To admirers of Robert Frost still reeling from the biographical assault carried out by Lawrance Thompson and, more recently, by Jeffrey Meyers, Jay Parini's version of Frost will come as consolation and reaffirmation.
From the beginning, Parini represents himself as empathetically close to his subject: not steeped only in Frost's poetry, notebooks and correspondence, but also following modestly in his professional footsteps (both have occupied teaching posts in Dartmouth and Middlebury colleges). Such intimately felt connections yield a biography of attractive, generous spirit that will go a good way towards rehabilitating Frost as, in Parini's phrase, "an American emblem". Against the calumnies of recent biographers, this new life insists patiently, but without extravagance, on Frost's devotion as a parent, competence as a farmer and ingenuousness as a literary figure.
In biographical writing, such sympathy can shade into a lack of critical distance. Indeed, when discussing Frost's conservative politics, Parini seems to write in the terms already favoured by his subject. Paradoxically, he also fails in certain respects to rewrite the work of his major biographical opponent, Thompson, whose three-volume life of Frost appeared between 1966-76. For details of Frost's early years, in particular, it is quite proper that Parini should draw on Thompson's prodigious research. However, the borrowings extend beyond such archival materials, and can be discerned in the very lexical and narrative choices made by the new book. Where Thompson speaks of "estrangement and intimacy", Parini, describing the identical incident, has "intimacy and emotional distance"; where Thompson writes "enraged", Parini substitutes "furious" - and so on, through frequent instances. At a higher compositional level, just as Thompson moves successively through considerations of Henri Bergson and William James to a reading of Frost's poem, "Design", so Parini's book executes a similar sequence.
While the new biography, then, is presented as oppositional to its three-volume precursor - concerned to view Frost as essentially benign rather than monstrous - it deeply echoes Thompson's work.
This is not to suggest that Parini's book contributes no new material. The text draws copiously on recent interviews with a range of Frost's colleagues, family and friends. The poet once said in an interview: "What is man but all his connections? He's just a tiny invisible knot so that he can't discern it himself: the knot where all his connections meet." Shaping his biography around such a hint, Parini amply details Frost's affiliations not only with innumerable individuals but also with many institutions, buildings and landscapes. Each new farm occupied in New England is described enthusiastically in prose that, at times, takes on the cadences of an estate agent's prospectus. Parini's detailing of all the connections in which Frost was held only threatens to become wearisome, however, towards the end, with the account of multiple honorary degrees and poetry readings to vast crowds.
Yet, like many other literary biographers, Parini is sometimes haunted by the suspicion that even such generously retrieved detail remains peripheral to the task of accounting for a writer's creativity. "One can never really know what goes into the making of a poet," he remarks at one point. While this insight might seem disabling to his very enterprise, Parini interprets it as a positive injunction to allow Frost's poems a range of significances beyond the reductively biographical. Unfortunately he has only variable success as a reader of poetry. In places he actually commits heresies of paraphrase; elsewhere poems tend to display a "numinous glow" or "almost Celtic wistfulness". In such passages of airy commentary, it is as if Parini is executing only half of the movement followed by Frost's swinger of birches: getting away from earth, certainly, but without coming back to it again.
For the most compelling interpretations of the poetry, readers should go to Richard Poirier or Katherine Kearns, whose study Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite (1994) brings to bear insights from feminism and psychoanalysis. By contrast with these critics, Parini lacks critical sharpness and theoretical range. Nevertheless, his book supplements their work by putting in place a Frost worthy of both serious study and renewed public affection.
Andrew Dix has lectured in English at the University of Loughborough.
Robert Frost: A Life
Author - Jay Parini
ISBN - 0 434 00166 X
Publisher - Heinemann
Price - £20.00
Pages - 500