not going to use anything [I say] directly, I take it. You will be sure to veil what is too personal,” he says later in the letter. The more personal matters he reserves for the more intimate encounter he looks forward to (or claims to) in closing the letter: “May I hope really to see something of you when I am Boston again? I’d like to have a talk about poetry by ourselves alone.” There is a disarmingly available disingenuity in this, because, even as he holds Braithwaite, Frost is also holding him off. He treats Braithwaite more instrumentally than otherwise, at the end of the day. He is framing himself as a poet and as a man, managing the way he is to be read, thought of, spoken of, written about. He freely (if winningly) avails himself not so much of Braithwaite’s sympathies as of the sympathies of the literary pages of the Boston Evening Transcript. Frost’s generosity in the letter is hardly “poisoned” by calculation, as Napoleon’s generosity was. But calculation doubtless qualifies the generosity such that we may well ask whether we have to do, here, with “sincerity” proper or instead with the “thrill” of it. And of course, what the letter achieves, and remarkably achieves, is an “effect” of intimacy, a “thrill” of sincerity. The confidentiality is perfectly simulated. It is too good to be true. The letter sounds too manifestly “frank” to be taken altogether at its word, and yet, truth be told, there’s nothing “insincere” about it. We have here a tertium quid, something neither sincere nor calculating. We have literary art.
The letter, you see, is self-descriptive. It is a document in which the “thrill of sincerity,” as distinct from sincerity, is not simply named but also achieved. There is real candor in this, if candor of an unusual kind. Frost tells a story about himself. He is the young man who, with forgivable arrogance, forswore the world, swore off on the world, only to find that his vocation, poetry, inexorably called him back through that most worldly of media: “gossip.” Of course, Frost tells this tale of himself as refracted through a book published in his 39th year but titled A Boy’s Will—a book, in fact, enclosed with the letter we are here considering; a letter, moreover, that specifies for Braithwaite both what to read in it, and what to make of it. As it happens, the story told in the letter—about a youth giving leave to his vagrancy—is not at all to be distinguished from the story told in the book, which already features a meta-fictional bracketing, of a kind, in the form of the glosses Frost affixed to its table of contents. A collection of poems that comes with its own frame is herewith being framed again.†† I cannot say whether Braithwaite made a fast distinction between the poet speaking to him from the book and the man speaking to him from the letter with which the book arrived. But I can say that he would be mistaken if he supposed the letter to be any more or any less “sincere” and “intimate” than the book. If Braithwaite was especially alert, as likely he was, he must have felt that, in the letter as in the book, Frost certainly doesn’t seem to be telling his story “primarily” “as it happened” and “for meaning”; and felt also that he, Braithwaite, must be on the lookout for “anything, an inspired irrelevancy even,” laid into the letter to make the story sound “as if told the way it is chiefly because it happened that way.” This is not exactly the same as advising an interlocutor that anything you say may be a fiction, but there is paradox in it. I should like to think that Braithwaite smiled at the “inspired” impertinence of this demurral off the cuff: “I have run on unpardonably. I couldn’t write a whole biography; so I just had to plunge into the middle of things. I have pretty well jumbled the story of how I see my own development.” That’s a hoary one, of course—to introduce your fiction with apologies for its artlessness, or to make bold to speak self-effacingly. I suspect that Frost, again (and with a wink), invites Braithwaite’s complicity, as who should say: This is exactly the kind of thing the most artful and ingratiating poets always do when writing to well-placed reviewers at the Transcript, isn’t it? Frost reveals himself to be a man uncommonly adept at “effects” of self-revelation, at “effects” of intimacy and sincerity. And he does this the better to intimate to his reader, his interlocutor, his correspondent, that the “effect” is the main thing, and should satisfy. Why ask for anything more? Why suppose that we ever need disentangle intimacy from “effects” of intimacy, or sincerity from the “thrill” of sincerity? Why should we ever care whether or not we ever touch “the man” in the “work”? Let him be as fugitive, and as self-sequestered, as he will.‡‡
All of which begs a question not unknown to journalists and lovers. How can we tell where “effects” of intimacy leave off and intimacy proper begins? How can we mark the boundary between the “thrill of sincerity” and “sincerity” proper, whatever that might be as distinct from the “thrill”?
