A Lover's Quarrel with the World

Jay Parini
Robert Frost: A Life
Henry Holt

Of all the major American poets, Robert Frost walked the most. Indeed, the enduring image of the poet is that of a provincial bard wandering the frozen fields of New England, scowling every bird, tree, and fence post into submission. Frost biographies, too, have run a long and circuitous gamut, from fawning hagiographies penned during the poet's lifetime to Lawrence Thompson's exhaustive 1966 exposé, which might have been aptly titled Robert Frost: Nasty, Egomaniacal Monster. Thompson knew Frost as intimately as any of his contemporaries--the poet chose him as his authorized biographer--but Thompson's portrait of the man was undoubtedly colored by personal bias: He was sleeping with Frost's mistress and eventually came to dislike his subject intensely. Jay Parini, the latest academic to tread the well-beaten path of Frost scholarship, had no such intimate familiarity with the man and obviously likes the poet a great deal. With this devout reverence and a landslide of biographical detail, Parini's Robert Frost: A Life tries to polish the poet's reputation to a glossy sheen.

It's not surprising that Robert Frost has been subjected to such strenuous critical scrutiny. Aside from being the country's poet laureate until his death in 1963, Frost had a mile-wide narcissistic streak. He loved to talk when his life and work were the subject of conversation, and he was careful to build and maintain an immaculate public image. He would probably be overjoyed with Parini's meticulously detailed narration of his formative early years in San Francisco, his perfunctory dalliances with organized education at Dartmouth and Harvard, and his eventual labors as a gentleman farmer north of Boston. Frost might not mind that Parini includes data like the poet's marks in grade school and the number of chickens on the Frost farm. Indeed, Frost himself is the only person who could possibly care about such trivia.

It's hard to fault Parini for his research, although the fact that most of the information in his book has appeared in previous Frost biographies steals some of the luster from the accomplishment. More original and considerably more interesting is Parini's exegesis of Frost's poetry. Many early biographers assessed the poet's body of work as a naked confession of melancholy and existential despair. In lieu of such conjecture, Parini uses Frost's early poems like "Hyla Brook" and "To Earthward" to trace the evolution of the poet's vivid descriptive faculty and vernacular voice. Instead of using the poetry to expose a tortured soul, Parini lets the poems stand as the purposeful creations of an artist.

For example, of the elegiac and deceptively deep "For Once, Then, Something," a reflection on the Narcissus myth, Parini writes eloquently: "As a poem, it ranks as one of Frost's most intricate pieces of verse making; to a degree, it represents his response to critics who saw him as a country bumpkin whose poems did not see much beyond the 'shining surface' of rural life, with himself at the center. The image of Narcissus is implied, with the poet looking into the well (of memory?) and seeing himself 'in the summer heaven godlike' while wearing a poet's laurels, his head poking through the proverbial clouds."

If Parini seems eager to expose the purposeful contradictions in Frost's writing, however, he is more reticent in addressing the troubling disharmonies of his subject's psyche. He paints Frost as an ambitious poet, industrious farmer, and loving parent where earlier biographers saw a lazy, manipulative, nasty man who borrowed endlessly from friends and family, rarely rose before noon to tend to his chickens, and threw violent tantrums when he inevitably failed as a farmer. In one chilling domestic episode, related in full, lurid detail by Thompson, Frost's young daughter Lesley came into the kitchen in the middle of the night to find her father holding a pistol to her mother's head. Frost demanded that his daughter decide which parent she preferred since one of them would be dead by morning. Parini not only suggests that Lesley dreamt the entire incident, but also clears poor, maligned Frost of any murderous intent: "There is no doubt that on occasion he behaved horribly. But even as Thompson describes it, the scene with the gun is not entirely without a human side...If the scene did actually occur, there was obviously no fear on Elinor's [Frost's wife] part that anybody was really going to get shot."

For all Parini's attempts to rehabilitate Frost's reputation, though, the poet does not emerge entirely unsullied. Even when the biographer is careful to spin events in his subject's favor, Frost's own words reveal a man who was desperate to lodge not only his poems but also his personality where they could not be gotten rid of. Frost's bid for immortality eventually vaulted him to the crest of popular celebrity. He collected a comprehensive pile of trophies for his work and was invited to usher in the new age of American optimism at the 1960 inauguration of JFK. However, the man behind the public image and the troubled personality that only occasionally leaks through Parini's effusions, was indeed wandering in a dark wood. That Frost managed to run one step ahead of oblivion might be his life's greatest achievement.


Jay Parini reads at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, April 28 at the Hungry Mind; (651) 699-0587.

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