Nature vs. Civilization in the Poetry of Robert Frost
Robert Frost is unique in that his content is modern but his technique is informed by 19th century traditions, unlike his experimental free verse contemporaries William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Frost's poems are studies in contrasts, akin to the dichotomies in his satiric apocalyptic poem "Fire and Ice." His poetry examines contrasting views, such as the importance of nature, particularly in how it stands in opposition to both humanity and civilization, yet offers solace and knowledge.
Humanity Versus Nature
One of Frost's best known poems, "Mending Wall," was published in his second book, "North of Boston." It encapsulates much of what Frost found problematic in human interaction, the need to parse out the natural world into proprietary domains. When he writes "Something there is that doesn't love a wall,/That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it," the narrator describes nature's reaction to humanity's imposition, in this case the need to wall off part of the natural world. In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the narrator acknowledges that even the woods are now owned, by someone who lives "in the village," in this case perhaps an absentee landlord.
Civilization Versus Nature
Frost is known for the realism and regionalism of his poetry. His poems are typically set in either New Hampshire or Vermont, and his narrators are usually rugged individualists. They stand in opposition to the forces of modernity, especially to the idea of civilization bringing about community. In many instances, they must reject the conventions of civilization and turn instead to the wonder of the natural world, which often holds lessons for humans, as in "Birches," where the narrator learns about resilience from his consideration of how birches bend but do not break. Many of Frost's poems are narrated by loners in a natural landscape.
Nature's Two Faces
For Frost, nature, like poetry, is about the senses, and humans must be sensitive to its wonders. His poems explore the relationship between humans and the Earth, or more specifically, to its soil, the producer of all that is healthy and good -- even though too much bounty can be tiresome, as in "After Apple Picking." Frost's poetry looks at the complexities of the natural world, which can also be uncaring and deadly, especially if the individual is faced with destructive natural forces. The poem "Design" tells of the deadly fate of an individual moth caught in a spider's web, and "Once by the Pacific" paints an apocalyptic portrait of the fierceness of nature. Though both poems share an ironic distancing by the narrator, they both end on a bleak note.
Form and Content
Frost's poetic technique mirrors his thematic concern with the differences between what is natural and artificial. He often used imposed, artificial traditional meter, but would juxtapose it against the vernacular, or natural language, which has a different speech rhythm. His narrators do not use the intellectual, philosophical or academic voice associated with Wallace Stevens, Pound or T. S. Eliot; rather, his poems are narrated as conversation by the typical soft-spoken, down-to-earth New Englander.
Although Frost had trouble publishing his poems early on, he has become synonymous with modernist American poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation website, he has won the Pulitzer prize more than once, and at one time he was considered the unofficial poet laureate of the United States. Vermont has named a mountain after him. The dichotomies in his thematic concerns and techniques make him a unique voice in modernism.
Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.