“I gnaw wood.”
Sitting over his mother’s kitchen table, 19-year-old Robert Lee Frost chuckled to himself. That had been his retort when his fraternity brothers at Dartmouth asked him what he did on those long walks he took, day and night, in the woods surrounding the campus.
“I was chasing butterflies,” he might have told them. They would not have thought him any less strange.
He fit his rangy frame into the wooden chair, picked up his pen and looked down upon the cheap paper notebook where he had lodged his words. He read them:
Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun-assaulter, he
That frightened thee so oft, is fled or dead:
Save only me
(Nor is it sad to thee!)—
Showing a grace that stood him in good stead in his most recent job as the person responsible for changing the arc lights high above the floor of the bobbin mill, he rose and went swiftly to the door. He latched it firm.
“Save only me,” he wrote again. “There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.”
He’d come to a clearing. The first stanza felt ended. Behind him, his sister tried to open the door. The jiggle of the latch was like the sound of a twig breaking in a massive wind and darkness. In after thought, the pen’s nib moved again:
The gray grass is scarce dappled with the snow
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago—
It seems forever—
Since first I saw thee glance,
With all thy dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.
Robert Lee Frost was still at the kitchen table in Methuen. But the modest walls of the Frost kitchen seemed to have dropped away, replaced by a vastness. The sense of the writing now “was like cutting along a nerve.” Small wonder that his sister’s furious thumps on the other side of the door were as insignificant as the struggles of a bottle fly trapped inside a glass.
She tired before he did. He would not have cut short that period when the muse was on him. For always afterward Robert Frost remembered the writing of that poem as the moment he came into his own. “The first stanza—well, that’s nothing,” he said when, years later he recounted the genesis of “My Butterfly” later to Elizabeth Singer Sergeant. “But the second—it’s as good as anything I’ve ever written. It was the beginning of me.”
He was right to feel that he had happened upon something. For “My Butterfly” became the first poem he ever published. He submitted it to a periodical called The Independent, which was devoted to poetry. Frost had never known such a publication could exist until one day when he visited the Dartmouth library. And finding it may be the most valuable discovery he made while in his brief sojourn at the college.
“I think sound is part of poetry,” he wrote in response to a letter from Miss Susan Hayes Ward of The Independent, “one but for which imagination would become reason.” Miss Ward recognized the talent of the young man whose poem had, through sound, emulated the wayward path of a butterfly in flight. She extended a guiding hand to the headstrong poet when he needed one.
A Boy’s Will is the Wind ’s Will
Knowing the poem had been accepted and feeling he was on the verge of his first poetic success, Robert Frost had “My Butterfly” and several other poems printed and bound into a book he titled Twilight. He made only two copies: one for himself and one for a girl named Elinor White (much as a similarly “no account” William Faulkner was to do for his Estelle).
Elinor, whose family tree went back to the earliest New England residents, was lovely to behold and as smart as she was a pleasure to look at. Ever since sophomore year at Lawrence High School, Frost had been in love with Elinor. She had kept him at arm’s length but did not send him away. They would have made a very handsome couple. Frost had an athletic build, frank blue eyes, sensuous lips. He and Elinor had shared the honor of valedictorian of their Lawrence High School. And then she had gone off to St. Lawrence College and he to Dartmouth. Only the difference was that she took to college as an upstanding New Englander, given a chance to get a fine education, should. After he walked away from school to work at the mill, she thought less of him for it.
When Frost went to visit her in her dormitory, his two sets of Twilight in hand, she took the copy but sent him away. She was flustered by the fact that he had shown up in a dormitory where men were strictly forbidden. But she was also not in the mood for his romantic sally. Exactly what was said is lost to history. But Frost left his copy of Twilight in pieces somewhere between the dormitory and the railroad tracks. Smoldering with rejection, he disappeared from New England, perhaps for forever.
He wound up in the Great Dismal Swamp, near Norfolk, Virginia. He intended to end his life. But something that he found while wandering in the Swamp brought him back. And, in time, something changed in Elinor as well. When she went back to college after the Christmas holiday, she went as the future Mrs. Robert Frost.
