Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Frost was 38 when he left New England for a long visit to England. He had worked as a farmer and teacher in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but had always wanted to be a poet. Only a few of his poems had been published in American newspapers and magazines; and in England he was completely unknown as a poet. When he arrived in London in 1912 he had with him a trunk full of unpublished poems in various stages of completion. His first book, A Boy's Will, was published in London in 1913 by David Nutt, one of the oldest and most respected publishing firms in London at that time. Reviews were encouraging but not overly enthusiastic. Still, Frost's publisher felt confident enough to bring out another volume of his the following year. This time there was widespread acclaim for North of Boston, and Frost soon had a reputation as an important new poet on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time of his death in 1963 his reputation extended around the world; he was a cultural ambassador for America, a poet laureate to the world.

Frost, his wife, and four young children stayed at a London hotel for a week, while he went looking for long-term accommodation. He found a bungalow in Beaconsfield, near the new railway to London, and surrounded by Chiltern beechwoods. Two of his visits to London were especially important - when he brought his manuscript to a publisher, and when he attended the opening party for the Poetry Bookshop. At the Poetry Bookshop he met many of the Georgian poets, including Gibson and Abercrombie. They admired his first book of poems, and when Gibson was planning to move to Gloucestershire at the end of 1913, they suggested that he should leave Beaconsfield to join them in real countryside. He did this early in 1914, living first at Little Iddens, and then at The Gallows.

Unravelling when and where Frost's early poems were written is not always easy. This is especially true because he seemed to enjoy, later in life, playfully confusing his many biographers and interviewers. John W. Haines, a Gloucester lawyer who was a close friend during Frost's Dymock days and corresponded with him later, claims that most of Mountain Interval (Frost's third volume, published on his return to America) was written in Gloucestershire, at Little Iddens and The Gallows. But the Mertins, who interviewed him for a bibliography they produced in 1947, wrote that ". . . the product of Frost's poetry during the Dymock interval just about matched the produce of the Little Iddens farm. It wasn't much. 'Here I wrote some poems,' he has put it; but not all of them are traceable". However, recalling his time in Dymock (in the introduction he wrote to The Masque of Reason in 1948), Frost says that in addition to discussing poetry, and botanising with Haines and Thomas, he spent time in the Little Iddens apple orchard where he liked to sit and write.

It is likely that 'The Cow in Apple Time' was inspired by a pastoral scene in the Dymock countryside in 1914. I say this despite the fact that Frost told a biographer in the 1950s that he wrote it "after the bronze animals on the Albert Memorial." I cannot find any such animals on the Albert Memorial, and have been told by experts that there have never been animals - bronze or otherwise - on it at any time. So perhaps Frost's memory was faulty. He did spend a week in London early in 1914, before moving to Gloucestershire, taking the family around some of the places that tourists visited, so it is likely that he visited the Albert Memorial at that time. And he must have worked on the poem while living at Little Iddens in 1914 as it was published in Harold Monro's December 1914 issue of Poetry and Drama. Three other Frost poems were published in this same issue - 'The Smile', 'Putting in the Seed', and 'The Sound of Trees' - and Frost wrote to Monro to thank him for "placing me so well in such a good number of P & D".

'Putting in the Seed' was written at Little Iddens. But the subject matter both here and in 'To Earthward' is universal - love between man and woman, and love of the earth. Eleanor Farjeon has left us a vivid picture of the Frost and Thomas families digging the potato patch beside Little Iddens. If Frost's memory was accurate, then 'To Earthward' was also written at Little Iddens. "Frost had very rarely written poetry in the diffusion of outdoors," says Sergeant. "But it was at Little Iddens, he assures me, 'under a plum tree' that he wrote 'To Earthward'." Writing to Bernard de Voto 24 years later Frost said: "One of the greatest changes my nature has undergone is of record in To Earthward and indeed elsewhere for the discerning. In my school days I simply could not go on and do the best I could with a copy book I had once blotted. I began life wanting perfection and determined to have it. I got so I ceased to expect it and could do without it. Now I find I actually crave the flaws in human handwork."

