William Pritchard’s “literary life” of Robert Frost is a persuasive antidote to Lawrance Thompson’s official biography, which reached its demolishing conclusion in 1976 with its third and final volume. Its portrait of the poet inspired one reviewer to conclude that he was “a monster”; another that he was “a mean-spirited megalomaniac”; still another that “a more hateful human being cannot have lived.” Whatever its other qualities, Thompson’s biography obviously had its culturally cathartic uses. It released long-suppressed irritation at someone whose image of folksy nobility had become overexposed on the literary scene, and whose poetry remained stubbornly challenging to the current academic taste for literary modernism, as represented by Eliot and Pound.
The three volumes were useful in more obvious ways. Thompson was appointed to his task by Frost in 1939, given free access to all materials and the benefit of the tapes of extensive interviews, on file at the University of Virginia, which are said to be amazingly forthright, more forthright than anything Thompson quotes. They are not alluded to in Pritchard’s book. Thompson managed to assemble more information about Frost’s life than anyone else ever had, including Frost himself. But as is often the case with literary scholars who are reputed to know “everything” about a writer, Thompson did not in fact know how to read him. Above all he did not know, as Pritchard does, how to listen to the poems, the letters, and the talk. This is especially crippling when the writer insists again and again that we should attend with “the ear on the speaking voice,” and elevates to a governing principle of writing and reading what an intelligent child learns fast enough in the schoolyard: that, as Frost says in an early letter, “the sentence sound often says more than the words” and can “convey a meaning opposite to the words.”
Even his casual sentences give warning of having multiple warheads. Years ago I heard of a dinner party at which the hostess, turning to the poet after a lengthy talk with his biographer, remarked that “your Mr. Thompson is a charming man.” Frost’s reply—“Yes, but that isn’t enough, is it?”—can be taken as a put down of Thompson, but it was more likely, or also, a comment on the vulgarity of being a literary hostess. Years of close attendance on someone continually given to inflections of this kind took its toll, and while the portrait waited, as it were, in the closet—Frost forbade publication of any part of it in his lifetime—it accumulated signs of wear and tear, of old scores unsettled. Thompson’s index reads like a prosecutor’s brief. The entry for “Frost, Robert Lee (26 Mar. 1874–29 June 1963)” is followed by subject headings like “Brute,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Jealousy,” “Murderer”—the typical bit of adduced evidence is that Frost “used razor words in public to achieve a murderous revenge”—“Spoiled Child,” “Vindictive.”
Pritchard means to correct this bias. In its handling of biographical material his book is at once affectionate and strong, making no undue apologies for a man who having said that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches” not infrequently proved it. It tries to correct the oscillations of taste that have blurred Frost’s reputation as a poet and as a man. Treated for decades as a master of cagey folk wisdom, he was, beginning in 1953 with Randall Jarrell’s essay “The Other Frost,” reinterpreted as “dark” and ironic; revered as someone who promised to take Mount Parnassus into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, he was exposed by Thompson as a holy terror. Pritchard’s balance and moderation serve the life very well indeed, but they serve poetry, I would suggest, far less.
Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874, and when his father died he moved to Massachusetts and, later, New Hampshire, near relatives. He was ten, with a sister Jeanie, two years younger, and his mother, a schoolteacher who tutored him in English and American literature and encouraged the beginnings of what was to become a command of Greek and Latin. In 1895 he married Elinor White, his co-valedictorian in high school, and managed at first to support her and a growing family by stints of farming, school-teaching, and doing odd jobs, and was also helped by a small annuity from his paternal grandfather. He spent about two years at Harvard, after an early, brief period at Dartmouth, and discovered what was to be a lifelong admiration for a member of the faculty whose classes he never got to take, William James.
For over forty years, until the weekend of her fatal heart attacks in March 1938—when she did not summon him to her bedside—Elinor and Robert Frost appear to have had a passionate life together, intellectually, physically, and emotionally, a life beset by some bad scenes, cold silences, and a series of family tragedies. Of the six children, two died soon after birth (there may have been at least one other unrecorded, born dead and buried); Frost’s favorite daughter, Marjorie, after giving birth to a child, died hideously at age twenty-nine of puerperal fever; his son Carol shot himself at age thirty-eight while alone in a house with his sixteen-year-old son; his daughter Irma had to be confined, as was Frost’s sister Jeanie, in a state mental hospital. Only Lesley, the second child, managed to live a full and accomplished life. In 1938 Frost had the good fortune to find a companion and secretary in Kathleen Morrison. While remaining devoted to her husband and family, she managed to bring an unaccustomed comfort and order to his routines.