How do we touch another person, meet the mind of another person, and know that our instinct in the matter has not somehow been fooled or taken in? How do we grieve, love, befriend, antagonize, conspire in anything other than more or less conventional ways? Anyone who ever read a Hallmark card, or an Elizabethan sonnet, knows that’s hard to do, harder than we might suppose. Even in the most immediate and durable of our relations—in a marriage or a family, for example—we often fall well wide of the mark. We have Frost’s word on this in his 1935 “Introduction” to E.A. Robinson‘s book King Jasper : “Correspondence is all. Mind must convince mind that it can uncurl and wave the same filaments of subtlety, soul convince soul that it can give off the same shimmer of eternity. At no point would anyone but a brute fool want to break off this correspondence. It is all there is to satisfaction; and it is salutary to live in fear of its being broken off.” I’m suggesting that “Home Burial” is written out of, and from, and also about, the fear that our “correspondence” shall be broken off; that we shall no longer be “together”; that we shall no longer be able to talk; that even our “supra-personal” effects of intimacy shall no longer satisfy. And “Home Burial” is haunted not so much by any particular spirit inhabiting the child’s mound in the “little graveyard” where the husband’s “people are,” as by something unspeakable, something inhuman, something eccentric or monstrous, something beyond “living people” and “things they understand,” as Amy puts it with no small measure of contempt. So far as her husband is concerned, her real problem—setting aside a dead child and a dying marriage—is that she no longer lives in fear for her “correspondence.”††† Insofar as her husband sees this in her, it spooks him, as things “inhuman” will. So he falls back on “the talk,” which, to him, “is all.”
But I have yet to discuss another letter, in which Frost tries manfully to compel a hopelessly sincere friend to make do with “effects” of intimacy alone. He is writing to Sidney Cox, a friend, and the author, by this date, of one book about Frost, but more importantly the would-be author of a second book: a biography. Frost is writing to warn him off of the project. He spent years in this unhappy endeavor. And his manner, his tone—irritable, forbidding, a little imperious—suggests what might have awaited anyone who asked more of Frost than the “thrill of sincerity” and the “effect of intimacy.” The letter dates from 1932, by which time the two men had known one another for twenty years. “Honestly, Sidney,” Frost begins, “you are getting out of hand. I’m afraid you aren’t going to let yourself be unduly influenced by me anymore.” Right there you get it. The “unduly” turns the trick. Frost was more comfortable when he could play Cox like a fiddle. Well, at least he is frank enough to say so. (Come on, Sidney, it works much better when you let me call your shots.) He leaves his friend no dignified alternative: either “get out of hand” or else be “unduly influenced.” The added complication is this: “Getting out of hand” in this case means admiring Frost too much. It is quite as if Frost said: Damned if you haven’t found yet another way to be submissive toward me, Sidney. I preferred your old way. There is a nice (and tough) lesson in this. Frost flirted with two idolatrous biographers (Cox and Robert Newdick) before committing himself to one (Lawrance Thompson) who would not allow himself to be unduly influenced in his admiration, and who began in idolatry and ended in iconoclasm. Apparently, it’s simply impossible to manage these things.
In any case, in the letter to Cox, Frost continues by generalizing the occasion so as to speak of “the poet’s mind” instead simply of his own: “I grow surer I don’t want to search the poet’s mind too seriously. I might enjoy threatening to for the fun of it just as I might to frisk his person.” Come in on a poet too closely and you arrest him, you frisk him. That’s literary criticism as police work—which, in other guise, we had too much of in the 1990s, when English professors spoke too freely of “interrogating” texts and authors. The poet needs his insurance against that kind of thing. He must maintain his strategic retreat. “I have written,” says Frost, “to keep the over curious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters to such as you.” That’s a way of saying (again) that he’d sequestered himself—still fugitive, as he was, from a world that might yet (who knows?) “disallow” him or his art. He is bristling at Sidney Cox. There is more than mere condescension in the phrase “in my letters to such as you.” Frost continues: “A subject has to be held clear outside of me with struts and as it were set up for an object. A subject must be an object.” Frost is like his own abstractionist. He is trying to have the gold—to project the gold—out of the ore of himself, if I may put it that way. He is trying to sustain his fugitive ethereality even as he substantiated himself in what for a modern American poet was a remarkably “available” career. His difficulties with Cox replay themselves in his relations with his wider circle of readers, some of whom never fail to mistake the “thrill of sincerity” that his poetry and public persona often offer for sincerity itself. There follows in the letter to Cox a chastisement that is a standing reproach to anyone who would write about Frost. He slips out of theory—out of talk about “the poet’s mind,” or of “subjects” and “objects”—and into a highly particular exasperation: “There’s no use in laboring this further years,” he says, making an issue of Cox’s obtuseness as to the main point. “My objection to your larger book about me”—here again he alludes to the proposed biography—”was that it came thrusting in where I did not want you. The idea is the thing with me. It would seem soft for instance to look in my life for the sentiments in the Death of the Hired Man. There’s nothing in it believe me. I should fool you if you took me so. I’ll tell you my notion of the contract you thought you had with me. The objective idea is all I ever cared about. Most of my ideas occur in verse. But I have always had some turning up in talk that I feared I might never use because I was too lazy to write prose. I think they have been mostly educational ideas connected with my teaching, actually lessons. That’s where I hoped you would come in. I thought if it didn’t take you too much from your own affairs you might be willing to gather them for us both,” Frost writes, suggesting that the contract, properly understood, would secure credit to poet and critic alike—that is, so long as Cox bore in mind that he was being offered not so much a subject to know as an object to be tactfully aware of. In the letter to Braithwaite, a relative stranger, Frost is much better able to manage this “contract.” He never has to insist on it. Tact suffices. “I trust you will veil what is too personal,” the poet says there. But here, in the letter to Cox—a man, after all, who had known him fairly well for going on two decades—he has to warn his correspondent not to “reckon” with “the personalities. I keep to a minimum of such stuff,” Frost adds, “in any poet’s life and works. Art and wisdom with the body heat out of it.” The “body heat” would be the “subjective,” the “personal”—the ore from which all things truly sound in a poem are quarried and refined.
