Selected Letters Of Robert Frost
edited by Lawrence Thompson
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 645 pp., $10.00
The acceleration of the engines of publicity and bibliography that have given us this extremely good selection of 466 letters (out of some 1500 examined by the editor) by and about Robert Frost less than a year after his death should be enough to confound anyone who thinks that Frost was approaching senility in his last years. Once mounted, he rode all the engines to the end with consummate skill.
Frost’s greatness has stalked criticism behind as gaudy a camouflage of diversions, sideshows, and politic misunderstanding as ever was staged. But it was his shrewdness, nevertheless, and his alone that has saved him from the long eclipse suffered, for instance, by Melville. The great courtesy, the incomparable ease, aptness, and beauty of language in the best of these letters, the mastery of occasion in them all, put his qualities beyond doubt. The book begins with some touching letters between his parents, continues with a group written by Frost in 1886, age eleven, to a schoolmate, Sabra Peabody—”From your loving Rob…Ever your faithful lover. Rob”—and ends with ruminations to Norman Thomas on his visit to Khrushchev, during all which immense span of time a first-rate intelligence, none fonder of surprises, was presiding over his career. “If only I get well, with their help, I’ll go deeper into my life with you than I ever have before”—the last words of his last letter.
When his poetry sagged toward the end he was still as keen as most poets at twenty; behind the sometimes bleary eyes of a tired sheepdog still playing his old man’s role with the relish of a Shakespearean clown, bringing all of Yeats’s gusto to his public masks, improvising variations on the bare facts of his life about which he seems, for a poet, to have been amazingly consistent and (one assumes) accurate, telling them over life beads to anybody with a right to hear them. Like Yeats and Hemingway, as he grew older he recalled still more evidence of a robust normality; athletic feats at school, high old boyhood times in his uncle’s house at Lawrence when his uncle was away, reading Twain, Artemas Ward, and the nineteenth-century British scientists to the scandal of his religious mother. He became fascinated, as well he might have, by the strength that had carried him from the early late-Victorian poeticisms—the night when out of shyness he asked a friend to read his first published poem on a butterfly aloud to the Rotary of Derry, N.H., thereby winning his first serious job at Pinkerton Academy—to his final communings with the great in half the capitals of the world.
Lawrence Thompson, his devoted, thoroughly systematic, liberal-academic friend, editor, and official biographer (he accompanied Frost to England in 1957, rented a Frost farmhouse for six summers and published a critical study, Fire and Ice, in 1962) faces the poet’s dark side more resolutely than any elected spokesman for a poet of …