North of Boston

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North of Boston (1914) was Robert Frost's (1874–1963) second book of poetry and it established him as the American poet of New England. The collection is considered the major achievement of a career that included writing, farming, teaching, journalism, and lecturing. Frost's poems, stripped of Victorian artifice, were regarded by some as a program for a new poetry, something Frost denied. Oddly enough, the book was first published in England, where he was living at the time. But American publishers were slow to accept any poetry that did not satisfy a late-nineteenth-century taste for rhyme and ornamentation or respect certain poetic conventions. (The debate over poetic style—ornamental versus easily accessible language—began in about 1905.)

The outbreak of World War I, about which he later wrote protest poems, brought Frost and his family back to the United States. Frost's colloquial style and the technique he called "the sound of sense" was greatly admired by his readers in England and North of Boston's success there prompted the American publishing company Henry Holt to bring it out in the United States. The book sold only moderately well at first but gradually gained momentum until it was a commercial success.


The volume contained several of what have become Robert Frost's most famous poems: "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "Home Burial," and "After Apple-Picking." Critics found the influence of many poets in his work, most prominent among them the American poets Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British poets William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Browning, though Frost rarely wrote in the confessional mode Browning sometimes adopted. Because Frost so often set his poetry in rural New England, his work has been called "pastoral," and "bucolic" and has often been associated with the British Georgian poets. Georgian poetry, however, reacted against industrialism by retreating to an idealized pastoral world with abundant charm, but was so low on imagination that it amounted to mere escapism. Frost himself pointed to the influence on his verse of the ten eclogues of Virgil.

North of Boston is regional poetry and its subject is the region's people. In it, the poet withdraws artistically from the urban world to New England. But industrialism encroaches in any case, as in the poem "The Self-Seeker," in which a workman's coat becomes caught in a mill and his legs and feet are badly injured. He is forced to sell the land on which he cultivates flowers in order to buy new feet. The man and his artistry are both victims of industrialization.


Reviews were generally positive. The well-known modernist poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972) praised Robert Frost's "artistic vigor" and the tone of honesty and irony in the poems, whose pervasive humor contains a touch of the sinister. Frost depicted real people who converse in the natural speech of New England and he wrote of their reticence, stubbornness, and tragedies. Because Frost's blank verse was so similar to prose, his work was also noted for its proximity to good short story writing. Amy Lowell (1874–1925), a poet of the imagist school, writes in her review of North of Boston that Frost's characters are "the remainder of a once fine stock" (p. 49). Ironically, she laments that, unlike Europe, New England had lost the "sturdy peasantry" of the soil, who, she speculates, may have gone west fleeing "violent and ugly" religious beliefs (p. 49). Others find the characters hardy and reflective. In either case, readers consider the people and places comfortably familiar. Because of North of Boston, Frost became known as a kindly "poet-philosopher" who could express complex ideas and strong feelings in simple colloquial language very different from the Victorian forms of expression and, as Pound wrote, with no "tricks." For a time the critics debated whether Frost was a traditional poet because he sometimes used regular stanzas and rhymes or an early modern poet because he experimented with blank verse and free forms. Frost's theory of "the sound of sense," which he considered a choice rather than an imperative, entailed using prose dialogue to establish a rhythm. The apparently simple surface of Frost's poems contrasts pleasantly with the difficult modernism of poems by Pound and T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Frost said that he refused to use footnotes as these poets did because he wrote for people who did not need them.

Frost's poetry sheds the influence of cities and science. As a result, some think, they slough off the traditional European consciousness, so that an openness to new ideas produces fresh poetry that reflects modern life. Frost's rural New England is not Eden but a worn world, a mature realistic world in which forests have been cut and soil depleted, where houses are crumbling and proud families have disintegrated. In "The Black Cottage" and "The Housekeeper," this is a world where old beliefs are affirmed but reconsidered. People there are wounded physically or psychologically. A woman is subject to hereditary insanity in "A Servant to Servants." A mother goes nearly insane after losing her child in "Home Burial." But Frost presents his characters tenderly, without condescension, and measures them against normal, helpful neighbors.


