Dark and Deep

Helen Vendler

‘It would be hard,’ Robert Frost wrote, ‘to gather biography from poems of mine except as they were all written by the same person, out of the same general region north of Boston, and out of the same books.’ Frost’s biographers, who began their collective labours well before he died, were not to be put off by such a statement, and the early collections of memoirs and reminiscences culminated in Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume biography published between 1966 and 1976. Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963; between those dates he lived a long and harrowing life, the general details of which have become well known. They include the early death of his editor-father, the family’s return from San Francisco to Massachusetts and New Hampshire; Frost’s abortive stays at both Dartmouth and Harvard; his assisting in his mother’s school; his marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Elinor White; their ten-year stay on a New Hampshire farm given to Frost by his grandfather; the early deaths of two of their six children; the brief two-and-a-half year escape to England, where Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will (reviewed enthusiastically by Pound) was published; the subsequent appearance of many volumes of poetry, four of which received Pulitzer prizes; the sporadic teaching at Amherst and elsewhere as a poet in residence and éminence grise; the immensely popular stage-readings; the catastrophic fates of three of the four surviving children (Marjorie died of a post-partum infection; Irma was permanently confined in an insane asylum; Carol, the only son, committed suicide); the exhaustion of Elinor, whose heart gave out in her sixties after many changes of dwelling and ten pregnancies – the last when she was 52; the final years of public fame, culminating in Frost’s reading of ‘The Gift Outright’ at the Kennedy Inauguration and his meeting with Khrushchev in Russia.

The problem for any contemporary biographer is that Lawrance Thompson is the only source for much of Frost’s life; his biography (backed by the two thousand pages of his manuscript ‘Notes on Robert Frost, 1939-1967’) necessarily shapes all subsequent work. Admirers of Frost were scandalised by the animus they perceived in the Thompson biography; one response, represented by William Pritchard’s admirably balanced Frost: A Literary Life Recognised (1984), was to offer only a brief account of the biographical facts, and then centre attention on the poetry, giving Frost’s art its due. Now Jeffrey Meyers has appeared, crowing that ‘the heart of Thompson’s biography was based on [a] lie.’ He proposes to reveal the truth – to wit, that when Frost was 64, after the death of his wife, he had a long affair with his ‘secretary’, Kathleen (Kay) Morrison, the wife of Theodore (Ted) Morrison, a lecturer in the Department of English at Harvard. Since this fact (documented in Thompson’s ‘Notes’ and now further documented thanks to the co-operation of Kay Morrison’s daughter) was made known by Frost to many bystanders, and broadly hinted at by previous commentators on Frost, it is not the discovery that Meyers pretends it is: in 1984, Pritchard, for instance, mentioning Frost’s proposal of marriage to Kay, had added that ‘the exact degree of intimacy between Frost and Kathleen Morrison at that point is unknown, although there has been, as is to be expected, rumour and conjecture.’ And he had quoted Frost’s 1939 comment after a visit to the Morrisons: ‘I came through the two weeks with the Morrisons pretty well considering all there was on all sides to dissemble.’ One had only to read between the lines. In any case, it is hardly fair to say of Thompson’s biography – which, before it arrives at the Morrison period, covers 64 years, during 43 of which Frost was faithfully married to Elinor – that its ‘heart’ is ‘based on a lie’. One could say its conclusion was based on a suppression. But Meyers is nothing if not hyperbolic. He seems to have decided that his jumping-off place requires him to reveal what he perceives as the sexual underside of Frost’s life and poetry.

The unwarranted conclusions Meyers jumps to about Frost’s life are coarse, but his consequent readings of poems are coarser. Some samples of the former: though there is no documentation, ‘it seems probable’ that the parents of Frost’s mother Belle ‘had never, in fact, been married and that “hussy” (a lewd woman) was a euphemism for prostitute’. (The word ‘hussy’ comes from Thompson, who offers no source for it, and no footnote ascribing the word to Frost.) Again, though there is no documentation, Meyers decides that Frost ‘persuaded the virginal Elinor to become his lover before they were actually married ... He also described her defloration in one of his most personal and revealing poems, “The Subverted Flower”.’ The poem certainly reveals a young woman’s revulsion when she perceives unconcealed sexual desire in her young man, who suddenly appears bestial in her eyes – but as to her ‘defloration’ precisely nothing at all is said. Meyers seems unaware that there are many sexual moves short of ‘defloration’ that could have shocked a modestly-reared young woman in 1892. When such jumps of inference are common, as they are in Meyers’s biography, factuality recedes into a blur. One would do better to consult the detailed 26-page chronology at the back of the Library of America’s splendid new Collected Poems. No, the chronology doesn’t say that Frost took Kay Morrison as his mistress, but it implies as much in its remarks about Frost’s sojourns alone with Kay in Florida. The late romance with Kay, useful as it was to the widowed Frost, can’t be shown to have had any major effect on his (long since formed) thought and style; it was in fact a sorry thing, since Kay was, according to Meyers, still sleeping with her husband, and had affairs with Bernard de Voto and with Lawrance Thompson as well. But Meyers, having secured the story for himself thanks to the co-operation of Morrison’s daughter Anne, has allowed it to skew his biography. Many of his pages read like newspaper précis of the plots of soap operas. Anne Morrison, he writes,

still bitter about some aspects of her childhood, feels Kay hurt other people because she had been hurt by her father. She hurt Ted by her affairs with Frost and other men; she hurt Frost by refusing to leave Ted and by making him jealous of his rivals; she hurt her children (Bobby even more than Anne, for he was older and ‘saw the craziness more clearly’) by her betrayal and her lies. But Kay’s behaviour also had some positive aspects. She rescued Frost from emotional chaos, enabled him to write and inspired some of his finest poems. She greatly enhanced the children’s lives by making Frost a member of their household.

Can it be that any child’s life is ‘greatly enhanced’ by his mother’s bringing her lover into the house? Especially if the child ‘saw the craziness’ of it?

The poet’s turbulent life does not need the rhetorical heightening of such absurd language; it is dramatic all by itself. Frost was a rebellious boy, schooled principally at home by his Scottish mother, unsettled by the death of his father from tuberculosis, subject to real and psychosomatic illness. He never did well in the role of obedient student, either because of his mother’s early indulgence or because of his own oversensitive taking of offence; he had a hard time getting along with others. He quit Dartmouth; he quit Harvard. There were reasons for this (by the time he got to Harvard he was married with a child, and soon there was another pregnancy); but his brilliant idiosyncrasy of mind and his volatility of mood made him restless under instruction. It was a doctor who said sedentary work was bad for him and advised outdoor work, but though the farm provided a subsistence-level existence for ten years for Frost, his wife, and their increasing family, it was not a life-solution. At night, with the children in bed, Frost wrote poems – three books’ worth, more or less. It was with those manuscripts that he made his way to England; the rest is history, and the drama, both personal and public, was plentiful.

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[*] For example, line 8 of ‘Trespass’ should read ‘Gave me a strangely restless day’ (the article is omitted); line 26 of ‘Winter Ownership’ should read ‘dew on brow and lip’ instead of ‘dew or brow and lip’; the line of ‘New Hampshire’ now reading ‘Laughed the loud laugh, the big laugh at the little’ should drop the medial comma.