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Spoiled Actresses, Robert Frost, “Engaging Cowardice,” and Battle-Cries

March 17, 2010

Frost, in the mid 1910s.

“The contingent self enjoins us to imagine a life without blaming, a life exempt from the languages of effort and self-control.” —Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (1996)

*   *   *

In poems such as “Putting in the Seed” (reprinted below), Robert Frost takes on a remarkable vigor and fertility. It is as if he would gender “poetic” creativity masculine (and also, I suppose, heterosexual). The same emphases are felt in his 1939 account of “the figure a poem makes,” as has often enough been noticed: “The figure is the same as for love,” he says, meaning it to the full as he follows out a description delicately sexual, both in its imagery and its rhythms. In fact, Lawrance Thompson—Frost’s first major biographer—reports a 1959 conversation with the poet on exactly this theme. “He said he remembered saying to F.S. Flint in England, long ago, that there was something wrong with a writer who couldn’t get into his subject and screw it to a climax: if you were going to find metaphors for the artistic process in the functions of the body, that was the way you ought to do it. He remembered hearing AE (George Russell) say that all poems were love poems, and he could see how that might be said in the sense that Frost made that remark to Flint, but not otherwise.” (You’ll find this, and other remarks like it, reprinted in the notes to The Collected Prose of Robert Frost.) In what follows I’ll pursue these matters in some detail.

“Putting in the Seed,” however obliquely, depends upon an ancient figure: the phallus as a plow—by which I really mean simply male “enterprise”—that makes the land fertile. These analogies between sexual and agricultural affairs date back to the origin of agriculture itself. Only here the deed is done more intimately, more tactfully—by hand. This is a poem of “husbandry,” in every sense of the word.

“Putting in the Seed”

The sonnet, as printed in "Mountain Interval" (1916).

YOU come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

This sonnet, from Mountain Interval (1916), combines features of Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms. To be exact, Frost retains the strong two-part argumentative development of the Italian form, but structures the rhymes of the octet (or first eight lines) in ABAB quatrains approximating, at least somewhat, the English form. As I said, “Putting in the Seed” obviously belongs to that tradition in poetry likening human procreation to “husbandry” and tillage. Frost’s idea—here as elsewhere—seems to be that in making love we align ourselves with the larger seasonal rhythms. The octet of the sonnet sets up the situation. The husband’s out planting, the wife’s in cooking—a customary division of farm labor in those days (i.e., the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The sestet then explores the further reaches of that situation, which are of course already implied and only need be awakened: the “mingling” of seed (beans and peas) with “soft petals,” fresh from their own blown blossoms in the apple orchards, where they’d played their part in pollinating, in making fertile, the trees, but yet are “not so barren quite.” Frost speaks advisedly of their “mingling,” aware, as he would have been, of the older sense of the word, as in O.E.D. 2b: “To intermingle; to mix or join oneself with or among others; to marry, to have sexual intercourse with.” The latter sense especially has its roots in the language of the English Bible, as the O.E.D. makes clear: “1535 Bible (Coverdale) 1 Esdras viii. 70 Both they and their sonnes haue mengled them selues with the daughters of them. 1602 W. FULBECKE Pandectes 78 The people of Sodom and Gomorra voluptuously mingling themselues with the women of the Moabites.” At the “turn” in the sonnet, which occurs at line nine (following the Italian model) the speaking voice rises up out of the colloquial patterns of the first eight lines—”You come to fetch me,” “we’ll see,” and so on—to assume a deeper resonance, in which we hear all of this lore (so to speak) given voice.

Richard Poirier (1925-2009).

In short, the sonnet transcends the rhetorical and argumentative limits it seems to set for itself in the octet, “shouldering its way up” out of the medium in which it was at first grounded, as Richard Poirier long ago suggested. The sonnet likens the emergence of the seedlings to the emergence of an infant in “birth.” Frost’s phrasing is arresting: “How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed.” The “burning” carries us fully over into the marital context of lovemaking, as against the more farmerly context of planting seed. But all the while, and whatever the context, this man’s a “husband” in O.E.D. senses I through II.3.a: “The master of a house, the male head of a household. A man joined to a woman by marriage. Correlative of wife. One who tills and cultivates the soil; a cultivator, tiller, farmer, husbandman.” The “seed” spoken of in this sonnet is a human (and male) imposition, not anything wild or uncultivated. Whether in agricultural or in marital situations, the act of “putting in,” as imagined here, is quite deliberate. The farmer takes care that his garden, his field, doesn’t “tarnish” with “weed.” “Putting in the Seed” is a poem of sexuality acculturated, though not, of course, brought entirely out of the realm of Nature. In short, it is a poem of marriage—a poem of sexuality made social and sanctified (as it is also in “A Prayer in Spring,” collected in Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will).

