by Dusty Grein

The Man

The American poet Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874, in San Francisco, CA. He spent his first 40 years mostly unknown, and it wasn’t until after returning to the United States from England—where he had his first two books of poetry published—near the beginning of the first World War, that he was truly recognized by the publishing world as the talented word-smith he was. During his later life he earned four Pulitzer Prizes, and as the unofficial U.S. “poet laureate” he was a special guest at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He died of surgical complications two years later, at the age of 88.

His Works

Robert Frost is arguably the greatest poet to emerge during the early part of the 20th century, and his works are now taught, analyzed, dissected, and discussed in learning institutions world-wide. Some of his more popular poems, such as ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ and ‘The Road Not Taken’ have led more poets to read and appreciate formal metered poetry than almost all of his contemporaries, including Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, both of whom were close friends of Frost. This list does not contain either of these these two gems, nor will you find other popular Frost works, such as ‘Fire and Ice,’ ‘Acquainted With The Night,’ or ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’— although if you have never heard of these I suggest you peruse them at your earliest convenience. Instead, I have listed here what I consider to be ten of his greatest lesser-known poems, which you may not have ever read. I present them here in order of beauty and wonder, as I see them.

His complete works can be accessed on the Internet Archive here.

 

10. On Looking Up By Chance At The Constellations (West-Running Brook, 1928)

You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drought will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn’t reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last to-night.

 

This poem, like many of Frost’s, is about his observations of the natural world around him. The permanence and tranquility of the heavens, especially when contrasted to the chaos that makes up the human world, is reason enough to relax, and enjoy it. He lets us know that patience truly is a virtue, and often, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For me, his philosophical poetry, when done through the medium of simple observations, speaks volumes about his true insights into the nature that is within, and around, us all.

 

9. The Birthplace (West-Running Brook, 1928)

Here further up the mountain slope
Than there was ever any hope,
My father built, enclosed a spring,
Strung chains of wall round everything,
Subdued the growth of earth to grass,
And brought our various lives to pass.
A dozen girls and boys we were.
The mountain seemed to like the stir,
And made of us a little while—
With always something in her smile.
Today she wouldn’t know our name.
(No girl’s, of course, has stayed the same.)
The mountain pushed us off her knees.
And now her lap is full of trees.

 

As nostalgic and otherworldly as it may be for us to go back and visit the place or places we grew up, it was even more so for the generation that Robert Frost belonged to. As a young man he witnessed the birth of the electric power grid, the impact of the industrial revolution on society and the growing transition from rural to urban life for a majority of Americans. As part of a large family, it must have been both wondrous and in a way, disheartening, to see the mountain home from his childhood once again returned to meadows and forests after being left behind years before.

 

8. The Freedom of the Moon (West-Running Brook, 1928)

I’ve tried the new moon tilted in the air
Above a hazy tree-and-farmhouse cluster
As you might try a jewel in your hair.
I’ve tried it fine with little breadth of luster,
Alone, or in one ornament combining
With one first-water start almost shining.

I put it shining anywhere I please.
By walking slowly on some evening later,
I’ve pulled it from a crate of crooked trees,
And brought it over glossy water, greater,
And dropped it in, and seen the image wallow,
The color run, all sorts of wonder follow.

 

This verse is one which has been analyzed by many, and the depth of meaning attributed to it is somewhat amazing. It is postulated that Frost touches here purposefully on the freedom not of the moon, but of mankind, and that the eternal change of the moon represents a deep and symbolic allusion to the changes all people go through. While these may or may not be valid points, the poem itself is about the majesty and the wonder that the changing view of the moon contains, for a man who walks the countryside a lot. Depending on his vantage point, the moon may be positioned almost anywhere along the horizon or over any landmark, construct, or body of water he desires, and it’s beauty and mystery are always there as he freely moves it about.

 

7. In A Disused Graveyard (The Measure, 1923)

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.

The verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”

So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?

It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

 

This poem is set in a place quite unusual for Frost—namely a cemetery. It is a cemetery that is obviously full, since even though the living still come to visit the graves, the dead no longer do. The poem draws many contrasts between the living and their fear of death, and the gravestones themselves whose rhyme is all that remains of those who are buried there. It is from this very real place of human fear and hatred for death, that the speaker’s consideration of being “clever” comes into focus. The stones are marking time, having noticed the dead no longer come—but being stone, they would probably believe the lie that men no longer die. This is one of Frost’s darker poems, and broaches the subject of death head-on, a subject he isn’t known for addressing.

 

6. Good Hours (North of Boston, 1914)

I had for my winter evening walk—
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.

And I thought I had the folk within:
I had the sound of a violin;
I had a glimpse through curtain laces
Of youthful forms and youthful faces.

I had such company outward bound.
I went till there were no cottages found.
I turned and repented, but coming back
I saw no window but that was black.

Over the snow my creaking feet
Disturbed the slumbering village street
Like profanation, by your leave,
At ten o’clock of a winter eve.

 

Once again, Frost’s walks drove his pen, just as they did in many of his works. It is obvious from his title, that he reveled in these ramblings, and spent the “good hours” upon them. This poem however, relates loneliness about the desolation of this rural setting after bedtime, as the music and companionship he had witnessed earlier in the day were now gone. It speaks to me of lost chances for social interaction, and the price we pay for our desires to study and explore on our own.

 

5. Flower Gathering (A Boy’s Will, 1913)

I left you in the morning,
And in the morning glow,
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty grey with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not,
Or dumb because you know?

All for me? And not a question
For the faded flowers gay
That could take me from beside you
For the ages of a day?
They are yours, and be the measure
Of their worth for you to treasure,
The measure of the little while
That I’ve been long away.

 

One of Frost’s hallmarks was his autobiographical stories, often about his family life and his love. He was known to take long rambling walks through the countryside, studying wildlife and plants along the way. These walks sometimes took him away from home all day long, and even into the night. This poem was written as a young man in 1896, as an apology and act of contrition for Elinor, his new wife, who was pregnant at the time and unable to accompany him on these excursions.

 

4. Wind And Window Flower (A Boy’s Will, 1913)

Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.

When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the caged yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,

He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.

He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.

But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.

Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.

But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.

 

This early poem shows us Frost’s pragmatic views, as well as his romantic heart. It is a sad tale of unrealized and somewhat inappropriate love—he, the icy wind of winter and she, a pretty flower in a window. While he became smitten with her beauty as he passed by, she failed to notice him. Frost seems to be telling us that sometimes love doesn’t win, and too often we allow a chance at happiness to slip away, before we are even aware of what might have been.

 

3. Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter (New Hampshire, 1923)

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.

In summer when I passed the place
I had to stop and lift my face;
A bird with an angelic gift
Was singing in it sweet and swift.

No bird was singing in it now.
A single leaf was on a bough,
And that was all there was to see
In going twice around the tree.

From my advantage on a hill
I judged that such a crystal chill
Was only adding frost to snow
As gilt to gold that wouldn’t show.

A brush had left a crooked stroke
Of what was either cloud or smoke
From north to south across the blue;
A piercing little star was through.

 

This poem displays, like ‘The Freedom of the Moon,’ that Frost would have made an excellent photographer as well as poet. The images he captures are clear and well defined, as he relates to us how an error in perception can captivate the mind. A memory becomes an epiphany, and is almost religiously approved by framed starlight.

2. The Egg and the Machine, West-Running Brook, 1928

He gave the solid rail a hateful kick.
From far away there came an answering tick
And then another tick. He knew the code:
His hate had roused an engine up the road.
He wished when he had had the track alone
He had attacked it with a club or stone
And bent some rail wide open like switch
So as to wreck the engine in the ditch.

