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 to be, Homeric,” he writes in a defiant author’s note that alludes to Frost’s exchange with Trilling. “My ears are still ringing from the ax-blow to my helmet, but I’d like to think that somewhere Frost…is enjoying the music.”
As for the vandals of Ripton, part of the penalty imposed by the judge was to have Jay Parini, a biographer of Frost, teach them about Frost’s poetry, with particular emphasis on “The Road Not Taken,” presumably to persuade the wayward kids to choose another road (or at least a different house) the next time: “I guess I was thinking that if these teens had a better understanding of who Robert Frost was and his contribution to our society,” the prosecutor remarked, “that they would be more respectful of other people’s property in the future and would also learn something from the experience.”
Three new books—Hall’s reworked novel, a meticulously edited collection of Frost’s prose, and a hefty monograph on Frost as a philosopher of “dualism”—suggest that conflicts of various kinds were central to who Robert Frost was. Frost published relatively little prose during his life, but the new books, along with the fray over the Notebooks, reveal a more “prosaic” Frost, a Frost entangled—sometimes willfully and sometimes helplessly—in public and private turmoil. They also suggest that the clash over Frost’s legacy isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.
Frost in his poems invented several fanciful, nonpaying vocations—including leaf-treader, lone-striker, and swinger of birches. “One could do worse,” he wrote, “than be a swinger of birches.” But during his long, long life—he died in 1963 just short of his eighty-ninth birthday—he was mainly paid, sometimes very poorly, for three overlapping occupations: farmer, teacher, and (once his poems had achieved some popularity when he was over forty) nomadic poet-sage. Frost came late and by a circuitous route to these professions, but once he had found them he stuck with them.
A New Englander by adoption, Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. His father was a Harvard-educated drunkard, gambler, and newspaperman who named his son after his idol, Robert E. Lee. Frost’s mother, daughter of a Scottish sea captain, was a dreamer and self-styled mystic who “heard voices” and encouraged her son to think that he did, too; she discovered Swedenborg while reading Emerson’s Representative Men. In a talk delivered in 1959, Frost wrote that Emerson “makes Swedenborg say that in the highest heaven nothing is arrived at by dispute.” In the chaotic Frost household, everything seems to have been arrived at by dispute.
When Frost’s father died in 1885, the family moved to Massachusetts, where they depended on the grudging support of Frost’s grandparents. An education that had been irregular from the start—Frost survived kindergarten for barely a day, and frequently skipped school with various “nervous” complaints—stabilized at Lawrence High School, where Frost and his sweetheart, Elinor White, graduated in 1892 as co-valedictorians; they were married three years later. The 1890s were a difficult decade for a shy and sensitive young man with a growing family to be looking for work in economically depressed New England. Frost worked sporadically for mills, newspapers, and farms; he enrolled at Harvard briefly and dropped out.
And then, in 1900, Frost found in raising chickens an occupation that gave him money, time, and a landscape ripe with metaphors for the poems he had begun to write late at night when his wife and children were sleeping. Elliott, the Frosts’ first child, died of cholera during the summer of 1900. During the decade the Frosts spent on their thirty-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, the four surviving children, Lesley, Irma, Marjorie, and another son, Carol, roamed the rock-strewn countryside as freely as Frost’s three hundred Wyandotte chickens.
“Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms,” Sherwood Anderson wrote in his story “The Egg” (1920). “One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic things that can happen to a chicken.” It’s clear from the eleven lively stories Frost published in the trade journals The Eastern Poultryman and Farm-Poultry, from 1903 to 1905, that he was imaginatively engaged by the tragic things that can happen to a chicken. In “Trap Nests,” a couple new to chicken farming employ a device “intended to catch and hold the hen until she was willing to purchase freedom at the price of an egg.” The trap nests “savor of vivisection and the Inquisition”; the city-bred farmer finds himself taking “a growing satisfaction in ruthlessness, for such, he felt, was life.” In another story, a farmer’s “first hatches were so exceptionally fine that the gods fell in love with them, and they died young.”
