In the early fall of 1912, a blandly handsome, tousle-headed American schoolteacher arrived in London. Nearing 40, coming without introduction or much of a plan — except, as he later confessed, “to write and be poor” — he was making a last attempt to write himself into poetry. It would have taken mad willfulness to drag his wife and four children out of their settled New Hampshire life in a quixotic assault on the London literary scene. Still, he was soon spending a candlelit evening with Yeats in the poet’s curtained rooms, having come to the attention of that “stormy petrel” Ezra Pound, who lauded him in reviews back home. Little more than two years later, the schoolteacher sailed back, having published his first two books, “A Boy’s Will” (1913) and “North of Boston” (1914). He had become Robert Frost.
The modernists remade American poetry in less than a decade, but like the Romantics they were less a group than a scatter of ill-favored and sometimes ill-tempered individuals. Frost was in most ways the odd man out: He despised free verse, had only a patchy education and wrote about country life. He knew the dark and sometimes terrible loneliness that descended upon stonewalled farms and meager villages. Looking back on his work, this throwback to Chaucer and Virgil plaintively asked one of his correspondents, “Doesnt [sic] the wonder grow that I have never written anything or as you say never published anything except about New England farms?” (“North of Boston” was originally titled “Farm Servants and Other People.”)
Though Frost came from Yankee farming stock, his father was a hard-drinking San Francisco newspaper editor who died young of tuberculosis. The boy was 11 before he saw the East Coast, where he spent his adolescence working, while not at school, as a shoe nailer, hotel handyman and mill assistant-gatekeeper. Even when he eventually lived on a farm, he never knew “shovel-slavery.” Indeed, until middle age he spent only six years or so on a farm, mostly raising chickens.
He had heard, however, the “real language of men,” as Wordsworth called it — in Frost’s words, sounds “caught fresh from the mouths of people.” Frost brought the ebb and flux of plain American back into poetry. He disliked fancy metaphor or decoration (his poems are literature’s answer to Shaker furniture); but more than any poet since Whitman he devoted himself to the real gimcrackery and moody flamboyance of the American tongue. “My conscious interest in people,” he once admitted, “was at first no more than an almost technical interest in their speech.”
This opening volume of a complete edition of Frost’s letters meanders from a schoolboy’s love notes (“I have got read a composition after recess and I hate to offaly”) to the dashed valedictions of the poet at 45, fleeing a cushy job at Amherst. Generously annotated, it replaces the selected letters edited by Lawrance Thompson half a century ago. As he grew older, Frost acquired those two enemies of the letter writer, a telephone and a secretary, so the edition will require only three or four volumes more — Eliot, that man of letters who lived in letters, will need at least 20.
Frost was a stolid correspondent, apart from the whims of fancy with which he indulged close friends. He doesn’t have the nervy wit or deeply nuanced intelligence of Eliot, the panache and bulldozer manner of Pound or even the finicky authority of Marianne Moore. Frost’s pronouncements on the “sound of sense” and “vocal reality” may have proved crucial in explaining himself to himself, but they add little to the poetics of the last century. Machiavellian calculation, or deeper-seated insecurity, may explain why he found solace, or something like solace, in the fawning letters to literary politicians like Amy Lowell and Louis Untermeyer. Untermeyer was one of the few correspondents to receive something like the poet’s devotion. Frost praised many another minor poet to his face, only to slip a knife between his ribs when his back was turned.
The most attractive letters record Frost’s adventures as he made his way into the rough trade of poetry — a man proud, prickly, grateful for favors soon resented. He fell out with Pound, “that great intellect abloom in hair,” but elsewhere in England found sympathetic spirits among the duller if not the dullest versifiers around. Frost had a gift for the attentions of amiable second-raters, and his letters were largely taken up with minor littérateurs like Lascelles Abercrombie, F. S. Flint and Wilfrid Gibson (he thought Gibson a better poet than Pound), as well as, when he returned to America, a group of long-forgotten and inoffensive academics. He was fortunate to find abroad the man who became his closest friend, Edward Thomas, a poet of greater subtlety and depth than all the other English poets Frost came to know. Their correspondence was cut short when Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917.
