Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With The World

Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With The World


Reviewed by: Chris

“Never do it to pay a bill – cos you probably won’t.” Robert Frost’s advice to aspiring poets could apply to any almost any calling in life. But especially to the arts. His passion for poetry not only pays his bills but wins him four Pulitzer prizes. And Shirley Clarke’s documentary of his life won her an Oscar.

Robert Frost was the quintessentially American poet. He could express the charm of rural life with a depth that allowed love of nature to inspire thoughts of life and the universe. We see him both through the eyes of the filmmaker researching his earlier years, and again with live footage, up close, in his last months of life, still working. He is perhaps to Americans what Rabbie Burns is to Scots, so although his language is quite accessible it takes me a while to warm to the man.

Frost's common-garden assertions, “Peace is something you only get by war or the threat of war,” need a little more substance to convince me. (He doesn’t explain this, although it makes sense if, say, you have read Taoist classic The Art of War much loved by American generals.) Frost’s pro-Americanism – “the greatest country that has ever existed” – can sound arrogant to a foreigner who maybe doesn’t happen to agree. He seems a nice man. But why are so many in awe of him?

To find out, Clarke digs deeper. We see Frost giving a lecture, including readings of his own work. A tremendous, vibrating voice. The eyes of many audience members glisten. Biting a lip, you can feel them savouring every syllable. (Yes, he also brings a tear to my sceptical eye.) Listening to Frost is almost a spiritual experience. There is no discernable reason for the effect that his simple words have. He becomes his words. (Readers who remember the Sixties, or have watched Don’t Look Back, can perhaps identify with a similar sort of charisma that Dylan had as you were sucked into the words flowing off his tongue.)

When Frost comes alive reading his verses set in the countryside, it lets us see the man in a new light. We watch him digging potatoes. A man of the earth, of the soil. But above all, a remarkably complete man. What he can express in words can reach anyone with the unique feeling of becoming one with the land. Breathing in the breadth of the countryside, its timelessness. A slower pace. One that re-charges overworked city batteries running on caffeine and tomorrow’s deadline.

“When I see birches bend to left and right

"Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

"I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

"But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.

"Ice-storms do that.”

I had never more than glanced at Robert Frost’s poems before seeing this opus. But by the end of the film I was enchanted. His work has a pastoral quality reminding one perhaps of Seamus Heaney (Compare, if you will, Birches with Heaney’s Exposure). Both men tend to blur the distinction between humour and seriousness. They want us to enjoy the grand cosmic joke that is reality. Frost is evidently pleased with the way Clarke is making the movie. He suggests, gesturing, that it is being done right ‘this time’ (apparently dissing earlier documentaries of his life). This involvement with the camera is typical of Clarke’s tendency to make the filmmaking part of the subject of her movie.

A Lover's Quarrel With The World is less harrowing in style than Portrait Of Jason. In the latter film, monolithic attention to the documentary subject burrows deep until he breaks down and exposes his ‘soul’. Clarke’s portrayal of Frost, on the other hand, is loving and respectful, while also seeming to bring out the essence of the man. This movie is more accessible, and one of Clarke’s most mainstream offerings. The structure eventually makes all the film an illustration of his lecture, his lecture an illustration of his poetry. The film becomes the Poem.

"I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover's quarrel with the world," he wrote in his own epitaph. This line is from a poem called The Lesson For Today. In the film, Frost says, “I thought of modifying that, and saying I had my lover’s quarrels, plural, with the world, but I make that one sustained quarrel all my life... It’s a long sustained quarrel.”

And as if to balance wryly that thought with its opposite, another Frost saying is, "I never take my side in a quarrel." A remarkable accomplishment all round.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2008
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Documentary about the life of the poet.

Director: Shirley Clarke

Starring: Robert Frost

Year: 1963

Runtime: 55 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2008

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If you like this, try:

Portrait Of Jason