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Robert Frost's "The Fear"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Frost

with birthday cake

with birthday cake

Introduction and Excerpt from "The Fear"

Robert Frost's "The Fear" is a narrative poem from his collection titled North of Boston; the poem consists of 103 lines without a rime-scheme. The poem's atmosphere becomes rather eerie not only because of the darkness late at night and the isolated location of the couple's home but also because of the woman's obsession that she is being stalked by a former lover. She seems to become ever more unhinged as the conversation wears on.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Fear

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.
A horse's hoof pawed once the hollow floor,
And the back of the gig they stood beside
Moved in a little. The man grasped a wheel,
The woman spoke out sharply, 'Whoa, stand still!'
'I saw it just as plain as a white plate,'
She said, 'as the light on the dashboard ran
Along the bushes at the roadside-a man's face.
You must have seen it too.'
'I didn't see it.
Are you sure—'
'Yes, I'm sure!'
'-it was a face?'

To read the entire narrative, please visit “The Fear” at the Academy of American Poets.

Reading of "The Fear"

Commentary

This piece is a dramatic, narrative poem featuring a narrator and four characters—a husband, the only named character, a wife, a man, and the man’s son who does not speak.

First Movement: The Narrator Begins

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.

The poem begins with the narrator’s description: the husband and wife have returned home after being away for several hours. They are in the barn standing beside their horse and carriage. The wife claims that she saw a man’s face, “as plain as a white plate,” as they were nearing their farm. She insists she saw it, but her husband retorts, “I didn’t see it. / Are you sure—.” He is interrupted by the wife with “Yes, I’m sure!” To which her husband questions, “—it was a face?”

The wife is uneasy about going into the house without discovering to whom the face belongs: “Joel, I’ll have to look. I can’t go in, / I can’t, and leave a thing like that unsettled.” Joel disagrees that someone is snooping around the house and tries to dissuade her going out and trying to find someone. But she is adamant and cries, “Don’t hold my arm!” To which he replies, “I say it’s someone passing.”

Second Movement: Her Complaint of Isolation

The wife then reminds her husband of how isolated their farm is: “You speak as if this were a travelled road. / You forget where we are.” She insists that if anyone is lurking around, it is for the specific purpose of seeing her. Joel then realizes that his wife thinks the man who may be “standing still [ ] in the bushes,” may be a man she once knew.

Joel says, “It’s not so very late—it’s only dark. / There’s more in it than you’re inclined to say. / Did he look like——?” Again, the wife interrupts her husband by saying that he just looked like “anyone,” but she again insists that she has to go look. After he discourages her again, she takes the lantern and tells him to “not to come,” because “[t]his is my business.” Joel then realizes that he wife thinks this prowler is a man with whom she has had an assignation, and he thinks she is being silly: “In the first place you can’t make me believe it’s—.” Again interrupting him, she says it’s either her former lover or someone he has sent to spy on her.

Third Movement: The Broken Pride

Joel derides the idea that this man would care enough to be out snooping around their farm or sending another person in his stead. To which the indignant wife barks, “You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.” She then flatters herself further by adding, “Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough— / Joel, I won’t—I won’t—I promise you. / We mustn’t say hard things. You mustn’t either.”

Joel insists on accompanying his wife to check for the prowler, and as they advance forward into night, she begins to call out. Finally someone answers her question, “What do you want?” with “Nothing.” The man finally comes forward into the lantern light. She sees that it is not the former lover. Accompanying him is his son. They were simply on their way to “Dean’s” with whom they are to visit for a couple of weeks. The wife is taken aback; she excuses her intrusion on the couple’s journey by saying, “You understand that we have to be careful. / This is a very, very lonely place.” She calls her husband’s name, lets the lantern drop; hitting the ground, its light goes out.

The Dousing of Desire

The simple narration reveals the vanity of a woman who thinks that her former lover is obsessed with her and her disappointment after she realizes she was wrong. At the end, the symbolic dousing of the lantern as it thumps the ground parallels the dousing of the woman’s burning desire to have this former lover taking pains to see her.

Robert Frost - Commemorative Stamp

 U.S postage stamp issued for the centennial of the poet

U.S postage stamp issued for the centennial of the poet

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes