Robert Frost’s A Boys’ Will and North of Boston

A Boy’s Will was Robert Frost’s first published collection, seeing print when he was nearly forty, in 1913. North of Boston, published in 1914, was his second collection. Published together, they provide a good signpost at the point where 19th-century poetry became 20th-century poetry

The poems in A Boy’s Will are based firmly in the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, which wended its way through the 19th century and the works of the Victorians in both England and America. (It is a tradition that most of us think of as built on “poetic” diction and many exclamation points.) Even though Frost’s early works often foreshadow the themes and settings of his later poetry, they are definitely cast in the mold of the later 19th century, as in “Spoils of the Dead”:

Two fairies it was
On a still summer day
Came forth in the woods
With the flowers to play

To those accustomed to the forms of contemporary poetry, it sounds quaint, even though it becomes substantial – it is a poem about death. Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook, makes a good point: “To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air.” Particularly instructive in this regard are two poems that bridge these two collections, the first titled “The Tuft of Flowers” (an altogether delightful work), which ends:

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Frost’s own note says that one of his most famous poems, collected in North of Boston, picks up this theme where “A Tuft of Flowers” laid it down. “Mending Wall” shows us men working together:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go . . .
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side.

We are definitely in the 20th century: blank verse and diction that derives from everyday speech. I was amazed to discover how many of the poems I studied in school were first published in Frost’s second collection: not only “Mending Wall,” but “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “After Apple-Picking” – and others I had never read before but should have, such as “The Wood-Pile,” which begins with hints of the later “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

It’s amazing to see not only the break in style between these two collections of Frost’s poems, but the development of a major poet into maturity. Many of the works in North of Boston are really stories, long narratives, complete with dialogue and undeniable dramatic impact. Frankly, if you want Frost in your library, go with “Collected Poems.” However, if you’re out browsing and run across this one, it’s worth having, just for the educational value: this is a good, concise view of what Frost is about.

(Dover Publications, Inc., 1991)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.