book cover imageThe Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I: 1886–1920
Edited by Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen.
Harvard University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 811 pages, $45.

In a conversation with the late literary scholar Peter J. Stanlis about ten years ago, Stanlis agreed that his friend Robert Frost (1874–1963) could be described as the last and greatest of America’s nineteenth-century poets, properly understood. Which is to say, the last major poet to be as popular with critics as with the middle-brow reading public, and the last to blend subject matter, meter, and rhyme in a manner that is as traditional and thoughtful as it is unique and delightful.

“Frost’s affinity with the old America, and with views of humanity and art older still, strikes chords of sympathy in those millions of Americans who still believe that life is worth living and America worth defending,” wrote the founder of the University Bookman in 1963, adding, “From tradition he draws his strength.” Standing on the shoulders of giants, Frost’s canon of poetry is a sterling reflection of T. S. Eliot’s admonition that “the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and . . . continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.”

Frost’s best-known poems—such as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” “Fire and Ice,” “The Secret Sits,” and “The Gift Outright” (this last a remarkable history of the United States in 16 lines)—harken to a time when New England was the literary center of the United States, when life was more difficult and slower and people traveled by horse or shank’s mare, when the nation was largely a land of farms and villages, and when the parsimony, taciturn Yankee countryman was a recognizable figure in life as in literature. This was the era that spanned roughly the end of the Civil War through the crash of Europe’s empires in 1914 and the beginning of our long time of troubles.

In The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I: 1886–1920, the editors have performed a commendable service, reprinting all the poet’s extant letters written from his early teens until his early years of international fame. These are letters to the great and the small, from obscure editors and little-known friends to the greats and near-greats of twentieth-century letters, including Amy Lowell, Louis Untermeyer, Willa Cather, Edward Thomas, H. L. Mencken, Harriet Monroe, and Stark Young, among many others.

Frost worked through a long apprenticeship before he joined their ranks. Like his contemporary Sherwood Anderson, he did not attain fame until reaching middle age. His first volume, A Boy’s Will, appeared in the spring of 1913, when the poet was thirty-nine and living in England. During the roughly twenty years before A Boy’s Will appeared, Frost had worked as a newspaperman, married, farmed, taught school, published short stories and articles in a poultry journal, and painstakingly studied and worked at the poet’s craft, with agonizingly slow but steady success. His first published poem appeared in 1894 in the New York Independent, which published much of his earliest work.

Frost’s letters from these early years, most of them to the Independent’s literary editor, Susan Hayes Ward, are short and polite to the point of being painfully awkward. These early letters, written after Frost’s first few ventures into print, have the feel of the first cover letter written by a collegegraduate to a prospective employer.

But upon shifting with his wife and children to England in 1912 to devote himself full time to writing, Frost came into his own in terms of poetic skill and in confidence. It was there that he met and was befriended by numerous giants of British poetry, notably W. B. Yeats, Edward Thomas, the remarkably talented and unappreciated F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound. When Frost’s first two books were published in England, the fiery Pound was his foremost champion, booming A Boy’s Will and its breakout successor, North of Boston, in book reviews and bringing Frost to the attention of everybody who was anybody in the world of Anglo-American poetry. (It cannot be helped by the editors of this collection that it includes no letters from Frost to Pound, with the mercurial Pound perhaps having mislaid or disposed of all Frost’s letters to him.)

A Boy’s Will received favorable reviews from several distinguished critics, leading Frost to tell one correspondent, “I am made too self-conscious by the comment on my first book to think of showing another like it for some time.” He allowed that he already had a backlog of new poems written in blank verse and written in “a sort of eclogue form.” He ventured, “I think I have made poetry. The language is appropriate to the virtues I celebrate.” These poems provided the substance of Frost’s next collection, North of Boston. This volume contained such treasures as “After Apple-picking,” “The Black Cottage,” “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” each of which might be rightly take its place among (in the title of a well-known anthology) the best-loved poems of the American people.

“In North of Boston,” he wrote to his former pupil John Bartlett, “you are to see me performing in a language absolutely unliterary. What I would like is to get so I would never use a word or combination of words that I hadn’t heard used in running speech. I bar words and expressions I have merely seen. You do it on your ear. Of course I allow expressions I make myself. War on clichés.”