The better to drive his point home Frost sequesters himself, as it were, all the way back in the 17th century, with the poet James Shirley, whom Cox had mentioned in an earlier letter. “You speak of Shirley,” he says. “He is two or three great poems—one very great. He projected, he got, them out of his system and I will not carry them back into his system either at the place they came out of or at some other place. I state this in the extreme. But relatively I mean what I say. To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come on him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in pain of his life had faith he had made graceful.”
In short, the problem with Cox is (again) that he mistook the thrill of sincerity and the effects of intimacy for the things themselves. Surely Frost must have something like this in mind in the preface he wrote for the book Cox ultimately produced about him, A Swinger of Birches. There, in introducing the reader to what will follow, Frost speaks with undisguised astonishment. “[Sidney] was all sincerity and frankness,” the poet says. “He once wrote an article for the New Republic about my sincerity.” Which only goes to show how far sincerity and frankness will get you in reading Frost well. In that preface Frost is holding Cox and also holding him off. He is putting the reader of A Swinger of Birches on notice: “This ought to be a good book. Everybody who has seen it in manuscript says it is. The author probably knew me better than he knew himself and consequently contrariwise he very likely portrayed himself in it more than me.” Very deft, this kind of qualification, with its implied announcement that Frost has neither read nor intends to read the book he prefaces. Frost entertains the book while committing himself to none of it. And all the while he is never particular about the matter. He never tells the reader what to discount and what not to. Instead, he establishes a general mood of dislocation, so as to make it impossible to find him out in the pages that follow. A Swinger of Birches is like bad intelligence. You never know what to trust in it. That’s the idea.
What we hear in the letter to Cox and in the preface Frost wrote for his book is this: the intensity with which the poet could push back anyone who came in on him presumptuously. Frost’s reaction indicates that Cox had laid his finger on a nerve; he checks his friend with animosity. What was Cox’s offense? Acting on the assumption that art and friendship were matters of “intimacy” and “sincerity” instead of “effects” of the one and the “thrill” of the other. He didn’t know how to take a hint, which is always exasperating. He hadn’t the tact to know where not to touch Frost. And any reader of Frost who sees only pettiness or meanness in his rebuke of Cox is simply not listening. Frost is not cold in his letters “to such as” Sidney Cox. He simply has what the pop-psychologists now call “boundary issues.” What are the letters on “the sound of sense” about if not this? What is the letter to Braithwaite about if not this? In speaking of the “sound of sense” Frost speaks of the only medium for touching another person, for corresponding with another person, that he ever cared deeply about as an artist. It is a medium he kept rigorously impersonal, or rigorously “supra-personal,” if you prefer Margery Sabin’s word for it. Frost tells us this plainly (if subtly) in the letter to Braithwaite. Being interested in what he called the “sound of sense” was his way of “living with reference to other people,” his modus vivendi and modus operandi alike. The great benefit of this “supra-personal” resource is that it allows for intimacy without the presumption of encroachment. Again, Sabin expresses the idea better than I can: “The voices we meet in Frost’s poetry,” she says, “are often too discontinuous to constitute a personality in a dramatic sense,” and that discontinuity “corresponds to the double motive of reaching out and holding back that pervades Frost’s entire activity as a poet. Sentence sounds,” she adds by way of summary, “are meant to embody and dramatize human feelings. But one of the chief feelings they dramatize is the desire to control the dangers of proximity, to control the desire for full presence that may be a less ambivalent motive for readers than for the poets they want to meet.”
