Fourth Edition, November 2011
258: Best Essays in Literary Analysis
3rd Place Winner
The Contribution of Context: Implications of Associating Outside Information with Frost’s Poetry
by Lynnette Nolan
Unlike the Formalist approach, where “the proper concern of literary criticism is with the work itself,” biographical and historical perspectives invite audiences to read the text “with a sense of time and place” and to consider “the social and cultural contexts in which the writer lived” (2165-2166). While understanding the situations that occurred in an author’s life during the writing of a piece might contribute to a deeper understanding of the work, focusing on elements not implicitly included in the text may skew interpretations. Knowledge of circumstances that occurred in Robert Frost’s life could support the audience’s inclination to substitute the author for the poem’s speaker. Despite parallels or similarities, the two are not one in the same; interchanging the roles of author and speaker can lead to an interpretation that is too focused on the identity of the poem’s voice and not its content and themes.
In understanding Frost’s poetry, familiarity with his views about, and symbolic use of, nature plays a more crucial role than information about his life. Rather than classify Frost as a regional poet because of his time spent living and writing in New England, readers should appreciate the role of nature in his work. Frost, having never written “a poem that didn’t have a person in it,” creates a connected relationship between nature and humanity where, although “there are radical differences,” the two worlds “intersect” (956). “After Apple-Picking” employs nature as the vehicle for conveying the ideas about life coming to an end. The “overtired” apple-picker discusses the end of the harvest; in nature, fall turns to winter as the speaker nearing the finality of life, relates his own “sleep” to hibernation (28, 38, 967, 986). Frost again illustrates the relationship between the human world and the natural world when the speaker of “Birches” describes how he was once “a swinger of birches,” just like the young boy he imagines when he sees the willowing, bent tree limbs of winter (41,962). In Frost’s poetry, nature’s convergence with human life is a recurring theme, but each narrator views the relationship a little differently and with varying degrees of bitterness or nostalgia towards nature. The branches in “Birches” remind the narrator of the innocence and playfulness of childhood, whereas the symbolic apples that appear in dreams of the speaker in “After Apple-Picking” “trouble” him; nature induces reflection for both speakers, but the tones and feelings towards those memories differ in each instance (37, 968).
It is more important to analyze situations occurring within the content of the poem than in the context of Frost’s life. Like the couple struggling with the death of their child in “Home Burial,” Frost also “suffered the deaths” of children (954). Although it may benefit the audience to know that Frost writes this poem with an understanding of the couple’s pain, it might also act as an unwarranted microscope into Frost’s own marital issues. The dramatic interaction between the characters in “Home Burial” may be misinterpreted if the audience replaces the male speaker with the author; “Amy” may be viewed with less sympathy than intended, if the audience interprets her husband to be a mournful Frost trying to convey his personal feelings (39, 964). With two distinct speakers, knowing Frost’s circumstances in relation to the poem may lead to an interpretation that is heavily influenced by information outside the constraints of the text. Frost’s talent for making “poetry out of the spoken word,” is evident in his crafted dialogue between the speakers in “Home Burial;” if Frost’s background of loss is overanalyzed, his personal tragedies overshadow the poignancy and emotion of the relationship in the poem (958).
The lack “of references to economic, literary, and political history” in Frost’s poetry, allows readers to apply the situations in his poems to their own experiences (955). Enabling language and structure to carry the themes of the poem creates an environment for the poem to be self-sustaining. “Familiar vocabulary,” typical of Frost’s poems, enables the audience to easily read what is being written and then interpret the poem based on their own experiences (955). The idea of personal barriers alluded to by the speaker in “Mending Wall” invites readers to consider what they build up during their own “mending-time” (11, 960). Instead of concerns with how the poem may relate to elements of Frost’s life, by questioning what the speaker was “walling in or walling out,” readers can make interpretations based on their own personal encounters (33, 961).
Biographical and historical information pertinent to Frost’s poetry is topical because it provides insight into Frost’s inspiration. However, Frost’s poems are relatable to his audience regardless of their regional location or understanding of the time period in which they were written, as they all contain a human element juxtaposed with nature that is representative of an experience and change. In Frost’s poetry, speakers are rhetorical means for conveying the “wisdom” the author has imparted in the course of his poems (958).
DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: McGraw-Hill 2007.
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