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The Chill Factor

ROBERT FROST: A Life;\o7 By Jay Parini; (Henry Holt: 514 pp., $35)\f7

July 25, 1999|BEN DOWNING | Ben Downing is the managing editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review

Whether from heaven, hell or purgatory--his posthumous address remains in hot dispute--Robert Frost must be smiling his wry Yankee smile just now. Here it is almost two score years since he departed the field, and still we're taking his measure. The early, airbrushed view of him as rustic sage has largely given way to a new critical orthodoxy, according to which Frost is a "terrifying poet" (Lionel Trilling outed him as such in 1959). Unlike, say, Longfellow's, his verse has survived its sentimental popularity. That no less than three Nobel magi--Messrs. Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott--recently joined forces to salaam him is sign enough of his durable prestige.

And small wonder. For Frost's poetry, so low-key and perspicuous, comes second to none in virtuosity. At the sonnet, midget Everest of poetry, he excelled; ditto for dramatic monologue. He enjoyed a total mastery over all the technical components of a poem and a rare appreciation of how they mesh. In particular, no poet has more closely pondered his syntax. Frost's sentences are brusque, direct, lightly punctuated--the opposite of Wallace Stevens'--and yet filled with idiosyncratic turns, torques and inversions. Consider only the first lines of three famous poems: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," "She is as in a field a silken tent," "There was never a sound beside the wood but one": The Frostian cast and cadence are unmistakable even here.

Nor has Frost lacked for biographical scrutiny, two full-length lives having appeared in the last three years alone. In fact, Frost biography boasts an acrimonious history all its own, one running roughly parallel to--although perhaps with more switchbacks than--the critical debate. Much as Frost's work has been seen, by turns, as solacing or scary, his life and character have elicited both treacly panegyrics and tart rebukes. It's all a bit like the scrimmage raging over poor Ted Hughes.

The first blow was traitorously struck by Lawrance Thompson, Frost's anointed chronicler. ("It is always Judas who writes the biography," warned Wilde.) From Thompson's three-volume coroner's report, readers were appalled to learn that their beloved old coot actually had been an ogre in rumpled-preppy guise: mean, pathologically competitive and ruinous to his children. Most later biographers have sought to undo the damage wrought by Thompson while avoiding the slack-jawed adulation of his predecessors. But the last one by Jeffrey Meyers (whose book appeared in 1996), threw gossipy fuel on the flames, claiming that Frost, as a widower, took to swiving his amanuensis--as did, ahem, one Lawrance Thompson.

Now, with Jay Parini, the pendulum has swung the other way, almost to a pre-Thompsonian rosiness. As a sympathetic overview of Frost's life and work, Parini's biography is fine and useful, lucid if sometimes flat in its prose and levelheaded in its judgments. Also to its credit, the book is modest of aim; it does not purport to be the Frost biography to end all Frost biographies. Its weaknesses I will take up momentarily. First, however, a resume of the controversial man himself.

The uncontested facts are these: Born in 1874 in, ironically enough, San Francisco, Frost (along with sister Jeanie) was shuttled to Massachusetts by his mother after his father's death in 1885. The next years were tooth and nail: Dependent on the grudging mercies of paternal relatives, the waifish family just got by, and Frost was put to work young. Still he managed to share high school valedictorian honors with Elinor White, whom he married in 1895. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard, academically thriving at both but graduating from neither. There followed a stint as poultry farmer--the attraction to pecking orders is telling--and grower of apples. For five years he taught prep school, honing a heterodox approach to pedagogy that would serve him well.

Then, in 1912, Frost moved his family to England, where his career began in earnest. Ezra Pound, that indefatigable truffle pig, unearthed him and put a booster under his first book of poems, "A Boy's Will." Soon after, Frost fell in with a group of poets cohabiting bucolically in the Dymock region. With Edward Thomas he cemented an especially strong friendship--indeed one of the most intense, mutually profitable and moving to read about in literary history. (Also, sadly, briefest: Thomas was killed in World War I.) "North of Boston," his second volume, was picked up in the United States by Henry Holt, and when Frost returned home in 1915, he found himself the object of considerable buzz.

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