The greatness revealed in the poet’s correspondence.
May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By MICAH MATTIX
In a recent story published in Harper’s, Joyce Carol Oates imagines what it would have been like for an elderly Robert Frost—fat and drooling—to be interviewed by a young, female college student on his front porch in 1951. The student adores Frost at first, but as she speaks with him, she discovers that he is a misogynistic pervert who prefers fawning adoration to intelligent dialogue.
Robert Frost and his son Carol (1916)
clifton Waller Barrett Library, Univ. of virginia
Midway through the story, after rejecting Frost’s unwanted advances, she turns on the poet and berates him for nearly two pages for his unenlightened attitude towards women and his bigotry towards nonwhites. In one passage, she tells Frost that “The Gift Outright” seems “to endorse manifest destiny” and “totally excludes native Americans”—“the numerous tribes of Indians,” she explains, in case the poet had not heard of a term that would not be widely used until 20 years after his death, “who lived in North America long before the European settlers arrived.” Of course, Frost is unable to withstand such blistering intelligence. He stammers as he flees the porch and falls into the mud. Fin.
It’s a piece of fiction, of course, and not a very good one; but Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the portrait is at least partly true when she notes that it is “based on (limited, selected) historical research” and cites Jeffrey Meyers’s 1996 biography of the poet as a source. Of course, Meyers’s biography draws heavily from Lawrance Thompson’s biased portrait of Frost as a self-absorbed, vindictive ogre; but while Thompson’s treatment of Frost has been debunked by William H. Pritchard, Jay Parini, and others, the image of Frost as a “monster of egotism” (as Helen Vendler put it) remains in certain circles—and surfaces from time to time, such as in Oates’s story.
The first of what will be four volumes of Frost’s letters puts another nail in Lawrance Thompson’s coffin. Frost, like most artists and other men of talent, had a high view of his work. In an early letter, he tells his friend and former student John Bartlett that he is “one of the few artists writing.” He touts the success of his first two books of poems to American publishers and friends. (Frost published both A Boy’s Will and North of Boston in England with David Nutt and Company, in 1913 and 1914, respectively.) North of Boston is “epoch making,” he writes in one letter, and he boasts in another that reviews of the book “have all been ridiculously favorable.”
But this early tub-thumping disappears as Frost begins to gain a wider audience. “I’m rather pleased to have attained to a position,” he confesses to Edwin Arlington Robinson in 1915, “where I don’t have to admire my work as much as I had to when no one else admired it.” Overall, the letters show Frost to be a mature artist, a good friend, and a caring husband and father.
While the volume contains a few boyhood letters, the majority of the correspondence here is from 1912 to 1920. Frost married Elinor White in 1895, and for nearly 20 years, he wrote poetry in the evenings while variously farming, studying at Harvard, and working as a journalist and teacher. In 1912, the Frosts moved to England with their four children; there, he devoted himself to writing full-time. Until then, Frost had only published a handful of poems in small New York and Boston magazines. But his two years in England would mark the beginning of a long, successful poetic career.
He didn’t care for England at first. It was muddy, poor, and marked by an odd preoccupation with fairies. (“Mrs. Frost and I were at a play,” he writes in 1913, “in which we were asked point blank to profess our faith not only in fairies, but in devils and black art as well.”) But the country grew on him. He met William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, Wilfrid Gibson, and, of course, Edward Thomas, whom Frost called his “only brother” and who died in the First World War. When Frost left to return to the United States, he wrote, “England has become half my native land.”
Readers familiar with Frost’s prose will recognize some of his later, more formal, remarks on his poetry in these early letters. It is in a 1913 letter to Bartlett that Frost first writes that he hopes “to make music” out of “the sound of sense”—the tone, syntax, and “speech-rhythm” of a language. In 1914, he tells Sidney Cox that poetry is an oral art: “The living part of a poem,” he writes, “is the intonation. . . . Words exist in the mouth, not in books.”
He also offers some frank confessions. Commenting on his poem “The Black Cottage,” he writes, “I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s’ side in anything I write.” He explains that the line The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows from “Mowing” is “charged with pragmatism.” He is surprised that his “versification seems to bother people more than I should have expected,” and he tells Louis Untermeyer in 1916 that “the poet in me died nearly ten years ago.”
It is in these letters, too, that we have Frost’s famous remark that “nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.” Frost mentions this twice. The first time, he immediately adds, “I don’t put it that everything commercial is honest.” A few days later, Frost explains that commercial success is a sign that his poetry is “honest,” because men are willing to work and pay for it. “Nothing is true,” he writes, “except as a man or men adhere to it—to live for it, spend themselves on it.”
Frost didn’t write for his audience. He was no country bumpkin, as he sometimes affected. He worried about being “ruined” by his audience. “I am made too self-conscious by the comment on my first book to think of showing another like it for some time,” he confessed. But he did want to be widely read by “all sorts and kinds” of people, because that would mean that what he had written was art, not just confection.
The larger context of these remarks, interestingly enough, is Frost’s feud with Ezra Pound. Frost first met Pound in 1913, and though the two poets were friends at first, the relationship quickly soured. Pound lauded A Boy’s Will, but Frost became concerned that Pound would ruin his opportunities with an American audience by making him out to be another expatriate artist rejected by his own country. “Nothing could be more unfair,” Frost writes, “nothing better calculated to make me an exile for life.”
Frost wanted to reach a wide, particularly American, audience with his poetry. “I could never make a merit of being caviar to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does,” he writes. “I want to reach out.” Frost saw Pound’s poetry as superficially elitist and occasionally needled Pound for his pretension. “Someone says,” Frost writes with evident delight, “he looks altogether too much like a poet to be a poet.” While Pound would go on to call Frost “a bloated capitalist,” Frost was somewhat more long-suffering, ignoring the comment and Pound from that moment on.
Of course, Frost was no saint; but these letters nevertheless show him to be a faithful friend, a good husband, and a caring father. He certainly was not a misogynist. He was deeply concerned for Elinor after she had a miscarriage in 1915, and he complained to Louis Untermeyer about Amy Lowell’s description of his wife in an essay about him. Frost is angered that Lowell makes Elinor out to be “the conventional helpmeet of genius.”
He dotes on his first daughter, Lesley, and writes her long, encouraging, fatherly letters while she is away at college. There are more letters to come in future volumes, but the editors suggest that they contain little that will change the image of Frost as husband and family man that appears here.
While bulky and collected, in part, for the Frost scholar, the introduction, chronology, index of correspondents, and helpful contextual notes make these letters both accessible and enjoyable for anyone interested in Frost. How could it be otherwise for a poet who always wrote for the many and the few?
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.