The theme of loneliness is never absent from Frost's poetry, but in "A Servant to Servants" the horror of its consequences is acute. The narrator is a builder's wife who cooks for her husband's hired help. She talks with a fern collector, presumably a woman, who is camped on the couple's lakefront property, having chosen temporary solitude as a mode of recreation. We know the wife has previously been acquainted with this camper because she mentions "that day I showed you [where] we used to live" (ll. 62–63). The wife begins discussing how happy the move had made her, how it had lifted her spirits to leave the family home, where the cage in the ell was filled with "attic clutter" (l. 143). She enjoys the new view of Lake Willoughby from her kitchen window while she does the dishes, but the pleasure has worn off "like a prescription" (l. 154). Her depression returns and the lake comes to symbolize the woman's feelings: deep and narrow and like a river cut off at both ends.

The wife reveals her worries indirectly. Some are financial: sometimes they rent the "cottages Len built / Sometimes we don't" (ll. 41–42). The move caused financial losses and Len worked to overcome "sacrifices" but probably with "small profit" (ll. 64, 68). Len works hard, says his wife, "when he works" (l. 66), but he is taking too much time in town, involving himself in everything. "This year / It's highways" (ll. 71–72).

Although a less-familiar poem to most readers, Frost's "A Servant to Servants" captures the slow discovery of horrors that can contrast with the aura of an apparently peaceful scene. This same tone and realistic exposition can be found in some of the work of Elizabeth Gaskell and in Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome, also set in New England.

My father's brother, he went mad quite young.
Some thought he had been bitten by a dog,
Because his violence took on the form
Of carrying his pillow in his teeth;
But it's more likely he was crossed in love,
Or so the story goes. It was some girl.
Anyway all he talked about was love.
They soon saw he would do someone a mischief
If he wa'n't kept strict watch of, and it ended
In father's building him a sort of cage,
Or room within a room, of hickory poles,
Like stanchions in the barn, from floor to ceiling—
A narrow passage all the way around.
Anything they put in for furniture
He'd tear to pieces, even a bed to lie on.
So they made the place comfortable with straw,
Like a beast's stall, to ease their consciences.
Of course they had to feed him without dishes.
They tried to keep him clothed, but he paraded
With his clothes on his arm—all of his clothes.
Cruel—it sounds. I s'pose they did the best
They knew. And just when he was at the height,
Father and mother married, and mother came,
A bride, to help take care of such a creature,
And accommodate her young life to his.
That was what marrying father meant to her.
She had to lie and hear love things made dreadful
By his shouts in the night. . . .
. . . I've heard them say, though,
They found a way to put a stop to it. . . .

Frost, "A Servant to Servants," in North of Boston, ll. 104–130, 138–139.

When Len is in town, his wife suffers from loneliness. Meanwhile she fries bacon for itinerant hired men, her husband's "servants," making her a "servant to servants." These four crude boarders brag about taking advantage of Len, of wasting things, then laugh at him behind his back. The men talk around the wife as if she were invisible. "It would be different if more people came" (l. 39). Because of her depression, Len's wife, who has no name in the poem, feels cut off from her emotions: "It seems to me / I can't express my feelings" (ll. 6–7). But beneath the lake of her sub-conscious, she represses anger: "And all our storms come up toward the house"; "(oh, I can lift [my hand] when I want to)" (ll. 24, 9). The wife reveals her fatigue and her frustration at the maddening repetition of cooking, of "doing / Things over and over that just won't stay done" (ll. 51–52). She reveals fears about theft and rape by men whose names and characters she doesn't know in a house where the doors are never locked.

At the exact middle of the poem, the monologue turns more troubling. The woman confesses that she has been in the state asylum once already, but even so, the optimistic Len "thinks [she'll] be all right / With doctoring" (ll. 46–47). The narrator feels she needs rest, not doctors, and her physician has dared to agree with her. Len insists, however, that the "best way out is always through" (l. 56). So her husband either takes the situation too lightly or refuses to understand it, further increasing her loneliness and frustration and trapping her. Then the wife says she thinks this mental disorder runs in families and tells the story of an uncle who went mad and was kept in a cage in the ell of the farmhouse. She tells how he ran naked in this jail, incessantly shouting obscenities in the night after the woman's father brought home his bride. Eventually, "They found a way to put a stop to it" (l. 139), and her insane uncle, secretly dispatched, is never mentioned again. The implication is that the same thing could happen to her.

