January 16, 2018

Robert Frost, Farmer-Poet

After three years in England, Robert Frost returned to America in 1915 with two hopes. One was that he might build at home upon the reputation he had earned abroad for his first two books of poetry. The British had been first to publish Frost, and first to praise him, but he was already forty-one years old and confessed to ambition of "astonishing magnitude." There was some urgency that poems so rooted in America should now flourish there.

The other hope was to find "a farm in New England where I could live cheap and get Yankier and Yankier." Within four months Frost had forty-five acres and a livable farmhouse -- no furnace, no bathroom -- in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The summers were short and the soil was thin, but Frost had neither the inclination nor the husbandry to work this or any of the handful of farms that he would own. "I don't want to raise sheep; I don't want to keep cows; I don't want to be a farmer," he would say. Visitors would note his "knotty carrots, tortured corn and barely-surviving potatoes." The chores went undone, replaced by hiking or berry-picking. Because Frost liked to sleep in, the cows learned not to expect their first milking before noon -- a change, Frost noted, his cows could accommodate better than his neighbors. He very nearly burnt down two farms with accidental fires.

But from the axe handles and birch groves and hired hands and west-running brooks of farm life Frost would shape some of the most famous poems in American literature. From the hayseed-sage image, he would elevate himself into a national symbol. "There's room for only one person ... at the top of the steeple," he confided, "and I always meant that person to be me." As critic Stanley Kunitz put it, Frost's "most successful work of the imagination was the legend he created about himself."

Etching from the first edition of Robert Frost's New Hampshire, 1923
The eight years between arriving in New Hampshire and publishing New Hampshire -- on November, 15th, 1923 -- played a central part in that legend. The collection included "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the poem that Frost would eventually see as his "best bid for remembrance." It won him the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, and hearty, flag-waving reviews: "This volume marks so great an advance over his previous work that it shroud be hailed with any amount of hand-shaking and cheers.... It is a book of which America should well be proud." During this period he began the "barding about" that would make him the most popular draw on the reading circuit since Mark Twain. In his very last years he read at Kennedy's inauguration, and in Khrushchev's Russia -- although the Berlin-sensitive translator would drop the opening line ("Something there is that doesn't love a wall") from Frost's reading of "Mending Wall."

The subtitle of New Hampshire is A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. This is a jab at T. S. Eliot, the type of urban poet-pedant that Frost most wanted not to be. Eliot's The Waste Land had come out the previous year, laden with explanatory notes; Frost's "notes" for his long title-poem merely listed the titles of the other "explanatory poems" in the collection. Believing it was part of his rustic charm, Frost would snipe at any potential steeple-sitter -- Carl Sandburg was a favorite target, probably because the public got his folksy habits mixed up with Frost's own -- but he seemed to especially enjoy heckling the modernists. He thought Sandburg contrived and simple -- "Everything about him is studied -- except his poetry" -- but Eliot was contrived and complex, a Missouri boy gone to England, and gone bad. He was a highbrow who not only looked down upon Frost as Frost liked to look down upon Sandburg, but did so in uppity Brit-speak: "Mr. Frost," wrote Eliot in Dial magazine, "specializes in New England torpor; his verse, it is regretfully said, is uninteresting, and what is uninteresting is unreadable, and what is unreadable is not read. There, that is done." Frost disputed Eliot's worldview as well as his manners: "Nothing has been laid waste that was not always waste. Nothing has gone loose that was ever really firm."

It is infirmity that shadowed Frost's personal life, just as it is modern despair that the critics now find in much of his work. Frost's father died young, but he had a dark and disturbing impact on the whole family. He drew a gun on the doctor who delivered Robert, threatening to shoot if anything went wrong. He kept a jar containing pickled human testicles on his desk. His drunken rages drove his wife into religious mysticism and drove Robert to not only pray with her but to sleep in her room, with the lights on, until he was fifteen. Decades later, Frost would forcibly and permanently commit his only sister to a state mental institution. In 1970, Lesley, the only one of Frost's six children to begin to approach a full, sane life -- one died at childbirth, one at four years, one at twenty-nine, one committed suicide at thirty-eight, one spent her last thirty-five years in a mental institution -- told the New York Times Book Review that "Robert Frost's chief trouble was his closeness to the razor's edge of insanity." In her memoir, New Hampshire's Child, she would idealize the farm years; at other times, she would compare their seclusion and emotional turbulence to the Brontes, declaring that Frost "had always ruled and dominated . . . with fear, fear, fear." One winter's night when she was six Frost dragged her from her bed, led her into the kitchen to where her mother was sobbing at the table, pointed a pistol at himself and then at his wife, and screamed, "Take your choice! Before morning, one of us will be dead!"

When Frost's wife, Elinor, died in 1938 -- her health was never good, and a lifetime of pregnancy, cancer, heart attacks, and heartbreak took their toll -- Frost talked as if he had killed her with his "outrageously self-indulgent life." Unlike her husband, Elinor was a genuine New England reclusive; she did not like his barding about, his ambition, his self-promotion. What Frost once said, she said constantly, with a silent reproach that tested their relationship and haunted him for the last quarter-century of his celebrated life:
    All this sickness and scatteration of the family is our fault and not our misfortune or I wouldn't admit it. It's a result and a judgement on us. We ought to have gone back farming years ago, or we ought to have stayed farming when we knew we were well off.

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