On that note, I turn again to “Home Burial,” which “embodies” and “dramatizes” “human feelings” as few others by Frost do. One of the chief feelings it both embodies and dramatizes is precisely this desire to “control the dangers of proximity.” Listen to the husband speak. In the sounds of his sense, in the brute sounds he makes, you always hear the paradox that his whole enterprise as a man presents. He wavers unstably between invitation and reproach. Every solicitous and concessive note he strikes has its counterpart in tones that forbid, whether through admonition, mockery, sneering, or contempt. There is forever the reaching out and the holding back. This dubiety, this ambivalence, works even in the physical movements he makes. The way he carries his body belies (or contradicts, or qualifies, or complicates) the way he postures his voice. His physical and vocal postures generally fail to coincide, except in their ambivalence. Here he is, trying to talk his wife down:
He said to gain time: ‘What is it you see,’
Mounting until she cowered under him.
‘I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.’
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, ‘Oh,’ and again, ‘Oh.’
‘What is it—what?’ she said.
‘Just that I see.’
‘You don’t,’ she challenged. ‘Tell me what it is.’
‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the side-hill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound—’
His tone gives the lie to (or at any rate seriously discounts) any sympathy we might suppose his first “Oh” and his “I see” to betoken. “The wonder is I didn’t see at once” goes down easily enough. So does the concession that he’d never noticed the graveyard from there before—unaccustomed as he is, we might add, to looking over his shoulder “at some fear.”
But whatever headway he makes in his attempt to hold Amy in, he soon loses as he begins, yet again, to hold off the danger of her proximity. His “I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason” might well have a barb in it, if read (and heard) in the light of what follows; as who should say, “Oh, I see what you think the problem is. You think I’m wonted to it all, don’t you? That a little death in the house hardly gives me pause? That I’m so easy with the dead as to cast them off as a thing hardly noticeable?” And we have to wonder whether the possessive pronoun in the next line is tendentiously (perhaps sarcastically) contrastive. “The little graveyard where my people are” may mean, in other words: “The rest of the bodies out there? Those? Oh, just my people, my parents, my cousins, my siblings. No matter. We haven’t to mind them.” But if what he has said so far is rather more concessive than not, the same cannot be said for what follows: “So small the window frames the whole of it,” he says, speaking of the graveyard with a picturesque flourish that is surely snide. And then: “Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?” That interrogatory suffix solicits Amy’s complicity in an equation, appalling in this context, that links the site where the child was conceived and born to the earth in which he now lies cold as any stone. Randall Jarrell perfectly catches what’s vicious, here, by turning the equation around. It is (Jarrell suggests) exactly as if Amy’s husband had asked, referring to their bedroom, “Not so much smaller than a graveyard, is it?” Animating the remark is the unspeakable possibility—the likelihood, even—that with this gratuitous collocation of bedrooms and graves, Amy’s husband registers his complaint about how cold their marriage bed had grown. That would, of course, be the darker side of his indomitable commitment to “life” and “living things.”
And listen again to these sentences:
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.
He is feeling his way, trying to find a tone. I hear four sentence sounds in as many sentences, all of them quite distinct; it is easier to recognize them than to describe them. This man is at a loss when he can’t relax into a range of more or less comfortable tones that allow for engagement while avoiding the danger of proximity. And because the husband can’t find his way, because he doesn’t know what tone to strike—what tone he wants to strike—he takes refuge in easy aphorism, in formulae that could afford no one the “thrill” of sincerity.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.
This habit of aphorism, this habit of settling affairs with fine phrases—a very bad habit when it becomes maladaptive;—this habit of aphorism irritates Amy, and shores up her resolution. To remind him of just what the problem is—of just how intractable the problem is, in her view—she “moves the latch a little.” This gesture says, in all but words, “You think I give a damn about your kind of talk? Keep it up.” Now she’s digging the grave, the grave in which their marriage—their “home”—shall be buried. Of course, he understands her perfectly.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it . . .
Right there he ought to reign himself in, he ought to bring his appeal to a full stop—if he really wants to hold her. But he can’t stop; maybe he isn’t sure he wants to hold her; maybe this is his way of finding out. Anyway, soon enough he picks up his spade and pitches in: “Tell me about it if it’s something human.” If it’s inhuman—whatever that might mean in connection with dead children and failing marriages;—if it’s inhuman, well, you can save your breath. This bit of domestic savagery Amy ignores. Perhaps she’s wonted to these intimations that there might well be something “inhuman” about her. Her silence allows her husband to recover himself. And—credit where credit is due—he holds her more than holds her off in the three sentences that follow.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
Here again he really ought to have stopped—seeing as how he’s opened the question of what is and what is not human;—he ought to have stopped with this intimation that, after all, he isn’t the brute she supposes him to be, “so unlike other folks.” His tone of petition is fitting enough; we can’t fault him there. He strikes a nice balance between apology on the one hand, and appeal to fair play on the other—the appeal to what’s only proper. He seems to have earned his chance.
