As a poet, Robert Frost was greatly influenced by the emotions and events of everyday life. Within a seemingly banal event from a normal day—watching the ice weigh down the branches of a birch tree, mending the stones of a wall, mowing a field of hay—Frost discerned a deeper meaning, a metaphysical expression of a larger theme such as love, hate, or conflict.
Frost is perhaps most famous for being a pastoral poet in terms of the subject of everyday life. Many of his most famous poems (such as “Mending Wall” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) are inspired by the natural world, particularly his time spent as a poultry farmer in New Hampshire. Ironically, until his adulthood in New England, Frost was primarily a “city boy” who spent nearly all of his time in an urban environment. It is possibly because of his late introduction to the rural side of New England that Frost became so intrigued by the natural world.
After the publication of his Collected Poems in 1930, Frost clarified his interest in the pastoral world as a subject for his poetry, writing: “Poetry is more often of the country than the city…Poetry is very, very rural – rustic. It might be taken as a symbol of man, taking its rise from individuality and seclusion – written first for the person that writes and then going out into its social appeal and use.” Yet Frost does not limit himself to expressing the pastoral only in terms of beauty and peace, as in a traditional sense. Instead, he also chooses to emphasize the harsh conflicts of the natural world: the clash between urban and rural lifestyles, the unfettered emotions and struggles inherent in rural life, even the sense of loss and simultaneous growth that accompanies the changing of the seasons.
Frost’s poetry is also significant because of the amount of autobiographical material that it contains. Frost was not a happy man; he suffered from serious bouts of depression and anxiety throughout his life and was never convinced that his poetry was truly worthwhile (as evidenced by his obsessive desire to receive a Nobel Prize). He suffered through the untimely deaths of his father, mother, and sister, as well as four of his six children and his beloved wife, all of which contributed to the melancholic mentality that appears in much of Frost’s work.
The raw emotion and sense of loss that pervades Frost’s poetry is particularly clear because of his straightforward verse style. Although he worked within some traditional poetic forms (usually iambic meter), he was also flexible and changed the requirements of the form if it conflicted with the expression of a particular line. Yet, even as he was willing to utilize the basic conventions of some poetic forms, Frost refused to sacrifice the clarity of his poetry. With that in mind, he was particularly interested in what he called “the sound of sense,” a poetic belief system in which the sound of the poetry (rhythm, rhyme, syllables) is as important to the overall work as the actual words. Therefore, in poems such as “Mowing” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost’s use of particular words and rhythmic structure creates an aural sense of the mood and subject of the piece even as the words outline the narrative.
Frost’s use of “the sound of sense” is most successful because of the general clarity and even colloquial nature of his poetry. At one point in his life, he asserted, “All poetry is a reproduction of the tones of actual speech.” Although this quotation is perhaps a generalization of Frost’s poetic style, it does speak to the accessibility and simplicity that has made Frost’s poetry so appealing to so many readers for decades. Because of the clarity of the sounds in his work, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of “the sound of sense,” the readers are able to comprehend the basic emotion of a poem almost instantly and then explore the deeper, more metaphysical meanings behind each simple line.
During his beginnings as a poet, Frost was often criticized for using such a colloquial tone in his poetry. When his first poem was published in The Independent in 1894, the acceptance was accompanied by a copy of Lanier’s “Science of English Verse,” a not so subtle suggestion that Frost needed to work on mastering a more traditional tone and meter. Even after his success as a poetic was assured, Frost was still censured by some for writing seemingly simplistic poetry, works that were not reminiscent of high art.
Yet even though Frost’s poetry is simple and clear, Richard Wilbur points out that it is not written in the colloquial language of an uneducated farm boy, but rather in “a beautifully refined and charged colloquial language.” In other words, Frost’s ability to express such a depth of feeling in each of his poems through the medium of colloquial speech reveals a far greater grasp of the human language than many of his critics would admit. It is because of the clarity of his poetry that his poems are beloved and studied in high schools throughout the United States, and it is also because of this clarity that Frost is able to explore topics of emotion, struggle, and conflict that would be incomprehensible in any other form.