North of Boston

by Jesse Schotter

Robert Frost’s second volume of poetry North of Boston, and the one that, from today’s standpoint, firmly established his literary reputation, was, ironically, published in London in 1914, where it was reviewed and heralded by Ezra Pound. The fact that Frost was residing in England when he composed these New England lyrics demonstrates how Frost, far from being a secluded anti-modernist who removed himself from the metropolitan centers so associated with modernism, was in fact intimately connected with the modernist movement. Indeed, while Frost is often seen and disparaged as a public, popular poet, he actually shares a deeply pessimistic sense of the barriers between individuals—often barriers of language—with such writers as T.S. Eliot, whose notion of the prison-house of the individual self in The Waste Land Frost’s poems often anticipate.

Frost’s technical mastery of blank verse is on full display in North of Boston, as the volume consists largely of dramatic monologues or dialogues in which Frost artfully balances iambic pentameter meter with the conversational rhythms of his speakers. Frost’s interest in the vernacular forms of his characters’ speech further links him with other American modernists, like William Faulkner or Langston Hughes, who likewise sought to incorporate the speech forms of their cultures into literature.

The first and arguably the most famous poem in North of Boston, “Mending Wall,” deals explicitly with the barriers, both physical and linguistic, between individuals, thus serving as a touchstone for the volume. The speaker’s land is separated literally from the land of his neighbor by a stone wall, but, more deeply, by the failure of communication and of language itself. His neighbor “will not go behind his father’s saying” that “Good fences make good neighbors”—he cannot formulate his own language—and thus cannot overcome the misguided tradition of separating the two fields, a tradition that the speaker of the poem calls into question. Even the wall itself is partially linguistically constructed, as the two men “have to use a spell to make it balance.”

This concern with the different ways individuals speak about and understand the same events recurs in the dialogues “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Code,” and “Home Burial.” If, as Frost writes in “The Mountain,” “all the fun’s in how you say a thing,” then all the tragedy, all the possibilities for misunderstanding—and the speaker in “The Mountain” spurs this remark by misunderstanding the farmer—are also inherent in speech and language. So in “Home Burial,” the wife accuses the husband of callousness for ignoring the death of their infant son, saying “You can’t [speak] because you don’t know how to speak.” The husband, however, simply speaks another, more symbolic language, expressing his grief by saying “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/ Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”

To return to “Mending Wall,” that poem also addresses another central theme in the volume, the barriers between man and nature as expressed in the opposition between the work of humankind—the wall—and the “Something there is that doesn’t want a wall,” which is associated, through the “frozen-ground-swell,” with nature itself. This binary is explored and complicated in poems like “The Self-Seeker,” and, most famously, in the balance between the “tree still growing” and the “stake and prop” which frame the forsaken pile of wood at the conclusion of “The Wood Pile.”

“Mending Wall” also foregrounds the centrality of the act of labor for Frost in this volume. Manual labor, despite how ephemeral it may be when faced with the “frozen-ground-swell” of nature, the “slow smokeless burning of decay” of “The Wood Pile,” is still valuable for Frost, giving a kind of meaning to existence. The ritual of work, however vain, provides a sign of human presence amidst the indifference of nature in “The Wood Pile” and other poems. Manual labor is even associated in “After-Apple Picking” with poetic work, as the ladder leading up to the apple tree can also symbolize, as it does in Frost’s later poem “Birches,” the pathway to poetic inspiration. While personal labor is valorized, mechanical labor is denigrated in the volume, with the mill wheel crippling the aesthetically-attuned Willis in “The Self-Seeker,” and the similarly characterized John failing to face the economic realities of his farm in “The Housekeeper.”

In his retreat from modernity and mechanization, Frost thus shares much with the Pound/Eliot/Yeats school of poetic modernism, despite his reputation as more of a populist poet. In the two poems that hint at political meanings in the volume—“The Black Cottage” and “A Hundred Collars”—Frost again expresses nostalgia for the ideals of a vanished past. The firm and unswerving embrace of abolitionism and racial equality of the last occupant of the cottage in the former poem is seen as out of place in the more compromised modern world embodied by the minister. In keeping with the rest of the volume, Frost’s rewriting of the first encounter between Ishmael and Queequeg from Moby-Dick, which he transforms in “A Hundred Collars” into the meeting between the Doctor and Lafe, points to the resiliency of the barriers between individuals but also demonstrates how the old values of “democracy” have devolved into mere party politics, into the “Democratic” party.