Too late though, now, he had himself to thank.
Its click was rising to a nearer clank.
Here it came breasting like a horse in skirts.
(He stood well back for fear of scalding squirts.)
Then for a moment all there was was size
Confusion and a roar that drowned the cries
He raised against the gods in the machine.
Then once again the sandbank lay serene.

The traveler’s eye picked up a turtle train,
between the dotted feet a streak of tail,
And followed it to where he made out vague
But certain signs of buried turtle’s egg;
And probing with one finger not too rough,
He found suspicious sand, and sure enough,
The pocket of a little turtle mine.
If there was one egg in it there were nine,
Torpedo-like, with shell of gritty leather
All packed in sand to wait the trump together.

‘You’d better not disturb any more,’
He told the distance, ‘I am armed for war.
The next machine that has the power to pass
Will get this plasm in its goggle glass.’

 

Frost was well known for his wonderful nature poems, his keen observations and his amazing ability to paint mental images in crystal clear detail. He was also a great story-teller, and often his longer poetic works were captured in free verse works of heavy dialog that told serious stories. Occasionally, he also was able to tell a story in verse, that not only displayed his usual beauty and descriptiveness of the world around him, but carried a heavy political or social statement as well. This poem is a warning about the dangers of the then-blossoming industrial age, and one man’s determination to turn his hatred and anger into retaliation, by throwing turtle eggs at a locomotive. At the heart of this tale is the subtle truth that preventing progress is as futile as Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

 

1. Leaves Compared With Flowers (A Further Range, 1937)

A tree’s leaves may be ever so good,
So may its bark, so may its wood;
But unless you put the right thing to its root
It never will show much flower or fruit.

But I may be one who does not care
Ever to have tree bloom or bear.
Leaves for smooth and bark for rough,
Leaves and bark may be tree enough.

Some giant trees have bloom so small
They might as well have none at all.
Late in life I have come on fern.
Now lichens are due to have their turn.

I bade men tell me which in brief,
Which is fairer, flower or leaf.
They did not have the wit to say,
Leaves by night and flowers by day.

Leaves and bark, leaves and bark,
To lean against and hear in the dark.
Petals I may have once pursued.
Leaves are all my darker mood.

 

This is perhaps, one of the greatest poems ever written by a man who wrote many jewels. The best poetry often contains metaphors and similes, and Robert Frost was a master at using the natural world to describe the human condition. In this wonderful piece, he tells us he will be comparing leaves to flowers, but he also symbolically describes people as trees, and makes some very profound statements. In life we need to first pay attention to the foundations we lay for our children, and then as we grow we need to appreciate the function as well as the form—the inner strength and beauty as well as the public display. While youth is often preoccupied with flowers, and the bark and wood become more important to the mature, as we age, we also find our focus may shift to ferns, and at last to the moss and lichens that will be closest to us after we die. His contrasts are even more important, in my mind, than are his comparisons. Not only do we see the differences here between flower and leaf, but between young and old, between day and night, between dark and light and finally between the externalized struggles and the inner acceptance that comes to light in those final two lines.

In Summary

Robert Frost was a prolific poet, who published over 180 poems during his lifetime. In 1969 Holt, Rinehart and Winston published a volume titled ‘The Poetry Of Robert Frost’ which contained nearly 350 poems, and is still considered by many to be the definitive collection of Frost’s complete works. This list has been a lot of fun to compile, and allowed me the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite works by one of my favorite poets of all time. As I stated at the beginning, this list doesn’t contain his most popular works, nor does it contain any of his longer odes. If you have a favorite that I didn’t include, please be sure and leave a comment below.

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2 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    I loved this! Thought I knew Robert Frost but have since learned otherwise.
    Excellent selection and presentation!

    Reply
  2. David Watt

    Your list gives me a greater appreciation for Robert Frost’s poetry. In particular, his ability to convey detailed observations.

    Reply

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