THERE ARE MORE WAYS than one to paint a portrait of a man. In a not too fanciful sense these photographs and these lines of verse compose a portrait of Robert Frost, or at least a perspective in which such a portrait could be painted. For the essential of Frost was his relation to New England. And that relation, as I hope to show, was not at all the one we commonly suppose. Rather it was the one Dewitt Jones’s camera has caught and Frost’s poems, rightly read, confess.
Frost’s is a curious situation. Dead a dozen years, he remains something of an enigma to his readers and even to the biographer he himself selected to explain himself to his posterity. Not that Frost’s achievement is in doubt. There is no question whatever of his achievement. He was a poet not only of his time but of his tongue: one of the very few who deserve that designation. He was also a respected man of letters, one of the most respected of his generation in this country.
He was a lecturer seen and heard and listened to from one coast of this continent to the other. He was a public figure, an American symbol, who appeared every day as such at the inauguration of a President. His manuscripts, autographs, memorabilia are preserved in the most distinguished libraries. He had, and has, readers everywhere on earth. His poems, many of them, are known by heart to thousands and repeated over and over.
But who the speaker in those poems is remains a question not only to intellectuals and academics, who live by putting questions to the past, but to children in schools who are given poems of Frost’s to read at an early age, and to young men and young women who read them for themselves, and even to the old among their books. “What does he mean?” asks the child.
“Who’d say a thing like that?” asks the young woman. “I don’t know,” says the old man. “I don’t quite get him.”
The answers aren’t always easy, particularly if you start with the assumption, as most of us do, that you know them in advance. Who is the speaker in these poems? A Yankee, you say. What is he talking? Yankee talk. Isn’t Frost down in quotes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the “poet of New England”? Didn’t he live and farm in Derry, New Hampshire? Didn’t he write “North of Boston”? And of course he did.
But the trouble is that if you start with the assumption that Frost was a Yankee poet you will expect him to write like a Yankee (which he often, but not always, does), and you will expect his poems to be New England poems, poems not only of the New England scene but of the New England mind, which they may not be at all. And it is there, at that point, that you get the children’s questions and the occasional uneasiness in college classes and the discomfiture of distinguished scholars who, having used Frost’s predecessors among New England poets as keys to his work, have ended up trying to explain why the keys don’t fit.