He seems to have earned it unless, that is, we hear in that “Give me my chance” not a petition, not an appeal to fair play, but an imperative or an admonition: “Give me my chance. I will have it.” Soon enough, anyway, his entreaty falls back into reproach. He begins to assess his wife’s performance. “I do think, though, you overdo it a little,” he adds, and, sensing (as well he should) that the gig is now up, he goes right ahead and plays his hand.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied—
In the light of which unasked-for observation Amy offers her own: “There you go sneering now!” And she is right. He is sneering. What was it brought him up to think it the thing to suggest, at a moment like this, that Amy is overplaying her role? What can he possibly mean if not that she has seized the occasion of her first child’s death to do the grieving mother up better than anyone had ever done the part before? Whatever else he may be up to, he is making an accusation: Amy is histrionic (or so he implies); she is indulging herself; she is acting up; she is vain; she has “over-satisfied” the memory of the child in quest of her own self-satisfaction; she is high on the thrill of her own bleak sincerities. And as for the charge that he’d been sneering, and that sneering had become a habit of his (for such is the implication), he demurs: “‘I’m not, I’m not! / You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.’” Two possible “sentence sounds” inhabit this last sentence. It might be a threat (“That’s it, I’m coming!”), or it might be that he’s running a flag up the pole to see if she salutes (“Okay. I think I’ll come down now. Don’t let it startle you”). Whatever the case, she doesn’t salute. And that sets him off.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
These two sentences might be said as if in dumbstruck, inquiring exasperation (“What—a—woman. And it’s really come to this?—a man can’t speak,” etc., as with the lines, shortly to follow, about “the worst laugh” he ever laughed). Or they might be said with a rage brought directly to bear, with unnerving intensity, on Amy herself, in which case the voice fairly tumbles into them, headlong, in anger (“God, what a woman!” etc.). However that may be, I count in this brief outburst on the husband’s part six different sentence sounds, all of them quite distinct, and all perfectly accommodated to the blank verse in which Frost manages to lodge them. It is easy to miss the art in this, the “effects” of intimacy (and of intimacies violated) being, as they are, so utterly arresting. But any good reader must be as delighted by these artful lines as he is appalled at the dramatic context from with they emerge.
Of course, this time the husband speaks not “of his own child he’s lost,” but of his own child that’s dead. Which sends Amy back out, in thought, to the little graveyard where her first born lies under gravel that she, for the life of her, can’t stop making her husband “[make] leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
That’s what she always sees—what her husband, in fact, always sees her seeing—from up there on the landing where the poem begins; this is the “fear” she looks at over her shoulder—an open grave, a grave that won’t stop being opened, a grave the digging of which is forever vivid to her in its details (the dirt, the lifting spade, the leaping and lightly landing gravel). Which is probably why she speaks with such dismissive certainty about what her husband will fail to see when he assumes her vantage. Blind creature that he is, he will see only four broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight, and one mound; he won’t see himself among the slabs with the fresh stains on his shoes from his own baby’s grave. And having opened the grave again, Amy takes us back to “what was in the darkened parlor” awaiting its deposition, and back also to the infidelity of husbands and friends. “You couldn’t care!” she says to the man who “stood the spade up against the wall” in the “entry way”: the key that unlocked the grave, so to speak, stationed right next to the door of the house (door-to-door). And as if to clarify what her husband’s incapacity to care signifies for her, she sets him in apposition to “friends,” making short enough work of his paternity.
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil.
Amy broaches, here, a topic that her husband had, for all practical purposes, asked her not to broach. “Let me into your grief,” he’d said. But he never reckoned on following a grieving woman—even if she is his wife—not just to the grave but into it. “Tell me about it if it’s something human”—that is, if it’s something that “living people understand.” After all, that had been his word, and we begin, now, to see what sort of thing he meant to proscribe—what it was he had a mind to name as something they were both to keep hands off of.