Brian Hall, who quotes the line about gods falling in love with doomed chickens, gives sustained attention to the decade in Derry in Fall of Frost. The novel is a deeply researched and intensely rendered portrait of what Hall calls “Frost’s extraordinarily lush and difficult mental landscape.” Its taut and fragmentary vignettes move backward and forward in time, sometimes proposing possible settings for the inspiration of poems. The “promises” mentioned in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, are assumed to be Christmas presents. Frost is the only fully imagined character in the novel, in which Hall has chosen “to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows.” Yet he has stayed close to the biographical record. In this regard, the novel is more narrowly conceived than, say, Colm Tóibín’s The Master, with its more fully realized portraits of Henry James’s intimate friends and its wider speculation about his romantic attachments.
Fall of Frost gives primary attention to three moments in Frost’s life: the initial decade of farming; the death of Frost’s wife in 1938 and his subsequent affair with his secretary, Kay Morrison; and Frost’s final years as John F. Kennedy’s favorite poet, when he read at Kennedy’s inauguration and traveled as informal cultural ambassador to the USSR, where he met for ninety contentious minutes with Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the “noble rivalry” of the cold war. Hall has discovered that on the same day as this unlikely meeting, Khrushchev “also listened to Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and ordered battlefield nuclear weapons sent to Cuba.”
Frost’s granddaughter, Lesley Lee Francis, described the years at Derry as “quite idyllic,” but Hall takes a darker view. He thinks the whole period was shadowed by Elliott’s death, the result, Hall suggests, of a tainted well. Frost might have prevented the death by keeping the chickens away from the well or, failing that, by calling a doctor sooner. The death of the child plunged Elinor Frost into a lingering depression, exacerbating the emotional and sexual dysfunction of the marriage. Hall alludes to Frost’s excruciating poem “Home Burial,” from his second volume, North of Boston (1914), in which a husband and wife find themselves unable to speak about their dead child, buried not far from the house in a graveyard “not so much larger than a bedroom.”
The punning title of the poem, and the comparison to a bedroom, imply that the couple are in some sense trapped in their home and buried alive. Hall is also intrigued by another disturbing poem, “The Subverted Flower,” which Frost once characterized as a poem about frigidity in women. “Along with the death of Elliott,” Hall writes,
that was always between them, her dislike of the act, his shame before her of what he needed, his resentment of her that she made him feel ashamed.
Hall traces much of the misery of the Frost children—two of whom, Marjorie and Irma, suffered from mental illness, while Carol committed suicide—back to domestic tensions at Derry. He broods over a scene that Lesley reported to Frost’s authorized though increasingly hostile biographer, Lawrance Thompson. Lesley remembered her father waking her in the middle of the night when she was six years old and ordering her to follow him downstairs. Here is Hall’s version of what followed:
She turns to her father, all in shadow. He steps into the light and raises his arm. Light glints on the revolver. He points it at her mother, then at himself. “Take your choice, Lesley,” he drones. “Before morning, one of us will be dead.” She cries and cries until she falls asleep.
Lesley told Thompson that she might have dreamed the scene. But even if she dreamed it, Hall implies, the dream suggests something real about the relations between Frost and his wife. He interprets Elinor Frost’s picturesque wish to go to England and “live under thatch,” where the Frosts lived from 1912 to 1915, as a death-wish: “It wasn’t lost on Frost that she was saying she wanted to be buried.”
For Robert Frost, the years in England were the real idyll. There, he found a publisher for his first two books, met Pound and Yeats, and found in the writer Edward Thomas, who died in France in World War I, the closest friend he ever made. He also began to develop, with Thomas’s encouragement, his theory that effective poetry wasn’t made from striking visual images, as the Imagists claimed, or sonorous words (“death by jingle”) but rather from what he called “sentence sounds.” In The Collected Prose of Robert Frost, Mark Richardson includes one of Frost’s many attempts at defining what he meant by “vocal imagination” or “the sound of sense”:
I speak of imagination as having some part in the sound of poetry. It is everything in the sound of poetry; but not as inventor nor creator—simply as summoner. Make no mistake about the tones of speech I mean. They are the same yesterday, today, and forever. They were before words were—if anything was before anything else. They have merely entrenched themselves in words. No one invents new tones of voice. So many and no more belong to the human throat, just as so many runs and quavers belong to the throat of the cat-bird, so many to the chickadee. The imagination is no more than their summoner—the imagination of the ear.
