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Dynamics of Robert Frost

Robert Frost could probably be described as one of those most dynamic poets of the 20th

century. His poetry ranges from philosophical views to the natural phenomenon to his backyard.

However, he did refrain from writing much on the critiques of current events, preferring to be

more objective than personal in his poetry. Poems, such as “The Road Not Taken” and “Nothing

Gold Can Stay” are that of an onlooker, speaking of what one observes, keeping a distance from

the readers and acting only as a guide. Not only did Frost not wish to reveal himself, but

sometimes he hid the general idea and lessons in his poems. Potter wrote that Frost used the

power of metaphor and symbolism to “hide behind his public image and figurative language. He

not only felt reluctant to expose himself fully, but also believed on principle that a poet should

expect his best readers to be intelligent and perceptive” (165). What's more, many critiques

believe that Frost would never write “specific political and economic problems which are the

subject matter of the daily papers” (Lynen 188). If he ever did react in some way to a present

situation then it was “merely a part of a larger picture, whose subject is not… taken as a whole”

(189). However, what many, if not most, critics fail to realize, is that as time passed, Frost’s

poetry shifted from that of an spectator to personal involvement and criticism. The mind-bottling

events of World War II caused Robert Frost to transition from an isolated poet to one who is

politically active and critically outspoken.

In order to understand Frost’s transition, one must first understand his poetry before the

mind0bottling events of World War II. It is probably most appropriate to begin with “The Road

Not Taken”, one of the most popular and well-known poems written by Frost. Just like other

poems during this period, this particular verse resides in a natural setting, a “yellow wood”. Frost

uses a typical situation one might find in their life and incorporates it into his poems, shaping the

rural scene “into a mythic world within which he could express symbolically other ranges of
experience” (Lynen 188). The “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” describe two set of

choices. The fact that the author is sorry that he “could not travel both” implies that the choices

are not of easy measure. It can be a choice between what he is told to do and what he believes he

should do; a choice between what is most popular and safe and what is more risky and unknown;

or a choice that seems more difficult than the other but might be most rewarding. Yet Frost uses

metaphor instead to let it be known what he is describing with one being “grassy and wanted

wear/ though as for the passing there/ had worn them really about the same.” In the conclusion of

the poem, Frost’s advice is that no matter what choice he may have chosen, (and no matter what

choices he had to choose from), the difference between the two would be equally great. The

poem, as a whole, does not give the author’s view. He does not state whether his choice was a

good one or if it was the better one. He does not tell the readers which road to choose and the

poem itself does not tie in to a particular historical event of the time. It is simply a guide of what

one can do, not of what one should.

A small change in Frost’s poetry occured in the post-war era, at the end of the First

World War. The period itself was that of the “Lost Generation” and “modernism”. The lost

generation was a time of artists and intellectuals in the post-war era who found the new society

disturbing. The war laid such an impact on these people that they found the new society

shattering and disillusioning. Everything returned back to how it was with a greater emphasis on

materialism and consumerism, making it seem like nothing was gained during the war. Due to

such events, the lost generation rebelled against what America has become. Being apart from the

views of society, the group brought in a new style of writing, changing the country’s style from

Victorian to modern. Even though Robert Frost would not be considered as part of the lost

generation, he shared similar views along with many other post-war writers, no doubt due to the

impact the group has caused upon the country. As a matter of fact, numerous writers following
the war became “against what they saw as outdated modes of writing belonging to a pre-war

society that no longer existed…. [They] set out to write with a new voice as well as innovative

form and content” (Lee-Browne Post-War Literature16). It is here that a poem such as “The

Road Not Taken” suddenly changes to “A Soldier”, clearly a poem influenced by the war.

Frost depicts strong sense of patriotism when it comes to war and its soldiers, as revealed

in the poem. He describes a fallen soldier whose gun is still uplifted towards the enemy even as

“dew” and “rust” fall upon it over time:

He has that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it ploughed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

The main idea of the poem is to show the worth of soldiers and the importance of honoring them

even though they die, unlike those who “see nothing worthy to have been its mark” and only feel

distress at a soldier’s death. Those people cannot understand the death of a soldier because they

"look too near" and do not take the time to recognize the courage of the soldiers, which Frost

describes as greater than our own. The soldiers “fall, they rip the grass, they intersect/ the curve

of the earth, and striking, break their own”; just “metal-point on stone” make men “cringe”.

