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.

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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.