Richardson notes the Darwinian drift in Frost’s conviction that “the brute noises of our human throat… were all our meaning before words stole in.” He also argues that the forgotten American poet Sidney Lanier deserves some credit for including in his book The Science of English Verse (1880), which Frost had read in 1894, “an exposition of the ‘sentence sound’ theory in all its essentials.” Richardson makes a convincing case that Frost’s sentence sounds owe something to Lanier’s notion of “tunes of speech,” and that both drew from Herbert Spencer’s influential observations about how “variations of voice are the physiological results of variations in feeling.” Frost is a more convincing conduit for these ideas for two reasons. First, he put less emphasis on “tune” (with its suggestion of melody) than on shifting tones. Second, he was able to write the poems to back up his claims.
Some of the long dramatic poems that Frost gathered in North of Boston seem like demonstrations of the human “calls” Frost was trying to summon. When the husband in “Home Burial” says, “And it’s come to this,/A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead,” the wife answers:
“You can’t because you don’t know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.”
The dangling “If you had any feelings”; the interjected questions, “how could you?” and “Who is that man?”; the gestures of hand and voice in “like that, like that”—all make us feel that we are being carried along on a current of something stronger than mere words.6
Peter J. Stanlis, a longtime friend of Frost’s from the 1940s on, begins his book Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher with a description of Frost as “a master conversationalist,” and makes some dutiful remarks about Frost’s “revolutionary theory of language.” But he doesn’t allow these to distract him from his major claim that Frost was a “dualist” and that dualism, “the belief that reality consists of two distinct, absolute, and all-inclusive elements, most commonly identified as matter and mind,” explains everything about him:
My subject is Robert Frost’s philosophy, and my thesis is that dualism provides the whole basis of his total but unsystematic philosophical view of reality. This includes Frost’s epistemology, his psychology, his logical and analogical methods of reasoning, his emotional bias and choices regarding ideas and events in conflict, his conception of what is true or false, good or evil, ugly or beautiful—in short, that Frost’s dualism accounts for his view of God, man, and nature; that it permeates much that he said about science, religion, art and poetry, society and politics, and education; and, finally, that it provides the characteristic qualities in his brilliant and witty conversation.
One can see what this rigid machinery will accomplish with a mercurial temperament like Frost’s. He will be forced to sit on it every which way until he lays his dual egg. It isn’t news that Frost was some kind of dualist, as he himself acknowledged in his talk on Emerson. “I have friends it bothers when I am accused of being Emersonian, that is, a cheerful Monist, for whom evil does not exist, or if it does exist, needn’t last forever,” he said, before adding mischievously, “A melancholy dualism is the only soundness.” This “soundness” probably has more to do with the play of conflicting sentence sounds than with some notion of philosophical judgment.
Stanlis turns Frost into a man of Rotarian norms, with settled views “of God, man, and nature.” But Frost’s best instincts, in both poetry and prose, were always to elude such settled views. He was less a dualist than a duelist, combative and playful and impossible to pin down. For his own epitaph he suggested, in the poem called “The Lesson for Today”: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” What interested him in writing a poem was the process only, “performance” not “conformance.” “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” he wrote. “A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being.”
The same, evidently, was true of prose. When Frost was asked to write an introduction for Edwin Arlington Robinson’s King Jasper, he sat down and wrote a few vivid pages. Not enough, replied the publisher, and nothing yet about Robinson. Frost picked up the thread where he’d left it and doubled the length, producing one of his most brilliant essays. “His life,” he wrote of Robinson, “was a revel in the felicities of language,” more true of Frost than of Robinson.
Frost was an amateur philosopher but a professional teacher; one can see this reveling in language most clearly in his pronouncements about education. In his usual bullying way, Stanlis claims that everyone else has gotten what he calls Frost’s “philosophy of education” wrong:
Probably the greatest error ever made regarding Frost’s views on education was committed by Jeffrey Meyers when he claimed that the poet was an “advocate” of and a “strong believer in progressive education.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.
