To refer to a group of Frost’s poems as “early” is perhaps problematic: One is tempted to think of the term as relative given that Frost’s first book of poetry appeared when he was already 39. Moreover, Frost’s pattern of withholding poems from publication for long periods of time makes dating his work difficult. Many of the poems of the first book, A Boy’s Will, were, in fact, written long before—a few more than a decade earlier. Likewise, Frost’s later books contain poems almost certainly written in the period discussed in this note. The “Early Poems” considered here are a selection of well known verses published in the eleven years (1913-1923) spanned by Frost’s first four books: A Boy’s Will,North of Boston,Mountain Interval, and New Hampshire.
Frost famously likened the composition of free-verse poetry to playing tennis without a net: it might be fun, but it “ain’t tennis.” You will find only tennis in the poems that follow. And yet, even while Frost worked within form, he also worked the form itself, shaping it by his choice of language and his use of variation. He invented forms, too, when the poem required it. A theme in Frost’s work is the need for some, but not total, freedom—for boundaries, too, can be liberating for the poet, and Frost perhaps knew this better than anyone: No American poet has wrought such memorable, personally identifiable, idiosyncratic poetry from such self-imposed, often traditional formulae.
In these “early” years, Frost was concerned with perfecting what he termed “the sound of sense.” This was “the abstract vitality of our speech...pure sound— pure form”: a rendering, in words, of raw sensory perception. The words, the form of the words, and the sounds they encode are as much the subject of the poem as the subject is. Frost once wrote in a letter that to be a poet, one must “learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre.” Thus, we read “Mowing” and simultaneously hear the swishing and whispering of the scythe; upon reading “Stopping by the Woods,” one clearly hears the sweep of easy wind and downy flake; to read “Birches” is to vividly sense the breezy stir that cracks and crazes the trees’ enamel.
Most of the lyrics treated in this note are relatively short, but Frost also pioneered the long dramatic lyric (represented here by “Home Burial”). These works depict spirited characters of a common, localized stripe: New England farm families, hired men, and backwoods curious characters. The shorter poems are often, understandably, more vague in their characterization, but their settings are no less vivid. Moreover, they integrate form and content to stunning effect.
Frost’s prose output was slight; however, he did manage, in essays such as “The Figure a Poem Makes,” to craft several enduring aphorisms about poetry. In regard to the figure of a poem, or that of a line itself, he wrote: “We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.” A poem, he wrote, aims for “a momentary stay against confusion.” It “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” He claimed that the highest goal of the poet—and it was a goal he certainly achieved—is “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.”