The Art of Robert Frost
Yale University Press, 2012
408 pp., 35.00
Reading Robert Frost
Tim Kendall's The Art of Robert Frost is a cross between an anthology and a scholarly monograph. It offers a generous selection of poems from Frost's first four published volumes—A Boy's Will (1913), North of Boston (1914), Mountain Interval (1916), and New Hampshire (1923)—along with ten poems from later volumes. In addition, it offers a two-page introduction to each volume and a three- or four-page analysis of each poem, complete with references to Frost's other published writings, his literary sources, and recent Frost scholarship.
According to its dust jacket, The Art of Robert Frost is "the first book to combine selected poems with a critical study." That may be true, although Frost's friend Louis Untermeyer was the first to publish anthologies of Frost's verse with his own commentary, starting with Come In and Other Poems in 1943 and ending with Selected Poems in 1971. Untermeyer's casual glosses on his friend's poems, however, do not rise to the level of criticism. Kendall's certainly do.
On the other hand, Untermeyer's Selected Poems is more comprehensive than Kendall's volume, which is limited, by and large, to poems copyrighted before the end of 1923. Because he was working with Frost and his publisher, Henry Holt, Untermeyer didn't have to worry about copyright; he was free to pick and choose from the poet's entire body of work. Kendall, however, ran smack into the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, passed by Congress in 1998, which extended copyright protection for works published after 1923 by another twenty years.
For that reason, Kendall's book will not replace Untermeyer's Selected Poems, let alone Edward Connery Lathem's once-standard edition of Frost's collected poems or the definitive Library of America volume edited by Mark Richardson and Richard Poirier. Nor will it replace Mordecai Marcus' The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication (G. K. Hall, 1991), which offers "a basic commonsensical explication" of all 355 poems in Lathem's edition. As an anthology-cum-commentary on Frost's early poems, however, Kendall's book sets a new standard.
Fortunately for Kendall, most of Frost's best—and best-loved—poems were copyrighted by 1923, including such favorites as "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Road Not Taken," "Birches," "Fire and Ice," and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." These and other favorites will all be found in the volume. I wish, however, that Kendall had found room for "Wild Grapes," the companion piece to the more familiar "Birches." Though not usually considered one of Frost's best lyric poems—at least by male critics—it is nearly unique in that its first-person speaker is female.
In his introduction, Kendall says that he used two criteria in selecting poems: quality and variety. Occasionally, these two criteria come into conflict, as when Kendall omits the long monologue "New Hampshire" on the grounds that it is an inferior poem, even though it introduced a new vehicle for Frost's social commentary: the cantankerous Yankee farmer. Length may also have been a consideration, as it obviously was in the case of the later, copyright-protected poems. The need to economize may also explain why Kendall chose to omit "Snow," the longest poem from Mountain Interval.
What makes Kendall's volume so useful, however, are the condensed critical essays that follow each and every poem. It's remarkable how much pertinent information Kendall is able to cram into a few pages of text, from metrical analysis of particular lines to identification of literary allusions to clarification of major themes. Just as useful are Kendall's judgments on the strengths and weaknesses of individual poems. Readers will not always agree with these judgments, but they are bound to start some interesting arguments.
In addition to venturing his own opinions, Kendall quotes regularly from Frost's occasional comments on his own poems, a useful service for those of us who don't have time to go hunting for such obiter dicta. Take, for example, "The Road Not Taken," which ends,
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Kendall cites Edward Thomas, Frost's friend and fellow poet, who evidently took this stanza be a sincere expression of regret on Frost's part. In reply, Frost chided his friend for failing to see that the sigh "was a mock-sigh, hypo-critical for the fun of the thing. I don't suppose I was ever sorry for anything I ever did."
Readers of a scholarly bent will also appreciate Kendall's running conversation with other Frost critics—Reuben Brower, John Hollander, Richard Poirier, Frank Lentricchia. In the case of "The Death of the Hired Man," for example, Kendall quotes Poirier's remark that the poem is "essentially a marriage idyll" in which "what to do about a difficult old man is in every way made subordinate." "That is true," Kendall admits, "but perhaps not 'in every way.' " The poem's title, he reminds us, "serves as an insistent reminder" of the old man's needs.
Granted, there is a certain amount of repetition in Kendall's commentaries on individual poems. That, however, is by design. The book is not meant to be read straight through, like a traditional scholarly monograph. Rather, it is meant to serve as a handy reference work. Readers who are curious about a particular poem will turn directly to that poem and peruse Kendall's gloss on it. From there, they can go on to further study, if they wish, with the help of Kendall's brief bibliography.
The Art of Robert Frost will be most useful, I suspect, to two sets of readers. The first set includes readers who love Frost but sense hidden depths below the reflective surface of his poetry. If you feel the need of a knowledgeable guide to the less-traveled back roads of Frost country, Tim Kendall is your man. The second set of readers includes teachers and students who find themselves in the position of having to talk or write about Frost's poems. For them, The Art of Robert Frost will serve as a valuable crib sheet.
I should add that The Art of Robert Frost is a handsome book. Paper, typeface, and page layout are all of high quality. Kudos to Yale University Press for upholding old-fashioned production values in the new age of the e-book.
Mark Walhout teaches English at Seattle Pacific University.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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