So it was that in 1894 Robert Frost got engaged and had a poem published. In a letter he wrote to Miss Ward that year (before the wreck of the Twilight) he said, “Even in all my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition.” He sounded very much like the boy whom Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described in the poem “My Lost Youth”—a paean to Longfellow’s home town of Portland, Maine and to the thoughts of a boy:
I remember the gleams and glooms that dart
Across the school-boy’s brain;
The song and the silence in the heart,
That in part are prophecies, and in part
Are longings wild and vain.
And the voice of that fitful song
Sings on, and is never still:
“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”
The entire poem has ten stanzas, each concluding with the same two-line refrain. There is no doubt that Robert Frost felt some kinship with the poem. He paid homage to it when he named his first book A Boy’s Will. And in time he was to become as inextricably linked with New England as Longfellow.
“They Leave Us So To The Way We Took”
— Robert Frost “In Neglect” A Boy’s Will, 1915
It would be a long time before A Boy’s Will was published in a book. And when it was, Frost was again not “home” to receive it (if one would consider “home” by then to be New England). Robert Frost’s first two books of poetry were published in England. But much struggle was to come before they saw the light of day. “We have to be careful not to claim for me that I originated as a bobbin boy, cobbler, or…as a farm hand. I simply turned my hand to most and turned it good (or pretty good) in various situations, as Kipling has it, and never mind what so long as I got by while furtively fooling with poetry.” Frost wrote these biographical details to his good friend Louis Untermeyer in 1950 when giving him a brief accounting of his life.
Once married, he’d turned his hand to teaching again at his mother’s private school, as had Elinor. Their first child, Eliot, was born in 1896. Frost, despairing of ever making money as an elementary school teacher, applied to Harvard and was accepted. But during his sophomore year he got sick and left the school. The crisis may have been more mental than physical but its symptoms appear to have been serious enough that (in Frost’s words) the Harvard doctor sent him home “to die.”
It would have been a very inconvenient time to expire. His daughter Lesley had been born in that year and now there were four mouths to feed. Robert and Elinor turned to agriculture. They raised chickens in Methuen. But they were barely scratching out a living. It was Elinor, finally, who approached Robert Frost’s grandfather and asked him for the money to buy a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire. His grandfather put up the money, and even (wisely) threw in a hired man to help on the farm. His condition was that Robert turn his hand for only one more year to poetry. And if it didn’t pay, he should settle down.
The farmhouse in Derry still exists. It went through a fallow period in the 1950’s as a junkyard named “Frosty Acres” but has since been restored to look much like it did when the Frosts lived in it. The white house is attached to the barn by a New England ell that houses a large shed for firewood, thus making it easy to reach the animals in all kinds of inclement weather. The “two-holer” toilet is off the woodshed next to the barn. It would have been a cold journey in winter. As the house’s guide will point out, and as many of his Yankee neighbors probably noted, Robert Frost was not the most practical farmer. The place for hanging clothes out to dry was on the far side of the ell, necessitating a long outside walk. The well was located close to the house but Frost did not get around to running water to the house. He milked the cows at one p.m. and midnight because it fit his poetry-writing schedule.
The kitchen of the house, where Frost did his writing, is located off the woodshed and looks out into a meadow that falls away to a brook. In the kitchen is an old telephone, and in those days the phone in Derry was a party line. If one so desired, one could pick up the phone and hear whatever conversation was taking place between a Yankee farmer and the feed store, a farm wife and her friends. It is thought by some that access to the party line may have assisted Frost in capturing the authentic New England voice that he brought to his poetry. Frost had his “good fences make good neighbors” neighbor to the north but other neighbors were even more distant, both geographically and personally.