At this point, the camper begins to back away from this woman who so desperately needs company. The wife tells her: "Bless you, of course you're keeping me from work / But . . . I'd rather you'd not go unless you must" (ll. 172–173, 177). The listener may fear she is dealing with a madwoman, since a fern collector can hardly be in a hurry. Or does she stay? The word "rather" renders the line ambiguous. Either way, it seems likely that a short reprieve is all that can be expected for the wife. The woman's anger, fears, loneliness, and family history are symptomatic of clinical depression as doctors understand it today. No wonder Frost is considered not only a great observer of humanity but a great poet and psychologist.

The loneliness of many of Frost's characters is due only partly to physical isolation, though there is rarely any sense of community in the poetry. In "The Mountain," the ox driver tells the traveler there is no village near the mountain, merely a township and "a few houses sprinkled around the foot" (l. 97). A husband and wife may be psychologically isolated by a disagreement. In "Home Burial," the wife, tortured by the sorrow of losing a child, misunderstands her husband's way of dealing with grief. The isolation may be only temporary, however, caused by a difference of opinion, as in "The Death of the Hired Man." In this poem, a sense of companionship binds Mary and Warren, the speakers; but Silas has come home alone to die. Sometimes neighbors are isolated because they protect their privacy, as in "Mending Wall." Nature destroys the wall, but in spite of the speaker's reluctance the neighbors cooperate in rebuilding it every spring, ironically the season of renewal, since "good fences make good neighbors" (l. 27). When Frost presents a platitude such as this, however, he always examines its irony and sometimes presents an alternative: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" (l. 1). In "Blueberries" the isolation is selfish. The father of the large Loren family refuses to tell the speaker that he knows the location of a patch of wild blueberries because he wants them for himself, even though the land belongs to Mr. Patterson and the Loren family members have already gathered more than they can eat. The individualism fostered by American democracy, combined with the cultural reticence of New Englanders, also plays a part in the loneliness and isolation.

Another theme in Frost's poetry is the need to work to the point of exhaustion, an expression of the Puritan work ethic. In "After Apple-Picking" the speaker stands on the ladder picking apples for so long that he can feel the impression of its rungs in the soles of his feet. The speaker looks forward to a well-deserved rest, since after harvest comes the symbolic winter of peaceful sleep. In "The Code" two farm workers are insulted when their boss goads them to work hard, since they take pride in doing so already. After thinking it over for hours, one simply stops and walks away without a word. The other calmly tries to smother the boss under a load of hay. "The hand that knows his business won't be told / To do work better or faster—" (ll. 22–23).

A third theme is the creation and destruction of physical, moral, and emotional barriers, captured in the central image of "Mending Wall." In "The Death of the Hired Man," Mary "put out her hand / Among the harplike morning glory strings / Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves / As if she played unheard some tenderness / That wrought on him beside her in the night" (ll. 106–110). Mary is compared to an angel playing a harp and leading Silas to the glory of heaven. Immediately afterward, Mary tells Warren that Silas has come home to die. Frost believed that such metaphors and analogies are at the heart of poetry, but his use of them is never obvious.

Departures alternate with images of home in "The Mountain," "The Wood-Pile," and "The Death of the Hired Man," from which comes the famous definition: "Home is the place where when you have to go there / They have to take you in" (ll. 118–119). Frost's dramatic dialogue, following in the path of Browning, realistically portrays a region peopled by reserved and neurotic characters, some in rural poverty.

Constantly absent from the narrative is any cheap sentimentality or moral judgment of the characters' hopes, sorrows, and fears. For example, Frost raises the sensitive subject of women living with men in common-law marriages. In "The Housekeeper," Estelle has given everything—work, love, and money—to John, who has assumed the role of affectionate husband but neglects to marry her or even notice the strain she feels in her humiliating circumstances. Her unspoken anger and mortification erupt, and she runs away to marry a less desirable man. In "The Fear" he depicts a woman constantly afraid that her husband will come after her violently, and the implication may be that she fears that he will not value her enough to come after her at all. Also absent in most of the poems are strong sensations used for effect, such as the element of surprise. In "The Death of the Hired Man," readers know from the title that the hired man is dead or dying. What we observe is Warren's gradual change from anger at Silas's repeated desertions to pity and mercy as Mary gradually and confidently coaxes him into his final forgiving mood.