In his letters, Frost habitually indulged in literary snits and little bouts of bragging. Not long after his grimly conventional first book, he wrote, apparently without a smile, “I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time.” Yet he could rouse himself to charm, and when he was struck by something — the sort of farmer, for instance, who might leave his horse mired in mud for a week — the reader is struck too. Frost had a poet’s eye for country things and paid equal attention to a fossil taken from a chalk cliff or the way a hoe was made.
For Frost’s life, the reader must still turn to Thompson’s three-volume biography, completed posthumously in 1976 by his research assistant. Thompson has long been a bête noire among Frost scholars. Though he was the authorized biographer and spent decades winkling information out of the poet, his portrait of an American grotesque riven by vanity is a caricature of a man far more complicated. Though the preface to this new edition bristles every time Thompson’s biography is mentioned, he cannot be entirely ignored. Frost was an imperfect father and husband, who had in his blood the “cuteness” and longheadedness of a Yankee trader. “I am but a timid calculating soul always intent on the main chance,” he wrote. There’s no reason to think he wasn’t in earnest.
Frost didn’t much like England, where he found no American news, no cellars, no sun — and, in the lunchrooms, never a glass of water. The most appealing Frost is the self-mocking man who wanted to go back to New England “and get Yankier and Yankier,” or the poet who says fiercely that a “poem is never a put up job.” The meaner-minded Frost makes snippy comments about the “festering free versters” and refers cruelly to “some single-bed she professor.” Worse, he could remark, “I will tell you what I think of niggers,” call a black literary critic a “duodecaroon” and believe America should have done a better job of denying blacks any rights. The poet was no more wretched than many — such slurs are broadcast through the letters of other modernists — but I wish he were better than his time.
In almost every way, this new edition is a triumph of scholarly care. It suffers few of the problems that afflicted the disastrous edition of Frost’s “Notebooks” (2008), whose editor, Robert Faggen, is one of the editors here. (My own entanglement with the notebooks required two very critical reviews.) Comparing the manuscripts of two dozen letters with the transcripts in this edition, I did find numerous trivial errors, half a dozen more substantive and the missing page of a letter declared incomplete — but the standard is high, if short of the “carefully verified transcripts” promised by the editors.
The notes are as thorough as most readers could wish, though frequently repetitive as minor figures are reintroduced for those who don’t like to use an index. It’s surprising the editors don’t know, for example, the 19th-century American phrase “and found,” as in Frost’s remark about a man who “earns from 5 to 6 dollars a week and found,” meaning he received room and board in addition. Such small derelictions little distract from the immense labor toward clarity the editors have performed. If Hercules had merely 12 labors, he was lucky — editors have thousands.
The editors hope that this new edition, which has provided hundreds of letters previously unpublished, will reveal a Frost radically different from the man in Thompson’s biography — a kinder, gentler Frost, perhaps. That revised portrait may have to wait. Only a handful of letters exist from the years before the poet left for England; and in the later years of this volume there are few to family, few that reveal much about the inner Frost. Though his oldest son had died of cholera as a boy, most of Frost’s sorrows lay ahead — the death of his wife in her 60s, the suicide of his other son, the death of a daughter after childbirth.
Randall Jarrell long ago recognized the terrifying landscape in which Frost set his poems and the uncompromising bleakness of his imagination, at least before age and self-satisfaction settled in. Even his drollery had a cold edge: Of New Hampshire, he once wrote, “I mean to get back there in time to freeze to death this winter.” Haggling with editors over the price of his verse; worried to distraction by his London publisher’s punitive contract; enraged by his daughter’s Latin teacher at Wellesley, he was a man others feared to arouse. Yet he risked his job at Amherst by attacking a popular fellow professor bent on seducing male students. For all his private flaws, his tragedies large and small, American literature — and the language itself — owes a profound debt to that dark, demonic, beguiling figure, Robert Frost.
THE LETTERS OF ROBERT FROST
Volume 1, 1886-1920
Edited by Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen
Illustrated. 811 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $45.