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Essays on Literature & Poets

4. There are two basic ways to approach a poem, just as there is with any work of art. The work can be taken on its face value, examined textually and/or structurally and expected to stand on its own, or the work can be examined in terms of external matters such as the life of the artist. It is certainly true that the artist draws on his or her own life, which if nothing else is a formative experience that determines how the individual thinks and thus how the individual shapes his or her work. At the same time, it is also true that connections made between the work of art and the life of the artist are not sufficient to determine whether that work is valuable or not. The poems of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot can serve to show how an understanding of the life of the poet can illuminate aspects of their work, while it is also true that the work itself illuminates aspects of their lives by showing what has been important to them and what has contributed to their outlook. Still, the poem itself must communicate to the reader without reference to the life of the poet. What this really shows is that there are different levels of analysis possible, with each level capable of illuminating and being illuminated by the other levels.

Baym et al. note that the poetry of Robert Frost is "characterized by bleakness," and they also cite the travails of Frost's life that might have contributed to his bleak outlook, including the bitter struggles of his early years, the son who committed suicide, and the daughter who had a compete mental collapse. The relationship is not a simple one-to-one matter, however, as the authors note when they discuss the persona, or voice, through which Frost projects his poetry. This persona is not simply the voice of the author but rather an assumed construct, "a recurrent speaker, a wise country person living close to nature and approaching life in a spirit of compassionate realism" (p. 1081). Frost used this ...

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