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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

Robert Frost Country by Betsy and Tom Melvin

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 30, 2014

Two kinds of books I am particularly glad to find in a library: especially good books, which I might not otherwise know of or be able to afford; and especially bad books, which I might otherwise innocently purchase.

This book, sadly, falls in the latter category.

Robert Frost Country - Cover

Robert Frost Country by Betsy and Tom Melvin is a pictorial featuring the authors’ photographs of New England paired with–dare I say it–snippets of Robert Frost’s poems. A sad fate for any poem, to be cut into bite-sized pieces and regurgitated, devoid of meaning, to sell what amounts to a collection of postcards. In an introductory note, Betsy Melvin writes:

When I first came upon the lines that have become so familiar to me, I realized that Robert Frost had said in his beautiful poetry what I had felt in my heart when I made many of the photographs, through my medium of creative expression. It is significant that only three of all these pictures were made especially for this volume.

I agree with her words, though I doubt that she would agree with my meaning. She intends, of course, to say that both she and Frost were trying to capture the beauty of New England, and so by happy coincidence his poems and her photographs are well-suited to one another. It seems rather to me that, having a collection of photographs, she sought fragments of the famous poet’s work to make them more suitable for publication. It is significant that she did not worry enough about the words and text complimenting one another to bother taking more than three new pictures, when compiling this volume.

My words are harsh, I know. But what else am I to think? Consider the following image:

Robert Frost Country - Death of the Hired Man

This is paired with a fragment of “The Death of the Hired Man”:

Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.

The ‘poor old man’ in question, Silas, is, first, probably already dead when these lines are uttered, and, second, explicitly not smoking–to emphasize his poor condition, Mary says: “…I dragged him to the house, / And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke. / I tried to make him talk about his travels. / Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.”

These mere factual issues are of secondary importance, however. More importantly, this is perhaps the most superficial possible treatment to give Frost’s poem about a man’s concerns about how rightly to live and to die, and the relationships and obligations between people. For all the content of the poem mattered, the accompanying text might as well have been:

“I will answer the second question first,” he said, “—but bless me! this is a splendid place for smoke rings!”

At least the bulk of the fragments chosen merely ignore subtext in favor of imagery, and so are less offensive to my sensibilities. Enough, though: the text and images are poorly matched.

The only other thing to consider, I suppose, is the quality of the illustrations. I am no expert on judging photography, so I will not say much. There are certainly some nice scenes presented: nature can be beautiful.

Robert Frost Country - The Tuft of Flowers

On the other hand, many of the photographs are less to my taste. Consider this image: a mundane subject with uninteresting composition; I can look out my window and see a more inspiring scene.

The authors have published one other book, Robert Frost’s New England, also pairing their photographs with Frost’s poetry.

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North of Boston

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 17, 2014

Robert Frost’s second book of poetry, North of Boston, was published in 1914, by David Nutt in London, and by Henry Holt in New York.

North of Boston contains much longer poems, on average, than A Boy’s Will, but honestly I’m not as happy with it. First, though, let me pick out a selection from a poem that I enjoyed.

“The Death of the Hired Man” is probably my single favorite poem in the book, less because of pretty words and more because of how effectively the story is told. In short, Silas, a man in past times hired by Warren to help on his farm, has returned, in the Winter, in a bad way. Warren is upset, because Silas had left when he was needed, seeking better wages. Warren’s wife, Mary, scolds him for being cold:

“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”
“Home,” he mocked gently.
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

In the end (it’s no surprise, given the title) Silas does die, and that’s it. Though Silas doesn’t speak, in the poem, Mary speaks for him, relaying his words and interpreting his thoughts. The poem reflects on a number of things: the relationship between Silas and his employers; what obligations they have toward one another; particularly, the ‘obligation’ of one’s home to take one in; and, the sort of concerns a man has, as he comes to his death.

As I said, I wasn’t as happy with this book as I was with A Boy’s Will. I can’t say for sure that the average poem North of Boston is any worse than the average poem in that book, but I think that North of Boston manages somehow to be less than the sum of its parts. The poems share some common themes among them, but they don’t build upon the themes, or explore them in a way to give you a fuller picture, so revisiting the themes feels more like repeating a thought than expanding upon it.

Too, some of the poems go on too long–not because of any general preference on my part for short poetry, but because they exhaust the points they’re trying to make well before they run out of words with which to make them.

Finally, the poems in this book, like “The Death of the Hired Man”, are mostly dialogues. The speakers in several of the poems have voices very similar to my ear, which is especially damaging, as it makes the feeling of a poem gone on too long carry over from one to another in a most unfortunate fashion. It’s perhaps unfair of me–had I read the poems spaced far apart I might have considered them each individually better–but I cannot help what I feel.

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A Boy’s Will

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 17, 2014

Oh, my, I’ve been neglecting to copy my reviews into my blog! Let’s correct that.

Robert Frost’s first collection of poetry, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1913 by David Nutt, and then in 1915 by Henry Holt and Company. For those keeping score at home, that’s a year after Henry Holt published Frost’s second book of poetry, North of Boston.

Of course I’d read a few poems by Robert Frost at some point during my life, but I wanted to get a little more familiar with poetry in general and Frost in particular, so I decided to begin at the beginning. There are some lovely poems in here, though perhaps none are my particular favorites.

“My November Guest” is wonderfully easy to read (i.e. the rhythm is natural–the interpretation is not quite so simple!) and felt as appropriate in January as November.

“The Tuft of Flowers”, too, I especially liked. I read in it the transformative power of experience, as, in the space of a few lines, the speaker goes from:

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,–alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together of apart.’


And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

It’s a lovely poem, indeed.

The other poems in the book are well worth reading, as well, so I suggest that any fans of poetry check this one out. It’s an impressive first book from a very impressive poet.

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