'The Sound of Trees' was probably written when Frost and his family moved to Abercrombie's cottage, The Gallows, in September 1914 to save money in wartime conditions. It is one of two poems that have, as a backdrop, Abercrombie's thatched cottage near the woods at Ryton. He told Sergeant that the poem was "written for Abercrombie" and is the "only one I wrote in England that had an English subject." But the sound and sight of wind in the trees must have been familiar to him from all his years in New England. According to Haines, Frost said there were two influences: the elms near Abercrombie's cottage and a wood he remembered in New Hampshire. The trees seemed to be speaking to him about difficult decisions that had to be made as a result of the war. In 1916 Gibson wrote to Frost, who was now back in America: "Your trees at the Gallows, the whole group of elms, and our elm over the shed in the field, were all blown down in the same storm in the spring." The poem was published in Mountain Interval, at the very end and in italics. (The first and last poems in A Boy's Will were also printed in italics.)

'The Thatch' also has The Gallows as a backdrop. It was Frost's wife Elinor, presumably waiting with the light on inside, who had been so keen to go to England and live "under thatch". They were now doing that, but domestic quarrels and Frost's moodiness did not suddenly disappear. Frost (like Edward Thomas) was prone to deep if temporary depressions, after which he felt guilty at the anguish he caused his wife when these moods descended upon him. The poem was originally published in Frost's West-Running Brook (1928) with a note dating it to 1914.

If that is so, Frost left 'The Thatch' out of the reckoning when writing to the American, Amy Lowell, to correct some biographical errors about him in her 1917 book, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. He was concerned at her implication that Gibson and Abercrombie had influenced his poetry, and he asked her to note "that I didn't meet Gibson till I was putting the last touches on North of Boston and I didn't meet Abercrombie till after the MS was in David Nutt's hands. It was the book that got me invited down to live with those fellows in the country. I had begun writing it in 1905. I wrote the bulk of it in 1913. . . . You see if any of my work was in danger of Gibsonian or Abercrombian influence it was what I wrote of Mountain Interval in 1914: Birches and The Hill Wife and Putting in the Seed and The Sound of Trees. None of this greatly matters, but since you seem bent on accuracy, you might make a marginal note of it."

Throughout their time in England the Frost children published a little magazine called The Bouquet. Their parents and friends were asked to help with contributions and drawings, and the Thomas family was soon involved with the project. Frost's first contribution, 'Pea-sticks', appeared in the July 1914 issue of The Bouquet and was later published in Mountain Interval as 'Pea Brush'. Frost wrote in a pocket notebook that he kept while in England: "Hollis said I could have all the brushwood I wanted to brush my peas." Another Frost poem, 'Locked Out', appeared in the September issue of the children's magazine. When Frost included it in the 1930 edition of Mountain Interval, he added the words 'As told to a child' beneath the poem's title.

'The Road Not Taken' is one of Frost's most famous poems. Yet only a tiny minority of those who read and re-read it know that it is a poem about Edward Thomas. The close friendship between Frost and Thomas is one of the most compelling aspects of the Dymock story. The poem was drafted at The Gallows towards the end of 1914, though it was altered before its publication in America where it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, in August 1915. It then appeared as the first poem in Frost's third book, Mountain Interval, published in America in 1916.

Frost maintained that the poem "was never intended as a serious effort" but was rather "a mild satire on the chronic vacillating habits of Edward Thomas". Because of the confusion this poem has caused, and because it illustrates the importance of irony in understanding much of Frost's work, his official biographer Lawrance Thompson wrote at length about 'The Road Not Taken' in his introduction to Frost's Selected Letters.

"The inspiration for it came from Frost's amusement over a familiar mannerism of his closest friend in England, Edward Thomas. While living in Gloucestershire in 1914, Frost frequently took long walks with Thomas through the countryside. Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a 'better' direction."

Looking back and regretting previous choices was not Frost's way to approach life, and he teased Thomas about having such regrets. Back in America Frost put the final touches on the poem and sent it to Thomas without comment, "yet with the expectation that his friend would notice how the poem pivots ironically on the un-Frostian phrase, 'I shall be telling this with a sigh'. As it turned out, Frost's expectations were disappointed. Thomas missed the gentle jest because the irony had been handled too slyly, too subtly."