And if Amy confuses husband and friends—throws them in together, as a lot—she also confuses herself with the child of whom she suffered the mother-loss. She takes refuge together with that child not only in the grave but in a pronoun: “From the time when one is sick to death, / One is alone, and he dies more alone,” she says, generalizing the affair so as fully to implicate herself in it, but also so as to exclude her husband. He isn’t the “one” who’s “alone” in death; he has his friends—whose opinion he sets such stock by (“Amy! There’s someone coming down the road”). At the end of the day, Amy’s husband is of the world merely—of life, of living people; and the world, with its contemptible life, and contemptibly living people, is evil. Friends and husbands who say otherwise satisfy themselves with “pretense,” with “effects” of intimacy rather than with intimacy, with the “thrill” of sincerity rather than with sincerity. They hold back in their reaching out. They really do think “the talk is all.” Once believe that of them—as Amy does—and you make yourself untouchable. True, friends and husbands “construct the illusion” of a “coherent personality” in their speech (to borrow a phrase or two from Margery Sabin). But so far as Amy is concerned, as she makes her approach to the grave, there is no palpable, believable, credible someone there: “Who is that man?” she asked of her husband, saying the worst thing that might ever be said of anyone, so far as she is concerned. She “didn’t know him.”
Now, to sum things up. “Home Burial” is (at least in part) about voiced “postures,” habits of speech, and ways of “corresponding” that we know Frost himself to have adopted and preferred; they are on display, for example, in the letters to Cox and Braithwaite that we have been reading: effects of intimacy as against intimacies; the policing and management of boundaries; invitations and solicitations on the one hand, checks and forbiddings on the other; accession and retreat. We find Frost striking all these postures, these stances (as the rhetoricians say) in letters to relative strangers like Braithwaite, which can be disarmingly engaging, such that it is very easy to make the short leap from effects of intimacy to presumptions of it; and we find Frost striking these postures in letters to “the likes of” Sidney Cox, a long-time friend whose presumptive intimacies Frost devoted forty years to managing and policing (he was still doing this after Cox died, as the canny and strikingly cool preface to A Swinger of Birches makes clear).
And isn’t this enterprise—marking out boundaries, shoring them up even as we touch and meet;—isn’t this enterprise what so much of Frost’s writing concerns? “Mending Wall” is only the clearest instance of it. What do we find there? That fences are where we both touch what is alien or foreign and also hold it off; that the most satisfying way to fall in with your neighbor is to build a wall between your proprieties and his. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the man who nonetheless never fails to let his neighbor beyond the hill know when it’s time to set it up again (a point often made about that poem, but not, to my knowledge, in the present context). Good neighbors are never more intimate than when they are walling each other off. Good fences do make good neighbors. What was it brought us up to think it the thing to fret too much over the difference between “effects” of intimacy and intimacy itself—to determine where the one leaves off and the other begins? Someone is always there—Sidney Cox, let us say—with his demands: “Why won’t you come closer? You aren’t close enough.” And if in exasperated reply we say, with Frost, so as to hold the issue off, “Well just how much closer do you want me to get?” we are back in “Home Burial.” That sounds extravagant. But bring the temperature down, lower the stakes considerably, and we have to do in the letter—and in the relationship of which it is a partial record—with an affair rather similar. Frost is trying to remonstrate with Cox—at times through reproach, at times through appeals to principle, at times through mockery. This much the author of the letter has in common with the husband in the poem: He must hold his partner while also holding his partner off; concessive and recessive motives—solicitude and demurral—mingle. And that dubiety, that ambivalence, is entirely characteristic of Frost—as has, I believe, been often enough remarked.
Which brings me back to “Home Burial,” the poem that most invites (perhaps) the reader to come in on Frost presumptuously. If we suppose that Frost did succeed, in this poem, in projecting the subject out of his system on struts, and of setting the subject up as an object; if we suppose, that is, that a biographical reading of the poem is un-instructive; then what is left of Frost in the poem? Is his “body heat” all out of it?
I’d answer as follows. Frost is in the poem, but in it less as a man who lost a child (Elliott) than as a man who holds people by holding them off (or tries to); as a man who manages his “body heat” by projecting it out of his system; as a man who doesn’t want anyone coming in on him too presumptuously; as a man who speaks always so as to keep the over-curious out of the secret places of his mind; as a man who does, in fact, think that the talk is all—at least in a sense best left to him to define; as a man whose “conscious interest in people was at first no more than an almost technical interest in their speech”; as a man who readily makes objects of subjects; as a man who is rather more comfortable with the “effect” of intimacy than with intimacy; as a man whom it would seem “soft” to call “sincere.”
