The Poetic Tradition of New England Naturalism
Robert Frost, author of fifteen collections during his lifetime (1874-1963), is credited with establishing the poetic basis for New England naturalist poetry and branding himself as one of the first renowned regionalist poets. Recently his work has been notably compared to the contemporary work of Mary Oliver, not only for similarities in setting but also for their modernist and relatively traditional structures. They also share similar choices in descriptive language surrounding the motif and metaphors of the natural world. Although both Robert Frost and Mary Oliver use a natural setting to communicate their search of the inner self, Frost’s poetry looks for personal truth through active search and natural metaphor while Oliver searches for herself through her personal religion and a passive journey to admire the unexplainable beauty found in nature. As a result, Oliver carries on the tradition of New England naturalist poetry but contrasts with Frost’s somber tone with her deferential tone.
Robert Frost’s reputation as a regional poet appears to be historically predictable with a quick glance at his personal history and influences, however, this label proves to be problematic to a general audience when visiting his work briefly or at a glance. The poet was born on the West Coast, but moved to Massachusetts at a very young age, was schooled, married, and grew old in the pines of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and perhaps most importantly, New Hampshire. Literary critic Charles Foster claims that “Most of (Frost’s) dramatic poems, though rooted in New England, are true everywhere”. Author David Raymond also warns about approaching Frost’s poetry expecting a New England experience, claiming, “Frost’s best New England poems transcend the limitations of local-color writing and attain a complexity and universality not inherently regional” (Robert Frost and New England: The Poet As Regionalist). This is why it is important for readers to examine the meaning behind the nature, not just the descriptive imagery surrounding the setting as a whole. Oliver’s New England background can be inferred through the titles of both her collections and the uniquely individual nature symbolism within the poems. Her 1994 collection, White Pine is named after a large tree mostly native to the New England forestry and along the Appalachian area, while more subtle poems such as “Rumor of Moose in the Long Twilight of New Hampshire”, “Early Morning, New Hampshire”, and “Black Bear in the Orchard” all contain title elements that either set the poem in the New England area or use exclusively New England nature elements to establish a setting. Within her poems as well, there are a number of nuanced references to New England nature and natural imagery. Native New-Englander or not, her appreciation and love for the New England nature, especially in regards to her personal religious and spiritual practices, is prominent throughout almost every collection she has published. This is important when examining their inner journeys because their affiliation with New England nature serves as an even starting point for both authors on their quest for their inner self.
Oliver carries on the tradition of New England naturalism in the style of Frost by deliberately focusing on one aspect of nature or one perspective on nature at a time in order to explore the true self. For instance, in Frost’s “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road (To hear us talk)”, the vehicle of the tree blocking the speaker’s path presents a dilemma that translates into both a practical solution (finding a way to get around the tree without an axe), a metaphorical solution, and an inner search for something more.. He concludes with,
“We have it hidden in us to attain
Not though we have to seize the earth by the pole
And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space” (11-14).
In the face of adversary the speaker’s message is to prompt ambition. His “We have it hidden in us to attain” hints at the poetic call to action and touches on the ability to overcome adversary. Similarly, Mary Oliver builds upon the naturalist approach to the hunt for ambition in “Am I Not Among the Early Risers”, when she writes, “What will ambition do for me that the fox,…/ her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine/ has not already done?” (15-18). This highlights the difference in both the approach to a naturalist subject matter and the consequential difference in tone. Poetically, Frost’s “steer(ing) straight off after something”, although vague, infers that the speaker has fully thrown himself into finding a solution for both the present literal roadblock and the barriers of the inner self. The strength of the words “steer straight” but the vagueness surrounding the metaphorical “something” he is steering towards suggests that his search for self is ongoing and lonely, but most of all, uncertain. Oliver, in regards to ambition, takes a much more transcendentalist and passive approach when the speaker claims that her ambition is no longer necessary because she is a recipient of the gifts of nature. These themes prevail throughout the works of Frost and Oliver- Frost urging for solitude in nature to begin a metaphorical journey and Oliver urging solitude within nature to appreciate what has been given, and ponder the natural “gifts” of the world.
Herein lies the greatest distinction between Frost and Oliver’s work; that to Frost, nature actually means very little (except to be used in a metaphorical sense) and for Oliver, nature means everything. Critics have claimed that “Nature for Frost is susceptible of being used as metaphor, but nature is not symbol of the soul to be read intuitively for wisdom” (Foster). However, Frost seems to use other people as entryways to his own soul rather than the assumed nature route. In poems such as “The Star Splitter” and “New Hampshire” (along with many more), Frost uses his own dialogue and the dialogue of others to expand upon his internal struggle and often manipulates the words of others to represent his personal feelings. Frost perhaps avoids romanticising nature because “Robert Frost… knows nature too intimately to sentimentalize it or flinch in the face of its cruelties” (Lehman). Frost’s more casual view of nature drives the people surrounding Frost’s speakers to be the vehicle(s) of Frost’s speaker’s inner journey. Oliver ignores this idea entirely and only focuses on Frost’s tendency to use nature as a prompt for personal thought. Oliver rarely ever mentions any other characters in her poetry besides the speaker themselves, but goes to extreme efforts to vividly describe the natural landscape interacting with the speakers. Even in poems such as “This World” where Oliver’s speaker tries to block out nature, she writes,
“So I tried with my eyes shut, but of course the birds were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking with the sweetest music
out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and
as comes to all of us, in little earfuls, if we’re not too
hurried to hear it. (12-19)”
Nature is a driving force for Oliver, specifically the New England nature that Frost wrote so vividly about decades before. However, unlike Frost, Oliver focuses on this nature as an unavoidable and essential force, cutting out the inserts of dialogue Frost used as vehicles to explore himself. Frost’s speaker’s inner search, while set in a naturalistic setting, is most prominent in his conversations with other people, while Oliver’s search for her inner self uses Frost’s choice of setting to elaborate on her personal experiences with the New England nature.
