Suspense, Suspension, and the Sublime in the Poetry of Robert Frost
Robert Frost was a sublime poet who struck terror in both himself and his readers. Gifted with a prodigious capacity for what John Keats called “negative capability,” that is, the ability to exist “in uncertainty, Mystery, doubt”—and I would add suspense—“without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” Frost created characters who pondered one moral and/or metaphysical question after another, most often in pastoral and domestic settings.
As famous as he was, Frost was misinterpreted as more of a genial folk poet than a stunning witness of the sublime. He made an indelible first impression with accessible pastoral subject matter and hypnotic verbal music, “farms and forms” as the critic Christopher Benfey has referred to his topics and style. Unlike his modernist peers, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Hart Crane, he avoided urban settings, exotic subject matter, and free verse in favor of local landscapes, rural narratives, and traditional forms. In short, he wasn’t a modernist team player, discovering his “wasteland” in his own “desert places” at least a decade before his ex-patriot colleagues became the rage in the early twenties. Although he won four Pulitzer Prizes, his readers failed to appreciate the sublime nature of his obsessions, or what he liked to call his “ulterior meanings.”
Randall Jarrell was the first important critic and fellow poet to announce the sadness and terror in Frost’s poems in his essays “The Other Frost” in 1947 and then “To the Laodiceans” in 1952, where he pointed out how “diabolically good” Frost’s details were in his poem “Design,” how full, he wrote, of “the stilling rigor of death that ‘white piece of rigid satin cloth’ is.” Then five years later in 1958 at Frost’s 85th birthday party at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, Lionel Trilling echoed Jarrell’s observation in a speech he called “a cultural episode.” Trilling declared:
So radical a work, I need scarcely say, is not carried out by reassurance, nor by the affirmation of old virtues and pieties. It is carried out by the representation of the terrible actualities of life in a new way. I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet. Call him, if it makes things any easier, a tragic poet, but it might be useful every now and then to come out from under the shelter of that literary word. The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe.
Trilling went on in his birthday speech to site the last stanza of Frost’s poem “Desert Places” as a witty ars poetica that exemplified what he felt was “the energy with which emptiness is perceived”:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
Frost replied to Trilling a few weeks later with this “thank you note” from
his home in Ripton, Vt.:
You made my birthday party a surprise party. I should like nothing better than to do a thing like that myself—to depart from the Rotarian norm in a Rotarian situation. You weren’t there to sing “Happy Birthday, dear Robert,” and I don’t mind being made controversial. No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down.
What’s worse, one wonders: to suffer scant recognition as a strong poet for nearly a hundred years, and be bastardized to boot like Emily Dickinson, or to achieve enormous fame while going largely misunderstood throughout one’s career? Both Dickinson and Frost, the most sublime American poets, along with Walt Whitman, terrified their readers, while at the same time entertaining them. But Frost was the most canny of the three in his talent for distracting the guard dogs of his readers’ houses, that is, their initial wariness about any “ulterior meanings,” by throwing them “bones” of blank verse, rhyme, and accessible subject matter during the erudite epoch of high modernism, while then slipping around back and breaking in with terror. The delayed recognition of Frost’s break-ins betrayed a telling reaction formation in his readers, namely, their immediate inclination to appreciate his poems for their familiar pastoral quality and Yankee wit, which, for the most part, they found ironically comforting, despite Frost’s dark subject matter and terrifying conclusions.
Frost’s unprecedented initial popularity existed ironically in direct proportion to his readers’ flight from his sublime genius. Americans loved him in the way children love Mother Goose, falling under the hypnotic spell of such lullabies as “London Bridges,” “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” and “Jack and Jill” without realizing they’re listening to one catastrophe after another. Frost loved Mother Goose also and acknowledged its influence, which one can clearly hear in the one poem out of all his work he felt approached perfection, “Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening,” which, indeed, is no less than a haunting adult nursery rhyme in 16 unfaltering iambic tetrameter lines. “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat,” Frost said, and so he does with his tight musical lines that grasp his reader as well by the throat and hold on, even in their unresolved conclusions. Frost also said, “In three words I can summarize everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” The “promises” Frost’s speaker keeps in “Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening” betray Frost’s commitment to living over dying, especially following his near suicidal venture in the Great Dismal Swamp as a young man following his fiancée, Elinor’s initial rejection of his proposal.
