Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing
Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915
Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938
Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963
Robert Frost’s long life came to an end in 1963, and Lawrance Thompson’s long life of Robert Frost—that of an authorized biographer, who was outlived by his labors, and whose third volume was completed by a colleague—came to an end last year. Frost’s life rang with praise and applause, but he has so far been the subject of a disproportionately small amount of literary criticism. The oracles have been dumb, for the most part, and sometimes surly. Richard Poirier’s book, however, will cause them to speak. Among other matters, it will cause them to speak about what it is like for the poems to be read by a reader of Leavis and of Mailer—a reader for whom the writing of poetry can be compared to sexual intercourse.
Bernard DeVoto, who was one of the many friends with whom Frost quarreled, told him that he was a good poet but a bad man, and the same impression can be gained from the Thompson biography. Other Americans have preferred the still simpler view that he was both a bad poet and a bad man. His writings were judged according to the social divisions they tended to inflame: country against city, heartland against advanced urban opinion with an eye on Europe, patriotism against the anti-Americanism of the expatriate “lost generation,” piety against psychiatry.
The attacks that were made, in the Twenties and after, on native America and its favorite artists could be kind to Frost only to the extent of declaring him the wrong poet for the new time that had come, and he went on to irritate both the liberal imagination and the leftism of later times. Partisan Review was never eager to write about him, any more than The New York Review of Books has been. For all his medals, prizes, honorary degrees, and visiting professorships, the universities have not been anything like as eager to study him as they have been to study Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. And yet, bad and wrong as he has been alleged to be, he is among the masters of American poetry.
These divisions and anomalies are of a piece with others that accompany the story of his life. It is the story of the mastery of an art, and of a response to fear and pain. The comedy it yields is the high, black comedy of paranoid megalomania. Thompson’s biography has plenty of such fun, and so has Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, whose portrait of the mountain poet, curmudgeonly John Shade, contains pointed references to Frost, and is contained within the self-portrait of a devoted scholar. The novel is not referred to in any of Thompson’s voluminous volumes, but if reads as if it had had wind of them.
The biography tells of a series of terrible domestic misfortunes, and of a strain of insanity of Frost’s side of the family. His father was wild and frightening, and punishing; tubercular and a drinker, he died young. His mother then worked as a schoolteacher, enduring hard times and hostility. When the doctor arrived to deliver Frost, the father greeted him with a revolver, to put him on his mettle, and Frost himself once waved a gun at his wife and young daughter, in the middle of the night, pressing the daughter to choose which of her parents should be the one to be gone by the morning. Feeling rejected during his courtship of Elinor Frost; he set off on a journey through a fastness called the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, vaguely intent on suicide. His sister entered a psychiatric institution. So did a daughter. Another daughter died in childbirth. A son committed suicide. Other children died in miscarriage or in infancy. On her deathbed in 1938, Elinor, a woman of formidable reserve, refused to let him in to see her. For the quarter of a century that followed, Frost was nourished by the care and friendship of Mrs. Kathleen Morrison, who served as his secretary.
A gift for words became evident early in his distresses, but the fame to which it led was to prove as distressing to him, in certain respects, as any of his disasters. His distresses made him a monster. This victim was to show, as he himself confessed, an “Indian vindictiveness.” This beautiful writer, “scared,” as he conceded, by his enemies, by the “literary gangsters” who were out to get him, grew to have the face of a gangster or godfather.
Here is the lovable, puritanical poet of popular acclaim in the act of procuring Benjamin DeVoto to attack his enemies for him: “I am going to have you strike that blow for me now if you still want to and if you can assure your wife and conscience you thought of it first and not I. The Benny-faction must be beyond suspicion of procurement on my part or I will have none of it.” DeVoto’s response to Frost’s conscription of his friends was spirited—unlike that of Louis Untermeyer, who soldiered on for years and years. At one point, Untermeyer offended Frost by embarking on a divorce—always a sore subject with the poet. Not long afterward, Untermeyer’s son took his own life, and “Frost, with typical austerity, viewed this death as a punishment the parents had brought on themselves.” Here, again, is Frost imagining a rebuke to Pound which invokes their relations with each other in the days when Pound helped to launch him in London, thereby saddling the Yankee with the embarrassment of a European debut: “My contribution was to witticisms: yours the shitticisms. Remember how you always used to carry toilet paper in your pocket instead of handkerchief or napkin to wipe your mouth with when you got through?”
