Posted by: Mish | June 10, 2009

Calling on Frost

While visiting the green mountain state last month, friends and I surprisingly passed Robert Frost’s house and decided to call on him the next day. He wasn’t in, but the door was open and visitors welcome. The quaint, sunny house gave some insights into the man, his family, and his poetry.

Frost's Stone House

Frost's Stone House

Frost believed that in order to fully develop as a human being, one must depend on their own interior resources, that self-identity through isolation should precede relationships with others. He worked on his development by tilling the land and eating its apples. Trees have been replanted to bring the orchard back into full bloom. Frost’s second poetic volume, North of Boston, contains narratives about rural life, farming, and character. He once said:

“It is not very fair to farmers to make me out a very good or laborious farmer. I have known hard times, but no special shovel-slavery. I kept farm, so to speak, for nearly ten years, but less as a farmer than as a fugitive from the world that seemed to ‘disallow me’.”

“I get a queer unhappiness when I don’t have a little land to farm. Writing, teaching, farming- the three strands of my life.”

Besides being a farmer and poet who moved around a lot, Frost was an English teacher. He taught at Pinkerton Academy and what is now Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, Amherst College in Massachusetts, University of Michigan, and Middlebury College in Vermont. Frost said during one of his classes in 1946:

“There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chieftest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority. Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing. And there is a sense in which all poems are the same old metaphor always.”

In “the Constant Symbol”, an essay published in 1946, Frost wrote:

“There’s an indulgent smile I get for the recklessness of the unnecessary commitment I made when I came to the first line in the second stanza of a poem in this book called ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred. And it was all right so long as I didn’t suffer deflection.”

Since he was a lad, Frost had aspirations of being a poet. At the age of 24 in 1894, he sold his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy” to the New York Independent. In general, getting published is no easy task, and Frost’s works were repeatedly criticized and rejected in the U.S. It wasn’t until he moved to Great Britain in 1912, that his poetry became truly accepted. His first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1913. Ironically, Frost’s poetry received the first positive review from an American while overseas. It seems when the poet and intellectual Ezra Pound spoke, everyone listened and listened well, including the American critics. Soon after, Frost quickly became a popular poet in both the U.S and the U.K. Eventually he received four Pulitzer Prizes for New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree. Although he often spoke about his poems, Frost wasn’t one to explain them, preferring the readers to explore them on their own. He meant what he wrote and told readers, “Do not press the poem too hard. The real meaning is the obvious meaning.”

Frosts' Family Plot

Frosts' Family Plot

The passing of his wife in 1938 devastated Frost. Referring to Elinor in letters, Frost wrote, “She has been the unspoken half of everything I ever wrote” and “dominated my art with the power of her character and nature”. Aside from raising a family together, Elinor was his support and anchor and  “the Silken Tent” was very much written for and about her.

In a letter he wrote:

“Promise not to let the world forget me when my address is some graveyard in Lawrence, Franconia, Amherst, South Shaftsbury, Florida, Texas or California. If the last, the stone could quote Kipling, ‘Ending as he began’.”

Frost passed away in 1963 due to complications from prostate surgery. As one of the most prominent American poets, it’s fair to say that the native San Franciscan is hardly forgotten. Among the laurel leaves hand-carved on the granite gravestone, Frost’s epitaph reads,  “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” from “the Lesson for Today”.

A Poet's Library

A Poet's Library

If one is so inclined and has an hour or two and $5 ($2 for children), the Robert Frost Stone House Museum is located in southern Vermont’s rural Shaftsbury. It’s not a large museum by any means, but interesting nonetheless. There’s more information about Frost, his family, and his works than furniture and the second story is closed to the public. While major fans may like to see where ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ was written, I was more interested in browsing his shelves with Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and nature books. Among the trees, the Frosts’ family plot is in the cemetery next to Bennington Museum, which is also home to Grandma Moses’s schoolhouse turned museum. Since I didn’t have time to stroll through the latter, maybe I’ll be able to do so next time I’m in the area and don’t have a wedding to attend.

I’m only vaguely familiar with his works, but after calling on Frost, I’d like to read more. My favourite line to quote is from “the Road Not Taken”:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

I also like this bit from “Mending Wall”, which was written during the Berlin Wall’s erection:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Does anyone have any poems or lines they particularly like by Frost or someone else?

On another note, at the Bennington cemetery, there’s a gravestone for someone who went down with the Titanic and another for a soldier who was in four or five wars sometime between 1750-1850. Do others enjoy strolling in cemeteries, whether to say “hi” or for the history within? I find it rather peaceful, while a friend refuses to enter one.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life- it goes on.” ~Robert Frost

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Photos © Copyright Misha Lee 2009

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Responses

  1. That sounds like a wonderful visit. I like the poetry excerpts you include very much. Particularly from ‘the Road not Taken.’

    I imagine there must be lots of places like this in the US. It doesn’t seem to work quite the same in the UK. Maybe because our island is crowded and subject to change.

    I’ve always hankered after visiting the homes of Louisa M Alcott. (Despite living on the wrong side of the globe.) I read a child’s biography of her when I was eight, and she has remained my hero ever since.

  2. Thanks. It does seem like there’s a lot of them in the US. While in VT, a friend picked up a pamphlet for Herman Melville about 3 hours away. Uh- some other time.

    I wouldn’t mind visiting Alcott’s home. She was one of my childhood favorites and I still have a red hardcover of Little Women from then.

  3. I have a red hard cover Little Women. It’s very precious to me because it was given to my grandmother as a Sunday School prize. She’s in her nineties now, so it’s a pretty old book.

    Herman Melville would be worth a visit too. I’m quite envious. But I should probably set my sights on something closer to home.


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