One of the major tenets of naturalism in American literature is the idea that nature or chance constantly spread themselves and impose their dominance upon man (Pizer, 11). This idea is supported by other traits of naturalism such as its tendency to apply scientific or clinical methods to its study of nature (Walcutt, 21). Writers of the naturalist era, such as Jack London and Emile Zola, tend toward a fatalistic view of the elements, generally presenting their characters as being at the mercy of these forces. Robert Frost, though a poet who lived within the Modernist era, can still be seen as a poet whose poems tend toward the naturalist tradition. His poetry is largely dedicated to call attention to the immensity of the forces in nature. However, the methods he uses to create his poetry and the human beings represented in his poems do differ both from those represented in the tenets of naturalism, as well as from those methods often employed by other poets and writers of the Naturalist period.
Frost’s tendency to deal with subjects that are in contact with the vastness of the elements can be seen in his poem “Fire and Ice.” This poem mingles the natural phenomena with ideas of the supernatural in a truly naturalistic manner. It speaks of the end of the world and disasters that are brought on by the two extreme elements. He speaks of fire as being able to herald the cessation of all life through its destructive powers, and it likewise speaks of ice as having the power to do the same. However, unlike most naturalistic writers and poets studied, he imbues his human subject, the persona I, with emotions that appear greater than the element to which it is compared. Frost writes, “From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire” (Lines 3-4). Here he compares human desire with fire, and gauges the ability of fire as a destructive element based on the magnitude of the capacity for destruction in man’s own fiery desire. Likewise, he writes of ice: “I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great” (Lines 6-7). The human emotion (hate) is again elevated in its ability to destroy with a magnitude as great as the elements. Frost therefore, in contrast with naturalistic tendencies, elevates the human abilities as highly as (or even higher than) the elements found in nature.
Such an idea as presented above is in contrast to naturalism, as that movement is usually found to highlight the helplessness of man and his miniscule aspect in the face of these elements (Pizer, 11; Walcutt, 21). In fact, on giving the poem a second look, one becomes skeptical of Frosts intention to associate the elements with the supernatural. He appears to grant these awesome destructive abilities to the elements only after reviewing the ability of human beings’ emotions to accomplish a similar feat. This leads to the idea that were man not able to destroy the world with his desire or hatred, the world could never be destroyed at all. This idea is decidedly un-naturalistic, as it places mankind in a position to deal out destruction alongside the elements. In a battle with the elements, one gets the impression that humans with their fierce passions might have a good chance of emerging victorious. Such naturalistic stories as those by Jack London differ greatly from Robert Frost in this way, as while London’s humans succumb to the power of nature, Frosts’ human in this poem equals it.
Frost does employ the ideas of extremes and dualities in his poetry, and this concurs with the idea given by Donald Pizer, who remarks that naturalism “usually contains two tensions or contradictions” (10). The impression one gets at the beginning of Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” of a cleaving of the earth under the force of something large and unnamed. The possibility of an earthquake figures into the reader’s impression at this point in the poem, as boulders spill and gaps are made. This spectacle created by the force of nature is, however, cheapened; as Frost is quick to describe how much more havoc can be wreaked by a human being. It becomes apparent, actually, that this elemental damage is actually caused by a human, who is represented as a hunter. He has the ability to create gaps in a wall created by an un-neighborly neighbor. Though the hunter in his physical prowess creates a gap, this can easily be filled—and this work is unlike that of the neighbor’s animosity, which is able to continue mending the wall of separation.
The naturalistic duality can be seen here in the separation that exists because of the presence of the wall. It can also be seen in the dual abilities of man—the physical versus emotional (spiritual) abilities. However, unlike other naturalistic writings, Frost again highlights the prowess of human beings’ inner qualities. As though aligning humans’ physical attributes with the forces of nature (as, for example, in Frost’s initially describing the work of the hunter in a way similar to the effect of an earthquake), Frost elevates also in this poem the spiritual attributes of man above the energy of the natural forces. The speaker says, “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. To each the boulders that have fallen to each” (Lines 12-16). These lines describe men who are masters of their portions of the earth. They exert their own force over the elements, taming the land and mastering even enormous boulders. And yet the wall that stands between them subdues each, preventing even this master from wandering the earth as he would. The force behind this wall is the frosty human sentiment of unsociability, which Frost (unlike other naturalists) elevates above all other forces.