After midnight, when the house was finally cleared of day sounds, Frost wrote. Though, if the urge took him, he walked. As far back as his valedictory address, Frost was already at work on a theory that genius and poetry came from “afterthought.” As a boy of 18, up on a stage with Elinor, he had told the audience: “It is when alone, in converse with their own thoughts so much that they live their conventionalities, forgetful of the world’s, that men form those habits called the heroism of genius…”. A paragraph later, he noted: “The poet’s insight is his afterthought.” Afterthought was what Frost needed time to achieve. The cows be damned and the farmwork too; the poetry was uppermost in his mind. But to complicate matters, two more children were born. Room was made under the eaves. And, while Elinor shouldered much of the burden of bringing them up, Robert was very much present for them as well.
All things considered, the schedule he maintained was unfit for man or beast. It did not allow enough time to draw a significant yield from the farm or from poetry. As Elizabeth Sergeant described in her book:
Friends and relatives in Lawrence, if they came at all, did so to protest that a brilliant mind was being buried in the earth. They saw a bare cupboard and a halfhearted farmer who dreamed along the furrow—not the touching, flowing poems that were later to reveal how truly were the years of obscurity a matrix for the poet’s long life and eventual great body of poetry.
He may have been dreaming but he was by no means lazy. In the poem called “Mowing,” he spoke of the “earnest love” that through his arm swung the scythe blade. “The fact is the greatest dream that labor knows,” he wrote. He had grasped the profundity of work well done.
With a collective sigh, friends and relatives left Robert and Elinor to the way they had taken. And for those years that the family lived in Derry, their neighbors left them very much to themselves as well. In the first eight years, the neighbors did not once invite them for a meal, Frost said. Well, this was not entirely unexpected; Yankee farmers are known to be very reticent. And it was not entirely clear whether Robert was one of them. He’d lived in Derry for less than a decade. And after eight years he had yet to share any work like haying or sugaring with them. This does not a good Yankee farmer make. Frost himself said that he and Elinor did not want or need people. They experienced their joys and sorrows alone, including the loss of two children: the first born, Eliot, and a daughter named Elinor, who only lived for four days.
After six years came a break from the furrows. Robert was invited to read a poem on ladies’ night at the Derry Village Men’s Club. He read “The Tuft of Flowers,” about a farmer who goes into the field to turn the newly mown grass that someone before him had cut down. The farmer, observing the scene, concludes early on that men work alone even when they work together. Even if he were to be working with the mower at the same time in this field, they’d be working by themselves. It is then that a butterfly, coincidentally enough, flits into the poem and leads the farmer to a tuft of flowers that the mower with his scythe had spared. The discovery of this act of mercy on the part of the mower makes the lone grass turner feel he has encountered the traces of a kindred spirit. Then the mower becomes his unseen companion, and the poem finishes with the farmer addressing him:
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
The poem must have appealed personally to the assembled listeners. Many of them had probably reached their own conclusions about this family, that kept itself so aloof and milked its cows at odd times of the day. But surely he touched them on a poetic level as well. It just so happened that there was an opening for a teacher at the local Pinkerton Academy, for which they thought he might be the man.
Frost taught for the next six years. “You might find it grist to your mill,” he wrote to Louis Untermeyer in 1950, “that I was most really and truly an all-out teacher back at Salem, New Hampshire, where I presided over 12 barefoot children under 12 in a district school by the woods and often sitting on the lid of a woodbox by the stove wrote poetry (some of the poetry of A Boy’s Will) on the window sill for my table.” He was a respected teacher, and could have stayed. But just like farming, teaching took him away from writing poetry.
He didn’t have much publishing success to go on. He had little to sustain him during his self-imposed exile besides a steady and beautiful companion in Elinor, the joys of fatherhood, the hard-won rewards of apple picking, milking, mowing, growing crops, some unpublished successes in verse, and the astonishing magnitude of his ambition.
The Road Not Taken
Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as William Butler Yeats and Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost was not a mystic. He did, however, have a few mystical experiences in his life, and they were powerful. This one led to the writing of one of his best-known and oft-quoted poems (“The Road Not Taken”) and to his decision to leave New Hampshire. He wrote a letter to Miss Ward in 1912 in which he described the experience:
Two lonely roads that cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much traveled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I fully expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by.
