My Frost is dramatic — to me, Frost is stronger writing dramatic poems than lyrics. North of Boston is, by far, the better book than A Boy’s Will. I have made the distinction and I will make it again: Robert Frost’s dramatic poems are more American. Overwhelmingly, they have a setting: they take somewhere in New England — whether it’s a farm, a home, or a field. That may be a big reason why “A Hundred Collars” is not as popular as “The Road Not Taken” — because “A Hundred Collars” is in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The road that diverges in two? That could be anywhere — and thus “The Road Not Taken” could be the Russian poem, English poem, Japanese poem, or whatever — it has a universality that most of North of Boston just doesn’t. The British poems of A Boy’s Will have too many caesuras and flowery that stop the flow of reading, while the American poems of North of Boston show Frost’s “American ear” that prizes sentence sounds and the limitation of caesuras, as Walcott emphasized.
Look to any dramatic poem in North of Boston to see the greatness of Frost’s dramatic poetry — the first of which is “Death of a Hired Man.” The poem starts off with a the first conversation we see in a Frost poem to date, one between Mary and Warren about the arrival of an old hired man, Sila. “She ran on tiptoe down the darkened passage/ To meet him in the doorway with the news/ And put him on his guard. ‘Silas is back.’” This is the poem where Frost can best capture human emotions and phenomena — and he does this through the petty feelings of betrayal in Warren:
“What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.”
There’s jealousy in the air later when Warren talks of Silas’s rich brother who lives down the road. The dialogue moves seamlessly, and the emotions that complement them do, too. I can imagine a Warren and Mary having this conversation in the room next to me. Even if I could only hear the sentence sounds and not the words, Warren’s lines 99–103 contains Oh sounds and an angry tone that just keep hammering away at his disdain for Silas’s return.
“Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never different.”
Like in “Home Burial,” Frost sprinkles a couple of emotionally significant lines that are so powerful that one who doesn’t consistently read poetry can’t imagine them actually being in dialogue, or Mary actually saying this about an old hired hand: “‘Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:/ You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”
Warren repeats the most important theme in the next line, “‘Home,’ he mocked gently.” What does it say about Silas, a character we don’t know, who is merely gossiped about, that he chose to die in the place he worked as a hand rather than in his rich brother’s house? Like Mary, “I wonder what’s between them,” and I don’t think that’s a question that will ever be answered. The complexities behind this dramatic poem are profound, and what’s not said is sometimes more important than what is said. What’s the nature of Silas’s family that he can’t even return to his brother’s home? What makes Mary so much more sympathetic to his plight than Warren?
And so comes the most pivotal focus for why Warren is so hurt by Silas: “he hurt my heart.” For Mary, the reason why she wants to forgive is in lines 76–77: “I sympathize. I know just how it feels,/ To think of the right thing to say too late.” I can imagine Joseph Brodsky writing an essay on “Death of a Hired Man” as “On Hurt and Forgiveness,” and how Mary and Warren are trying to fuse the two together. Mary is the more wise and mature of the two: she foreshadows that before they can bring him home, he will die.
This emotional complexity and ability to capture such a wide range of feelings, so fully and in a short amount of time, are what make my Frost best as a dramatic, rather than lyric poet. I, too, sometimes wonder if I were to die tomorrow, what would be home? Where would be home? America is my home, yes. But I did live in China with my grandparents as a toddler, I returned to the United States one day in 2001, entering a house in Suffolk County, New York, with two strangers. An Asian man and woman greeted me at the door with wide smiles on their faces, tears in their eyes. My grandparents rejoiced in tears as well. “Ryan, here’s mom and dad.”
Unfortunately, I had no idea who they were at the time, and I let it be known. “I don’t know who you are,” I yelled in Chinese. “You’re not my real parents! You’re nothing to me!” Four year-old me stormed out the door angrily, thinking at the time that where I was was not home. It was a bad dream that I would one day wake from. The moment was my first memory of meeting my parents, and I would learn from them, years later, that both my parents cried all night. For them, it was a nightmarish way to see their youngest son for the first time after two years. America, to me, was not home.
My Frost is dramatic in that even though America was not home then, it is home now, and I take pride in being a patriot and servant of my country. I am a patriot, not in that I approve glowingly of all our country’s historic actions. In fact, I am deeply ashamed of the CIA’s Cold War intervention in Latin American politics. But I am a patriot in that I owe my country everything because it is my home, and my Frost is dramatic in that he teaches me that to be a patriot of America, it means to have a lover’s quarrel with my country. I now serve as a special ed teacher at an inner-city Baltimore middle school, and I wish I can show my students the capacity of writing to express yourself and your emotions. I believe being a writer of dramatic blank verse is what it means to express your thoughts most plainly and fully, and that is what I want my students to find for themselves.