The cult of personality, thick around Robert Frost, one of America’s most recognized poets, was marked out by the poet and his acquaintances, friends, and enemies long before his authorized biographer, Lawrance Thompson issued his particular, questionable vision (plus a carefully designed “Selected Letters’’) after Frost’s death in 1963.
This new collection of letters, published by Harvard University Press a semicentury after his death, begins to reverse a curse that shadowed Frost after his ascendancy in American letters; whether presented by him or projected by others, his image became mythic to the point of hollowness.
Writers, in particular, are revealed through traditional correspondence. Thanks to Harvard’s undertaking, Frost’s more complete, chronological letters help correct the poet’s legacy by allowing it weight and breadth; readers again face questions like those posed by Joseph Brodsky in his essay, “On Grief and Reason”: “Would you like to become Robert Frost?” What do we understand of him?
Given the number of missives in volume one, a picture begins to surface — Frost, a great strategist, driven to self-promote. Many letters went to publishers and friends to whom he sends poems, books, reviews. He instructs others on how to approach his reviews, usually with overreaching directives. In a letter to friend and journalist John Bartlett — “do your dambdest and hang the consequences” — one hears distinctly American propulsion. While he shares moments of self-doubt, the focus never flags, and there are occasions of astonishing prescience: “I expect to do something to the present state of literature in America.”
One beauty of this volume is that it shows a poet on the move — to England, where he lived for three years, bringing out his first volume of poetry (the first half of the correspondence shows arguments with himself, his vision), and back again. While Frost was a teacher, his movement is not from one academic stronghold to another. In the letters, one sees his impulse to be beloved in both England and America, a need to root in both worlds: “I can never live here any more without longing for there, nor there without longing for here.’’
Also, while considered a New England recluse in late life, he did “see society.” Some friendships were lasting, others not; many were fueled by competition. Frost formed and expressed opinions, about and to Harold Monro, Harriet Monroe, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Amy Lowell, Willa Cather, Robert Bridges, and the string of Georgian poets who would later be known as the “war poets.’'
With everyone, he runs a range of emotions. There’s amusement: “the papers were out with scare heads like this: ENGLAND IN THE GRIP OF FROST I accept the omen, says I, I accept the omen. Better so than that Frost should be in the grip of England”; anger (towards Ezra Pound and others); concern (over former pupil John Bartlett’s money or family troubles); desire (to get work out where it will be seen — not always self-serving, as comments to Harriet Monroe about Edward Thomas show: “He has a quality.”); anxiety (over his wife, Elinor, who almost died from miscarriage, over threats of war and illness to his family); surges of admiration (for Bartlett, Thomas, and F.S. Flint), grief (over the death of Thomas).
One can paint, as biographer Thompson did, Frost as critical, egotistical, unpleasant in these letters, but no one can accuse him of indifference. Some letters are wickedly funny, even in their unkindness; he is always, always clarifying his positions on poetry.
His shrewd intensity peaks as he writes the ideas that become the greatest contributions: “the sound of sense” and “sentence sounds.” In this, he established “the distinction between the grammatical sentence and the vital sentence.” Rejecting the free-verse movement, Frost constructed a new plane for prosody, fighting against the atrophy of the ear — championing the spoken voice: “there are very regular preestablished accent and measure of blank verse . . . there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation.”
As official biographer, Thompson questioned much about Frost’s family life; Frost’s letters disclose little, but what’s here is significant. He advises his college-age daughter endlessly in correspondence but also speaks to her as an equal, sharing inside jokes (here, about prosody — which apparently she misspelled: “Prosody . . . is something most modern poets take pride in professing to know nothing about.”) In another letter, he censures Amy Lowell’s published comments that suggest his wife’s life is geared toward the glory of her poet husband: “Catch her getting any satisfaction out of what her housekeeping may have done to feed a poet! Rats! She hates housekeeping . . . [and] hasn’t pretended to like housework even for my sake . . . What a cheap common unindividualized picture Amy makes of her.”
The letters Harvard presents are more extensive than those in Thompson’s “Selected,’’ but most of the ones quoted in this review are found in both. The great difference between the two books is in their handling. The editors here state: “Frost’s ‘calculations’ are almost always aboveboard, and most often very winning” while Thompson’s is set on “unmasking” (his word) and tearing the man down.
In Harvard’s collection, as in Thompson’s, deep wounds and resentment show up, but one has the freedom to consider Frost’s claim, “I liked people even when I believed I detested them,” at face value, and to sense joy and not cunning when he speaks about his books (here, “A Boy’s Will’’: “It is a series of lyrics standing in some such loose relation to each other as a ring of children who have just stopped dancing and let go hands.”)
That is not to say there aren’t letters that leave room for excoriation or that Frost’s words aren’t at times reprehensible. But the Harvard letters seem softer for scope and impartiality, their willingness to let Frost turn whatever Janus face he happens to turn as he writes.
In his own treatise, fellow poet Derek Walcott looked past Frost’s failings: “Pound’s poetry does not absolve Pound, any more than a single phrase from a letter by Frost damns Frost forever . . . poetry pronounces benediction not on the poet but on the reader”; one feels through Harvard’s efforts with Frost’s letters, that’s once again what’s true.
Valerie Duff is poetry editor at Salamander Magazine and author of “To the New World.”