As Elizabeth Sergeant noted: “Some of the world’s great geniuses (Goethe is one of them) have recorded similar meetings with their own images at a moral or mental cross-roads in life.” Surely, it set him to wondering about where his double may have been headed. Perhaps he even rued his reluctance to see what would have happened if he had not stood still.
In any case, after that meeting, Robert and Elinor started talking about moving. They talked of going far away. The candidates were Vancouver and England. In the end, a coin toss sent them to England, a country where they knew not a soul. They sold the Derry farm and, with the meager proceeds and the remnants of his grandfather’s estate, the unknown poet and his family sailed for London.
Short-Circuiting a Dynamo
The voyagers to England were, no doubt, not without misgivings about the action they had taken. And certainly, passage wasn’t made any smoother by the behavior of the captain. Frost wrote to Untermeyer that “the captain hated us all because he was seasick and believed us all of the servant class going back to England to find a coat of arms for ourselves.”
After finding a cottage in the country, near where Milton had completed Paradise Lost, and not too far from London, Robert Frost set about his work. He took all the poetry he had written over by the fireplace and he burned what he felt didn’t measure up. What was good he saved. It became A Boy’s Will.
“Wholly on impulse,” he wrote to Thomas Bird Mosher, a Maine publisher, “one day I took my MS. of A Boy’s Will to London and left it with the publisher whose imprint was the first I had noticed in a volume of minor verse….I suppose I did it to see what would happen, as once upon a time I shortcircuited a dynamo with a two foot length of wire held between the brushes.” The publisher Frost brought it to, David Nutt, had died. But a mysterious Frenchwoman who acted on Nutt’s behalf accepted the manuscript and they made a contract to publish it.
A short time later Frost, who had been given the card of Ezra Pound, decided to look up the noted expatriate poet, leader of the Imagist movement. He went to the house and Pound chanced to be home, slightly put out that Frost had not made a pilgrimage to him earlier.
“Flint tells me you have a book.” Pound said.
“Well, I ought to have,” Frost replied.
“You haven’t seen it?”
“What do you say we go get a copy?”
As Frost related, they went to the publisher and Pound took the first copy, put it in his pocket, and didn’t show it to Frost.
“You don’t mind our liking this?” Pound asked.
“Oh, go ahead and like it.”
Pound started reading and soon said,
“You better run along home. I’m going to review it.”
And Frost went home without his book. He had barely seen it.
The review, while positive, was also full of embellishments about Frost’s own personal life, “facts” that Pound had winnowed from his brief conversation and extrapolated from the look on Frost’s face. No matter. Despite the inaccuracies, Frost was in print and he had an early champion. Pound took him under his wing and, for a time, Frost had the keys to the literary kingdom. But Pound was an odd duck. One time, he showed him his facility with jiu jitsu: “Threw me over his head,” Frost related. “Wasn’t ready for him at all. I was just as strong as he was. He said, ‘I’ll show you, I’ll show you. Stand up.’ So I stood up, gave him my hand. He grabbed my wrists, tipped over backwards and threw me over his head.”
Frost proved easier to flip than he was to convert. He resisted being taken into Pound’s poetic movement and his friendship with Pound cooled. He made one great friend with a poet while in England, a man named Edward Thomas. With Thomas he had another rare mystical experience, beautifully described in “Iris by Night.” One evening, while walking in the mist-saturated fields, the two men came upon a small rainbow like a “trellis gate.” And then “the miracle / that never yet to other two befell,” the rainbow gathered up its loose ends and surrounded them in a perfect ring. Thomas seems to have touched him like no other men had—or perhaps ever did afterwards—but World War I ended that. Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras, shortly after he arrived in France.
At one point, Frost had said that he would stay in England until they deported him but the coming of World War I changed all that. It was clear, too, from the second book of poetry he had published in England, called North of Boston, that his heart lay back in New England. And he was to find, when he returned, that much had changed. On the day they disembarked from the ship he went to buy his first American newspaper. He picked up a copy of the brand new magazine, The New Republic, and in it he found a review, mostly laudatory, of North of Boston, by the well-known poet and critic, Amy Lowell. “If you have ever seen Robert Frost receiving…a prize, you will remember the little smile, pleased, yet something skeptical and secret, almost derisive, that flits across his face at such a moment,” Elizabeth Sergeant wrote.