The passage in question, from Kearns' 1994 study of the poet, "Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite" (Cambridge UP).

Katherine Kearns suggests that Frost’s work generalizes this idea, that the poet associates imperatives of form and order with masculinity, and “barrierlessness,” chaos and insubordination with femininity. She concludes that for Frost “the work of manhood” is “to urge control on the uncontrollable, to impose upon its own `femaleness’—that which embodied in women seems to be randomly destructive—moderation and orderliness.” Working from certain insights of French feminist theory, Kearns proposes to gender the dialectic that recurs throughout Frost’s work, a dialectic in which “form” and “wildness” exist in indecisive antagonism (or partnership). If in “Putting in the Seed” spring-time planting and sexual insemination are analogues, then we may draw a broad conclusion. The conflict in Frost’s poetry between insubordinate natural forces and the forms he imposes on them is always also, indirectly and residually, a conflict between the feminine and the masculine, or between feminine and masculine subject positions: to speak for order and culture is to speak as the Father, to speak for insubordination and nature is to speak as Woman.

In a chapter about early agricultural myths, Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex: “The Other—she is passivity confronting activity, diversity that destroys unity, matter as opposed to form, disorder against order.” Beauvoir then quotes an invidious passage from Pythagoras: “`There is a good principle, which has created order, light, and man; and a bad principle, which has created chaos, darkness, and woman.'” These oppositions (though not these judgments) certainly govern “The Birthplace,” a seldom-discussed lyric from Frost’s 1928 volume West-Running Brook:

Min, an Ancient Egyptian fertility god dating from the 4th millennium BCE. Often represented with an erect phallus, and with his upheld arm holding a flail (a device for threshing grain or corn). Min was the god of reproduction; in other forms, he was the creator of all things.

Here further up the mountain slope
Than there was ever any hope,
My father built, enclosed a spring,
Strung chains of wall round everything,
Subdued the growth of earth to grass,
And brought our various lives to pass.
A dozen girls and boys we were.
The mountain seemed to like the stir,
And made of us a little while—
With always something in her smile.
Today she wouldn’t know our name.
(No girl’s, of course, has stayed the same.)
The mountain pushed us off her knees.
And now her lap is full of trees.

Simone de Beauvoir (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Most remarkable is what “The Birthplace” omits to mention, as Kearns points out: the mother that presumably had something to do with “bringing” a dozen girls and boys “to pass.” The poem concerns instead—and this quite literally—the Founding Father. “The Birthplace” seems written out of the dispensation Beauvoir describes early in The Second Sex: “With the advent of patriarchal institutions, the male laid eager claim to his posterity. It was still necessary to grant the mother a part in procreation, but it was conceded only that she carried and nourished the living seed, created by the father alone.” Even so, the name of the mother is repressed only inefficiently in “The Birthplace,” as Frost subtly acknowledges. In fact, her role is not so much repressed as displaced onto the mountain itself, which the father “husbands” and makes fertile, rather like the man in “Putting in the Seed,” and which “pushes” the children off her “knees” once they have grown. The displacement—or repression, if you want to be more pretentious about it—of the mother issues, I think, from fear: that is what the sardonic, quietly troubling smile of the mountain-mother is meant to suggest. She is enigmatic and only temporarily subject to mastery. In any case, the allegory could hardly be clearer. This homestead is an enclave of patriarchal order imposed on an unruly but nonetheless potentially productive feminine landscape. Moving to a higher level of abstraction we can see that the feminine, as “The Birthplace” implies, is only partly and ephemerally susceptible to masculine orders that would “subdue” it. The “stay” against wilderness figured in “The Birthplace” is but “momentary,” a quality that associates it with “the figure a poem makes” in Frost’s well-known formulation. The father of this poem is therefore, at least provisionally, also a “father-poet.” So far as the father-poet is concerned, to bring a life to pass and to bring a poem to pass are cognate endeavors: both entail “a momentary stay against confusion” (as he phrases it in “The Figure a Poem Makes”). But as always in Frost something escapes the father’s government. In his work the written word is promiscuous and metamorphic, as Kearns and others have argued; it is therefore also “feminine,” at least as “The Birthplace” figures these things. The writing of poetry becomes the subordination to order—to the rule of the father—of this “feminine” unruliness. As Beauvoir definitively puts it: “It is male activity that in creating values has made of existence itself a value; this activity has prevailed over the confused forces of life; it has subdued Nature and Woman.”