Place was just as important as content for Frost in the development of what he called his “quarrels with the world.” Acts of gazing out from above and swinging from side to side, both physically and cognitively, recur often in his most sublime poems where he suspends his speakers at the top of trees and staircases. His poems “Birches,” “Wild Grapes,” “After Apple Picking,” “Mowing,” “Home Burial,” and “The Witch of Coos” come immediately to mind as examples of the suspense he found in suspension. In-betweenness was his figurative study where he either hung or stood in voluntary discomfort as he contemplated his place and condition on Earth. In this sense, he was an utterly chthonic poet who was inclined to crucify his speakers on found “crosses” where they suffer necessary pain that transports them to some higher awareness about grief, longing, or simply their innate complexity as human beings. Longinus might indeed have been describing many of Frost’s poems when he wrote in his classic essay on the sublime in the first century A.D. that a sublime poem possessed “a greatness of soul, imitation, or imagery” in which the poet, as if “instinctually” creates a work of art that uplifts “our soul” to an exalted height where “it takes proud flight and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”
It is in Frost’s suspenseful extended metaphors especially where he encounters not only joy, but terror as well, which is the risk his “lone strikers” encounter in their respective positions of suspension. I’d like to take a look at four of Frost’s poems specifically—“Mowing,” “After Apple Picking,” “Birches,” and “Home Burial”—as examples of Frost use of suspension as a figurative device and trope for achieving “instinctive” expressions that lead ultimately to sublime moments, whether epiphanic in their conclusions or bittersweet in their lack of resolution.
The first poem I’d like to discuss is “Birches,” which Frost published in his third book Mountain Interval in 1916. Here Frost suspends himself between heaven and earth, recalling one of his favorite boyhood pastimes, swinging on birch trees. Although Frost enjoyed this solitary activity as a child, he finds he can’t reminisce about it now in his adult life as just a daring, exciting activity and leave it at that; he has to pick a “quarrel” with the firmament, which he turns into a metaphysical plain where he experiences sublime moments as a “swinger of birches.” He describes his momentary suspension at the apex of his swings as not only physically thrilling, but paradigmatic of his mortal weariness that conjures his recurrent “dream” of escaping gravity’s hold by returning to his childhood where he climbed “black branches up a snow white trunk/ toward heaven.” The more Frost recounts his days as “a swinger of birches” the more he develops his poetic train of thought into a dramatic monologue, but one in which we, as his reader, experience both his quarrel with aging and his exhilarating childhood memory with equal intensity. We taste the bittersweet of his euphoric communion with the sky while also identifying with his weighty return to earth. His language strikes enough universal notes to transform his rural particulars into our particulars, even though they’re not. We enter his forest willingly as companion birch-climbers, hanging suspended in the same longing and bittersweet of childhood nostalgia when we’re “weary of considerations” and wish to “get away from earth awhile/ And then come back to it and begin over.”
Feeling and intellect combine in “Birches” to form a sublime memorable speech that crosses over the transom of the poet’s mere personal experience to the receptive inner eye of his listener’s imagination. The poem entertains first before it lowers its philosophical boom, exciting the reader with not only the thrill of birch-swinging, but introducing a dispute as well at mid-poem, hinting clearly enough that the speaker’s reminiscence about birch-swinging is also an extended metaphor for “the Truth” that breaks in at mid-life “with all her matter of fact about the ice storm,” or as Frost says more plainly several lines later, when one has grown “weary of considerations/ And life is too much like a pathless wood/ Where your face burns and tickles with cobwebs.” This ground–level view, harsh as it is, provides the necessary antinomy for the transcendent affirmation Frost makes at the end of the poem in his sudden stunning declaration: “Earth’s the right place for love./ I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” This is a deferential, daunting truth, one that like all of Frost’s other truths submits to human limitations while at the same time expressing intimations of an inscrutable beyond where the unsayable neutralizes any human bittersweet.
There is a word in this poem that emphasizes this sublime human condition as an ultimately ironic disposition for its very limitations. Frost italicizes it in an almost heavy-handed way, at least in a way that post-modernists would call unfashionably determinate. The word is “toward”. Rather than proclaim the birch tree as an earthly catapult for reaching heaven, Frost signifies the birch tree as an earthly scaffold for approaching heaven, but not reaching it, for appealing to the innate monkey in us as well as our human wonder.
