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Was Robert Frost a Great Poet?

Robert Frost is one of the most popular and widely read of our modern poets, and during his life he received a number of honors for his poetry, but was he a great poet? This question is explored in Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by James M. Cox

In Cox's collection of critical essays, published in 1962 (well after Frost's reputation was established), the question of Robert Frost's stature as a poet is explored. While few would question that Frost was an important poet, whether or not his work stands on par with the poetry of Eliot, Yeats and Auden is the central issue tackled in this book. So that you know my bias, let me state at the outset, that like many other readers, I too enjoy Frost's poetry. In Cox's collection of essays, some of the critics make a case for his greatness, and some take the view that his limitations, that is, his lack of an overarching vision of reality, keep him from reaching the airy heights of our great poets.

Two of the most compelling critiques in the book are Nitchie's and Lynen's, these coming to opposite conclusions. Nitchie makes the case that Frost's poetry, unlike that of Eliot and Yeats, was limited by the lack of a well-elaborated and unified vision of reality and man, and so, at best, is only able to offer isolated insights, and often unclear moral attitudes. Nitchie points out that this limitation is embedded in Frost's theory of poetry, in which a poem's logic develops "after the fact," with the poet only achieving "a momentary stay against confusion."

Lynen, in contrast to Nitchie, argues that Frost stands on par with the Symbolist poets of the twentieth century, in exploring the issue of man's relationship to his world. The chief difference between Frost and the other great modern poets, according to Lynen, is that he chose pastoral settings as the metaphorical framework for his ideas. For Frost, he argues, nature is an image of the world of circumstances in which man finds himself, and in his poems of man and nature, Frost is exploring the problem of the parallel and disparate realities of our inner experience and values, and the outer, objective world reducible to particles and physical events.

Did Frost achieve the rank of a great poet? This question in Cox's book is ultimately left up to the reader to decide. So much in poetry is in the eye of the beholder. While on the one hand, Frost's poetry does not rest on a systemic vision of man that embodies obvious moral implications, on the other hand, his poetry has an appealing clarity on first encounter that is often lacking in the works of Eliot and Yeats. I recall studying Eliot's, "The Waste Land," in my university days, and as we slogged through the esoteric symbols, I could not help thinking that if the understanding of a poem required an academic degree, then had not the poet failed in his endeavor? Was Eliot not acknowledging this failure when he peppered his work with endless footnotes? Perhaps it is little wonder that modern poetry has largely been abandoned by the general reading public, now finding its primary audience in university classrooms and amongst other poets.

Frost's work appealed to a wide audience to a large degree because of its colloquial approach and familiar subject matter. This is not, of course, to say, that all the poems of Frost are easy to understand, for good poetry always requires effort, but the outward clarity of his verse engages the reader to move down deeper and not give up too quickly. The greater autonomy of meaning, and hence, greater accessibility of Frost's poems, as compared to the poetry of Eliot and Yeats, more readily opens a common ground of experience between the poet and the reader, and perhaps this has more value than any elaborate system of reality hidden in symbols too obscure to adequately appreciate.

I should emphasize that Cox's book is more for the individual who has a dedicated interest in understanding poetry more deeply, and I would not recommend it to the recreational reader. For the serious student of poetry, however, Cox's book is a stimulating examination of what elevates poetry to a higher level.

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