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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 713-744

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From Decadent Aesthetics to Political Fetishism:
The "Oracle Effect" of Robert Frost's Poetry

Paul Giles

Robert Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963. That made him 18 when Walt Whitman died, 25 at the turn of the century, and 39 when his first collection of poems, A Boy's Will, was published in 1913 (hardly, by that time, a boy's will). He was, then, 41 by the time T. S. Eliot published the first version of "J. Alfred Prufrock" in Harriet Monroe's Poetry in June 1915. All this is worth bearing in mind insofar as Frost was always older than one thinks: although he has become closely identified with the twentieth century, his intellectual roots lay further back, within the fin de si├Ęcle world of nineteenth-century culture. The purpose of this essay is to explore ways in which Frost's peculiar brand of American modernism engaged in various forms of dialogue with the aesthetics of the decadent movement that was widely influential at the end of the Victorian era, particularly in England. We shall see how strains of this "decadence" linger into Frost's laureate poetry of the Cold War period, thereby casting disorienting shadows over his performative invocation of a national identity predicated on ritualistic embodiments of the common good. In this sense, Frost's eventual cultivation of what Pierre Bourdieu calls an "oracle effect" (211), through which the poet self-consciously represented himself as a spokesperson for America, might be seen to derive not so much from the simple reproduction of native moral assumptions but, in a more sinister way, from the compulsion to repress less homely forces systematically. The axis of Frost's poetry, in other words, rotates on a deliberate strategy of diplopia, or double vision. Thus, the internalization and circumscription of decadence in his early work can be seen as commensurate with what Bourdieu calls that [End Page 713] "structural censorship" whereby a charismatic national figure seeks to map out the parameters of the public domain (138).

Definitions of American modernism are, of course, multifarious and contested, but Frost seems to have been influenced most obviously by the repeated injunction of his first benefactor, Ezra Pound, to "make it new." As Pound himself recognized, one of the most refreshing aspects of Frost's early work involved its deliberate movement away from stilted Victorian rhetoric and its appropriation of "the natural speech of New England" for poetic purposes ("Robert Frost" 384). 1 In this sense, Frost might be understood as, in Frank Lentricchia's phrase, the "ordinary man's modernist" (51), a writer concerned to ensure twentieth-century revolutions in poetic language would become part of the wider common currency. Subsequently, there were innumerable critical debates about the extent to which American writers similarly oriented toward a form of democratic realism--Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, and others--might be classified as modernists at all, despite their conscious attempts to integrate their popular and recognizably American styles with the aesthetic techniques of Gertrude Stein and others. In general terms, Marjorie Perloff is surely correct to point out that the formal characteristics usually attributed to modernism overlap so much with those of other taxonomies--"realism" or "romanticism" or "postmodernism"--that these terms in themselves have only a limited usefulness (170). But such taxonomies have, perhaps, a wider and more generic usefulness when seen in relation to the historical circumstances of specific eras: as a writer in America during the early twentieth century, Frost's work was inevitably engaged in dialogues with the inclinations of modernism, however much he may himself have reacted against such tendencies.

The oblique manner in which Frost positions himself in relation to this modernist impulse is in fact particularly self-conscious and revealing, since he is aware from the time he writes A Boy's Will of a need to reconcile quite different things. Suffering from an acute sense of existential dislocation, he also desires to be a representative American; speaking of isolation...


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