The last two stanzas of "Salutation the Second," from Pound's 1916 collection "Lustra."

Ezra Pound in 1913, photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Frost had certainly arrived at a “muscular” poetics, though he (unlike Ezra Pound in Lustra) had the good taste not to “dance the dance of the phallus” outright. And yet he arrived at it only at a certain cost of which he remained, I believe, acutely aware: the “occlusion” of what was insubordinately “feminine” in his own temperament. Frost may associate his work as a poet with the work of the father-figures in “The Birthplace” and “Putting in the Seed.” But he can also imagine himself as vulnerable in specifically “feminine” ways. His sexual personae remain relatively fluid and mercurial, as he often adopts “subject positions” marked by femininity, as Kearns might say. In his best writing Frost remains in play. He felt the tyranny of what he understood to be the masculine, and is as often on the feminine side of the mountain in “The Birthplace” as on the masculine side of the father and the plow. He remains as much elusive as imperial. Kearns gets it about right: “The resolute `masculine’ combatant informed by the essential absurdity of the game he nonetheless plays, Frost generates poetic love from the lips with a wiliness that transcends the stereotypes of gender, even while his characters resolve themselves into just such manly men and hysterical women as one might expect.”

The poem, as it appeared in the first American edition of "A Boy's Will" (1915).

Frost’s reasons for arriving at a muscular poetics differ somewhat from Pound’s, say, in Lustra. For Frost, human affection and sexual love—and also the poetic creativity associated with both—find their grounds in a sort of Lucretian naturalism. Sexual attraction exists on a continuum with the natural forces even of magnetism and gravity. “A Prayer in Spring” says of the season it petitions: “For this is love and nothing else is love.” “Love” is used here in a specifically Lucretian sense. The alliance of human sexual energies and the resurgent energies of spring, as when the sap rises, is unmistakable. In “making love,” that is, we fulfill the larger ends of nature and of “God” in nature. We become, in fact, a part of nature, no longer alienated from it. The reference in the last stanza of the poem to “God above,” and to the “sanctity” he bestows on human couplings, implies a further context of heterosexual marriage (which the poem may naturalize). But bear in mind how little interest the poem shows in the super-natural, and how much it devotes to the natural. That last stanza brackets the super-natural off from our concerns, with its “far ends.” I cannot assimilate this “god” to anything recognizably Christian. Frost’s work generally won’t allow for that (quite the contrary, in fact).

Page one of "Lustra," on which Pound ostentatiously sets his phallic/Centaur flags flying.

In any case, it would be difficult to distinguish the specifically Lucretian elements of this poem’s sexual “ideology” (if the term applies) from elements more particular to Frost’s American cultural and familial situations. But it seems safe to say that Frost’s poetry of masculine sexuality promises to transcend the arguments about gender and the poet’s vocation that clearly limit Pound’s more polemical lyrics in Lustra. This promise accounts for the lack of polemic in “Putting in the Seed,” “The Birthplace,” “A Prayer in Spring,” “The Figure a Poem Makes,” and related works—a lack all the more noticeable when we compare them to “Salutation the Second” or “Tenzone,” where Pound so forthrightly “dances the dance of the phallus.”

Moreover, the women represented in Frost’s poetry typically have a coherence, complexity, and integrity seldom encountered in T.S. Eliot‘s and Pound’s writing. It is as if Eliot and Pound somehow couldn’t see women—went in fear of them—and therefore couldn’t represent them. One never has this impression while reading Frost’s best poetry. Eliot may pine for a love poetry such as Donne wrote, a poetry of a truly “associated sensibility.” But we have it in full flower in many of Frost’s lyrics, where the languages of sexuality and courtship are in the largest sense also philosophical and aesthetic in concern. He is a writer who might well have read Spinoza (or Lucretius), fallen in love and understood the two experiences as “organically” unified. (I have in mind Eliot’s often-quoted remarks in “Tradition and the Individual Talent“: “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; m the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”)

Detail, cover of the first edition of "North of Boston."

