I never cared for Life: Life cared for me,
And hence I owed it some fidelity…
W. B. Yeats
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
I would have written of me on my stone
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Though Frost’s epitaph fits them both (and Hardy as well), the epitaphs of Frost and Yeats would also work oddly well if swapped. Yeats’s poetry participates more obviously than Frost’s in a “lover’s quarrel,” while coldly gazing horsemen seem to belong more to Frost’s universe than Yeats’s. In Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, the speaker drives a horse-drawn sleigh in the winter cold, stares at dark woods, then passes them by (as thoughts of life and death, or “sleep,” hover in his mind). A similar scenario recurs in “Desert Places,” only here the speaker is passing winter fields rather than winter woods, and no horse is explicitly mentioned.
But then the phrase “lover’s quarrel” could evoke any number of Frost poems too, including the famous “Home Burial.” Though the pair in this dramatic dialogue are long past the stage when they could be called lovers, they very much drag the world into their quarrel, which revolves around the death of their only child. The wife, Amy, is blunt: “The world’s evil.” Her husband all but shakes his first at the heavens: “God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.” Scornfully, Amy quotes the remark her husband made after the burial—“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build”—not seeing that in his elliptical way, he too was condemning the “evil” of nature’s destructiveness. In fact, to reverse my previous statement (and thereby quarrel with myself), there is a real sense in which these two drag one another into their respective quarrels with the world. Though Amy perhaps remains more traumatized than her husband, it’s clear that both still mourn the loss of their son, for which only nature or fate can be blamed. It’s their failure to communicate with one another—“Let me into your grief,” the husband hypocritically pleads—that turns impersonal tragedy into interpersonal catastrophe.
An even purer embodiment of the spirit of Frost’s epitaph is “The Most of It.” Here we have the archetypal Frostian situation: not one in which two people confront each other but one in which a solitary, needy person confronts the indifferent world:
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
Therein lies the heart of Frost’s cosmic grudge. What he wants most from the universe—love, attention, personal investment in his life—is unattainable because the universe has no consciousness equivalent to his own. What the universe does give him, when he goes out seeking, may be absolute emptiness, as in “Desert Places”; it may be a pebble of truth—or quartz (“For Once, Then, Something”); or it may be a terrible vitality, manifested in “The Most of It” as a buck phallically “forc[ing] the underbrush” and vanishing. No matter what the gift, we’re left sobered at best and “crushed and mystified” (“The Trial By Existence”) at worst.
In contemplating this painful reality, Frost—as befits his name—consistently maintains a “colder eye” than Hardy or Yeats. I can’t think of a single poem in which he straightforwardly confesses to suffering as does Hardy in “A Broken Appointment,” or Yeats in “No Second Troy.” He never displays such lush self-pity or such burning intensity. Yet he is nothing if not contentious: his cry against life simply has more ice than fire to it. Think of the bitter end of “Out, Out—”:
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
* * *
The quarrelsome side these poets share should not obscure their many differences; they are no more in harmony with each other than they are with the universe. Hardy the poet-novelist and portraitist of “types”; Yeats the mystic visionary; Frost the comic sage—all these personae are unique within the trio, and somewhat less confrontational in their stance toward life. No epitaph can fully encompass one great writer, let alone three.
Still, applying Frost’s epitaph to the group helps pinpoint not only what kind of poets they typically are, but what kind they aren’t. The Whitmanesque note of pure praise and the Byronic note of insouciance are conspicuously absent from the best work of each. They are not interested in celebrating the world in all its messiness on the one hand, or standing back and smiling at it—dafting it aside and bidding it pass, like Falstaff—on the other. At the heart of each of their work lies the impulse to engage, to change, to make something happen (as Auden, elegizing Yeats, insisted poetry couldn’t). What they each made instead was a career’s worth of exceptional poetic arguments.