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  • Frost's North of Boston, Its Language, Its People, and Its Poet
  • David Sanders (bio)

North of Boston was Robert Frost's second book of poems but the first to reveal his full dramatic power and moral awareness. It was also the first to explore the culture of rural New England in which these poetic powers had grown to maturity. Published in May 1914 in London, fifteen months after A Boy's Will,North of Boston gained a warm reception in England and by September had made its way to Henry Holt in New York. Holt, buying the American rights from Frost's English publisher, David Nutt, reissued North of Boston in February of 1915,1 making it Frost's first American book and ending what had been, for him, two decades of obscurity at home. Reviewed by Amy Lowell in The New Republic the very week of Frost's return from England,2 the volume announced Frost to literary New York and Boston and revealed to America the poetic voice—vigorous and vernacular, yet subtle and complex—for which he would soon be widely known.

North of Boston also established Frost as a poet of people and place. Presenting earthy characters mainly in blank-verse narrative and dialogue, it takes us into the lives of working people in Frost's early twentieth-century New England. Even the volume's first-person lyrics—"Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile"—contain strong narrative and dramatic elements. Structuring the book through their strategic placement, they sound a keynote for the volume in their use of a conversational style, their exploration of character and motive, their emphasis on traditional skills and labor in a life in which winter is always near and survival never assured.

All of the sixteen poems that comprise North of Boston underwent final revision in England during the summer and fall of 1913, when the Frosts occupied a rented cottage in the London suburb of Beaconsfield. Yet the creative sources for these poems and their vernacular style go back to Frost's [End Page 70] decade (1900-1909) on a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Frost, having left college a second time and suffering worrisome chest ailments, had, with money from his grandfather, turned away from the factory work and teaching that he already knew to try poultry farming, which promised to leave him time to write while supporting his family in a healthy rural environment. While the Derry years never quite made Frost either a farmer or a living, they shaped the poet he had determined to become, immersing him not only in the seasonal cycles and "country things" that would saturate his verse, but in the New England speech which he would make his poetic tongue. In doing so, the Derry years also made vivid and real the lives of the neighbors who would people North of Boston and, in wresting a living from hard climate and stony soil, would define a moral center for Frost's poetic world.

Considering his interest in its people, we might ask why Frost's comments on his verse in the year leading to the book's publication focus so thoroughly on matters of technique. The question is answered partly by Frost's immediate situation. The public response to A Boy's Will had raised doubts whether the artistry of his seemingly natural style would be understood by the audience, including the reviewers, of the volume in preparation, which Frost saw as pivotal to his career. In April 1913, for example, the Times Literary Supplement had described the simplicity of A Boy's Will as "naively engaging."3 Ezra Pound's review in Poetry the following month had carried a greater sting. Although he had helped to promote Frost's name, Pound had made "the mistake," as Frost would soon complain to John Bartlett, "of assuming that my simplicity is that of the untutored child."4 Little as he had ever trusted Pound, Frost must still have felt betrayed by so cavalier an assessment from one who styled himself Frost's champion. He may also have worried that Pound had laid a path for others to follow...


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pp. 70-78
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