All the same, Frost’s poems of the 1910s are touched at times by an evident desire to codify gender rather than scrutinize it. His poems can therefore seem oddly off-balance. A good example of this occurs in the dramatic poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” which depends upon sharply drawn and entirely re-assuring distinctions between “feminine” and “masculine” responses to its central dramatic situation: the reappearance at the farm of an aged hired hand. In passages like the following, Frost’s language, notwithstanding its colloquial idiom, loses the verve and tension of his finest writing in North of Boston—or at least it does to my ear. “Warren,” the wife says, “he has come home to die: / You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.” To which the husband replies with a single word, “mocking gently”: “Home.” “Yes, what else but home?” replies his wife. “It all depends on what you mean by home. / Of course he’s nothing to us, any more / Than was the hound that came a stranger to us / Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.” Whereupon follow a few of the best-known lines ever penned. The husband speaks first: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” Then the wife: “I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Extract from "The Death of the Hired Man" (first edition, 1914)

This passage fairly sums up what the poem thinks about gender. Masculinity includes justice and reason; femininity, mercy and emotion. The poem is perfectly intelligible in these terms, which is probably why it earned the place of esteem it has always held in genteel American culture. The lines about home belong on a sampler and have no doubt found a place there in many houses. “The Death of the Hired Man” is always reassuring. In later years Frost used to cheapen it somewhat with remarks such as these in the Paris Review interview he did with Richard Poirier: “In `The Death of the Hired Man’ that I wrote long, long ago, long before the New Deal, I put it two ways about home. One would be the manly way: `Home is the place where, when you go there, They have to take you in.’ That’s the man’s feeling about it. And then the wife says, `I should have called it / Something you somehow hadn’t to deserve.’ That’s the New Deal, the feminine way of it, the mother way. You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.” Even so rigid a scheme as this, when imposed on the poem, does little injustice to its complexities. To my ear, its lines are at times too fully accredited, too self-satisfactory, though it has beautiful moments. “The Death of the Hired Man” provides an example of a kind of thinking Frost describes, in a well-known letter to Louis Untermeyer, as “formulaic.” Much more unstable and intriguing, with regard to questions of gender, are poems like “A Hundred Collars,” “The Grindstone,” “The Last Mowing” and “The Code,” which acquire a purchase on the language of gender not found in “The Death of the Hired Man.” In the latter poem, the writing is perhaps too fully invested in that language; in the former poems, the writing assesses as well as speaks it, and thereby suggests unformulaic possibilities that lie beyond the boundaries of form and custom.

Intimations of a muscular poetics of the sort practiced by Pound occur often in Frost’s prose writings. There, we find ample evidence of Frost’s efforts to reposition the vocation of poetry within a specifically masculine arena and to develop a muscular poetics of his own. A good example of these efforts is “Some Definitions By Robert Frost,” a collection of remarks that first appeared in a brochure released by his publisher under the title Robert Frost: The Man and His Work (1923), and which was later reprinted in various publicity materials and on the dust-jackets of his books. These brief remarks provide a fine example of a public persona that Frost often adopted as a poet.

Sometimes I have my doubts of words altogether, and I ask myself what is the place of them. They are worse than nothing unless they do something; unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle-cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal. My definition of poetry (if I were forced to give one) would be this: words that have become deeds.

This is an ingratiating example of Frost’s “social repositioning” of poetry—an example of how, in certain situations, he “takes himself” as a writer. He speaks here in his most readily available voice, his most popular and highly socialized voice. Assertive, honest, sincere, so direct as to “doubt of words altogether”—quite a remark for a poet to make. He will define poetry only if “forced” to do so, though this only begs a question. Who is forcing him to do it here?—for define it he does. The self-assured (if nonetheless embattled) tone almost discourages us from dwelling too much on the attractive vagueness of the claims actually being made in this passage. How is a poem specifically like a “battle cry” or an “ultimatum”? Why the martial metaphors? In what sense is a poem a “deed”?

Cover of the paperback currently in print (University of California Press).

In speaking of “ultimatums” and “battle cries” Frost seems instinctively to understand Kenneth Burke‘s point in Counter-Statement: “If the aesthetic had no purpose outside itself, the corollary seemed to be that the aesthetic had no result outside itself. Logically there was no cogency in such an argument, but psychologically there was a great deal.” In “Some Definitions” Frost affirms the “psychological cogency” of this idea. Words, and by extension poems, are “worse than nothing unless they do something, unless they amount to deeds.” His frame of reference and stoic tone recognizably belong to the competitive, masculine world of American business. We are on the “battle field,” at the poker table. Women may write poetry but by the logic of gender they cannot write poetry of precisely this kind. Moreover, Frost’s “definition” of poetry remarkably leaves out of account all the seductive, charming, sensuous, merely pleasurable satisfactions that the writing and reading of poetry afford—satisfactions that had been gendered “feminine” in American culture. If in America “poetry” named a vocation from which masculinity had been alienated, then definitions such as Frost’s reposition poetry in such a way as noticeably to alienate femininity. Here, poetry is the sublimation of aggressive instincts—something like the “moral equivalent of war,” to adapt William James‘s well-known phrase—as Frost’s masculine poet-figure engages in what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.” I am thinking of remarks like the following, from Roosevelt’s famous book of that title: “We need,” he writes, “the iron qualities that must go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must always be done.”

Roosevelt in his deer-skin hunting suit, and with his Tiffany-carved hunting knife and rifle. Posed photograph, George Grantham Baine, 1885, New York City.

But naming poetry as the stuff of battle-cries, ultimatums or athletics is not entirely characteristic of Frost, as is clear from a letter he wrote to Louis Untermeyer in 1924: “I have come to the conclusion that style in prose or verse is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. I own any form of humor shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a kind of guardedness. So is a twinkle. It keeps the reader from criticism. Humor is the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out of gunshot.” Frost perfectly describes his own poetic and epistolary style—how he “takes himself” as a writer, at least in this instance. Nothing could be further from the evasive genius of this “most engaging cowardice” than the talk, in “Some Definitions by Robert Frost,” of ultimatums and battle-cries. In the letter to Untermeyer, Frost is thinking more of the bluff in poker than of the “showdown.” And in sharp contrast to Frost’s placement of poetry on a masculine battlefield are these remarks from a talk he gave in 1959: “My own idea of poetry isn’t of its climbing on top of the earth. Nor is it of its sitting on top of the earth nor of its standing on top of the earth but of its reclining on top of the earth and giving way to its moods. Like a spoiled actress, you know, the day after she has been on stage, reclining on top of the world and giving way to her moods.” The calling of poetry is here associated not merely with femininity but with a particularly campy sort of femininity—a sexual persona Frost rarely adopted in print (an exception is “The Last Mowing,” discussed below). With these other descriptions of the work of poetry before us, “Some Definitions of Robert Frost” seems all the more characterized, even anxiously so, by a virile masculine ethos. Vocationally speaking, the assertiveness of the language in “Some Definitions” is itself already somewhat embarrassed. Frost seems to acknowledge that poetry is not usually “work” at all: “Sometimes I have my doubts of words altogether, and I ask myself what is the place of them. They are worse than nothing unless they do something.”

In comparing Frost’s definition of poetry in Robert Frost: The Man and His Work to the one given in the letter to Untermeyer we should bear in mind that the former is offered publicly, in the commercial context of his publisher’s advertisement of his writing, while the latter is made privately to an intimate friend who was among his best readers. It is difficult to imagine Frost representing his art as a “most engaging cowardice” in any publicity brochure released by his publisher in 1923. The noticeably, even reassuringly masculine language of “Some Definitions of Robert Frost” perfectly and intuitively reflects his desire to socialize his art among the very broad constituency of the American “general reader”—a category that might include such “big bold businessmen” as Frost later spoke of in a 1938 letter to R.P.T. Coffin. When writing for purposes of establishing that constituency in the early years of his career, Frost probably somewhat too anxiously acknowledged these gendered vocational criteria. This may help explain his exaggeration of a masculine ethos that is nevertheless present, in an attenuated form, in many of his other definitions of poetry. The contrast I draw here between his remarks in the brochure and his remarks to Untermeyer may be yet another example of the contrast between the two audiences Frost was always trying to reach: a general readership who might not be alert to the subtle insubordinations of his strong writing, and a much more elite sort of reader who undoubtedly would. Frost associated a certain flirtatiousness with poetry, and with the feminine, that simply cannot be assimilated to rigorously masculine vocational ideals, which is why his remarks in “Some Definitions” and his remarks in the 1924 letter to Untermeyer simply cannot be reconciled. A chain of opposed terms emerges in his discourse: public/private, serious/humorous, masculine/feminine, committed/evasive, rational/emotional, self-controlled/self-indulgent, and orderly/chaotic. The first in each pair of terms bears on the “masculine” posture struck in “Some Definitions,” the second on the “feminine” posture struck in the remarks about the “spoiled actress,” in “The Last Mowing,” which precedes “The Birthplace, and in which Frost adopts a strikingly feminine persona (I’ll get to that soon).