Unlike his previous poems, Frost is now pulling the audience into specific thoughts. He opens up

ideas and describes their effects. Frost does not much as criticize as emphasize what everyone

sees yet might choose to ignore. He still does not reveal his own views and does not try to force a

way of thinking upon the audience, letting it come naturally instead. Just like “The Road Not

Taken”, by the end of the verse, the audience is free to think what they want. This time, however,
a current event was woven in. Due to this, the poem is more challenging to the mind since the

audience can relate more to a significant situation.

Another such poem could be found in “War Thoughts At Home”, which was dedicated to

Frost’s friend Edward Thomas who died in the trenches during the war.

Suddenly blue jays rage

And flash in blue feather

And one says to the rest

“We must watch our chance

And escape one by one-

Though the fight is no more done

Than the war is in France.”

Than the war is in France!

She thinks of a winter camp

Where soldiers for France are made.

She draws down the window shade

And it glows with an early lamp.

However, even here, Frost refuses to involve himself. In his place is a woman sitting by a

window and dimly thinking about the soldiers at France. Outside are blue jays who “watch

[their] chance/ and escape one by one” even though the war in France is not done. Clearly Frost

wishes that the soldiers, or “blue jays”, have escaped the war before their death but he does
imply himself and does not write that it should have been that way. Also, his previous poem, “A

Soldier”, does describe a sense of honor for a soldier who has died when he wrote that the body

of a dead solder “shot the spirit on/ further than target ever showed or shone” – the spirit has

become greater and shone brighter than one ever before. Such conflicting emotions prevented

Frost from becoming any more personal. He did not feel the urge or the need to release his inner

self and allow the public to see him for him as a whole.

It was not until World War II that Frost was affected in such a way as to reveal himself.

His book, Steeple Bush, written in 1948, is the beginning of that change. Even the Greenhaven

press writes that the book “talks about the effects of war” because Robert felt “that wartime was

the time to honor poetry’s sustaining power rather than brush it aside” (22). But why was now

the time to honor the situation? Why did not Frost find the importance of that honor in the Great

War or other events during his lifetime, such as the Great Depression?

The answer would be the anxiety and new sets of feelings that the Second War brought

with it. It brought anxieties which Frost had to write about to “rid the fear from himself”

(Hinrichsen). And if it was not fear, it was harsh and quick criticism, a sharp turn from what one

was used to reading. The most blunt of such poems was written in “No Holy Wars for Them”,

depicting disapproval and sarcasm towards Switzerland. During the Second World War,

Switzerland did not fight, though it was not allied with Germany. Yet it was never attacked nor

invaded either. The reason was probably due to the fact that Switzerland still made the war effort

easier for the Germans through many of its negligent and unwarranted actions. One big event

was that though Switzerland did accommodate some 55,000 civilian refugees, many were

rejected at the border. Swiss authorities even refused diplomatic protection for its citizens of

Jewish faith in Germany which was a sure death. Also, during the war the Nazi regime in

Germany forced many of their victims to sign orders for the transfer of their assets with Swiss
banks and insurance companies to German banks. Swiss banks did not doubt these orders. This

way they made it unnecessarily easy for the Nazis to steal from their victims and get money.

Frost criticizes the Swiss for “standing by” and watching “a war in nominal alliance”. He shows

disgust and disagreement when he asks God of what was his input on the situation:

God, have You taken cognizance of this?

And what on this is Your divine position?

That nations like the Cuban and the Swiss

Can never hope to wage a Global Mission.

The “Global Mission” would be the end of Nazi Germany and, consequently, WWII.

However, many have accused that Swiss prolonged the war through its ignorance and also was

the cause of many Jewish deaths not only by inaction but also it was believed that Germany used

the train tracks in Switzerland to transport Jews from one camp to the next, along with supplies

and other such trips. Robert Frost writes that Switzerland could do nothing and give nothing to

help in any mission of the world. The only thing that the “small” could do is “give us a nuisance

brawl.” The sarcasm and criticism can be read and felt in this passage and the poem as a whole.

Such a poem was not yet written, and yet the Steeple Bush collection had more on that note for

the case with Switzerland was not the only nor the biggest effect on Frost’s poems.

