The acceleration of the engines of publicity and bibliography that have given us this extremely good selection of 466 letters (out of some 1500 examined by the editor) by and about Robert Frost less than a year after his death should be enough to confound anyone who thinks that Frost was approaching senility in his last years. Once mounted, he rode all the engines to the end with consummate skill.
Frost’s greatness has stalked criticism behind as gaudy a camouflage of diversions, sideshows, and politic misunderstanding as ever was staged. But it was his shrewdness, nevertheless, and his alone that has saved him from the long eclipse suffered, for instance, by Melville. The great courtesy, the incomparable ease, aptness, and beauty of language in the best of these letters, the mastery of occasion in them all, put his qualities beyond doubt. The book begins with some touching letters between his parents, continues with a group written by Frost in 1886, age eleven, to a schoolmate, Sabra Peabody—“From your loving Rob…Ever your faithful lover. Rob”—and ends with ruminations to Norman Thomas on his visit to Khrushchev, during all which immense span of time a first-rate intelligence, none fonder of surprises, was presiding over his career. “If only I get well, with their help, I’ll go deeper into my life with you than I ever have before”—the last words of his last letter.
When his poetry sagged toward the end he was still as keen as most poets at twenty; behind the sometimes bleary eyes of a tired sheepdog still playing his old man’s role with the relish of a Shakespearean clown, bringing all of Yeats’s gusto to his public masks, improvising variations on the bare facts of his life about which he seems, for a poet, to have been amazingly consistent and (one assumes) accurate, telling them over life beads to anybody with a right to hear them. Like Yeats and Hemingway, as he grew older he recalled still more evidence of a robust normality; athletic feats at school, high old boyhood times in his uncle’s house at Lawrence when his uncle was away, reading Twain, Artemas Ward, and the nineteenth-century British scientists to the scandal of his religious mother. He became fascinated, as well he might have, by the strength that had carried him from the early late-Victorian poeticisms—the night when out of shyness he asked a friend to read his first published poem on a butterfly aloud to the Rotary of Derry, N.H., thereby winning his first serious job at Pinkerton Academy—to his final communings with the great in half the capitals of the world.
Lawrence Thompson, his devoted, thoroughly systematic, liberal-academic friend, editor, and official biographer (he accompanied Frost to England in 1957, rented a Frost farmhouse for six summers and published a critical study, Fire and Ice, in 1962) faces the poet’s dark side more resolutely than any elected spokesman for a poet of his stature. Frost’s sense of drama served him well. He must have sensed that some rough but reassuring equation between his virtues and vices would have to be struck and struck soon, and that official scholarship, properly cajoled, now had the sophistication to do it. Not only do we have Thompson’s discreetly forthright Introduction, but a Table of Letters, a Chronology, a Genealogy, and a wonderful old-fashioned Index with such headings under FROST, ROBERT LEE as Education, Enemies, Farming, Fears, Gossip, Illnesses, Injustice, Insanity, Letter-writing, Masks and Masking, Mischieveousness, Platonist, Profanity, Resentments, Running Away, and Suicide. No losing oneself in this selva oscura! So there is a good contagion from Frost in the delightful thoroughness and the selection and notes that promises well for the biography.
Still, one returns to Randall Jarrell’s two brilliant essays* for a chart of the course. Someone may eventually exceed him in fullness and subtlety of praise, but nobody could possibly cap that gruesome string of epithets he coined in the exuberance of frustration. The bad Frost was:
…the conservative editorialist and self-made apothegm-joiner, full of dry wisdom and free, complacent Yankee enterprise; the Farmer-Poet, a sort of Olympian Will Rogers out of Tanglewood Tales…an elder statesman like Baruch or Smuts, full of complacent wisdom and cast-iron whimsy…the Only Genuine Robert Frost in Captivity…Frost’s daemonic gift of always getting on the buttered side of both God and Mammon…of not only allowing, but taking a hard pleasure in encouraging, fools and pedants to adore him as their own image magnified…the Grey Eminence of Robert Taft, the Peter Pan of the National Association of Manufacturers…
Of course this flogging came out of a climate, the dying energies of postwar hysteria expending themselves on an old, eternal, weather-beaten totem. It will surely stand as the high-water-mark of how awful a National Bard can be imagined to be. But it too is poetry and the letters undermine it, even as harmless good fun. Frost never was that bad. His jabs at a conservative philosophy (“abruption” he liked to call it), his lectures on “Crudity,” “Extravagance,” or whatever, were centered on a very few speculative points, as abstract as might be and as far beyond the N.A.M. as “Sailing to Byzantium.”
I’m terrible about my lectures. In my anxiety to keep them as long as possible from becoming part of my literary life, I leave them rolling around in my head like clouds rolling around the sky. Watch them long enough and you’ll see one near-form change into another near-form…Their chief value for me is for what I pick up from them when I cut across them with a poem under emotion. (1938)
The platform and party antics were as craftily vague, as taunting, as much a show as Stevens’s stylish parody of symbolist theory in The Necessary Angel. You could put most of the prose Frost into a book, call it The Necessary Cracker-Barrel, and still have enough golden precepts, hugging the earth and silence, to stand with the best in the language. Frost just possibly might have ghost-written for Henry Wallace, a mystic farmer he admired, but never for Goldwater, who would have struck him as a rival comedian too dull for notice; and he hated Calvin Coolidge for never having asked him to the White House.
Always near the grain, musical and right, the beat of Frost’s prose is always his own, like nothing I heard in my eighteen years in New Hampshire or have heard since. Something—San Francisco perhaps—lengthened, stretched his rhythms immeasurably. Jarrell is even better at praise than at caricature:
…how much this poetry is like the world…in these poems men are not only the glory and jest and riddle of the world, but also the habit of its strange ordinariness and its ordinary strangeness, and they too trudge down the ruts along which the planets move in their courses. Frost is that rare thing, a complete or representative poet…If some of the poems come out of a cynical commonsense that is only wisdom’s backward shadow, others come out of wisdom itself—for it is just possible for that most old-fashioned of old-fashioned things, wisdom, to maintain a marginal existence in our world…
One can say amen to most of this, certainly to Frost as a complete or representative poet, and still see that the letters both simplify and complicate things beyond Jarell’s simplistic lament for wisdom. Mr. Thompson, a religious man who apparently extracted enough avowals from Frost in private to save his own loyalty and contradict the unmistakable drift of this book, omits Wisdom entirely from his Index. And no wonder, because Frost’s foxiness on this subject cannot be exaggerated. “I had given up convictions when young from despair of learning how they were had. Nevertheless I might not have been without them” (to Whit Burnett in 1949). He was very secretive about anything that might be better learned or inferred from his verse; the note of inspirational elevation is rarely heard except about poetry, even in wartime. Anger, amusement, and comforting warmth were the strongest emotions for letters. The anger can be as devastating as surprising:
But the manager’s voice didn’t quite satisfy me. It ran on with a false communality. You bastard, I thought, you say that to everybody you harbor for the night. I won’t be treated with any such generalized rotarian hospitality. “Don’t be too glad to have us until you look us up in Dun and Bradstreet’s and find out who you have on your hands,” I had presence of mind to call back before he had time to hang up in his complacency. (1937)
Surely Frost is the great poet of laissez faire in English, who purified the doctrine almost out of existence except as it works powerfully in his verse. Whitman may be as great, but is something else. Frost’s exquisite diffidence about moralizing in earnest is early and not middle twentieth century. We can’t help finding it strange. Frost started in a blaze of self-confidence, not in his mastery of life, not, as happened so often after 1945, in a sense of being the administrative heir of culture, a moral potentate and picaresque saint rolled into one, but as a craftsman. From England in 1913:
To be perfectly frank with you [John Bartlett], I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time. That will transpire presently…I am possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say). of versification…I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense.
Of the great poets we know from letters only Frost had so much certainty of this kind to the exclusion of all others. Frost took the average beneficence of the given world enough for granted to devote himself wholly to consequences. “I like consequences, and I like them objective no less than subjective. They are depth as I understand it. Life’s not just touch and go. You may remember I am not good at short calls” (1923). In this he does indeed, as Reuben Brower suggests, resemble the “men of science”; science, as against philosophy or religion, was the only thing to which he allowed real progress. Frost was often idolized and patronized much as Einstein was, from the opposite side of the political fence.
But he also knew private depths as bitterly as did Whitman, the incredible succession of miseries he must have dimly forseen when he gambled recklessly on the strains of tuberculosis and insanity on both sides of the family. A first son dead at three, a daughter dead at childbirth, a wife, son, daughter and daughter-in-law afflicted with TB, a sister and daughter hospitalized for insanity, the sister indigent for many years, his son, whose farming and poetry he partly subsidized and always encouraged, a suicide at thirty-eight. Frost could have rewritten Job if it needed rewriting; The Masque of Reason fails because he had spent his pity in far more ambitious, characteristic poems. Objectivity at what a cost! To become the magnificent erotic-philosophical poet he was, confronting habitual married love with a Nothingness as splendid and terrible as anything in Rilke, Yeats, or Eliot, supporting it on the quietest, most mysterious pleasures, he had to dramatize himself as one of the age’s supreme technicians (which he was), had to preach “form” more relentlessly than any New Critic would have dared: the saving grace of the thing done and well done. A savage creed, the professional humanist might say; egotism, a psychological moralist might echo. These voices were with him day and night.
