Frost: The Icon and the Man

In the middle of June 1957 Robert Frost arrived in Dublin at the end of a goodwill tour for the State Department: he had been to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Durham. His next assignment was to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland; then he was free to spend four or five days being feted. He was accompanied by Lawrance Thompson, since 1939 his designated biographer. I was teaching in the English Department at University College, Dublin, so I was included in a few social occasions. On one of those I met Thompson and we hit it off pretty well. Over the following days I showed him the literary sights of Dublin, Joyce’s tower at Sandycove, the Merrion Square of Wilde and Yeats, the Book of Kells, and the Hill of Howth.

We talked mostly about Melville, hardly at all about Frost. I sensed an awkwardness there. But I mentioned that I had written an essay on Frost that I thought of submitting to an English monthly magazine, The Twentieth Century. I might also use it as a chapter in a book I was writing on modern American poetry. Thompson offered to read it. I warned him that the essay was severe and that he would not like it. Why? Well, I thought that several of Frost’s poems were nasty and that they corresponded to the chilling, careless note of the Social Darwinists, especially Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. I couldn’t see the merit of transferring to politics, economics, and sociology the conclusions that emerged from Darwin’s biology. It seemed to me that some of Frost’s poems were corrupted by Social Darwinism, and that their narrative voice implied: “I’m surviving quite well under my own steam, why should I worry about you?” Thompson asked me which poems I had in mind. I named “Death of the Hired Man,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “Sand Dunes,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and the last lines of “Out, Out—.” More specifically, I thought it was cruel and glibly Darwinist of Frost to say of the parents of the dead boy in “Out, Out—“:

…And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Why should Frost think they turned to their affairs? “Since” gives the most blatant explanation available, and “turned” is morally facile. The parents may have turned their faces to the wall and lived out their lives in despair. “Give us immedicable woes,” Frost said, “woes that nothing can be done for.” Speak for yourself, I say.

Two or three weeks later, I sent Thompson the essay on Frost. In reply, he wrote me a long letter—which I’m sorry I’ve lost—in which he said that my sense of Frost was accurate but that I didn’t know just how accurate it was. Frost, he said, was a monster, a man of systematic cruelty. His indifference to other people was at least partly …

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