Leo Marx looks at the picture of a ludic Frost

Leo Marx

  • Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered by William Pritchard
    Oxford, 186 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 19 503462 7

On the eve of the First World War, London still beckoned aspiring American poets. Ezra Pound arrived in 1908, Robert Frost in 1912, and T.S. Eliot in 1914. When Pound arrived he was only 23, Eliot was 26, but Frost was almost 39. He had been writing poetry, most of it unpublished, for some twenty years, and the difference in style was striking. Set beside the early work of Pound and Eliot (or of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, for that matter), Frost’s ‘simple’ lyrics might have seemed to be some sort of throwback – as if they belonged far down the back slope of the great Modernist watershed. But those same unassuming poems earned Pound’s immediate praise, and though Frost remained stubbornly impervious to avant-garde poetics, his work was soon accorded high critical esteem. How shall we account for his success in the face of triumphant Modernism? One of the incidental merits of William Pritchard’s readable and instructive ‘literary life’ is that it implies a new way of answering this most puzzling question.

Pritchard begins with an amusing account of Frost’s rapid entry into literary London. When he arrived with his wife, four children, and two or three manuscript collections of poems, he could not have been more of an outsider. He did not know a soul in England, nor is there reason to suppose that anyone in England had ever heard of him or his work. He had not yet published a book. Only a few of his poems had appeared in relatively unstylish American magazines. He carried no letters of introduction. Yet somehow, perhaps on the advice of a taxi-driver, he quickly located a publisher for his first book, A Boy’s Will, which appeared early in 1913. He attended the opening of Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, where he met F.S. Flint, who sent him a book of his poems. The poetry was, in Pritchard’s phrase, ‘rich in inexpressible yearnings’ – the sort of writing Frost could not abide. He nonetheless found a way to praise it, Flint was delighted, and one thing quickly led to another.

Flint introduced him to the high-flying Pound, who by then had published six books and seemed to know every writer in England. Pound quickly took his unworldly compatriot in hand. When told that the first copy of A Boy’s Will might be at the publisher’s, Pound determinedly walked miles across London with Frost to pick it up, kept Frost waiting while he read through the poems, and then magisterially announced that Frost could leave (without his only copy of the book), so that Pound could write a review. In the event he wrote two favourable reviews – one for a British, the other for an American magazine. Through Pound, Frost also met Yeats, who is said to have praised his new work (‘the best poetry written in America for a long time’). Frost soon became friendly with the Georgian poets, Lascelles Abercrombie, W.H. Davies and Wilfrid Gibson, and he formed a truly close friendship, probably the closest of his life, with Edward Thomas.

Frost and his family sailed for home early in 1915. The outbreak of war had cut short his foray into literary London, but from a crassly opportunistic standpoint it could hardly have been more successful. In two and a half years the unknown Frost had become a recognised writer, and his work had won the respect of many of the leading poets writing in English. By the time he left for home, two of his books were in print in England (North of Boston having appeared in 1914), and he had arranged to have them both published in the States. To prepare a favourable reception for his work at home, meanwhile, he had dispatched elaborate instructions about reviews and other forms of publicity to his American supporters. Now that he was shifting his sights to the American scene he took pains to dissociate himself from Pound, whose sponsorship had been invaluable, but whose condescension he resented. Besides, he was made nervous by Pound’s aggressive rebuke of certain American editors for their alleged refusal to publish his work. This was no time to offend such people. As he explained to one admirer, ‘I expect to do something to the present state of literature in America.’

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[*] Brower’s book, The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (1963), remains one of the best close readings of Frost’s work. Pritchard also expresses his admiration for the more recent study by another Amherst graduate, Richard Poirier: Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977).