The Magazine

Frost Unplugged

The greatness revealed in the poet’s correspondence.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By MICAH MATTIX
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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.”

Catch her getting any satisfaction out of what her housekeeping may have done to feed a poet! Rats! She hates housekeeping. She has worked because the work has piled on top of her. But she hasn’t pretended to like housework even for my sake. If she has liked anything it has been what I may call living it on the high. She’s especially wary of honors that derogate from the poetic life she fancies us living. What a cheap common unindividualized picture Amy makes of her. 

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.