Friendship and phrase: the letters of Robert Frost
Lawrance Thompson’s biography convinced many readers that the poet was a monster. This first volume of correspondence suggests otherwise
The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I: 1886-1920
Harvard University Press
This is the first volume of a projected three, which will amount to a Collected Letters of Robert Frost and displace the Selected Letters of 1964.
In June 1957 the poet came to Dublin to receive yet another honorary doctorate, this one from the National University of Ireland. Austin Clarke, a fine poet of smaller fame, was similarly honoured on the same day. Before the ceremony Frost asked Clarke what kind of poetry he wrote. “I load myself with golden chains,” Clarke answered, “and try to escape from them.” “You can’t have many readers,” Frost is reported to have remarked. It is understood that Clarke’s chains were golden because they were derived from Gaelic poetry, Irish or Welsh or both, I assume.
On a personal note: I met Frost once, perfunctorily, during that week. I queued to shake his famous hand. And I attended his unforgettable reading of selected poems, in the old Physics Theatre.
I should declare an interest. When I first read Frost’s poems I found in them, or was sure I did, an outbreak of social Darwinism, an ugly sentiment according to which if you don’t survive the social conflict it’s because you’re not fit to survive: you have only yourself to blame, the frailty of your organism. Many of Frost’s poems, like A Roadside Stand , seemed to me to exhibit a corresponding degree of moral carelessness, which I winced at. I expressed that wince in my book on American poetry, Connoisseurs of Chaos .
My dislike was furthered when I became friends with Lawrance Thompson, Frost’s authorised biographer, during that week in 1957. It soon became clear to me that Thompson detested Frost. That is not unusual in authorised biographers: some of them spend so much of their lives dancing attendance on their subjects that they come to loathe the obligation and the cause of it. But they still have to write the biography.
I didn’t learn until years later that there was also an acute sexual conflict between Frost and Thompson over Frost’s secretary, a woman married to a Harvard professor but evidently not bound to him. After the death of Frost’s wife, Elinor, on March 20th, 1938, the professor’s wife took on the additional duty of being Frost’s faithful, faithless servant.
When Thompson went back to Princeton he wrote me a long letter in which he virtually accused Frost of having been sole cause of the tragedies in Frost’s family, including the suicide of his son, Carol, on October 9th, 1940. Unfortunately, I have lost the letter, as I have lost many that I should have taken care to preserve.
However, the intensity of Thompson’s dislike of Frost became clear in the two biographical volumes, of a planned three, that he lived to write. When they were published – Robert Frost: The Early Years (1966) and Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph (1970) – they convinced many readers that Frost was a monster. Some readers didn’t believe them: they thought the books Thompson’s revenge play.
My own sense of Frost has changed over the years. I now regard him, despite the taint of social Darwinism, as a great poet, partly because I have been persuaded by my one-time friend the late Richard Poirier, author of Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977). I have read the poems again and again, and I feel confirmed in my enhanced sense of them. Some of the poems are among those I treasure.
The letters are thin on the ground from 1886 to August 23rd, 1912, when Frost and Elinor, their son, Carol, and daughters, Lesley, Irma and Marjorie, sailed from Boston to England, intending to stay for a year or more to get his career as a poet started on richer ground than Boston. They rented a cottage in Beaconsfield, close enough to London so that, in next to no time, he managed to have tea with WB Yeats and lunch with Robert Bridges, to be reviewed favourably by Ezra Pound, and to meet nearly every poet in London and its environs. The most crucial poet was the one who became his best friend, the short-lived Edward Thomas, killed in the trenches of Arras on April 9th, 1917: “I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain / Unsaid between us, brother . . .”
Frost had a high opinion of himself; he liked being praised and knew he deserved it. With two books of poetry published – A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914) – he found that the outbreak of war closed down the possibilities for poetry in England. On February 13th, 1915, he sailed with Elinor and the children from Liverpool to New York. To his surprise he discovered himself to be a celebrated poet. Over the years of triumph he won every prize, gave unnumbered readings, said yes or no to the invitations of colleges, bought a house on 45 acres, published a further six books of poetry to near-universal praise, bought more houses, and died with all his laurels draped about him on January 29th, 1963, in his 89th year.
Frost was not a great letter writer. He was no Keats or DH Lawrence. His early letters were mostly concerned with getting his poems published or acquiring some new property.
But he had a remarkable gift of friendship, and he kept most of his friends for life. He fell out with Ezra Pound because he thought Pound helped his career not because he especially admired the poems but because he wanted to display his power in the management of literary careers.
But that falling-out was a bad exception. The first volume of the letters shows Frost writing letter after letter to his favourites, his pupil John Bartlett, the literary kingmaker Louis Untermeyer and the influential poet-editor Amy Lowell. The later pages show him telling his daughter Lesley how to live her life, but at least in those letters he raised his mind above his own needs and respected the needs of others.
Talent for friends
A remarkable gift of phrase accompanied Frost’s gift of friendship. It is hard to send a recent acquaintance one of your books and hope she will warm to it, but Frost found a phrase for the occasion: “You mustn’t try to like it beyond your inclination.” Asking someone to arrange a lecture for him, he paid her the compliment of pretending that she remembered a line from Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel – “Are not two friends a perfect strength?” – enough to let him say “I base my faith on Rossetti that what two friends ask for I must sooner or later get.”
He found it troublesome to be generous, but sometimes he took the trouble: “Yeats told me he was nine hours doing the three verses of the Song of the Wandering Aengus ; I did The Home Stretch in less than half that time. But if mine seems laboured (to someone who confessedly doesn’t like the kind of poem) and Yeats’s doesn’t seem laboured, that’s all there is to it: mine is laboured and Yeats’s isn’t.” He means Home Burial ; there is no Home Stretch. )
The letter he wrote to Edward Thomas’s wife, Helen, after news came of Edward’s death in the mud is tender as tender could be. “I don’t suppose there is anything for us to do to show our admiration but to love him forever.” He was not a monster. He couldn’t be. Not always anyhow. Maybe Thompson’s hatred was nine parts sexual jealousy and rage. We await the second volume, for more evidence.
Denis Donoghue’s new book, Metaphor , is published by Harvard University Press in April.