Thomas's letter to Frost, after receiving the poem in April 1915, made it clear that he failed to see either Frost's irony or himself as the subject of the poem. Frost wrote again, and in June Thomas apologised for his mistake but seemed also to insist that the poem, which he discussed with his wife Helen, worked at another level: "I read 'The Road Not Taken' to Helen just now & she liked it entirely, & agreed with me how naturally symbolical it was."

When Frost read the poem to an academic audience in Boston in May 1915, something similar happened, as Frost reported to Thomas in a letter: "I suppose my little jest in the poem is too much between me and myself. I read it aloud. . . at Tufts College and while I did my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling, I doubt if it wasn't taken pretty seriously. Mea culpa."

But Elizabeth Sergeant says that ". . . the poem's last lines and indeed all its substance have, as I see it, a subterranean connection with his experience on that Plymouth wood road, and with the inner compulsion that in 1912 at the age of 38 sent him forth to try a new fortune on strange shores." The 'Plymouth wood road' refers to a letter Frost wrote in February 1912, just before making the difficult decision to move to England. In the letter he describes "two lonely cross-roads" that he had walked several times; "neither is much travelled" so Frost was surprised to see a man looking "all the world like myself" approaching him "to the point where our paths must intersect". Readers of Edward Thomas's poetry will recognize the similarity between this experience of Frost's and what Thomas describes in 'The Other'. It seems inconceivable that the two never discussed this notion of seeing someone like yourself approaching you.

Other poems evoke the close friendship that developed between Frost and Thomas. 'Iris by Night' describes a rainbow or moonbow that seemed to encircle them both at the end of a long day's walk in August 1914. The implication is that just as these two were chosen to experience such an unusual sight, they were also divinely chosen to be the closest of friends. Describing the walk in his pocket notebook, Thomas also wrote of the strange light, heat and moisture. From Leddington they walked to Bromsberrow Heath, then via Hollybush to Castlemorton Common, then to the reservoir and British Camp on the Malverns before descending through Eastnor Park on the Ridgeway, and then back to Leddington. The poem was probably written shortly after Thomas was killed in France in 1917, but was not published until 1936.

There are two other poems Frost wrote about Thomas and the war. One is 'A Soldier', with its powerful image of Thomas as a fallen lance whose spirit nevertheless moves onward. At the end of 1916 Frost was increasingly distressed about the war: "What becomes of my hopes of three months ago when the drive on the Somme began. Something has gone wrong," he wrote to Thomas on December 7, 1916. On the back of the letter Frost wrote out a poem then titled 'France, France' but later titled 'On Talk of Peace at This Time'. "Silly fools are full of peace talk over here.... I wrote some lines I've copied on the other side of this about the way I am struck. When I get to writing in this vein you may know I am sick or sad or something." Thomas replied, on December 31, 1916, that "I like the poem very much, because it betrays exactly what you would say and what you feel about saying that much. It expresses just those hesitations you or I would have at asking others to act as we think it is their cue to act."

Frost was devastated when he received news of Thomas's death. In his letter to Helen Thomas he wrote: "He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known. I knew from the moment when I first met him at his unhappiest that he would some day clear his mind and save his life. I have had four wonderful years with him. . . . I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet. . . . I had meant to talk endlessly with him still, either here in our mountains as we had said or, as I found my longing was more and more, there at Leddington where we first talked of war."

A poem emerged from Frost's grief, titled 'To Edward Thomas', but later appearing as 'To E.T.' It was first published in The Yale Review in April 1920. He hesitated about publishing it, and wrote to a colleague in July 1919 to explain why: "Edward Thomas was the closest friend I ever had and I was the closest friend he ever had; and this was something I didn't wait to realize after he had died. It makes his death almost too much to talk about in The Yale Review. . . even at two years distance."

 

This text is from Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology by Linda Hart
ISBN 0 9526031 52 - Reprinted in 2011
(£6.95 from the Green Branch Press, Kencot, Gloucestershire, England GL7 3QX).

The book also includes most of the poems mentioned in the text above, a chapter introducing the Dymock Poets, two maps showing the Dymock area, and detailed references to all sources.

 

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