Even in the age of free verse, people still read Robert Frost. Or at least they read “The Road Not Taken,” anyway, which gets recited in a few thousand graduation speeches every year. That is, indeed, a fine poem; though I suspect it gains more popularity because people can read it to applaud themselves. But also popular is “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which does not afford the same pleasure—but is (in my opinion) a rather better poem.
So how did Frost succeed in continuing to be read, even as other metrical verse fell out of popular circulation? I don’t know for certain; but I can think of several aspects of his work which might begin to account for it. First, Frost knew how to write in meter such that the language remained natural. Second, his rhymes (when he wrote in rhyme) were also natural word choices, instead of strained ones. Third, he had a gift of showing forth the beauty of many everyday and commonplace moments in life. His subject choices resonated with people—and did not require some esoteric background experience or education to connect with. (Even when he wrote of peculiarly New England experience, a reader did not have to be a New Englander to “get” it.)
Here is a sample of one of those commonplace moments rendered beautifully in verse:
Going for Water
The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;
Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.
We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.
But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.
Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.
A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.
Here’s another mundane moment made beautiful:
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
I particularly like the last line: he trim it two only two beats instead of four, cutting short his work to go talk with his friend.
I’ll give you one more today; and just for fun I’ll print it here as if it were prose: notice how you read it how the poetry still jumps out loud and clear:
A Brook in the City
The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square with the new city street it has to wear a number in. But what about the brook that held the house as in an elbow-crook? I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength and impulse, having dipped a finger length and made it leap my knuckle, having tossed a flower to try its currents where they crossed. The meadow grass could be cemented down from growing under pavements of a town; the apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame. Is water wood to serve a brook the same? How else dispose of an immortal force no longer needed? Staunch it at its source with cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown deep in a sewer dungeon under stone in fetid darkness still to live and run—and all for nothing it had ever done except forget to go in fear perhaps. No one would know except for ancient maps that such a brook ran water. But I wonder if from its being kept forever under, the thoughts may not have risen that so keep this new-built city from both work and sleep.
You can read more by Frost here and here. And for a great discussion of how Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is a great example of how poetry works, I recommend John Ciardi’s essay, “How Does a Poem Mean.”
What are some of your favorite poems by Frost? Say in the comments below.