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 and that is why those thousands, under the enchantment of what he said, will always be perplexed about how cold he appears in his letters and how dull in his biographies. He was malicious and capricious, but there was, hanging about it all, the famous blue-eyed twinkle, the liquid chuckle, the great head, handsome and important at all ages. And when he had said everything his hurt heart had stored up inside him, then he twinkled once more and took it all back, calling it “my fooling.”
In 1915, when the letters begin, North of Boston had just been enthusiastically received in America (by Louis Untermeyer, among others, and therefore the correspondence) after the very important reception it had received the previous year in England. From that time on, Frost was recognized as a major American poet, even though, of course, he had the usual dismal scratch to make a living and there were many ways in which he endured the intermittent neglect of fashion and the narrow interpretations of some of his more complacent admirers. In 1915, when fame and assurance came, Frost was forty-one years old. That fact is often made to bear the burden for whatever limitations of spirit he may sometimes have shown as a man.
Until the publication of North of Boston in England, Frost lived a lonely and more or less isolated life with his wife and children. He had various jobs—always he worked as little as possible because he never had any doubt from the first that his fate would be to devote his whole life to writing poetry. He had started writing in high school and even after he was married he went back to Harvard to study the classics, to prepare himself for his clear destiny. He was never more than an indifferent farmer. He wrote slowly and did not flood the offices of magazines with his verse only to suffer rejection. He was not immediately recognized and no doubt the tardiness was cruel; yet when fame came it was not dramatically late and it was certainly dramatically brilliant. One cannot altogether credit the indifference he showed to the claims of his fellow poets to an unbearably long wait for public appoval. After the success of North of Boston, he began the rounds of readings, intervals at various colleges, appearances and so on from which he made a living—this, with his writing, filled up the rest of his life. He was to be the most gregarious of lonely men, the most loquacious of taciturn Vermonters, the most ambitious of honest Yankees.
Frost had a very active and expansive idea of the kind of figure he meant to cut, the kind of role a poet should play in society. His sense of public demand was always acute even though much of his best work, nearly all of it, grew out of his early days of isolation, his experiences with the farm people of New England. That was the treasure upon which he drew. The privacy of his earlier years was as much a reflection of his wife’s character as his own. About his wife, Frost writes to Untermeyer: ‘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 wouldn’t lift a hand to have me lift a hand to increase my reputation or even to save it…She always knew I was a good poet, but that was between her and me, and there I think she would have liked it if it had remained at least until we were dead…”
Frost, even in great poverty and defiance, was as far as anyone could be from the poète maudit or the Bohemian. In his personality and in his conception of the dramatic possibilities of the literary life, he appears to have united two strains. On the one hand he shows a clear connection with the old New England sages in their role of public instructors. Emerson was a hero of Frost’s and Emerson’s great career as a lecturer was of course not lost upon his young admirer. The two men were indeed different, but Frost with his poems and his sagacious anecdotes meant, as much as Emerson in his lectures, to save the nation. The writer counted, he was an important public figure and his ideas were urgent. Secondly, Frost seems to have been stirred by the vast audiences, both literary and public, of men like Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay. The sales of Spoon River were extremely vexing to him. The fantastic popularity of the manic performances of Vachel Lindsay made their point. (So greatly stressful has the life of a writer ever been in America that Lindsay, when his hold upon things began to weaken, drank Lysol, saying as he sank into death, “They tried to get me, I got them first.”) E. A. Robinson and Frost gradually took the attention away from Lindsay and Masters. (Masters, in his quite unusually interesting biography of Lindsay, published in 1935, says that the Jews were to blame for the vogue of the New Englanders! To the Jews, “pioneers are objects of aversion…” By “pioneer” he did not signify anything technical or revolutionary, but rather that he and Lindsay were Middle-westerners.) In any case, forensic powers were part of the writer’s baggage as Frost saw it.
The relation of Frost to other poets was frankly one of rivalry—indeed one of frank rivalry. He had a certain good-natured, off-hand way of expressing this that saved him from any hint of fanaticism, but it must be said that he was quite anxious about E. A. Robinson’s reputation. He made fun of Wallace Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” He was ungracious about Walter de la Mare (“I have been in no mood to meet Walter de la Mare. He is one of the open questions with me, like what to do with Mexico.”), and even had the odd notion that De la Mare was an imitator of Edward Thomas, who in turn was Frost’s most important disciple. In late life when Frost, visiting out in Ohio, was taken to see the old reclusive poet, Ralph Hodgson, he reported, “I couldn’t see that it gave Ralph Hodgson much pleasure to see me…” Frost was a man of great culture, of naturally good taste, and the deepest seriousness about poetry—it was vanity and not simplicity of mind that led him to fear his great contemporaries. He praised Untermeyer, Raymond Holden, and Dr. Merrill Moore. That the Nobel Prize should have gone to T. S. Eliot and Camus he considered, as Untermeyer tells us, “a personal affront.”