Some of Frost’s letters provide remarkable insights into the poet’s mind. For instance, in early 1912, he shared the following haunting anecdote with Susan Hayes Ward, which should resonate with any reader familiar with Russell Kirk’s ghost story “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond”:

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noisless [sic] yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward with the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall.

In a footnote, the editors rightly note that the substance of this anecdote seems to anticipate what would later become the poem “The Road Not Taken” and, perhaps, also “Design.”

Further, in a lengthy letter written to Bartlett in early 1914, shortly before the appearance of North of Boston, Frost wrote: “In literature it is our business to give people the thing that will make them say, ‘Oh yes I know what you mean.’ It is never to tell them something they don’t know, but something they know and hadn’t thought of saying. It must be something they recognize.”

He immediately illustrates this point by a prose explication of a still-unformed poem, one that would be published six years later:

A Patch of Old Snow

In the corner of the wall where the bushes haven’t been trimmed, there is a patch of old snow like a blow-away newspaper that has come to rest there. And it is dirty as with the print and news of a day I have forgotten, if I ever read it.

Now that is no good except for what I may call certain points of recognition in it: patch of old snow in a corner of the wall—you know what that is. You know what a blow-away newspaper is. You know the curious dirt on old snow and last of all you know how easily you forget what you read in papers.

Now for the sentence sounds. We will look for the marked ones because they are easiestto discuss. The first sentence sound will do but it is merely ordinary and bookish: it is entirely subordinate interest to the meaning of the words strung on it. But half the effectiveness of the second sentence is in the very special tone with which you must say news of a day I have forgotten—if I ever read it. You must be able to say Oh yes one knows how that goes. (There is some adjective to describe the intonation or cadence, but I won’t hunt for it.)

Then, in a footnote, the editors provide the text of the poem as it was eventually published, in Mountain Interval (1920):

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten—
If I ever read it.

As if continuing his discussion of this poem, in 1919 Frost again took up the theme of how the poet uses the verities and concrete realities of experience to provide the essence of his poems. “No need to tell you how sure I am no one succeeds in any of the arts without observing at least some one of the various realities,” he wrote to Louis Untermeyer. “That’s the way he gets his originality whatever it comes to.”

By time he wrote this letter, Frost had achieved a significant measure of fame and was a lecturer on poetry at Amherst College, from which he resigned in early 1920, citing his unwillingness to tolerate the political and academic liberalism of college president Alexander Meiklejohn, one of several academics who considered the erudite Frost “anti-intellectual.” The charge was absurd, for Frost was steeped in the poetry of the Great Tradition, had memorized thousands of lines of verse, and could expound upon specific poems and poetic theory with no preparation. Further, as Peter Stanlis has shown in his masterful Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, Frost recognized and expressed in his work the inescapable truth of dualities within human life: the fact, for example, that stone walls seem to needlessly place boundaries between the friendliest of neighbors, and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” “I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity,” Frost had written to one correspondent as early as 1912.

In February 1920, he wrote to attorney William Constable Breed, “I am forced after all to give up the idea of speaking at the Amherst dinner, and I owe you something more than a telegram in explanation. I have decided to leave teaching and go back to farming and writing.… I came to the conclusion that I was too much out of sympathy with what the present administration seems bent on doing with this old New England college. I suppose I might say that I am too much outraged in the historical sense for loyalty. I can’t complain that I haven’t enjoyed ‘academic freedom’ to be entirely myself under Mr. Meiklejohn. While he detests my dangerously rationalistic and anti-intellectualistic philosophy, he thinks he is willing to have it represented here. But probably it will be better represented by some one who can take it less seriously than I.”

On that note, this first volume of Frost’s collected letters ends. In the poet’s future lay forty-three more years of life filled with much intense heartache, along with critical and popular fame unmatched in twentieth-century American poetry. The editors selected by Harvard University Press to find, annotate, and footnote these letters have performed a most commendable service to American letters through their labors on this first volume. The subsequent volumes promise more rich insight into Frost’s private and creative mind.

Frost’s works continue to reach many readers of poetry who look to the past for the cultural orientation that enables themto better understand the human condition and the uniqueness of America’s history. As Russell Kirk wrote a little over fifty years ago, a “strong intellectual and spiritual and institutional continuity joins us with our ancestors; and Mr. Frost expresses that bond better than any other man of our age.”  

James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999), and a longtime reviewer.