Crucial to the shape of his life and career was the decision in 1912 to go, at age thirty-eight, with his wife and four children, to live in England, where they stayed till 1915. He had published only a scattering of poems at home but had with him in manuscript all of what was to be his first book, A Boy’s Will, published in England in 1913, his second, North of Boston, published there in 1914, and most of a third, Mountain Interval, which came out in 1916 on his return home. It was from England that he was able to launch his career in America, helped enormously by reviews from Pound and from Edward Thomas, the brilliant English critic-poet who was killed in World War I. “Edward Thomas,” he said, “was the only brother I ever had.”
Returning home Frost was soon able to make a living by his poetry, public readings, and teaching at various colleges and universities—Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Michigan, Breadloaf, and, for most of his life, Amherst. He resigned his first appointment at Amherst in 1920 because of the liberal education policies of Alexander Meiklejohn, its president, who also refused to fire Stark Young although, according to Frost, his homosexuality was a threat to the students. More likely Young’s popularity as a teacher was a threat to Frost.
Over the years he found he knew nearly all the important poets of his time. He had some cautious but friendly exchanges with Stevens, as in 1935 and again in 1940 at Key West. “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about—subjects.” “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about—bric-à-brac.” With Pound things were more turbulent. After Frost sought him out in London in 1913 Pound took him to see Yeats, introduced him to other literary figures, and worked hard on his behalf, but Frost soon resented what he considered efforts to appropriate him and feared that he would get into trouble at home because of Pound’s complaints that Frost’s work had been neglected by American editors. Later on, in the mid-Thirties, there were nasty exchanges of letters between them when, after Frost’s Norton lectures at Harvard, Pound accused Frost of having disparaged him (no copies of the lectures now exist).
But it was largely Frost’s influence in the Eisenhower administration, where he had a close friend in Sherman Adams, that brought about Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1958. For a time Frost felt himself even closer to President Kennedy, who invited him to read at his inauguration and arranged for a meeting between Frost and Khrushchev in the USSR in 1962. The alliance, as he liked to think of it, of “poetry and power” quickly soured when Frost reported to the press a statement from Khrushchev that the United States was “too liberal to fight.” The statement had never been made: Frost simply supposed that Khrushchev would have felt that way. Kennedy shunned him thereafter.
The last decade of Frost’s life was a triumphant one, notably when he went to England in 1957 to receive honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, to revive old associations, and to make a few new ones, as with E.M. Forster. He also saw much of T.S. Eliot and his wife, and the two poets put behind them the rivalry of many years. Frost was brought nearly to tears at a dinner in his honor, when Eliot, in a toast of genuine affection and admiration, concluded: “The relation of Dante to Florence, of Shakespeare to Warwickshire, of Goethe to the Rhineland, the relation of Robert Frost to New England. He has that universality. And I think the beginning of his career, and the fact that his first publication and reputation was made in this country, and that he is now hailed in this country universally as the most distinguished American poet, points to that fact.”
If, as I believe, the three great American poets of this century so far are Eliot, Frost, and Stevens, then Frost’s accomplishment cannot be accounted for, any more than can theirs, by concentrating on the social circumstances of his life. Pritchard is writing a biographical, not a critical study, and isn’t required to go into extensive interpretations of particular poems, but even so his readings tend to be far too cautious. He seems content to show how the life and the poetry share in certain recurrent forms of guardedness, a temperamental and intellectual mischievousness. Reading the poems in this way has the effect of turning some of them into little more than language games, and of treating as light verse still others, for which Jarrell made, as Pritchard suspiciously phrases it, “large claims,” such as “Neither Out Far nor In Deep” and “Provide, Provide.” When it comes to the difficult, ambitious poems, which make “large claims” for themselves, reticence in interpretation tends to take away also from an understanding of Frost’s life. I’m thinking of poems like “Mowing” and “After Apple-Picking,” like “Home Burial,” “The Wood-Pile,” and “The Most of It,” and several sonnets which have few equals in English—“The Oven Bird,” “Hyla Brook,” and, especially, “Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same.”
Pritchard seems to worry that if he tries to uncover the sources of genius and power in Frost’s writing he will compromise his efforts to restore to the man a proper measure of human ordinariness. Like other twentieth-century literary biographies, this one is good about literary careerism, but less good about the more mysterious human will and energy that are expressed in the poet’s writing, in the traceable act of his writing. When barely twenty years old, Frost could remark to a sympathetic literary editor that “even in my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition.” Such ambition—and its attendant human costs—isn’t to be understood by any chronicle of merely critical successes and failures. From very early on, from his teens and through long years of haphazard employment, while he held back from publication enough poems for several volumes, Frost, for all his extraordinary flair for public relations, was, I think, less ambitious about his career than about creating a mythology of poetry and poetic performance that was attuned to mythologies about the cycles in nature of creativity and barrenness.