Cover of the Cambridge University Press edition of 1994.

Partly, I suppose I’m simply trying to explain why Frost’s ideal audience, as Frank Lentricchia describes it, would be “a skeptical and even scoffing masculinized audience whose American cultural formation had made it resistant to poetic reception, but which might receive him in its depth if his were the verse of a writer who is all man and whose poetry does not present itself under the conventional genteel sign of poetry.” His 1942 letter to Lawrance Thompson reveals that Frost believed, at least in certain moods, that he had achieved this aim. It contains another representative anecdote, which, like the one he told to R.P.T. Coffin in 1938, seems to sum up something significant about his own vocational ordeal: “Did I ever tell you how his daughter once caught a magnate reading my NoB [North of Boston] early one morning before he thought anyone was up. Why father she stinted, I thought you never read poetry. This isn’t poetry he said crossly throwing it into the open fire. The great object of great art is to fool the average man in his first or second childhood into thinking it isnt art.” The idea of art is itself the problem to be gotten around, quite as if poetry as such had been compromised beyond recovery as an institution of masculine resort. Frost’s interest, here, is entirely in the “average man,” not in the daughter whom he can, as a poet, simply take for granted. And this time the tables are very satisfactorily turned: the business “magnate,” not Frost, is made to feel ashamed of “poetry.” Frost does not reveal where he heard the anecdote, but he must have been oddly gratified to hear any businessman say of a book he had authored: “This isn’t poetry.” Hardly ideal, it is nevertheless considerably better than: “Hell! My wife writes that stuff.” The latter remark issues a categorical judgment about poetry’s “feminine” irrelevance; the former remark makes a particular judgment about the newly gendered power of North of Boston, the book in which Frost had “descended” (as Frank Lentricchia would say) farthest into the masculine vernacular. In Modernist Quartet, Lentricchia speaks of the success Frost had “in breaking through the genteel lyric, as if through a cultural chastity belt, a vernacular descent from which [E.C.] Stedman and other genteel cultural critics had outlawed the conversational voice.” Frost would have agreed with his business magnate that North of Boston wasn’t “poetry.” He had arrived at a literary appeal that depended (partly) on what I might call the humiliation of literariness itself.

“The Last Mowing” bears interestingly on these questions. It precedes “The Birthplace” in West-Running Brook and constitutes, even at the level of form, a feminine alternative to that poem’s more “phallocentric” implications. Katherine Kearns suggests—though not in connection with this particular poem—that “the iambic foot becomes in Frost’s poetry a kind of moral baseline, a strong voice. . . The anapest and the dactyl become in this context not merely melodic variations but markers of weakness.” Additionally, “feminine rhymes, with their implication of passivity, tend in this iambic context inevitably to designate a departure from seriousness or from control.” Astute remarks, and in light of them we can see how remarkably “The Last Mowing” differs from “The Birthplace.”

Frost, revisiting the old meadow at the farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where he lived from 1900-1909 (photograph in the Lotte Jacobi collection, University of New Hampshire).

“The Last Mowing”

There’s a place called Far-away Meadow
We never shall mow in again,
Or such is the talk at the farmhouse:
The meadow is finished with men.
Then now is the chance for the flowers
That can’t stand mowers and plowers.
It must be now, though, in season
Before the not mowing brings trees on,
Before trees, seeing the opening,
March into a shadowy claim.
The trees are all I’m afraid of,
That flowers can’t bloom in the shade of;
It’s no more the men I’m afraid of;
The meadow is done with the tame.
The place for the moment is ours
For you, oh tumultuous flowers,
To go to waste and go wild in,
All shapes and colors of flowers,
I needn’t call you by name.