Yet the most traumatizing and controversial event is yet to be discussed. The after-effects

of the war did cause Frost to be more politically active in his poetry about the current issues of

the world, especially when it came to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the

surrender of Germany, Japanese forces were already greatly weakened, their navy practically

destroyed. When there was hint from the Tokyo government that there might be an agreement to

surrender, the U.S. tried to grasp that chance. However, it turned out that the Japanese would

only surrender in return for the promise that they could keep their emperor. The United States
declined, already having received unconditionally surrender from German forces and expecting

the same from the Japanese. The idea of surrender ended there and America knew it would have

to fight the Japanese in order to finish the war. It became obvious that the Japanese were highly

nationalistic and that a land-based attack would more then likely end with many deaths. Fearing

even more casualties, the U.S. debated on other means of beating the Japanese – a chemical

attack was considered. However, many believed the idea being “inhumane” and it was decided

that the use of the newly created and newly tested atomic bomb would be more moral. On

August 6th of 1945, a U.S. bomber called the “Enola Gay”, flew over and dropped the first

atomic bomb at the center of Hiroshima. America was in joy that the war was at its end due to a

mighty bomb. Three days later another of a different type bomb of even greater power was

dropped on Nagasaki.

Robert Frost published his excerpt, Steeple Bush, in 1948, two years after the war has

ended. At least three of the poems were based on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and

Nagasaki, and yet none had any joy of the situation. Why did Frost wait so long before writing

such poems and why was his view so different from the first reaction of the American people?

The reason would be that many, if not most, minds of the American people has changed as the

days after the bombing went by. When the bomb first was dropped, everything the citizens of

America learned was through the War Department and it was there where it was decided what

the American people should or should not know. On August 7th, military officials confirmed that

sixty percent of Hiroshima has been wiped off the map. It was stressed that the are housed major

industrial targets. The Air Force provided an aerial photograph of Hiroshima that marked the

radius of damage and identified significant damage. However, it failed to mention that of the

thirty targets; only four were specifically military in nature. Once the casualty estimation was

given, the War Department was certain to issue also statistics of American losses caused by the
Japanese during the war, due to the great number of deaths in Hiroshima. (Most people did not

even know about the Nagasaki bombing). About 150,000 people died or got injured at Hiroshima

and about 75,000 at Nagasaki (though more died afterwards due to radiation and other after-

effects of the bomb).

However, the War Department could not control traveling journalists nor the coverage

done by Japanese civilians then sent to the American press. The truth about the atomic bomb

revealed itself, however slowly. The first outcry happened when it was learned that the bomb has

killed mostly civilians because it went against the laws of war which forbade such massive

killings. The biggest shock was when the American people first learned of radiation, an idea

denied by the government for many weeks following the bombings. Large numbers of civilians

began vomiting and bloody and watery diarrhea, associated with extreme weakness. They died in

the first and second weeks after the bombs were dropped. In fact, 20,000 additional deaths were

due to radiation alone.

Frost was one of those who were irate, fearful, and conflicted. The “Ingenuities of Debt”

first reveals the wrongs done by the government for keeping facts about the Hiroshima bombing,

and, in some cases, even lying. He describes the government as a “serpent on its chin”, a

common symbol of lies and trickery. It’s anger and even some sorrow is due to a city that is

“infirm, worn-out, and broken on its hands” while the serpent is there, resting, and “content with

contemplating, taking in” what it sees. Frost, however, does not use the word “Hiroshima” or

anything else to that would specifically state what he was describing. Is it because he is still

trying to be objective? Even though before WWII this would be true, it is not the case. Frost

allows readers to know that he is describing Hiroshima by using the city Ctesiphon - a ruined

city of Iraq - as a symbol. Reason being for his use of symbolism is more than the fact that Frost

once said that poetry is “’pleasure of ulteriority’ – the pleasure, that is, of metaphor, of ‘saying
one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another’” (Klein). It was due to the

censure the War Department placed upon all articles, movies, and literature that referenced the

atomic weapon in any way. As a result, “American poets have applied themselves to Hiroshima

more imaginatively and persistently than filmmakers and fiction writers, perhaps because they

are not constrained by the historical or documentary narrative common to their other forms of

expression. They can attempt to get at the meaning of Hiroshima in a more powerful, creative,

imagistic, even fractured way -an approach the event practically demands” (Lifton and Mitchell

380). Due to this reason, Frost used his love of symbolism and metaphor to describe his

viewpoints of the nuclear bomb, criticize the government, and still be allowed to publish his

works.