We see Frost at his antinomian best in this poem, eschewing familiar religious language for his own first-hand expression that embodies, at least on the page, what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “aboriginal strength” and what Longinus defined as “great soul.”
The second poem I’d like to discuss is a bit of an anomaly, for its speaker, presumably Frost, partakes in a grounded activity. I’ve chosen it because Frost suspends himself cognitively in this poem in the act of swinging his scythe as he contemplates the “unsayable” in the midst of work. The poem is “Mowing,” a sonnet, which Frost published in his first book A Boy’s Will in 1913.
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
Frost praises the unique sound his scythe makes in the field beside the woods as his first order of business. This sound is organic and mysterious—a whisper rather than just steel on grass. The scythe speaks to the farmer in the breathy voice one uses to tell secrets. Frost, the farmer, wonders just what runic sense his scythe imparts to “the ground.” He confesses that he himself is ignorant of this secret, proceeding with supposition and speculation: “Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun./Something perhaps about the lack of sound—/ And that was why it whispered and did not speak.”
In his metaphysical investigation into the scythe’s whisper “to the ground” Frost observes that the scythe’s voice is as full of silence as it is with sound, which is why it whispers. Frost builds poetic suspense as he continues to think about this sound as the source of a pastoral secret that only the receptive “farmer” is privileged to hear and understand.
Turning next to ruling out possibilities for the scythe’s sound, Frost eliminates a few facile options for the whisper: It is neither “the dream of the gift of idle hours,” as any farmer might tell the city dweller, nor “anything more than the truth” since that would seem “too weak to the earnest love” of the laborer in the field. How fascinating that Frost writes “anything more” instead of “anything less” here, as if to say that embellishing the truth, especially with regard to labor, degrades the truth more than it enhances it.
Within the intense space of 14 lines, Frost arrives at the answer to the mystery of the scythe’s whisper in the poem’s penultimate line. By combining two opposites, dream and fact, just as he had earlier with sound and silence, Frost delivers the earthly news: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” While contradictory on the surface, this line captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the test of a first-rate intelligence … the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
“Fact is dream to the laborer in the uncut field,” the scythe whispers as the farmer swings it, just as Frost “swings” his lines so memorably on the page— his “ground”—back and forth between literal and figurative sense in a kind of cognitive suspension where he’s thinking and working at the same time above the grass, lifting himself into revelation. His embrace of realism at the end of this poem betrays the hard truth he would follow the rest of his life, namely, the pursuit of his own poetic harvest through his hard labor as a poet—the facts that would come to him in the course of writing, wielding his pen; human facts “so much nearer home” than “the empty spaces between the stars,” as he would later declare in his poem “Desert Places,” interior mortal facts that would terrify him in his inner gazing.
Turning next to a very purgatorial poem, “After Apple Picking”, which was published in North of Boston in 1915, Frost writes with post-lapsarian self-consciousness at the top of a ladder. The apple tree from which his speaker looks out from is as ancient as Eden itself as an enduring metaphor for what J, the author of the second creation story, linked to the “awareness of death” in Eve’s consciousness-raising conversation with the serpent. Suspended between earth and “heaven still” at the top of an apple tree, Frost conveys the physical pain that accompanies the pain of his mortal awareness. It’s a compound pain in his feet—an “ache” and “pressure” that his instep keeps of “a ladder-round.” As he pauses from apple picking for just a moment, he begins musing about the inexorable force of nature that has hurdled him beyond “the great harvest (he himself) once desired.” Frost expresses his festering chagrin over “the form [his] dreaming [is] about to take.” In his act of resisting mirror-gazing, he forces himself instead to gaze at the ice’s mirror itself, which he then breaks, just as he does the poem’s form of blank verse with occasional rhyme, alternating single stressed lines with dimeter, trimeter, and pentameter throughout the rest of poem following his description of breaking the ice in the water trough—five lines that could, in fact, serve as a profound ars poetica for all of Frost’s poetry:
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