This is wildly overstated. It is true that Frost had little use for utopian ideas of progress, and didn’t much like what he heard about reforms proposed by John Dewey at Columbia or Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago: “Something in school should save us from the fatal credulity of progress prophets.” It’s also true that during his years of informal teaching at Amherst College, he came to loathe the coddling of students: “There is such a thing as not being old enough to understand.”
And yet, it is equally clear from the bracing aphorisms collected in “Poetry and School” (1951) that Frost was committed to a version of progressive education, and wanted the teachers to get out of the students’ way:
We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in High School. Once we have learned to read the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us.
How should students read poetry? “Our instinct is to settle down like a revolving dog and make ourselves at home among the poems, completely at our ease as to how they should be taken.”
We want our favorite poets to share our deepest convictions; that’s how we tend to “take” them. “My Frost,” Trilling wrote possessively, “is not the Frost I seem to perceive existing in the minds of so many of his admirers.” It is true that Frost can seem darkly existentialist, his poems inhabited by people, as Trilling wrote, “so isolated, so lightning-blasted, so tried down and calcined by life, so reduced, each in his own way, to some last irreducible core of being.” It’s hard to think of a grimmer poem anywhere than “‘Out, Out—'” another poem about the death of a child, this time in an accident with farm machinery, in which no consolation is offered whatever:
…They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
But Frost can also seem breezily at home in the world, swinging birches or finding an Emersonian (or perhaps Swedenborgian) harmony embracing human and natural realms, as in his finely tuned sonnet “Time Out”:
It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).
Dwarf cornel, gold-thread, and maianthemum,
He followingly fingered as he read,
The flowers fading on the seed to come;
But the thing was the slope it gave his head:
The same for reading as it was for thought,
So different from the hard and level stare
Of enemies defied and battles fought.
It was the obstinately gentle air
That may be clamored at by cause and sect
But it will have its moment to reflect.
Peter Stanlis’s Frost divides the world in two, with enemies defied and battles fought. And yet, Frost at his most dualist—“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”—can abruptly revert to the coolest monism, as the two roads, on closer inspection, converge: “Though as for that the passing there/Had worn them really about the same.” Frost loved the Rotarian norm as he loved the tennis net: “For my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” Norms and forms increased the possibility for play—“for mortal stakes,” as Frost wrote in “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”
No final consolations are offered, no final philosophy embraced. “No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place,” Frost wrote in his exquisite manifesto “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939).
It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.
Trilling’s talk was published in Partisan Review (Summer 1959), in which he referred to “the energy with which emptiness is perceived” in “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.” The phrase about “the empty immensity of the universe” comes from a fuller assessment of the poem in Trilling’s Prefaces to the Experience of Literature (Harcourt Brace, 1979), p. 284. Randall Jarrell had also described the implications of this poem as “terrible,” and suggested that its subject was a “recognition of the essential limitations of man.” See “To the Laodiceans” in Poetry and the Age (Knopf, 1953), p. 43. ↩
Among the admiring reviews was my own, “Dark Darker Darkest,” in The New Republic, January 22, 2007. ↩
William Logan, “Frost at Midnight,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 30, Nos. 1/2 (2008). For more examples of mistakes in transcription see James Sitar, “Frost’s Great Misgiving,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 57 (October 2007), pp. 364–372. Sitar checked the text against four of Frost’s original notebooks. “In even the more carefully transcribed passages in Faggen’s version,” Sitar writes, “there are often five or more significant errors per page; in other parts, there can be five errors in a single line of text.” As an example, he cites two instances of the phrase “flying tackle,” transcribed by Faggen as “flying Lachle” and “fling lached,” respectively. ↩
Dan Barry, “A Violation of Both the Law and the Spirit,” The New York Times, January 28, 2008. The prosecutor is quoted in an Associated Press report from June 3, 2008. ↩
Faggen told an interviewer for The New York Times : “Any project of this nature and magnitude is bound to invite criticism and undergo changes and improvements, a great many of which have been incorporated in the forthcoming paperback edition.” See Motoko Rich, “Editing of Frost Notebooks in Dispute,” January 22, 2008. ↩
See Margery Sabin, “The Fate of the Frost Speaker,” Raritan, Fall 1982, pp. 134–135: ↩