I’ll add a few words more in tentative answer to a question often asked about “Home Burial.” Why did Frost never read it on the lecture platform (though he did once attend the staging of it as a drama, in November 1915)? Very likely because he couldn’t rely on his auditors—manage them how he might—to maintain a working distinction between the thrill of sincerity and sincerity. (We can be fairly sure, too, that it would also have pained him to read it aloud—that he might not have been able to keep the “body heat” out of it; and sure also that his sense of decorum would have prevented his reading aloud any poem that might, in such a connection as this, have brought his wife Elinor to mind for any man or woman among his audience.) In writing the poem, he had projected it out of his system, and he could not trust readers to forebear carrying it back into his system, whether “at the place it came out of”—the death of his first child Elliott, say—“or at some other place” (perhaps the death of his sister-in-law’s child). He could not trust his readers not to come after him with his own aphorism: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
After all, “Home Burial”—or so I imagine—presented a case in which it was well nigh impossible to communicate what Frost tells us he wanted above all else to communicate in his poetry: “What a hell of a good time” he had “writing it.” It presents a problem of an unusual kind, or of a usual kind but in extraordinary degree: How can a poet bring in a theme such as this the better to pursue “an almost technical interest” in the sounds of sense? It is all well and good to say that “the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other,” and that “the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, meter are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter.” But not all readers will see at once how, in poems about failing marriages and dead children, subject matter is to be valued chiefly as help toward variety in sound. It was hard enough to convince readers like Sidney Cox (for example) how “soft” it was “to look in [Frost’s] life for the sentiments in the Death of the Hired Man.” How much harder to persuade them never to “reckon with the personality” of the author of “Home Burial”—how much harder to persuade them that “the body heat” had somehow been abstracted from that poem? “Home Burial”—had Frost ever performed it—would have brought the difficulties at issue in the letters to Cox perhaps too vividly, too arrestingly, too distractingly, to mind. The poem presents a whole range of difficulties to anyone who would insist, as Frost does, on a principle of impersonality in poetry.
In closing this entry, I’ll risk coming in on Frost presumptuously, and suggest one productive way into what might be called the biography of the poem. How does a man—a man named Robert Frost—speak of his own child that’s dead? One way might be to speak of it in a poem about a dispute as to whether or not he rightly can—let alone how he can. One way, in other words, might be to go ahead and get that problem down on the page. Frost wondered, as I have indicated, whether or not his vocational and personal commitments—his vocational and familial commitments—might prove impossible to harmonize. I’m suggesting now—if only as a thought-experiment—that “Home Burial” was a part of that wonder. Had he thought the talk was all? Had his life in poetry given his family the hell of the good time he’d had against a background of “hugeness and confusion shading off” (as he once said) into “black and utter chaos”? And had he proved worthy in the eyes of someone who knew him at least as well as, likely better than, he knew himself—Elinor Miriam White? “Her silences,” he once told Lawrance Thompson, “were as eloquent as any spoken criticism.” And although “the early reviews” of his work “filled her with delight,” she grew jealous—or so he apparently told Thompson—”of the public acclaim, of the talk, that took him from her.” And if Frost—like the woman depicted in his poem—is looking back “at some fear” in “Home Burial,” this might well be it: the fear that he’d somehow been unworthy. I—for my part—have always preferred to suppose that if we find Frost in “Home Burial” we find him in these possible self-recriminations. I—for my part—have always thought that Frost somehow has it out with himself, even as he holds the “over curious” off.
So. If a man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead, he can, at any rate, speak of the difficulty of speaking of a child that’s dead; and in so doing he can bring his art, his “almost technical interest” in the speech of men and women, to its highest pitch of refinement; and he can do this in such a way as to arraign a character in whom he may see himself refracted, of “thinking the talk is all,” of being rather more vocational than intimate; and he can do it all in “a book of people” dedicated to the woman who was both the unspoken half of all he had written and the partner whose happiness he occasionally feared he might have compromised in pursuit of an interest in the “brute sounds” of human speech.
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† Frost would tell the story I have in mind above yet again in a preface he wrote, but never published, for a collection of poetry by his friend Hervey Allen: “The course of true poetry is from more ethereal than substantial to more substantial than ethereal. What begins lyric may be counted on if not broken off by death or business to end epic. By pure poetry some would seem to mean poetry purely not substantial at all. That’s an extravagance of theory. But where has there ever been any such thing with success? It may have been tried for the purpose of sinning with originality. The result if any would be of scientific rather than esthetic interest. Such notion relegates to the realm where in the cyclotron nothing is perceptibly becoming something. That would be funny if it wasn’t wicked. The surest thing we know is that the scale of soul is not quadruple, none, some, more, most, but eternally triple, merely some, more, most. Nothing can be done with nothing. Nothing but weight can put on weightiness. The most diaphanous wings carry a burden of pollen from flower to flower. No song without a burden.”