Additionally, A sense of questioning and searching is prominent in both Frost and Oliver’s work, and is at the basis of their search for their inner selves. These questions tend to be those of the un-answerable kind which gives way to frustration for the speakers of Frost and wonder and awe for the speakers of Oliver. Frost ends his poem “The Star Splitter” (the story of a man that was ridiculed by his town for buying a telescope with all of his money) by asking,
“We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight,
And a man with a smokey lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?” (95-99)
The speaker’s examination of the world and the existence of the speaker in relation to all of creation is very similar to Oliver’s questioning, however, the story and the context of this observation does not present it in a positive light. This contributes to Frost’s tone and his conflict with the material things of the world. Although the speaker takes the time to question the existence of himself, the unfortunate situation of the man who devoted all of his material wealth to asking these questions is likely to be met with misfortune and demise which casts a shadow over the poem. Much of Frost’s work reflects the same ideas, leading to the conclusion that Frost’s usage of rhetorical questions is presented as futile in the eyes of the speaker. Oliver also uses these types of rhetorical questions, especially places at the ends of poems, much like Frost’s “The Star Splitter”. To cite a previous example, in her poem “Am I Not Among The Early Risers”, even the title poses a rhetorical question. Over eighty percent of this poem utilises rhetorical questions, including some such as, “Have I ever taken good fortune for granted?” (37) or even “Have I ever said that the day was too hot or too cold…/ as I stepped down from the porch and set out along/ the green paths of the world?” (46…50-51). These rhetorics mirror Frost’s unanswerable quest for self and are often used as a last thought of the poem.
However, Oliver’s greatest personal touch on the Frost-like usage of consecutive rhetorical questions is that she does not preface these questions with grim tones or stories. Many of her poetry is structured so that she introduces natural beauty and the speaker wonders how they are blessed with such opportunity and beauty. This is not to say that Mary Oliver avoided dark subjects entirely, in fact, in her poem “Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond” she addresses the inevitability of death. In this poem, the speaker opens with“As for life/ I’m humbled/ I’m without words” (1-3), and closes with “As for death/ I can’t wait to be a hummingbird,/ can you?” (30-32). The speaker’s choice to address death as not an end to things, to suggest reincarnation as a certainty, and to rhetorically close with a question of a hopeful nature takes Frost’s tendency to question the harshness of life and puts her own optimistic tone on it. Oliver’s mastery in her usage of rhetorical questions mirrors Frost’s work but also tonally separates the two poets so much so that their work could be easily distinguished from one another. Oliver’s adaption of Frost’s style with dramatic tonal shifts emphasizes the differences of the two author’s quests for inner self and also explicitly highlights the tonal differences between the two poets.
Lasting impressions given by the works of both Frost and Oliver play a vital role in the author’s intent for the piece which gives readers grounds to juxtapose the two very similar poets. Both Frost and Oliver tend to follow a similar poem structure, both stylistically and with their subject matter. In a technical sense, their loose but occasional use of rhyme flows seamlessly with their never-breaking rhythm. Both have a tendency to rest between long stanzas by inserting a one-line stanza, often a profound comment or a meaningful aside. However, their last, usually four, lines are without doubt the most carefully calculated because the speaker’s message is more often than not inserted into these lines. This creates the effect of a lasting impression on the reader. A story is told, the speaker reflects on its deeper or more personal meaning(s), and the last lines summarize the takeaway from their time spent reflecting on it which refers back to the eternal search for inner self or personal tranquility. However, Frost’s most important last lines are distinctive from Oliver’s because of their urgent nature which, in turn, creates a more somber and serious tone. For example, take Frost’s arguably most famous work, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The longevity and fame of this iconic piece is perfectly captured in the last lines; “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.” (12-16). Frost here is consciously deterring himself from the internal escape nature provides because his personal responsibilities, whether these be tangible or personal promises, take intensional priority over nature. Similarly, in Oliver’s “What Is There Beyond Knowing”, the last stanza reads, “If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet./ I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass/ and the weeds.” (29-31). The usage of the word “drifting” in regards to the search for something, in this case a “temple”, whether that be literal or metaphorical, contradicts the “miles to go” mentality that Frost established. Frost’s repetitive call to action and Oliver’s relaxed, flowing mentality juxtapose strongly although the subject matter is almost identical. Mary Oliver consciously continues Frost’s semi-structured, naturalist, New England poetry, but builds upon Frost’s work by stripping away the angsty and somber tone Frost creates and inserts a pondering, appreciative, and almost whimsical tone in its place.
Robert Frost and Mary Oliver’s usage of a natural setting to communicate the search for the inner self is reflected by their usage of rhetorical and literary devices carefully chosen and woven throughout their poetry. Consequently, Frost’s more serious and somber tone is one of the major differences between their poetry, as Oliver’s wondrous and appreciative tone puts her own spin on Frost’s traditional style of New England naturalist poetry. As influential as Frost was, Oliver’s obvious inspiration taken from him allows her to develop a distinctive style spawning from traditions, literary devices, and style choices that Frost made decades before. Both Mary Oliver and Robert Frost’s work examines the nature of the inner journey to discover oneself while admiring the beauty of New England nature and their work will undoubtedly continue to inspire contemporary poets to come.