Frost’s marriage, the root and flower of most of his poetry, would require a small book and much seasoned forbearance towards them both. “Pretty nearly every one of my poems will be found to be about her if rightly read” (1938, just after her death). We can suspect from “Home Burial” or the peppery women in the Masques that about as many of the difficulties as the satisfactions got into the verse. A kind of gallantry, movingly expressed in “The Silken Tent,” and a touch of condescension, obvious in “West-Running Brook,” were part of the conventions they both took for granted as “country.” But “The Pasture” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” among others, show how much more deeply and broadly emotion ran. Elinor White, the daughter of a renegade Universalist minister, something of an atheist and rock-ribbed Republican herself, was strong-minded enough to prolong her engagement three years until she got a college degree for teaching and the poet found a good job. During this interval Frost had five poems printed privately, in a book he called Twilight, and presented one of two copies to Elinor. In Thompson’s words:
But when his fiancée seemed insufficiently impressed by the gift, and also seemed to be showing interest in several suitors at St. Lawrence University, Frost despondently destroyed his own copy of the book. Immediately thereafter he struck an even more dramatic posture of despondency when he tried to throw his life away in unconvincing fashion by making a mysterious trip to and through the Dismal Swamp of Virginia.
Mrs. Frost’s seventeen letters in the book mainly concern crises in her friends’ lives and her own and therefore make her sound more of a patient Griselda than the poems or Frost’s remarks about her to Untermeyer reveal that she was. Perhaps his handsomest tribute was this: “She could always be present to govern my loneliness without making me feel less alone. It is now running into a week longer than I was ever away from her since June, 1895” (1938).
The letters from England and their brilliant cast of characters, alternating with kindly advice to the homefolks on how to live, are too rich, too sharp and surprising for a review. Let me quote one of his encounters with T. E. Hulme.
Not long ago one evening, it was how he [Hulme] was out here in Bucks somewhere at a Russian actress’s country house and heard two very minor poets just down from Oxford addressing her in erotic verse of their own. Passion and emulation had sent both of them up tall trees. Alford (author of the stupid roast on American literature in the magazine I am sending) would shout to the wind “Come lie with me” or words to that effect. Are they not written in a book recently published by Alford at his own expense? He spoke of her marmoreal legs…All of which made Hulme laugh so that the Russian actress had to rebuke him for not knowing how to take a thing as it was meant. But the best was: The shouts of the arboreal poets had attracted a small crowd outside the paling that no one noticed till a boy cried, “Say, Mister, are you nesting?” Alford was not nesting as it turned out. The other fellow won the lady’s favor or favors and is now her housemate outside the law.
Frost’s skirmishes with Pound bring honor to both, though neither would have admitted it. But they are vastly complicated. The magnanimity that Frost always wanted for himself he showed triumphantly in a letter to Lionel Trilling, after Trilling had stirred J. Donald Adams of the Times and the cohorts of philistia at their most philistine to convulsions of wrath about a marvelous short address Trilling gave at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday banquet. Here is Trilling’s peroration, followed by part of Frost’s letter:
I hope that you will not think it graceless of me that on your birthday I have undertaken to say that a great many of your admirers have not understood clearly what you have been doing in your life in poetry. I know that you will not say which of us is in the right of the matter. You will behave like the Secret whose conduct you have described:
We dance around in a ring and suppose.
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows
I hope that you will not think it graceless of me that on your birthday I have made you out to be a poet who terrifies. When I began to speak I called your birthday Sophoclean and that word has, I think, controlled everything I have said about you. Like you, Sophocles lived to a great age, writing well; and like you, Sophocles was the poet his people loved most. Surely they loved him in some part because he praised their common country. But I think they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort.
And Frost: You made my birthday party a surprise party. I should like nothing better than to do a thing like that myself—to depart from the Rotarian norm in a Rotarian situation. You weren’t there to sing “Happy Birthday, dear Robert,” and I don’t mind being made controversial. No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down. We should see something more of each other.
To read this collection slowly, as it must be read, is to submit again to a slow, powerful flux and reflux of poetic intuition and practical sense, to the deep erotic undertone of his struggle to keep the family and nation the two poles of his loyalty. “There is a vigorous devil in me that raises me above or drops me below the level of pity” (1958). Above that level he fought his see-saw battle with Education, appealing shamelessly to every nostalgia in that tame Goliath, bringing it to heel on a grander scale than any poet had before. Below pity he existed subliminally in most moderately good readers, a natural talisman like the Kaaba stone or the Plymouth rock, wordlessly fortifying, though words brought you to him, the earthward pull of all our best energies.
The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to the ocean—
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.
September 10, 1964