Taking some of the chill off Frost
Robert Frost: A Life by Jay Parini Heinemann 500pp, £20 in UK
The last biography of Robert Frost was by Jeffrey Meyers and I reviewed it in these pages two years ago. Its attempts at sensationalism were merely silly and it offered no insights into the poetry. Before that, there had been many biographies and memoirs of Frost, the most famous being Lawrence Thompson's controversial three-volume life, which portrayed this most loved of American poets as a tyrannical and vengeful monster.
Here was a classic case of a biographer letting himself get too close to his subject - he began as a worshipper, but the more he came to know Frost the more he grew to dislike him, regarding even his minor foibles as grotesque character flaws, so that what had been conceived as an act of homage turned into something close to hatred, as if Frost had somehow betrayed his acolyte's devotion by revealing himself to be less than a saint.
In an interesting afterword to this new book, Jay Parini comments on the previous biographies, showing how Thompson's biased closeness to his subject inevitably led to distortion of impressively researched facts, and contemptuously dismissing the fevered ineptness of Meyers.
Parini's own book is more modest in intention than either of these. "With a few notable exceptions," he says in the preface, "the facts of Robert Frost's life were not in question . . . What was left for me was assimilation, arrangement, and emphasis: the work of constructing from the myriad details of Frost's life a coherent story."
He does this supremely well, in a narrative that gracefully and clearly takes the reader through Frost's private and public career, while offering insights into the poetry and its making that are both tactful and persuasive.
The life, despite the worst efforts of Thompson and Meyers, was not especially remarkable (no more remarkable than that of the lives of most writers, or indeed of most people), and anyway the outlines of it are so well known that they don't need repetition here. So I'll concentrate on what Professor Parini says about the poems, which ultimately are all that matter.
It is, he writes, "virtually impossible to analyse Frost in terms of his progressive development: he did not, like most poets, grow and shift; rather, like a tree, he added rings". This is a simple observation, but it is a very good one, because it gets to the heart of Frost's achievement - with the publication of his second collection, North of Boston, in 1914, the essential Frost vision and style were firmly in place, and so (as with Philip Larkin) you look to him not for new subjects, but for the deepened responses to the same subjects that time brings to an already assured imagination and talent.
When, in the ninth grade, the young Jay Parini was given Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to read, he experienced "the physical and intellectual thrill of poetry for the first time", and this famous anthology piece still thrills him: "The aphoristic quality of this little poem, which seems so natural that one cannot imagine its having been invented, is such that one can hardly not memorise it."
In the wonderfully compressed elegance of "Fire and Ice" we find the poet "lacing the rhymes as tightly as a boot"; in "After Apple-Picking", "the tenses suddenly grow indistinct, and one cannot be sure where dream and reality intersect"; and we are reminded that "He would declare and could himself believe" (the opening line of "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same") echoes the line from Hamlet "So have I heard and do in part believe it" (which Frost once called "the most beautiful single line of English verse").
And though we are at first startled to be told that "Birches" is, "as much as anything, a poem about onanistic fantasy, about an isolated boy with the urge to ride these trees to the ground, over and over again", we are compelled to reconsider a poem which "re-creates the curve of desire found in the sexual act". And yes, gosh, I think maybe it does.
Professor Parini's biography is a self-confessed labour of love, and he potently communicates that love to the reader.