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Is Robert Frost a Modernist

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As a popular figure literature, Robert Frost is considered to be one of the leading poets in the early twentieth century. His works are distinguished from those of his contemporaries; his works depict the structure and forms of the nineteenth-century literature while revealing the themes and concepts of the modern world. This fact therefore evokes different opinions in considering him to be a modernist.

According to Vicky Mahaffey, modernist writing is characterized by “willful obscurity and shot through with nostalgia for a rapidly waning elite culture – a nostalgia mired in the ugly politics of the time” (3). The concept of nostalgia is always present in Frost’s poems; many of them reveal the solitary characteristics of his own life. The theme of his poems revolves around his quest, a solitary man’s quest, of making sense of the world around him.

His famous poem The Road Not Taken, taken as an example, developed the nostalgic sentiment in the word “sigh.” In the poem, the narrator had to choose between two paths, and he did not know where both roads would bring him. The narrator told with a sigh, he has taken “the one less traveled by”, which brought him to the current situation. This abstract therefore clearly shows that the character is experiencing nostalgia, although it is hard to say whether it is regret or relief since Frost did not provide any indication of either. The “sigh” of the character in the poem also provokes floating thoughts from the reader.  He makes the reader experience the nostalgic feeling and conclude whether the narrator was able to choose the better path or not. The author finished the poem with this unresolved question, thus strengthening the nostalgic experience.

Such nostalgic experience is also perceptible  in his poem Birches. The narrator “dream[ed] of going back to be [a swinger of birches]” once more. In his childhood he used to climb a tree swinging to the ground. In the poem, the narrator recounts his childhood experiencing nostalgia likewise the reader who also experiences the same nostalgic emotion of the narrator as he/she usually reads the poem. Frost was able to reinforce the nostalgic experience of the reader by rendering it profusely in the mood he set for his poem.

Obscurity is also present in Frost’s poems Some of his works that illustrate obscurity are Greece, Locked Out, and the unpublished War Thoughts at Home.

Vicky Mahaffey, furthermore, characterized modernist literature as one that “offer[s] a more comprehensive experience rather than a mere narrative slice” (5). She continued to say that what was used to be “dismissed as insignificant details emerged – through synecdoche – as essential indices to the richness of a complex, dynamic, sensual whole” (Mahaffey 5). She said that “in order to experience modernist art, we must either watch the action from several different windows in succession, or else leave the window altogether to enter the human melee on the street, observing what we find there on the same level as everyone else” (Mahaffey 5).

Robert Frost’s poems are largely known of this characteristic. Amy Lowell wrote that he has “reproduced both people and scenery with a vividness which is extraordinary” (81). In all of his poems, the reader can have a concrete picture of the setting and the incidents, and from rich description, the author takes the reader to the world he is describing. He employed ordinary and insignificant details to enhance the accuracy of the presented event, and this made him stand out from his contemporaries.

Robert Frost used synecdoche in his works. The journey implied in his poems The Road Not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening represents the journey that each of us takes in the life. Moreover, he also used juxtaposition, irony, and satire that characterize modern literature as well. Juxtaposition is evident in his poem Mending Wall when comparing mending wall and not having walls. Irony is also depicted in The Road Not Taken when the narrator “sigh[s]” when remembering the choice he made. In Birches, the narrator presented irony when he wished to get away from earth which may not be granted soon.

The vividness of his descriptions compelled Ezra Pound to say, “I know more of farm life than I did before I had read his poems. That means I know more of 'Life” (384). His statement only confirms of the unusual ability of Robert Frost to portray real life and real settings in his poems.

Vicky Mahaffey also mentioned that modernist literature “refuse[ed] to provide readers with clear interpretive cues, prompting their audience to remain responsible for the interpretations they construct.” (66). Although Robert Frost used simple language and ordinary images and symbols, his works had deep and underlying meanings. The significance of the usual themes he revealed in his poems extended beyond its revealed meaning.

Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, which he characterized as a tricky poem, does not give the reader any resolution of the choice the narrator made. He gives the reader a plain statement “that has made all the difference” but does not give an indication whether the difference is for better or for worse.

In his poem Mending Wall, Frost also used the same approach. He presented side by side the two different aspects of having walls and not. He gave the reader the rationale of both actions but left them to draw their own conclusions. He opened that poem with the line “Something there is that doesn't love a wall” and closed it with another statement which opposed the first: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Not a line in the body leaves an indication which of the two weighs heavier. He richly described the illustration and was able to give the reader a concrete image of both ideas in the poem therefore giving a fair understanding of both matters but left the reader to make his own choice.

These few characteristics of modernist literature discussed above and portrayed in Frost’s works only attests that his works may be classified as modernist writing. Moreover, his poetry represents the modern life of the modern man which he has integrated in symbolical terms. Most of his characters deal with frustration, sadness, regret, alienation, tiredness, and the likes which are reflective of the way of life of the people of his present time. This strongly proves that his works, in spite of traditional way of writing, focuses on the present life, the modern themes, the modern world, and the modern man, hence characterizing the modern literature. Although he describes nature in his poems, he comments on the modern man’s nostalgia for going away from nature.

It may be concluded, therefore, that Robert Frost’s conception refered to modernist poetry. Although he employed some techniques of traditional poetry, his ideals and themes were from the modern world, and moreover, these traditional techniques were mere shadows because they were also transformed in some ways. Though he used rhymes, he used it irregularly; he did not conform to the strict meter, form, and ideals of traditional literature.


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