Instead of the iambic rhythms on which Frost most often depends, we find anapestic triplets lightly supporting three-beat lines: triplets within triplets, for a delicately turned lyric waltz. We also find, significantly I think, fourteen feminine, that is to say unstressed, endings out of nineteen total lines. The levity of the meter, and of the feminine endings, contributes much to the tone of the poem, as well as to our feeling about its speaker’s identity and gender. We might suppose that a child speaks here, and that we are to understand his feeling of solidarity with the flowers (as against the “mowers and plowers”) as one of youth against age, or pleasure against responsibility. No doubt some of that is in the poem. But attending to the language of gender—and to the gender of prosody—suggests another, likelier possibility: that the speaker is marked more importantly by femininity than by youth. We are certainly asked to think of the mowers and plowers that oppose the speaker as preeminently, aggressively masculine; this is what “The Last Mowing” notices about them. And these men, these mowers and plowers, contend for dominion over the flowering field, as in a battle, with trees that are themselves grimly proprietary martial figures who “march into a shadowy claim.”

Frost, in the fields of his Derry farm in 1907.

My sense is that Frost is engaging, here, in some literary cross-dressing—if I may so phrase it, without prejudice entirely. “The Last Mowing” speaks from and to that place in Frost’s personality that had been forced into occlusion by the practical and assertive mores of American masculinity (as these latter work in the business man’s rejoinder to Frost: Poetry? “Hell, my wife writes that stuff”). The speaker of “The Last Mowing” likes her flowers wild and most definitely unsubdued and unproductive: “The place for the moment is ours / For you, oh tumultuous flowers, / To go to waste and go wild in.” These are what Frost might call, to refer to a letter he wrote from England in 1913 to his American friend Sidney Cox, “un-utilitarian” flowers, and there is nothing particularly masculine about them. “I like that about the English,” Frost says, “they all have time to dig the ground for the unutilitarian flower. I mean the men. It marks the great difference between them and our men. I like flowers you know but I like em wild, and I am rather the exception than the rule in an American village. Far as I have walked in pursuit of the Cypripedium, I have never met another in the woods on the same quest. Americans will dig for peas and beans and such like utilities but not if they know it for posies.” So far is the speaker of “The Last Mowing” from masculinity, at least as these documents seem to understand it, that she refuses even the mildly proprietary, imperial gesture of “naming” the flowers. Alone in the woods, together with her unutilitarianly “wasted” flowers, Frost’s speaker is released, if only for a moment, from the dominion and oversight of men, from the petty tyrannies of masculinity, and “exempt,” at a still more general level, from the disciplined language of “self-control” (to borrow again from Adam Phillips). “The place for the moment is ours,” she says, “For you, oh tumultuous flowers, / To go to waste and go wild in.” The release from discipline is suggested even in the rhythm of the poem, which is, for Frost, remarkably vagrant and irregular. This lyric constitutes a moment of flirtatious levity indulged in just prior to the ironic but forcefully iambic evocation of patriarchal discipline in “The Birthplace.” Reading “The Last Mowing” persuades me that the burly postures Frost sometimes strikes in his accounts of the poetic vocation—a good example is his claim, in that 1921 brochure, that the poet’s words “must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal”—are probably maintained through considerable, or at least noticeable, exertions.

Lana Turner (1921–1995)

