February 23, 2018
Robert Frost's Dismal SwampOn this day in 1894 twenty-year-old Robert Frost departed for the Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border, with Dark Thoughts. He was poor, jobless, unpublished, expelled from Dartmouth College and, pretty much for all of the above reasons, recently spurned by his high school sweetheart and chosen mate, Elinor White. Frost had just returned from a visiting White at Lawrence College, made unannounced but bearing gifts: the two homemade copies of his first, five-poem book of poetry, Twilight. White barely opened her door far enough to receive her copy; Frost tore his to pieces as he walked away. He packed a small bag for an undisclosed destination; he left Boston by train and New York by steamer; he began an unclear ten-mile walk into a soggy heart of darkness.
Frost liked to tell or mythologize his life, but his only account of what happened next comes from the poem "Kitty Hawk," written in his eighties and published in his last collection of poetry, In The Clearing. As preamble to his take on the flight of the Wright brothers, Frost describes his own flight into the unknown, and his learning of a lesson:
As so often, ended
That I might have sung. . . .
He arrived to discover that things had already brightened, poetically at least. On Nov. 8, just as he was taking his first boggy steps, his first "professional" poem was published in the New York newspaper, The Independent. Frost received $15 for "My Butterfly," one of the five poems Elinor had not cared much to read. And whether moved by the publication of the poem or the trip to the Swamp, Elinor had a change of heart: there was an immediate reconciliation, and then marriage a year later.
Less impressed with the idea of a career in poetry was Frost's grandfather. He had paid for Dartmouth and was now offering as a new deal his financial support for a year, at the end of which time, if Frost had not made a go as a poet, he would have to promise to give it up. Frost's response to the one-year offer had been that of the auctioneer: "Give me twenty, give me twenty, who'll give me twenty...?" Several years later, when his still unconvinced grandfather bought him a farm in New Hampshire, the deal was that Frost must work it for a decade. This he did, and then sold it and sailed for England. There, twenty years almost to the month after "My Butterfly" appeared, his first book of poetry-except for the limited edition, Twilight -- was published, just as the auctioneer asked.
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