Perched at the top of his mythical lookout tree, Frost turns the “forbidden fruit” into symbols of time and experiences. Gazing down on the windfalls below, he reminisces about missed opportunities—”a barrel that I didn’t fill”—and recalls a startling early morning scene that transforms his orchard work into a personal commentary on what Robert Penn Warren called “the turpitude of time.” The speaker’s act of “looking through a pane” of trough ice at the “world of hoary grass” strikes him with an indelible “strangeness.” Rather than gaze at his reflection, he regards the world through the glass of ice, seeing beyond himself to the white manifestation of death. The ice is a simple chilling fact and Frost’s stare at it with his own “cold eye,” as Yeats would say, represents an anti-mimetic act of confronting nature’s blank face straight on. Frost speaks here as a seer-poet who boldly forsakes any religious belief or notion of faith in favor of seeing for himself. His foreknowledge of “the form” his dreaming is about to take casts him deeper into a brown study in which he begins to recall his myriad experiences—both good and bad—that have settled in the same “heap” in his memory. In place of any thought, speculation, or consideration about his soul’s fate, he conducts symbolic inventory on his earthly acts, which he compares to apples, all of which “strike the earth,/ No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,” ending up in “the cider-apple heap/ As of no worth.” Great rhyme: “earth” and “worth.” Frost speaks like a modern-day Qoholeth from Ecclesiastes in “After Apple Picking,” essentially repeating that Old Testament sage’s refrain, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” in his own New England vernacular, then adding his own deeply sardonic endnote about any prospect of afterlife or heaven: “One can see what will trouble/ this sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is./ Were he not gone,/ The woodchuck could say whether it was like his/ Long sleep, as I describe its coming on/ Or just some human sleep.” A lowly woodchuck, of all creatures, as opposed to a saint or theologian or fellow “believer” serves as his authority on the afterlife. Like Emily Dickinson in her poem “I felt a Funeral in my Brain,” Frost clings stubbornly to what he knows from his earthly experience, while feeling at the same time “wrecked solitary here,” Frost might have read this poem, but probably not.
“After Apple Picking” marks Frost first sublimely “human” poem in which he holds a heroic stare to the ground rather than gaze heavenward against his ladder’s pointing, and then makes an irreverent joke to boot about the afterlife as “just some human sleep,” a mortal doze from which he will fail to wake one day. Nine years later in 1923 in his third book of poems, New Hampshire, Frost clarified this “sleep” at the conclusion of his poem “To Earthward,” in which he traces the arc of human life from fatuous romantic love to a mortal desire strong enough to embrace the numb existence of earthly burial.
The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.
What’s particularly striking about the timing of “After Picking” is that it appeared in Frost’s second book North of Boston in 1914, well before the U.S. entered World War I and the advent of modernism. So, not only does it presage modernism with its atheistic conceit, it stands as an often misprized lyric about the mere sorrows of autumn rather than what it actually intones, namely a profoundly existential renunciation of an afterlife beyond human sleep, not that dissimilar actually from Fredrich Nietzsche’s religious renunciations in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Frost was terrifying from the start, but hardly anyone noticed.
The last poem I’d like to discuss is Frost’s masterpiece, “Home Burial”, also published early on in 1917 in North of Boston. In this dramatic dialogue, Frost suspends a grievous couple separately, first the wife and then the husband, at the top of a staircase. The poem begins with, Amy, the mother at the top of the stairs, “looking back over her shoulder at some fear,” which her husband informs the reader is “the little graveyard where his “people are,” and now their child.
Frost suspends Amy in the first line of the poem in a posture that embodies T.S. Eliot’s idea of objective correlative, that is, a “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion,” which, in this case, is enacted by Amy’s fearful backward glance out the window at the grave yard. When her husband approaches her at the top of the stair, where “she cowered under him,” with a face that “changed from terrified to dull,” they stand suspended together, but with such utterly different dispositions they can’t remain together there for long. She withdraws, shrinking from beneath his arm, challenging her husband to see what she sees, referring to him as a “blind creature.” He says he sees, but she disagrees, “You don’t,” she tells him. “Tell me what it is.” He ventures an unsatisfactory answer, “Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight/ on the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those./ But I understand: it is not the stones,/ But the child’s mound—” Amy responds like King Lear after Cordelia’s death with a slew of renunciations: “don’t don’t don’t don’t.” She withdraws at this point in the poem and slides downstairs, as if floating, still suspended on her grief. “Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?” her husband asks desperately. To which Amy responds with this brutal indictment of her husband’s verbal deficit: “You can’t because you don’t know how to speak./ If you had any feelings, you that dug/ With your own hand—how could you—his little grave.” Frost ties feeling to language itself here, signifying poetry as a feminine strength. Amy knows how to speak, while her husband is at a loss for the right words. He concedes to his wife, “We must have some arrangement/ By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off/ Anything special you’re a-mind to name.” Which apparently would include himself also since he goes nameless throughout the poem. Every attempt he makes to comfort Amy only results in exacerbating her heartbreak. “My words are nearly always an offense,” he confesses. “I don’t know how to speak of anything/ So as to please you. But I might be taught/ I should suppose.” But no. He is unteachable, as well as blind, unfeeling, and dumb as far as Amy is concerned. By the end of the poem, her resentment toward her husband has evolved into a disconsolate global keening:
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!’
