Robert Frost and the sound of sense
The 26th March marks the birthday of Robert Frost, one of the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century. Frost is often remembered for the strong use of metre he adopts in his poetry; criticizing contemporary poets who composed in free verse, he wrote that ‘tennis with the net down is not tennis’ – thus poetry without metre is no poetry at all. He also famously asserted, in a letter of 1913, that his own writings draw upon the ‘sound’ of sense:
I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense… The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words… it is the abstract vitality of our speech.
This is not quite as original an idea as Frost might have us think – after all, Alexander Pope wrote, in his 1711 poem ‘Essay on Criticism’, that in good poetry ‘The sound must seem an echo to the sense’. But the notion that Frost’s poems in some way make meaningful music, that there is some attempted mirroring of sound and sense in his work, does cast light on his thinking – and it also illuminates the unusual words we find alongside his name in the Oxford English Dictionary. Let us, then, try to listen to some of Frost’s words.
Nature Poetics and Rural Language
One of the easiest things to hear in Frost’s poems is his frequent adherence to simple, rural language and common parlance. Frost is known for poems that focus on natural subjects and rural folk, and of his frequent (though not constant) adoption of simple and idiomatic American language – to this extent, he can be understood as a poet who draws upon the traditions of British Romanticism, with its emphasis on nature poetry and speaking in ‘the real language of men’ (as Wordsworth put it). These themes meet in his most well-known works, such as ‘The Road Not Taken’:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Across this poem, there are no technical words nor oddities of the English language; the style is plain, the words crisp. It is his commitment to this style that finds rural or natural-themed words entering into Frost’s writing. The OED mentions Frost’s name alongside words such as ‘door-yard’, a US term for a small back garden, ‘jewel-weed’, a North American herb, and, most tellingly, ‘book-farmer’ – a derisive word that distinguishes between the positive education of a farmer who has learnt from experiences of nature, and the apparently negative education of book learning. Frost’s name, rather fittingly, also sits alongside the noun ‘ice-storm’ and the adjective ‘winter-blue’.
Frost also provides example for some charming colloquialisms, for instance ‘everywhichway’, and the dialect term ‘who-all’. He similarly appears alongside ‘monkeyshine’, an American word for a prank or trick. But surely his most remarkable colloquialism must be the one for which Frost is cited as first example, and perhaps inventor. Comparing Ezra Pound, who had fallen out of Frost’s favour, with himself, he writes: ‘My contribution was the witticisms: yours the shitticisms’. What an extraordinary act of criticism, the vulgar word ‘shitticism’.
The Sound of Metrical Sense
But when speaking of the ‘sound’ of sense in Frost it would be remiss to not consider his metrical art. The poem ‘Directive’ of 1947 plays with sound by way of pattern and interruption. It is steadfast in its use of metre, as the following lines make clear:
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
These lines, all entirely monosyllabic, help to give a sense of the rigidity of Frost’s iambic pentameter – five pairs of syllables per line, each pair consisting of an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. ‘Upon a farm that is no more a farm’. The effect is almost hypnotic, and the strong rhythm carries the reader on through the poem. In a sense, being carried along against your will is half the point here, as subsequent lines make clear: ‘if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost’. The point of the poem, and the meaning in its title of ‘Directive’, is to misdirect or mislead – to lead astray. With the steadiness of the rhythm in mind, we follow the poem until we hit this set of lines:
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
The genius of these lines lies in the length of the middle one: it’s too short. However you try to read it, ‘Someone’s road home from work this once was’ is a syllable short of the expectation the poem has built. Reading the lines aloud it’s impossible not to hear this effect, in what is surely a poet’s joke: the incomplete metrical foot comes just before the reader is told that the imagined person is ‘just ahead of you on foot’ – as if we are a foot short in both senses. Reading these lines is like solving a cryptic crossword. Frost is leaving us behind and helping us lose our sense of place in the rhythmic structure of his poem; through a subtle interruption in the sound of his words, the direction of ‘Directive’ tends towards disorientation.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbours
Frost’s poetry is as fresh and vital today as it was when he wrote it. Despite being over a century old now, his ‘Mending Wall’, to us in 2017, might seem more significant than ever. It tells of two neighbours, repairing the old stone wall that runs along the boundary of their properties. The narrator constantly questions the project, whilst the other simply replies that ‘good fences make good neighbours’. I’ll leave off with the following stirring lines:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.