‡ The matter is a delicate one, so let me be clear. In certain moods, Frost was given to blaming his calling as a poet for some share in his family’s grief. He wrote to Louis Untermeyer in November of 1938, the year his wife died: “I was thrust out into the desolateness of wondering about my past whether it had not been too cruel to those I had dragged with me and almost to cry out to heaven for a word of reassurance that was not given me in time.” And he wrote to his daughter Lesley in the year following Elinor’s death: “I wish I hadnt this woeful suspicion that toward the end she came to resent something in the life I had given her.” The “life [he] had given her” was, among other things, his own life in poetry, which, after about 1912—when he took the risk of decamping for England with four children, relatively little money, and a sheaf of poems—lay at, or near, the heart of his concerns, and, in any case, dictated a good many of his family’s movements.
†† Frost often felt it necessary to frame A Boy’s Will, in one way or another; the story he wanted to tell of his development somehow had to have in it the intimation that, by the time he published the poems in his first book, he had bracketed them, so to speak, with age and maturity. Here is another example, this time from a 1913 letter to the editor of The Youth’s Companion: “I want you to know about my book. It is a series of lyrics standing in some such loose relation to each other as a ring of children who have just stopped dancing and let go hands. The psychologist in me ached to call it ‘The Record of a Phase of Post-adolescence.’ Wouldn’t that have edified Stanley Hall? The book was lucky enough to find a publisher to assume all risks in the first house I left it with. I don’t know how that happened unless it was because I didn’t know enough to be afraid it wouldn’t happen.”
‡‡ A certain sort of reader will always see in letters like the one to Braithwaite—and there are many—little more than an effort on the part of a poet to get the right kind of publicity, even through flattery. But the remarkable thing about Frost’s letters—about his letters of this kind—is that they are so frank, so disarmingly aboveboard, in what they undertake to do. And he takes pleasure in this, as well he might. He liked, above all, to “score,” as he put it; his “only anxiety” was for himself as a performer. In the letters as much as in the poetry he works always—or often, anyway—from the intuition, as Richard Poirier puts it, that “literature is most ‘natural’ when it is most self-aware of its status as a ‘made’ or performed object, and when it reveals thereby some pathos and wonderment about its claims to existence.”
††† And I might make another point—too abstruse, perhaps, to go into here at any length. (Again, I take a cue from Margery Sabin.) Frost’s lack of interest in sincerity, properly understood, may well spring from an intuition (in him) that the “self” is much less coherent, much more mysterious and contingent, than we usually suppose. Consider Frost’s (quite Emersonian) remarks in a notebook: “There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.” If we speak of effects of intimacy rather than of intimacy, it may be because there is nothing, finally, to be intimate with or to; and if we suspect that the “thrill” of sincerity is the main thing, it may be because we harbor a doubt as to the integrity, stability—even the continuity—of the self sincerity seems to imply. How much of the experiences of what we call intimacy or sincerity are made up merely of approximations, simulations, gestures drawn from a common repertory of gestures? The point isn’t academic, though my phrasing of it may sound academic. Questions like these eventually occur to any inquisitively attentive reader of poems like “Once By The Pacific,” “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” or “In Divés Dive”? Of the first of these poems, Sabin, a reader both inquisitive and attentive, suggests that we must acknowledge that its speaker “lacks definite character, nor does the character, such as he is, have any very definite relation to any situation. What character,” she asks, “and in what situation would recall his experience of an ocean storm in this particular mixture of exaggeration and understatement, of colloquialism and literary parody?” A good many of Frost’s best lyric poems, and a good many passages in his best prose, work in this oddly affecting way: they are easy to hear, and impossible to specify. Where is Frost in them? The poems melt when you try to apprehend them. We may suppose—even the best of us may sometimes suppose—that behind these poems stands a substantial and coherent personality, a man we might shake hands with; Frost encouraged that belief in his demeanor on the platform, in his easy familiarities. But it is an “effect,” however thrilling and fully achieved. And as Frost himself inasmuch as said, in the off-hand way he favored, it is quite preposterous to speak of his “sincerity.” A certain sort of reader will always find this irritating; a certain sort of reader will always say, with some impatience, that Frost thought “the talk was all,” that he satisfied himself with “fooling,” that he never allowed for, or made, his commitments. We must always bear in mind, as Sabin says, the “difficulty of constructing a palpable, believable, coherent ‘someone’ out of Frost’s designs of language.” And yet—to carry things back to “Home Burial”—a palpable, believable, coherent someone is exactly what Amy claims she doesn’t find in her husband. “Who is that man?” she asks, and the question is not entirely rhetorical. To her, he is a cipher.