The Storm Over Robert Frost


Lionel Trilling shocked the guests at a dinner celebrating Robert Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during the spring of 1959, by suggesting in prepared remarks that Frost, everyone’s favorite genial Yankee uncle, was a “terrifying poet.” Trilling claimed that the Frost he admired expressed “the terrible actualities of life,” and was different from “the Frost who reassures us by his affirmations of old virtues, simplicities, pieties, and ways of feeling.” According to Trilling, the sunbathers looking out to sea in Frost’s apparently anodyne “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”—

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

—were in fact confronting “the empty immensity of the universe.”1

Sensing perhaps some resistance among the guests to his portrait of Frost as existential philosopher, Trilling left the party early, and later apologized for possible hurt feelings. Frost told him not to worry. “You made my birthday party a surprise party,” he wrote.

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.

By Frost’s discordant standard, the past two years have been full of sweet music. In January 2007, Harvard University Press published Frost’s Notebooks—private, handwritten musings on politics and life, intermingled with drafts of poems and speeches—to considerable acclaim, only to have the accuracy of the editing and transcription subjected, after the first wave of admiring reviews, to withering scrutiny.2 “To read this volume,” the poet William Logan wrote in Parnassus: Poetry in Review,

is to believe that Frost was a dyslexic and deranged speller, that his brisk notes frequently made no sense, that he often traded the expected word for some fanciful or perverse alternative.3

Noting misreadings such as “picktie” for “public” and “linigue” for “unique,” Logan estimated that there might be as many as ten thousand errors in the book.

In December 2007, more than two dozen young people broke into Frost’s farmhouse in Ripton, Vermont, and, as The New York Times reported, trashed it during a snowy evening of partying, leaving “vomit, urine, beer everywhere.”4 More recently, Brian Hall’s plans to publish a biographical novel, Fall of Frost, ran into trouble when the estate of Robert Frost, apparently disturbed by Hall’s unflinching portrait of the poet’s moods, refused permission to include poems in the novel.

Remedies have been sought for all these “clashes.” Robert Faggen, who spent five years deciphering the scrawled Notebooks, promises corrections in the paperback edition.5 Hall, for his part, has found clever ways to skirt the copyright laws but remains angry. “The fight over Frost—plaster saint, monster, or human being?—has always been, and continues…

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