He may have been penniless. He may have been without an American publisher. But he was returning a known poet.
Yokefellows in the Sap Yoke From of Old
The now-celebrated poet and Elinor returned to New Hampshire where Frost made an offer on a farm in Franconia that wasn’t for sale. The farmer, convinced somehow, sold it to him and moved down the road. But it was harder than before to do as he suggested in “Directive” and “pull up the ladder road behind” them, putting up a sign “closed to ALL.” His obscurity was over. The man who sold him the farm came to this realization as a steady procession of city folk drove past his door or even called his house in order to reach Frost. So did the man’s father, who advised: “Next time you sell a farm, son, find out beforehand if it’s going to be used as a farm or a park.”
Once his poetic acceptance came, it came in a flood. But even with his credentials (12 years of toil on a Derry farm), it was hard to join the club of Yankee farmers, and Frost struggled for acceptance. The farms had stood shoulder to shoulder for generations, and their gaze was inward.
As he suggested in “The Death of the Hired Man,” the New England farmer valued a man’s ability to pile hay and find water with a hazel prong. A man might sit on his duff and write poetry in a farmhouse kitchen but that didn’t make him a farmer. He once wrote to Untermeyer, as if establishing his qualifications: “A skeptic once taking my hand and turning it inside out to the light, remarked that it was merely calloused not horny. All right, I said, if he wasn’t satisfied, he could coin a word and call me a farmster. Anyway, I have never been without livestock since I was five, and practically never without farm property since I was twenty-five.”
Even a poet must make a living, most likely cobbled together, and Frost was no exception. He derived his income from teaching (much of it at the small New England college of Amherst), appearances, readings, correspondence, and trips to New York to see his publisher (for he had one in the U.S. now in Henry Holt). He had become a best-selling poet—north of Boston remained his seat of power.
There in the White Mountains and then the Green Mountains, the poet farmer could see the “chisel work of an enormous Glacier that braced his feet against the Arctic Pole” and feel the “coolness” from him that still lingered in the mountain fastnesses. The intrepid wanderer in upper meadows that crested on views of far off peaks, could find the cellar holes, “slowly closing like a dent in dough,” of ill-considered or ill-timed settlements that had not survived. Frost had gone there in “Directive.” In “The Wood-Pile,” while walking in a frozen swamp, the “view all in lines straight up and down of tall slim trees,” he’d come across a cord of maple logs cut and stacked and never used. Here he had come across a brook in “West Running Brook” that could “trust itself to go by contraries,” flowing west where all others flowed east. This was Frost country.
There is an ancient rivalry between New Hampshire and Vermont. Frost’s presence in both has only stoked the fires higher. Frost did not take a position. Or rather, he took two: “She’s one of the two best states in the Union,” he said of New Hampshire.
Vermont’s the other. And the two have been
Yokefellows in the sap yoke from of old
In many Marches. And they lie like wedges,
Thick end to thin end and thin end to thick end,
And are a figure of the way the strong
Of mind and strong of arm should fit together,
One thick where one is thin and vice versa.
New Hampshire raises the Connecticut
In a trout hatchery near Canada,
But soon divides the river with Vermont.
Both are delightful states for their absurdly
Small towns—Lost Nation, Bungey, Muddy Boo,
Poplin, Still Corners (so called not because
The place is silent all day long, nor yet
Because it boasts a whisky still—
Because it set out once to be a city and still
Is only corners, crossroads in a wood.)
