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Permafrost

Robert Frost, The Early Years, 1874-1915

by Lawrance Thompson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 641 pp., $12.50

Selected Prose of Robert Frost

edited by Hyde Cox, edited by Edward Connery Lathem
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 119 pp., $4.50

Interviews with Robert Frost

edited by Edward Connery Lathem
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 295 pp., $7.50

It is certainly odd, the interest we have in the lives of writers. We might suppose that of all people they’d be the last we would need to be curious about—those of them who are real writers, anyway. Because isn’t a real writer precisely one whose work is more interesting than he is? Whereas, about failed or unfulfilled or merely casual writers, don’t we feel, if we know about them, that they never managed to get their most genuine experience into words, and so as men they may often seem to be better—dceper, more complicated, more necessary—than what they write.

Yet talking about a poet’s life can be one way of appreciating his work. Sometimes it seems to be just innocent waffling, a noise we think we have to make to keep ourselves occupied while at another level we let the poem quietly soak in. So, in this first volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost—it threatens to be three—we can read all about his bad days on his Derry farm in 1900, about his little horse named Eunice, about his sleighs and other conveyances, and how “each time he drove from his farm with his old horse and wagon along the back-country road to Derry Depot for provisions, he passed an isolated pond deep enough for drowning.” Although the poem suggests it’s the freezing woods that offer death and not the frozen lake, we are reminded, and the biographer reminds us to be reminded in a footnote, of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” We’ve learned something about the poet’s life, nothing about the poem, but there has been an occasion for listening again to the great stoic lines in which the worst of all man’s temptations is acknowledged and resisted, and without any necessity of interpreting as I have just done.

Or, talking about a poet’s life can be instructive, if that’s what we want, about how poetry differs from biography or from other kinds of writing. There is an interest in finding—in Lawrance Thompson’s footnotes—a newspaer account of the death of the boy which was the occasion for one of Frost’s grim dramatic poems, “Out, Out—.” (Not knowing that this account existed to be used, I once had students invent a news story of the incident, with the academic sort of Understanding Poetry intention that they should then see how a poet tries to do all the work of the imagination for us so that we should see, smell, hear, taste, touch experience.) This is from The Littleton Courier, 31 March 1901.

SAD TRAGEDY AT BETHLEHEM

Raymond Fitzgerald a Victim of Fatal Accident

Raymond Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. and Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as the result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure….

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove- length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other…

What the poem has, the newspaper omits; and what the newspaper has, the poem can do without. Especially, of course, SAD TRAGEDY. The poet’s summary is quite different.

No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

So it is with the biographies of writers. We are given back again all that the poet rejected as inessential to his vision and statement of experience.

CHIEFLY, THOUGH, we may hope for something else the writer has rejected, his secrets. We still hold very strongly the nineteenth-century idea that nobody could go on facing the world if the truth about his actions and thoughts and feelings were known. This is the oddest thing of all about biography. A man’s friends know these things, or many of them, and often go right on being friendly. We know our own lies, cheats, brags, hates, liaisons, jealousies, cowardices, and more or less live with them. And we seem willing to let anyone have them after we’re dead enough. But how deeply, how unconsciously, we hold these assumptions, that public life is a false front, that private life is a disgrace—and at the same time we hold that to pry out the private secret is worth almost any effort. Our ground rules for this game are uncertain, shifting, and on them depend sometimes matters of great moment issuing in the outlay of much cash and passion. Few of us abide by the rules of gossip, although we know that when revealed, gossip about the least of us—of course we know it goes on about us—hurts dreadfully. In public it invokes hurricanes.

The truth though is rarely a surprise, and in fact almost always issues with a deflating, perhaps unpleasantly flatulent, escape of warm air, and we wonder why it was so long and so uncomfortably retained. Frost had his secrets: there was the big one everyone knew, which was that he could be a very hard, vain, selfish man. He was not simply an honest Yankee farmer! But he had spent his life saying just that in his poems. There is one secret that Lawrance Thompson dug out, a sad pitiful secret that could make one cry for our cruelty and for our enforcement of secrecy. At the same time it is a perfect example of how the most cherished secrets cannot possibly be concealed and must surely be intended, secretly, for the widest broadcast. The biographer tells us—in his footnotes (whispering?) as he does with a number of other interesting facts—why Frost tried to change his birthday.

RF admitted to LT that for the larger part of his life he had mistakenly surmised that his parents had married hastily, soon after RF had been conceived. For a time he believed that the records of the marriage and of the date of his birth were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. (He used this statement, repeatedly, when asked to produce or obtain a birth certificate.) Eventually, he learned the facts: that his parents were married on 18 March 1873, over a year before RF’s birth on 26 March 1874. While he was still in doubt concerning this marriage date, however,—and just as soon as he began to become famous—RF tried to protect himself by publicly giving out the statement that he was born in 1875.

His very birth was a shameful secret. And given that fame, it could not possibly be hidden. Now in every library in the world on every catalogue card headed Frost, Robert, 1875-1963, the librarians are crossing out 1875 and writing in 1874. His readers will be reminded of his secret every time they look up one of his books.

TODAY, AMONG WRITERS, anyway among poets, secrets don’t seem to count for so much. Those secrets which they don’t put directly into their poems, they include as relaxation, as cushions, in the spaces between poems at their readings. Why should they not be the equals of the mighty dead? They write allegory and their lives are the comments on it.

Frost’s best and real secret, the one that made his life worth telling, maybe even at this tiresome and unwieldy length, was one he tried hard to broadcast. He really knew the secret that Yeats and Pound and Eliot and Williams and all the poets were searching for in the years before the first World War. He was very clear about it, as the greatest of them never were able to be, although they knew rather blindly how to master the problem without understanding it. Even at the end of his life Yeats could only say, “When you read this last poem of mine, be careful to get the scansion of the third line of the second stanza right. There must be an accent on ‘from’—Túrn—from drúdgery’—You will notice how bothered I am when I get to prosody—because it is the most certain of my instincts, it is the subject of which I am most ignorant. I do not even know if I should write the mark of accent or stress or thus….”

Yeats changed the line to “Renounce that drudgery.” His instinct told him he couldn’t get the “accent or stress” he wanted just by saying it should be there. What he was doing in that poem, in fact, was writing short lines chiefly of six syllables, with chiefly only two strong stresses in the phrases as they would be spoken; but the meter wants three stresses, and is generally iambic, and regular. “Turn from drudgery” is possible, because like a few other lines it is short by only one syllable, and it begins on a strong stress. But in the stanza, if he already had the one short direct line of speech at the end that he may not have wanted to sacrifice, he couldn’t have another short line, or he’d lose the metrical model; and he realized that then the lines would be read with only two strong stresses. He knew how to fix it, but he didn’t know why.

I never bade you go
To Moscow or to Rome.
Renounce that drudgery,
Call the Muses home.

Yet in those years when Pound and Yeats, Ford and the others, were trying to make a modern style, trying to figure out what was wrong with the poetic line left over from the nineteenth century—the years when Pound turned to classical metres, to Provence, to Anglo-Saxon, to vers libre, to anything he could get his hands on—Frost had already long understood the basic principles of English verse and had learned how to apply them to make them new again. “To be perfectly frank with you,” Frost wrote to a friend in 1913, “I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time…. I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense.”

Frost was right. Nobody took him very seriously then, and even his biographer is rather scornful of the claim now. Yet he knew what he was talking about, he had solved the problem that was plaguing all the others, and if there is any one secret of his poetry, this is it.

The sound of sense” is Frost’s way of talking about speech rhythms and speech stresses. He understood, as he says, consciously and clearly what had only been implicitly and intermittently known to English poets: the spoken language is shaped in patterns of sound that give the language its capability of meaning, and this is not based on “words” or on what we usually mean by “syntax.” Because of Frost’s name for it, and because of his manner, it must be said that it has nothing at all to do with being sensible.

The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embedded.

You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher.

One-two-three-go
No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids get out of the track.

…The sound of sense, then. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist.

$$$ mêan to téll mè (sustained pitch) $$$ cânt réad (rising pitch).

All the science of linguistics is there, beyond its present powers of description, but it is the secret of language, from the generation of phrases to the modulations that carry our deepest signs of emotion. Writing can’t really get it all, not even with the little marks that are used now, of which the above are only a sprinkling. The funny thing is that with writing we become able to put on paper indications of language that seem to mean something but aren’t human really, they are something never heard on land or sea—and that is the secret of bad writing. “Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading)….”

When he is good, Frost has exactly this sound of sense, and then he “breaks” it, as he says, across the regular beat of the metre; and as he says, this is poetry.

Back out of all this now too much for us.

THERE IS A VOICE HERE. We have to use a voice to read it. And if that sounds like something very small and even familiar, it was the secret, it was what all the true poets were seeking, and it was this, not his New England scenery, that made Frost a poet.

Frost propagandized heavily for his secret when his first books came out, writing to reviewers, lecturing, discoursing. Finally he got tired of it. Secrets go flat, in public. “Sometimes from the platform I say some of these things, you know. And I used to do it more than I do now. I had a notion I had to tell the public how to read lines. Then I decided no; that’s in them anyway.”

Compared to what he did with this secret, and published, the other secrets of Frost’s life seem dull indeed. And so do his other public statements. Selected Prose puts together some of his speeches and fugitive pieces on his own poetry, on baseball, and words of advice to college students. Most of it is Frost posing as a subversive old rascal or as a pious old rascal, of interest only to those who must have absolutely all of Frost. Interviews has some pretty weird remarks recorded in it, and much of it is the work of reporters trying to make copy out of the old man; there are a few good things, a conversation with Brooks and Warren. But for his own voice, if there’s not enough of that for you in his poems, then the letters, edited by Lawrance Thompson in 1964, are the best things.

His story does make a kind of sense, and is worth writing about, although for an uneventful life like this, three big volumes may well prove to be too much. In all but the triumph of being able to write, it seems a life of singular deprivation and pain, borne at best, as in the poems, with stoic courage, and at worst, as in many of his friendships, with cruelty. Of both qualities his very name is an emblem. “He called me unfeeling. It’s the old story of my frostiness. It makes people weep.” The public image of the craggy-faced farmer of antique charm and virtue was not really of his own making, though he believed it a bit. It was created by those of his admirers who insisted, against all evidence and his own statements, that life is benign and that people who look like Father in high-laced shoes are not really dangerous. He knew better. He was really a lot like his own dimpled white spider of sinister fame: the spider has to eat, doesn’t he? And therefore must seem attractive to the moth.

Although it’s true that everything worth knowing is in the poems, the life is a good commentary on them, if commentary is what you want. It won’t help you decide whether Frost is “greater” than someone else. And without the energy he made in the verse, it’s not very cheering. Frost’s own final comment, as he lay dying at last, was this. “I guess I don’t take life very seriously. It’s hard to get into this world and hard to get out of it. And what’s in between doesn’t make much sense.”

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