“U.S 1946 King’s X” uses a similar tactic:

Having invented a new Holocaust,

And been the first with it to win a war,

How they make haste to cry with fingers crossed,

King's X--no fairs to use it any more!

The “new Holocaust” is the hundreds of deaths during the use of the nuclear weapons on Japan.

It is the atomic bomb! Frost does well to describe his anger and disgust by using the holocaust as

the description of the mass killing of civilians in Japan. America was the one to use this “new

Holocaust, / and been the first with it to win the war”, the Second World War. Frost criticizes

America for using the Holocaust-like weapon to win a war, showing his disapproval of a war

being won in such a way. “A Soldier” reflects upon this view – a war is honorable and won by

soldiers, not a killing machine. He then criticizes President Truman himself, describing him as

“King’s X”. Since he cannot use words or names that would get his work censured, Frost puts

the “X”, a variable, which stands for another word. The fact that it is a king lets it be known that
whoever the “X” stands for is a leader, and since America was the only one to have used the

bomb, obviously the leader is President Truman. Frost began criticizing and showing his point of

view more than ever. He began stating what was wrong, and even wrote that it is “no fairs to use

[the bomb] any more”. Never before has Frost made a distinct order of what should be done.

The bomb has made Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like a graveyard. It has brought upon the earth

that even though America repaid “the ingenuities of debt” of death, it could not “save it from its

losses being met”. He did not fear to describe his thoughts of a graveyard that now took the place

of the two cities in Japan. “Directive” speaks all he had to say:

Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,

There is a house that is no more a house

Upon a farm that is no more a farm

And in a town that is no more a town.

Of country where two village cultures faded

Into each other. Both of them are lost.

The government has tried to cover it up but the town had “long since gave up pretense of keeping

covered” since the destruction and horrors of it have been so great as to be heard across the great

ocean.

The unannounced acts of betrayal of Switzerland, the leave of his friends to WWII, and

the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the last button to be pushed, the last part to be

release the true Frost from his inner self. He is started off as a poet who hid his views, image,

and soul from the world by hiding behind symbols and metaphors, by writing objectively, and by

keeping clear of current issues. However, it became clear to him that great and terrible issues

need someone to speak out about and his popularity gave him that responsibility. He took away
all mystification and doubts of his character and became politically poetic, criticizing, shaming,

and outraging, but keeping his discreet style to let everything be known without be held against

for it. He has given us water of his analysis so “drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

Works Cited

Brinkley, Alan. American History: A Survey. 10th ed. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies,
Inc., 1999

Lifton, Robert Jay, and Greg Mitchell. Hiroshima in America Fifity Years of Denial. New York,

NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons New York, 1995.

Greenhaven Press. Readings on Robert Frost. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven press, Inc., 1999

Hinrichsen, Lisa. "A Defensive Eye: Anxiety, Fear and Form in the Poetry of Robert Frost."
Journal of Modern Literature31.3 (Spring2008 2008): 44-57. Academic Search Premier.
EBSCO. UCVTS . 5 May 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?
direct=true&db=aph&AN=32480824&site=ehost-live>.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Death Toll. October 2007. UCLA, aasc.ucla.edu. 13 May 2009
<http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/cab/200708230009.html>.

Klein, Amelia. "The Counterlove of Robert Frost." Twentieth Century Literature54.3 (Fall2008
2008): 362-387. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. UCVTS. 12 May 2009
<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?
direct=true&db=aph&AN=36920065&site=ehost-live>.
Lee-Browne, Patrick. Post-War Literature: 1945 to the Present. New York, NY: on File, Inc.,
2003

Lynen, John F. “Frost as Modern Poet.” Robert Frost. Ed. James M. Cox. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1962

Potter James L. Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University
Press, 1980.

Switzerland’s Role in World War II. 2004. Geschichte-Schweic.ch, Sitemap. 30 April 2009
<http://history-switzerland.geschichte-schweiz.ch/switzerland-second-world-war-
ii.html>.