The poem ends in despair, with Amy threatening to flee aimlessly as her husband threatens to bring her back by force. Frost, in his remarkably accurate empathy with Amy, suspends her in no-woman’s land, betraying “greatness of soul” in his ability to grip the high voltage wire of a mother’s grief barehanded, as well as her indictment of “the world” as “evil,” that is, as a place where “friends make pretense of following to the grave.”
I think of the chorus’s response to Gilgamesh’s grief over Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh as the kind of adequate response Amy would have liked to hear but could not hope for from her “blind creature” husband who was too consumed with “everyday concerns” to grasp that the loss haunted her
with an inner atmosphere
where words are flung out in the air but stay
motionless without an answer,
hovering about one’s lips
or arguing back to haunt
the memory with what one failed to say.
(Translation by Herbert Mason)
Frost portrayed several female characters in extremity with rare compassion, and insight throughout his career in such poems as “the Subverted Flower,” “Wild Grapes,” “The Witch of Coos,” “The Fear,” ‘The Hill Wife,” “Paul’s Wife,” and “Two Witches.” Women speak in these poems from suspended vantage points above their patriarchal worlds with terror, fear, loneliness, and wisdom. “Home Burial,” however, represents, at least in my opinion, the most exquisite example of Frost’s genius for negative capability as a middle-aged male poet immersing himself in the uncertainty and mystery of a grieving mother. The impasse Frost creates in this poem, at the risk of losing his reader’s sympathy for his protagonist, Amy, disturbs the reader deeply. But it’s a transcendent poem for this very reason, witnessing to the inscrutable calculus of loss for which there are not only any words or solution, but no place on earth itself, much less home, for a mourner like Amy to seek refuge or understanding. The abyss into which she is about to bolt—“somewhere out of this house”— at the end of the poem leaves her husband, herself, and the reader in a state of unnerving suspense, but that is exactly where Frost wishes to leave us all with a Shakespearean boldness and concomitant belief in our human capacity to stare into it—that “somewhere out of this house.”
Thrilling and chilling are the two words that describe Frost’s most sublime poems, such as the four I’ve discussed here. Frost, perhaps more than any other American poet mythologized a landscape that continues to be known simply as Frost country—a landscape on which he wrote his “recurrent obsessions,” to borrow a phrase from the art historian, Simon Schama, or as Frost called them, his “quarrels.” These now classic “quarrels” have made it close to impossible for any New England poet to follow Frost without echoing his work, if even in the slightest reference to a tree or wall or hillside. The fact that the Vermont legislature waited 26 years before appointing the next and only second poet laureate of Vermont, Galway Kinnell, in 1989, testifies to the deep respect readers of poetry and poets alike felt for Frost as the quintessential state poet.
Despite several waves of the new that have transpired since Frost’s death in 1963 from postmodernism to post postmodernism, the recent welcome explosion of multicultural voices, readers continue “to hang” with Frost in his native trees, woods, and roads, where they still feel utterly haunted by his narratives, monologues, and dramas. Frost harrows his readers beyond horror with terrors that compel even non-readers of poetry to return to again and again for more than just the mere, odd pleasure of being frightened, but to discover vicariously that our lives are extraordinary, fragile, difficult, painful, bittersweet, contradictory, ecstatic, and grievous. Not that we, didn’t know these things already, but not in the terrifying, suspenseful way that Frost conveys in his best poems. By conveying the felt presence of human experience in physical interactions with the world, Frost divines passages to his readers’ psyches through their bodies first and then their minds and hearts. We feel the abstractions he quarrels with in our bones, whether it’s the factual dream of labor or the limits of human consciousness or the affirmation of earth as “the right place for love” or the inconsolable reality of grief. Frost’s language finds us, enchants us, suspends us, then leaves us captured in our own willful restraints.
This essay was published recently by Green Writers Press in Vermont Poets and Their Craft, edited by Neil Shepard and Tamra Higgins