Yet, human indignity has sometimes been the subject of naturalistic works (Pizer, 10). However, Frost describes a genial character in the speaker of “Mending a Wall,” who would like to end the enmity and wall-building between his neighbor and himself. Charles Child Walcutt has mentioned in his book American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream, that naturalism is usually a “chronicle of despair” (21). Yet, though this poem appears to have an unfeeling subject (the neighbor who wants the wall), the speaker repeatedly declares that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (Lines 1&35). This demonstrates a more optimistic view of human beings and their tendencies. It is a view that gives hope, and not despair. It is a view that declares to the world that though the passions of humans might be stronger than the elements, many of those passions are for the good of mankind. This goes strongly against the fatalism that is usually found in the naturalistic tradition.
Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” also has the appearance of naturalism. The woods are being blanketed by the snow and the night is assaulted by the cold of the wind and precipitation. Within this setting, a man and his horse are on their way home, and in the midst of all that snow, one gets the feeling that it is very easy for them to get lost. In fact, it brings to mind a very similar story of a man and a dog in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” However, while this story ends very fatally with the man succumbing to the elemental snow and cold, (being apparently doomed by the loss of his instincts through evolution, since it is clear that his dog easily finds his way home), this human being found in Frost’s poem is in comparison completely controlled. He knows where he is going, and does not succumb to mirages or distractions. He does not stop to build a fire, but continues on his way.
Furthermore, other forces that haunt humans haunt him also. The poem continues, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” (Lines 13-15). The speaker’s feeling about the woods might be considered a hypothermic urge to stop and rest, to overcome tiredness brought on not just by his work but by the cold. Other naturalistic stories might have shown him buckling under the pressure of hypothermia. But Frost’s speaker defies this as he triumphs in his awareness of what is occurring. He realizes he must continue on his journey. He must not stop to sleep, for sleep is death, and he anticipates a long life. The intellect of man wrestles and triumphs against not just his own physical desires, but also the external pressure of the elements. The spirit of the human prevails in a way uncharacteristic of naturalism.
Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” also strongly represents the naturalistic mood, in that it demonstrates the power of nature. Yet in this power is also represented an immense weakness. Nature is able to change everything—this fact is highlighted by the poet. However, even nature’s most precious beauties succumb to its own processes of change whether she would have it or not. In this way poem seems to fly in the face of the naturalistic tradition by affirming one of its major tenets, and then using that very same tenet to efface the credibility of the naturalistic movement. The first line speaks well. It reads, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold” (Lines 1-2). This demonstrates that no matter how hard nature tries to remain static and to hold on to her beauty, she remains forever in flux.
In fact, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” demonstrates the work of the elements not upon humans but upon Nature herself. It almost personifies Nature—and in doing this, not only does Frost debase nature, but he also elevates human beings to the level that is usually granted nature in naturalism. This is a decidedly different approach to humanity than is usually taken by naturalists. Though humans might be subject to the whims of the forces of nature, as advocated by naturalistic writers, Frost declares that nature is no more privileged. Even its own “leaf subsides to leaf,” and “Eden [which] sank in grief” (lines 5-6) did this as a result of the actions of man! The naturalist movement is thereby challenged in this poem by humans who are able to match the forces of nature, and also by a picture of nature that is subject (like humans) to its own forces.
Robert Frost’s poems do tend to adhere to the principles of naturalism to the extent that they include images in which man appears tiny in a harsh and expansive universe. However, humans are also shown as having the power to do damage similar to that demonstrated by the natural forces. The poems “Mending Wall,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Fire and Ice” demonstrate elements of naturalistic duality and struggle that lead toward the triumph of humans either over the forces of nature or in a way that demonstrates their ability to create more havoc than these forces. In opposition to many other authors of naturalism, Frost elevates the human being as himself a force to be reckoned with in nature.
Frost, Robert. “Fire and Ice.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 5th ed. Vol. 2. 1998. 1132.
—. “Mending Wall.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 5th ed. Vol. 2. 1998. 1119.
—. “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 5th ed. Vol. 2. 1998. 1132.
—. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 5th ed. Vol. 2. 1998. 1133.
Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Revised Edition. Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Walcutt, Charles Child. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. Greenwood Press, 1974.