Remember always Frost’s coy personification of poetry as a “spoiled actress” in that 1959 talk: “My own idea of poetry isn’t of its climbing on top of the earth. Nor is it of its sitting on top of the earth nor of its standing on top of the earth but of its reclining on top of the earth and giving way to its moods. Like a spoiled actress, you know, the day after she has been on stage, reclining on top of the world and giving way to her moods.” So much for effort and self-control. Moods are always unaccountable. In any case, “The Last Mowing” registers the relaxation of masculine exertions and does so with a tact communicated as much in the poem’s delicate form as in its theme. And if Frost identifies with plowers and mowers, he is thinking not of the ominous mowers figured in this poem (and revived in “The Birthplace”), but of the mower whom his speaker succeeds in the early poem “A Tuft of Flowers”: that “mower in the dew” loves flowers so much that he un-utilitarianly leaves a tuft of them behind, as a kind of signature, to “flourish” from “sheer morning gladness at the brim.” As Frost liked to point out, this kind of mowing is a figure—one of them anyway—for the work a poet does. Within the given terms of our culture, there’s nothing particularly masculine about it. Frost arrives at a poetics of androgyny. His mower-poets are always also slightly feminine—as much on the side of the flowers of the field as on the side of the order that would subdue and master them. That position was very hard to hold in a cultural regime (the early 20th century) whose conception of gender was rigorously binary—a cultural regime, that is to say, which could not tolerate the idea that masculine and feminine dispositions dialectically contain one another. That Frost could tolerate it is clear from the two poems we’ve been examining here. Poetry is set over against the assertion of masculinity, as in “The Last Mowing,” and is at the same time associated with the assertion of masculine discipline and order, as in “The Birthplace.”

The foregoing remarks have, I believe, some general implications for literary theory, at least as Frost practiced it. These implications are brought out clearly when we read William Empson’s remarks in the conclusion to his 1930 book Seven Types of Ambiguity (he is quoting a passage from the introduction to an anthology called Oxford Poetry):

Cover of Empson's landmark book, first published in 1930.

There is a ‘logical conflict, between the denotary and the connotatory sense of words; between, that is to say, an asceticism tending to kill language by stripping words of all association and a hedonism tending to kill language by dissipating their sense under a multiplicity of associations.’ The methods I have been using seem to assume that all poetical language is debauched into associations to any required degree; I ought at this point to pay decent homage to the opposing power. Evidently all the subsidiary meanings must be relevant, because anything (phrase, sentence, or poem) meant to be considered as a unit must be unitary, must stand for a single order of the mind. . . . I believe that the methods I have been describing are very useful to critics, but certainly they leave a poet in a difficult position. Even in prose the belief in them is liable to produce a sort of doctrinaire sluttishness; one is tempted to set down a muddle in the hope that it will convey the meaning more immediately.

The idea expressed here is that truly “poetic” writing tends toward the promiscuously fertile, towards being “debauched” even to the point of what Empson calls “sluttishness.” This is not, to be sure, the same thing Frost has in mind in likening poetry to a spoiled actress, but the two ideas are hardly unrelated: they concern a certain flirtatious self-indulgence. That poetry is promiscuous explains why it must be ordered by some force equally characteristic of true poetry, why it must be subordinated to a totalizing and “unitary” pressure. Simone de Beauvoir would recognize what is meant here. The ordering imperative is masculine, while the sumptuous fertility is feminine (that is the inevitable implication of the pejorative adjective “sluttish”). Over against the “sluttishness” or wildness of poetic discourse is set a kind of sumptuary law meant to control and discipline a feminine tendency toward connotation and unreason. There must be mowers and plowers in the field of poetry just as surely as there must be the waste and riot of wild flowers. The marching orders are clear. String chains of wall round everything and bring the growth of earth to grass. Poetry must have its discipline to set over against its tendency to languish and flirt like (in Frost’s odd figure) a decadent Hollywood starlet. The idea seems to be that poetry rightly marks a kind of happy marriage of “masculine” and “feminine” tendencies, though perhaps—I have to say it—with the former set slightly above the latter (in unhappy Pauline fashion).† Above I spoke of Frost’s poetics of androgyny. But it is better to say that he aims for something like a marriage of opposites in his poetics. Feminine and masculine are names which he—and the culture of which he is a part—assigns to two opposed tendencies toward, on the one hand, dissipation, relaxation of energy, and contingency, and, on the other hand, toward rigor, hierarchy and balance. Let me recur to the terms Adam Phillips uses in his wonderful book On Flirtation: “The contingent self enjoins us to imagine a life without blaming, a life exempt from the languages of effort and self-control.” Frost’s “selves,” his personae, are contingent in this sense. “Feminine” and “masculine,” for him, name two essentially opposed attitudes toward “the language of effort and self-control”—the one favoring its exemption, the other favoring its assertion. He who knows not both attitudes knows neither.

Please bear in mind that here, and throughout this entry, “feminine” and “masculine” refer to nothing essential. They refer to cultural dispositions and habits of thought peculiar to the decades when Frost was writing. For other entries in The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to Frost, click here.

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