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Robert Frost: The Definitive Work

During much of the 20th century, Robert Frost was widely regarded as our greatest living poet.  Yet the Frost poems that students used to read in college English classes were those more easily accessible: “Mending Wall,” “Birches,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Typically, the professor would spend a day or two on Frost, superficially noting the quaint, country metaphorical content of these works, and then move on to T.S. Eliot and spend the rest of the semester explicating “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land.”

Thus, students were led to believe that Frost is “easier” than Eliot, less profound, and, therefore, less important.  Indeed, the reverse is true.  To understand and teach “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land,” the professor had merely to read a handful of articles in learned journals, where a few perceptive critics discussed the cinematic structure of these works and noted their heavily ironic contempt for the modern world.  Eliot delivered that cynical message in code; and teachers—with the unacknowledged help of a few critics—acted as decoders for bright-eyed freshmen longing to be world-weary.

No such definitive criticism existed for the works of Robert Frost, in large measure because the poems that didn’t make it into textbooks were often too deep...

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