Frost’s private life was marked by the regular appearance of disaster. Except for his devotion to his wife and—what to call it?—the clamorous serenity of his old age, he was spared little. His sister went insane during the First World War. His letter about her condition is not sacrificial. “As I get older I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles. But that’s as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity.” His most talented daughter, Marjorie, died late in her twenties and his wife never recovered quite from her grief. She herself died suddenly, leaving Frost utterly bereft and disorganized. Untermeyer describes this period: “It was hard for Robert to maintain his balance after Elinor’s death. He sold the Amherst house where he and Elinor had lived; he resigned from the college; he talked recklessly, and for the first time in his life the man whose favorite tipple was ginger ale accepted any drink that was offered.”
After a sad life spent in a futile attempt to become a writer, Frost’s son, Carol, committed suicide. Another daughter broke down and had to be put in an institution. That is no doubt that Frost grieved deeply over these tragedies—horrors the audiences coming to see him and to read him knew nothing of. Still he endured and he gradually settled down to his spectacular old age and to those multifarious activities that made up his final image.
His reputation as a poet was, one might say, put into order by the brilliant essays of Randall Jarrell. Those essays—so far as I can be sure without an index—are not mentioned in Frost’s letters to Untermeyer. They had a stunning effect upon Frost’s reputation with the more serious young writers and readers. At the end, Frost was in with everyone, with Sherman Adams and W. H. Auden alike. This is a circumstance of great rarity in our literature. Of course, it is the nature of Frost’s poetic talent, as well as the prodigality of it, that allowed this ubiquitous prospering of his work. As Yvor Winters puts it: “A popular poet is always a spectacle of some interest, for poetry in general is not popular; and when the popular poet is also within limits a distinguished poet, the spectacle is even more curious…. When we encounter such a spectacle, we may be reasonably sure of finding certain social and historical reasons for the popularity.” Winters goes on to say that Frost writes of rural subjects and “the American reader of our time has an affection for rural subjects…” and so on. In spite of the misinterpretations of some of Frost’s readers, he was at least to everyone readable. How difficult it is to imagine even so well-liked a poet as T. S. Eliot at the Eisenhower board. Perhaps Eisenhower did not even read Frost, but if he had he could certainly have understood at least some of his work; never in a million years can we imagine him with “Prufrock” or “The Journey of the Magi.”
One of the most astonishing things about Frost was his genuine interest in power. And for him power did not lie, as it does with most artists, in the comradeship or the approval of the avant garde. Also, he cared nothing for “smart” people, for chicness, for the usual intellectual celebrity world. What he liked was the institutionalized thing. He was perfectly serious in his relationship to power. When he was Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress he expected to be “consulted,” and not about what went on the poetry shelf, but about important matters of state. So great was his idea of public possibility that he went beyond factionalism, serving Republican and Democrat in turn, in a spirit of poet-laureatism and also in some strangely conceived Public Spokesman mask. His political ideas were always capricious. A certain coldness entered into his notions. If he had a consistent political theme it was—self-reliance. The New Deal with its atmosphere of optimistic enthusiasm was antipathetic to him. But Frost was not in any way a fanatic. He never went very far; somehow inside him there was always the desire to please. Take Untermeyer for instance: layered over his person, like a house with its coat after coat of paint, is nearly every folly and every enthusiasm of liberal belief of the last forty years. Frost teased him; he never became angry with him or broke with him. The independent old Vermonter side of Frost has been exaggerated. He was indeed independent, but he wanted to count, to have importance: this gave him a steady flow of prudence. Frost did not even want disciples. That would be a two-way street and except for those in his family he didn’t want to share himself. (Edward Thomas died in the First World War.)
The strain of some unnamed trouble that we feel in Frost is inexplicable. He was brilliant, adored, available, and even his resentments were not the sort that stripped a man of his charm. They did form his ideas to some degree. Somehow he had suffered and come through: there are no Welfare State lessons to be learned from that. There is, instead, only the example of individual initiative. Even his relation to those people who, like Ezra Pound, had the highest regard for his powers was touched by ambivalence. Amy Lowell wrote an early and very impressive essay about him, but he was, if pleased, not entirely satisfied. (Didn’t like what she said about his wife and was not happy to share the stage with Robinson.) The only mention I can find—in Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant’s book—that Frost actually made of Randall Jarrell is not about Jarrell’s writing and is a bit querulous: “Randall Jarrell thinks poets aren’t helped enough. But I say poetry has always lived on a good deal of neglect.” We shall have to wait for other Frost letters to get his full opinion of Untermeyer.
But Frost was not a conservative, either. He was only a writer. He did not care for money, but for position, whatever position he could gain from his work as a poet. Sometimes we feel he bought his claim to the Old American virtues at a considerable price. He was fulfilled, charming, and he lived to a great old age and yet to go back over his life, in these letters, back, back, to the early years of the century, fills us with a sadness too. At the end, sick, tired, too old for the journey, he paid a visit to Khrushchev—interestingly described by his companion, F. D. Reeve, in the September Atlantic. What he had come for, we find out, was not for the ceremonial edification of both countries. Frost had, in truth, gone to Russia to tell Khrushchev how to settle the question of Berlin.
Frost and Untermeyer November 28, 1963