One morning shortly after he wrote “New Hampshire,” dawn broke outside the Stone House where he had struggled all night with a long piece of blank verse. As John Ciardi, the poet and translator revealed, Frost “rose, crossed to the window, stood looking out for a few minutes, and then it was that “Stopping by Woods” suddenly “just came,” so that all he had to do was cross the room and write it down.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” became one of his most beloved poems. It had the virtue of being brief enough and simple enough for grade school teachers to teach rhyme and perhaps penmanship (and, in Vermont, at least, to introduce the story of Vermont’s own Morgan Horse—quite possibly the “little horse” to which the poem referred). It also showed that the deathly lure of the dark woods was strong in Robert Frost, even halfway through his career.
Ciardi did not dispute that the idea of the poem had come that way, but he doubted that a poem with such a complicated rhyme scheme—and the repeated lines at the end—could have come even to Frost so easily. “I always write with the hope that I shall come on something like a woman’s last word,” Frost told Elizabeth Sergeant. Perhaps, with “Stopping by Woods,” he had succeeded.
Certainly, Frost must have had Elinor in the back of his mind when he referred to a woman getting the last word. For this woman whom he was married to for 43 years was not “the conventional helpmeet of genius” that Amy Lowell had reduced her to in one portrayal of Frost. For one thing, she was a hard-won prize. She was also a beauty. As one admirer wrote: “An almost reluctant sweetness showed in the shape of her mouth under a veiled sadness, yet the blue-black eyes when they turned your way looked through you.” Together with the handsome Frost, the two made a very fine matched pair. But she was more than the sum of those things. The two had a marriage of true minds. After he complained to Untermeyer about Lowell’s depiction of her, Frost went on: “Elinor has never been of any earthly use to me. She hasn’t cared whether I went to school or worked or earned anything. She has resisted every inch of the way my efforts to get money. She is not too sure that she cares about my reputation….She seems to have the same weakness I have for a life that goes rather poetically; only I should say she is worse than I.” Just as New Hampshire guarded “specimens” that she “did not care to sell,” Elinor felt no great urge to share her poet with the world. But there were always money troubles and so the couple had no choice.
The critic, Lionel Trilling, once called him, with admiration, “a poet who terrifies.” Part of it must have come from the starkness of the life that he and Elinor led—one that was quite full of moments of despair. More came in 1934, when they lost their daughter Marjorie to complications from childbirth. Then, in 1938, Robert Frost lost “the unspoken half of everything I ever wrote,” when Elinor died of cancer.
Acquainted With the Night
But he was not alone. As he had once suggested of another in “The Silken Tent,” he seemed to be “loosely bound by countless silken ties of love and thought” to many friends and admirers. “We should have a good talk,” he would tell them when he saw them, or wrote to them (it is remarkable to hear the similarity of these accounts). As one of his conversational foils, Reginald Cook, described:
There are few unintended pauses in it. One thought starts another, and he rambles on while the deep-set blue eyes, the blunt nose, the expressive lips, the formidable chin and the shock of white hair all help to pin a point down….He always seems at random like a bluebottle fly on a hot midsummer day….Just as the charm of the man comes to focus in his talk, so the total force of the poet comes to focus in the resonant voice.
Vrest Orton, a publisher and book collector, locally famous in Vermont as the founder of the Vermont Country Store in Weston, maintained that to discourse with Frost was to see “genius plain.” Out of his discussions with Frost over the years came a book of poetry, Vermont Afternoons with Robert Frost. On a succession of nights in 1960 he woke up out of a sound sleep with the conversations he’d had with Robert Frost 30 years before “striving for expression.” He took dictation from his unconscious, and later added meter. An example:
What Else had Failed
Hardly a man comes up this far
Without asking me the same question:
How can I live so far away!
Since you didn’t pose the question,
You’ll be the first to have my answer.
I came up here to see how man had failed!
Down country he seems to have won all his wars;
He’s littered land and befouled water.
He’s a stranger to peace and the clean heart.
The fear of God is not in him.
Up here, I thought, maybe someone else
Might have the upper hand.
— Vrest Orton “What Else had Failed”
Vermont Afternoons with Robert Frost, 1971
Frost stuck in Vermont for part of every year. In the warm months, the talking could take place out-of-doors where Frost, the amateur botanist, could ramble and explore the countryside where man had not yet gained the upper hand.
In 1940, he bought the Homer Noble farm in Ripton, Vermont, close to the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College, which he had co-founded in 1920. The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, which is held every summer near the top of the Middlebury Gap in the Green Mountains, drew—and still draws—the writing luminaries of the age. There, a cluster of buildings painted a creamy turmeric overlooks a huge meadow and the rolling hills beyond. Established writers and promising new ones gather there to discuss writing.
He spent winters at a cottage in Key West, and summers in a small cabin, simply furnished with wood panels and a large fieldstone fireplace, at the Homer Noble farm. He also owned a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which Vladimir Nabokov briefly rented. It must have tickled Robert Frost, lover of the classics, to have happened on a farm owned by a New England farmer with such a promising name. Summers, he rented the farmhouse to the Morrisons (Theodore, a Bread Loaf writer, his wife, Kay, and two children). Kay took care of smoothly scheduling and arranging his appearances for readings and awards and, as other complications fell away, she in effect released Frost the poet “into Timelessness.” He still had much to write.
But Vermont was not far enough up country to escape the sorrows of the world. The year he bought the farm, his son Carol took his own life. This death brought the total of Robert Frost’s losses to a wife, two sons, and two daughters. Soon, he’d be committing his daughter Irma to a mental institution.
He once wrote to Louis Untermeyer that he was “of deep shadow all compact like onion within onion and the savor of me is oil of tears.” Strong forces raged within Robert Frost, a man who grew more formidable as his white hair grew more tousled, his voice fuller of inflection, his lips more skeptical and secret even as they loosened somewhat with age. Frost was a poet of “ulteriority”—motives within motives. And it is small wonder, perhaps, that the force of darkness leaked into his official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, who began as an admirer in his first volume of Frost’s life.
“I’m counting on you to protect me from Larry. Remember!” Frost said to Stanley Burnshaw for the first time in 1959. Who among us has the benefit of knowing in advance that he will be betrayed? Frost did, but there was no benefit in it.
Two years later, on a freezing cold day, the poet stood in front of a massive audience in Washington D.C. to read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He’d composed a poem for the occasion but, after some difficulties seemingly caused by the brightness of the winter sun, waved away Lyndon Johnson’s proffered hat to shade him and recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.
This event was surely one of the pinnacles of the influence of poetry in America in the late 20th century. It had a different effect on Lawrance Thompson, who explained to Burnshaw his theory that Frost had manipulated the entire proceeding for his own glory, staged his difficulty reading in order to get all eyes on himself. Robert Frost died one of the most beloved poets ever in America, but within a few years was made out to be a monster by the next two volumes of Thompson’s biography. Burnshaw was moved to write his own reminiscence of Robert Frost to correct the gross wrong that was done.
“I have all the dead New England things held back by one hand,” Robert Frost once wrote, but he seemed to release them one by one in his poetry. In many senses this man, whose life spanned the end of one century and much of the next, was a throwback to the New England writers and poets of earlier times. He lived in their fashion for many years, without benefit of modern conveniences and without much use for them. In that sense he is the last of an era. Nowadays, for a New England poet to spurn the developments of the last 50 years would probably come off as an affectation. From his first poem to his last, he was remarkably consistent. He stayed clear of the fads and conventions of poetry over the years. He stuck to his themes. And yet he never lapsed into repetition—not unless he had some purpose. As he wrote in “Into My Own”:
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Frost believed that you could derive a lot from a little life experience. One should experience a little of New England, in all its nature and changeable moods, in order to understand Frost. Through his verse, it is possible to step into his shoes as he goes walking in the New England meadows and swales or performs farm-work. He is not always easy to understand. “I might easily be deceiving when most bent on telling the truth,” he wrote to a prospective biographer. But life is difficult to parse. Frost was no different.
In the end, a gesture of acceptance. On a long granite gravestone next to Elinor’s in a churchyard in Bennington, Vermont, the following words are carved: “He had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” And after having finally made his points, he rested.