Departures and journeys bring with them fears, such as violence in a strange place, as in the humorous "A Hundred Collars." Another fear, less easily conveyed, is that of losing one's identity. In "The Wood-Pile," a poem largely about absences, the speaker ventures forth on a winter's walk in a white world where most observable details are obliterated by snow. Even the trees are "too much alike to mark or name a place by" (l. 7). With few physical or psychological reference points, the speaker risks losing his sense of himself, his identity, a sure path toward madness or death. In the blank, white world, the speaker defines himself by projecting his characteristics onto a bird. His fear first takes the shape of paranoia, when he imagines that the bird is afraid he is after its tail feather. When he stops at a wood-pile, the bird flies on. Although the woodpile seems solid, it is held together by only delicate clematis vines, a still-growing tree, and a stake that is about to fall over. Hence the solidity of the woodpile is ephemeral, rendered more so because the woodcutter has forgotten it. When a person wanders so far physically or psychologically from people and places that provide accurate points of reference, the self may be lost or erased. The vacant landscape nearly destroys the speaker's personality. Frost seems to believe it imperative that, however much their voices are rooted in the vernacular of the region, people should not disappear into the landscape.

In another poem, "Good Hours," the narrator goes alone on a winter evening's walk. Vicariously he enjoys the activities in the cheerfully lit cottages he passes. He hears the music of a violin and watches young people through the lace curtains of a window, assuming that the "eyes" of the cottages also see him. When he reaches the edge of town where the cottages end, he suddenly "repents."

As so often in Frost's poems, a moment of mystery has arrived. Of what has he repented? At the edge of the winter of death has he realized that he should be connected to the people in his community? He turns back only to find the cottage windows now dark. His feet disturb the sleeping street "like profanation" (ll. 14–15). But how could his feet disturb anything in the quiet snow? Why should the disturbance be profane unless his passage disturbs the sleep of the dead, symbolized by black windows? But it is only ten o'clock, not yet the midnight of death. Perhaps he still has a day or two left to take a walk in the company of another. And unless he himself represents Death, come two hours early, his apology, "by your leave" (l. 15) seems, like Emily Dickinson's personification of death in "The Chariot," enigmatically understated.

One of Frost's motifs is thresholds. In "The Generations of Men" a man at a family reunion jokes to a girl that their great-grandmother nine times removed is telling him to take charred wood from the foundation of a destroyed house and build a doorsill and a new house around it on the old spot. In "The Black Cottage," the minister and his companion sit at the threshold of a house as he talks about the owner. She was an old woman who lost her husband and two sons in the Civil War. Innocently, she believed "that all men are created free and equal" (l. 60). The minister says reflectively and paradoxically, "Why abandon a belief / Merely because it ceases to be true. / Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt / It will turn true again" (ll. 105–108). Truths seem to cross back and forth over an imaginary threshold.

Some critics call these narrative poems "stark," "harsh," or "grim." They seem so only because their meanings are not hidden, which is not to say they are simple or devoid of aesthetic value. For instance, inspiration and alliteration produce beautiful lines such as "the blue's but a mist from the breath of the wind" ("Blueberries," l. 25). North of Boston is a record of the New England landscape—a landscape to return to—filtered through a philosophical mind. By virtue of his accessibility, his warmth, and his insight, Robert Frost may be the most beloved American poet of the twentieth century.

see alsoImagism; Lyric Poetry; Realism


Primary Work

Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. New York: Henry Holt, 1979.

Secondary Works

Cox, James M., ed. Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Faggan, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. New York: Twayne, 1966.

Greenberg, Robert A., and James G. Hepburn, eds. Robert Frost: An Introduction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

Greiner, Donald J. Robert Frost: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1974.

Lowell, Amy. Review of North of Boston. New Republic, 20 February 1915, pp. 81–82. Quoted in Greenberg and Hepburn, eds., Robert Frost, pp. 48–49.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sharma, T. R. S. Robert Frost's Poetic Style. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1981.

Thompson, Lawrence. Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Robert Frost: The Critical Reception. New York: B. Franklin, 1977.

Helen Killoran

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North of Boston