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Reviewed by:
  • How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter by Jonathan N. Barron
  • George Monteiro
How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter. By Jonathan N. Barron. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2015. 336 pp. Cloth, $60.00.

Nowhere does Jonathan Barron tell us that How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter is an intellectual biography of the poet’s first forty years. In fact, it is not until page 141 that he reveals that he numbers himself among Frost’s biographers.

This book tells the story of a notable poet’s mind and how it’s related to his work. Always inquisitive about what the philosophers, psychologists, and teachers of his time had to say about the mind’s understanding of the reality it would acknowledge and explain, the young poet was nearly single-minded in his quest to join those thinkers he admired in their search not only for truth but their need to make something real of the life they experienced. Students of Frost’s life and poetry have long recognized the importance to Frost of Henri Bergson’s notions of the élan vital, William James’s elusive ideas of pragmatism and belief, and George Santayana’s [End Page 186] identification and naming of the genteel tradition (to mention only a few of the names and ideas that worked on Frost’s mind). But no one has dug as deeply into these matters as Barron has, limning and analyzing, as he does, the ruminations and roils that contributed to the intellectual growth of the boy and man who would bring it all, as he said, “to book.”

All this complexity, contraries considered in careful and painstaking detail, made up but part of Frost’s lifelong task. There was the question of audience for his work. He often said that poems must earn their keep by making their way in the world of commerce, that by hook or by crook a poem must be bought and paid for. Thus he rather quickly decided that only those poems that editors would buy would really justify their existence. Of course, in the long haul he would “make” (so to speak) a place for his poetry, especially his so-called eclogues dealing with rural folk and their rustic occupations in their own words and in the rhythms of their everyday speech, with rural speakers occupied with universal concerns spoken about in their vernacular terms. With a constant eye on the universal appeal of their experience—in act and thought—Frost set about making a place for them in the world of English-language poetry. Many of the literary journals he set his sights on, especially those that printed only poetry that dealt in an uplifting way with what might be called the “old verities” (expressed in what Frost considered to the tried and tired poetic language of yesteryear)—those journals he would not crack for years to come. But he never quit. Added to his frustration at this early “rejection” (lasting for two decades and longer) was his deep-seated annoyance that even after those journals began to publish his work, he was still considered something of a natural, a simple warbler of simple poems, a non-thinking versifier incapable of analyzing his own poems or theorizing about the nature of his poetic enterprise. To friends first and later to editors and critics, he insisted that he had a design, that he was not a poet without craft. In this regard he put his weight and whole effort into explaining his idea that he was after capturing the “sound of sense.” Barron pays a great deal of attention to this idea, as he should, for it is at the heart of Frost’s thinking about the poems in our time that matter.

But it should also be noted that Frost was canny enough to recognize that a first reading of a poem must connect with its reader the first time he read the poem. Frost always knew that accessibility must come first, and subsequent readings over time would bring other meanings, other resonances. How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter tackles some of the myriad ways in which thought played out empirically throughout the poet’s...


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pp. 186-187
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