Thompson has a habit of seeming to hover at the edge of admitting the monstrous and comic nature of the incidents which fill his book, and, unlike Frost himself, he lacked the flair, and the sense of humor, to exploit them, to any pitch of vivacity, in the telling. And yet you begin to wonder whether the strains and exasperations which must afflict the official biographer, married to a procuring subject, may not have issued in some suppression of Frost’s kind actions and common humanity. The suspicion is not removed by an inspection of the list of “topical subheads” which precedes the index to each volume. In the second volume, the topics include “brute,” “charlatan,” “cowardice,” “enemies,” “escapist,” “fear,” “hate,” “insanity,” “jealousy,” “punishment,” “puritan,” “rage,” “rebel,” “revenge,” “spoiled child,” “vindictive,” “war.” That’s almost half the list: it reads like a character assassination, and its most startling item is “murderer.” But the really bleak thing about the book is that you eventually decide that its portrait of the artist in terms, so often, of his trophies, retaliations, and rigmarole of speaking engagements must represent a more or less complete record. “Check up on me some,” advised Frost, with reference to his own inventive accounts of his life. You decide that, in checking, Thompson has not been drawn to the atrocious, at the expense of other topics.
The book works well as a kind of Frost archive, though the same documents keep recurring. Character and behavior are sensibly described. But the narrative and the critical discussions are flat, and remain flat in the collaborative third volume. Not all the scholarship is sensible, though most of it is. When Frost said that one half of him was a “Scotch symbolist” (the other half, according to Untermeyer, was a “Yankee realist”), he had in mind his romantic extraction, as he felt it to be, and perhaps an ancestral mysticism: he can’t have had in mind the three fifteenth-century Scottish poets whose dates, known and conjectured alike, are then furnished in the notes. If a debt to Scotland is to be assessed, it may be thought that his career owed more to that of Robert Burns, less of a symbolist than Frost, and more of a farmer.
The second volume is concerned with “the years of triumph.” In the triumphant year of 1924, he left one of his academic posts as resident (but fugitive) poet: these ambiguous arrangements were always coming to an end. His spells at Amherst were more difficult than the valedictories might suggest. President Meiklejohn, who had invited him there originally, in pursuit of a genuinely imaginative teaching program, had been repudiated by Frost on the grounds that he was a liberal; and had subsequently been dismissed by the trustees. Another of Frost’s sponsors and supporters, a witty Missourian, had also been repudiated by him, as a liberal and a homosexual: his sex life, Frost reckoned, gave grounds for dismissal. It was announced by the college in 1924 that Frost was to leave in order to persevere with his theory of “detached education” at the University of Michigan, to which he’d been engaged for some while without informing Amherst. “Detached education” meant greater freedom for students (and teachers), and an indifference to marks. His Michigan fellowship, “for life,” was to entail “no obligations of teaching,” and provide “entire freedom to work and write.”
Frost was visited at this time by a reporter, who spoke of how disheveled and forgetful he was, how he “admitted” that Amherst colleagues disapproved of him for this, how keen he was that undergraduates who were “poets on the sly” should be rallied by the poet-teacher. “As he stood on the step of his Amherst home bidding his guests farewell, the moon shone full upon him. His gray hair was tousled in the most grotesque manner, his hands were extended in a curious, generous gesture, and his voice carried across the yard a gentle invitation to come again.” The moon was shining on “one of the friendliest spirits in the land, a spirit that refuses to attack, but refuses to conform.” Thompson calls attention to the naïveté of this report.
In fulfillment of his outstanding obligations to the college, Frost laid on the spectacle of that “picturesque monster,” in Thompson’s phrase, the large and influential Amy Lowell. The visit passed off all right, despite her abrasive grandeur. Privately, though, Frost regarded her majesty as a fraud, and was nerving himself to expose her. Early the next year, what survived of his willingness to tolerate her pretensions was severely tested. He had agreed to be present at a party for her book on Keats, though, as the day approached, he felt tired out from a round of public appearances. But then Amy made it known that she would be too ill to attend a later birthday party for Frost himself. He chose, therefore, to be absent from the Lowell celebration. But then Amy chose to die, and Frost was left, in the words of his biographer, “conscience-stricken.”
A telegram of condolence flew, and he made a public statement in which exposure had to content itself with measured innuendoes: “Amy Lowell was distinguished in a period of dilation when poetry, in the effort to include a larger material, stretched itself almost to the breaking of the verse.” Untermeyer seems to have been no less of a casualty than Frost in the battle of the canapes, and Frost wrote to him in such a way as to appear, by a characteristic sleight, to be palming off the wound he’d received himself onto his stricken friend: