The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer
Simplicity and vanity, independence and jealousy combined in Robert Frost’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. He is two picture puzzles perversely dumped into one box and, no matter how much you try, the leg will never go rightly with the arm, nor this brown eye with that green one. Perhaps the worst you could say about Frost was that he could not really like his peers. The second circumstance the observer of “the man” must deal with is that, as an engaging but insistent reonologist, he was not especially mindful of the qualities of his auditors and therefore spent a good deal of time in the company of mediocrities. And, further, you could say about Frost, as Dr. Johnson said of Pope, that he had the felicity to take himself at his true value.
If these faults are grave, at least one must say that retribution has not been lenient or slow to come. During Frost’s lifetime he was the subject of many astonishingly uneventful books and hopeful was the soul who imagined his death would bring an end to this. His friends were and are dismayingly disposed to sentimental reminiscences. People could not only listen to Frost and read his verse, they could also write about him as if they somehow felt he was not much better than they themselves were. No hesitation intervened and few complications of feeling arose. Frost was his own stereotype. He was already written, so to speak, and one had only to put it all down. He was the specialité of many a comfortable maison—a college president here, a governor or two there, and at last even the great Chiefs themselves. Nice, successful people tended to see him as, simply, Robert Frost, a completed image. And as for his work, well, that too was clear. New England human nature he loved and next to nature, art—although as the most tenacious of old, old men he was never, not even at eighty-eight, “ready to depart.”
Here are Frost’s letters to Louis Untermeyer. They begin in 1915 and they end in 1961. That is a long time and it would take a heart very hard indeed not to agree that Louis Untermeyer, having set upon these eggs for forty-five years, had had it! He meant to bring the letters to print at the earliest possible moment. Actually, relief had been promised in 1961 and Untermeyer, at that time, prepared the volume for publication. But Frost stalled and stalled. (“When the manuscript was ready for the printer, he made excuses for delaying the publication.”) No matter, here they are. They are printed without an index and are very difficult to use for that reason. Still they are certainly quite “interesting.” And one must confess, full of vanity, ambition and ungenerosity.
Frost was a good letter writer, but not a superlatively good one. Indeed, except of course in his poetry, he is oddly untranslatable from the spoken to the written word…
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