It is still mañana
- The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. 1: 1886-1920 edited by Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen
Harvard, 811 pp, £33.95, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 05760 9
‘Anybody want to Hear R. Frost on Anything?’ the poet asked Louis Untermeyer in 1916. Frost was 42 years old and believed he had an impressive list of lectures ‘in stock’. One of them was the ‘True Story of My Life’. It would begin with early signs of temerity and talent – ‘Stealing pigs from the stockyards in San Francisco. Learn to whistle at five’ – before moving on to bigger things: ‘“North of Boston”. Address Great Poetry Meal. Decline. Later works. Doesn’t seem to die. Attempt to write “Crossing the Bar”. International copyright. Chief occupation (according to Who’s Who) pursuit of glory; most noticeable trait, patience in the pursuit of glory. Time three hours. Very intimate and baffling.’
Frost was entitled to crow. A year earlier, his second collection, North of Boston, had been published in America to glowing reviews, and he was now in demand as a public speaker. He was writing to Untermeyer from his new farm in Franconia, New Hampshire; a few months later he would boast about the income he was getting from his poetry, and from the lecture circuit: ‘One feels that we ought to have something to show for all that swag; and we have: we have this farm bought and nearly paid for. Such is poetry when the right people boom it.’
The swag had been a long time coming. Frost’s fast-living and hard-drinking father died of tuberculosis when his son was 11, leaving the family $8 after funeral expenses had been paid. Frost’s mother, Isabelle, took Robert and his sister east from San Francisco to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived initially with her parents-in-law before Isabelle tried – with mixed results – to hold down a job as a teacher. Frost was many things before he was a poet; by the time he married at the age of 21, he’d worked at a shoe factory, a leather shop, various farms and a woollen mill (he changed carbon filaments in ceiling lamps). So when he ends his letter to Untermeyer with a price-list for his speeches – ‘Dollar a minute or sixty minutes for fifty dollars. I have to ask a little more where I introduce my adjectives immediately after instead of before my nouns’ – he isn’t just announcing that he’s finally made it, he’s saying that he doesn’t mind being seen to be on the make. Frost’s difficult childhood would continue to fuel his craving for attention, and his need to make hay while the sun shone (within a year or two he was charging three times the amount he suggests here). Enter R. Frost, poet for all occasions – whom Allen Ginsberg would describe as ‘the original entrepreneur of poetry’, the man who would tell Robert Lowell that hell was a half-filled auditorium.
The auditoriums were usually full, but one observer noted that ‘even when [Frost] consents to sit on a platform, he has a vanishing and peripatetic look.’ For somebody who made himself so intensely, incorrigibly available, he is a well-guarded figure. You could say his availability became his way of maintaining his guard. Here’s his reply to a critic who wrote in 1915 to congratulate him on his success:
Dr Mr Eaton:
It’s not your turn really. Before I have a right to answer your best letter of all there are a whole lot of perfunctory letters I ought to write to people who have been rising out of my past to express surprise that I ever should have amounted to anything. You may not believe it but I am going to have to thank one fellow for remembering the days of ’81 when we went to kindergarten together and once cut up a snake into very small pieces to see if contrary to the known laws of nature we couldn’t make it stop wriggling before sundown.
Like many of the letters, this has the makings of a Frost poem: an intimacy conjured up out of thin air, coupled with an unpredictable sense of where that intimacy might lead; talk of triumph over recalcitrant circumstances, alongside an implicit reservation about what the triumph really amounts to; and a dark toying with ‘the known laws of nature’ to see where your limits lie. A page later, Frost is talking to Eaton as if he has known him for ages (‘you know I don’t mean that’), while offering tips to the newcomer (‘I am really more shamefaced than I sound in a letter’). Eaton should feel privileged to be told that some things do not need saying, even as he is left wondering about what these other things are that are not quite being said.
Frost may have confessed to cutting up the snake, but he wasn’t about to dissect his own life. In this superb first volume of the Letters (two more are on the way) he doesn’t mention many of the crises that shadowed his early years. There are no letters, for example, from 1898-1901, although during these years he dropped out of Harvard (his grandfather lent him the fees), his mother died of cancer and his three-year-old son died of cholera (he blamed himself for not calling the doctor sooner: it was like ‘murdering his own child’, he said later). Frost’s family life became no less harrowing. His sister was placed in a mental institution, as was one of his daughters, and he would live to see the deaths of all but two of his six children: one daughter died three days after her birth in 1907; another died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her first child; his surviving son shot himself in 1940. The letters have less to say about the events in the poet’s life than about the life of his writing, although at several points the unspoken pressure of the life that informs the writing makes itself felt. The whole volume reveals a lot about the way Frost’s imagination works – and his desperation to make it work.
Frost spent a long time telling other people that there was more to come from him. ‘A young man knows more about himself than he is able to prove to anyone,’ he observed, and in the early letters he is repeatedly undertaking a future for himself. ‘Even in my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition,’ he wrote, at twenty, to the poetry editor of the Independent. Seventeen years later, in 1911, the ambition was still going strong: ‘The forward movement is to begin next year … So it is still mañana, you see. But don’t think to laugh with impunity at my boast as you may have laughed at the boasts of so many before. In my case you would find yourself mistaken.’ It turned out that mañana wasn’t far away. Frost had finally decided to sell the farm in Derry, New Hampshire that his grandfather had bought soon before he died. Frost had settled there in his late twenties, writing poetry late into the night. ‘It all started in Derry, the whole thing,’ he said. In 1912 Frost moved his family to England and met many writers, including Yeats, Pound and Edward Thomas, who would become his closest friend. Before returning to America in 1915, he wrote home with some news: ‘To be perfectly frank with you I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time. That will transpire presently.’
In their sharp-witted introduction, the editors of the Letters excuse this by claiming that ‘bragging isn’t really “bragging” when it’s so manifestly a performed thing.’ Well, it really is bragging, but it isn’t just that; the performance helped Frost imagine himself into being. Even after the success of his first volumes, he is anxious to impress on correspondents that he hasn’t got started yet; several other poems written during the years of neglect are ready to transpire, presently: ‘I have myself all in a strong box where I can unfold as a personality at discretion.’ Poems, like letters, could provide the opportunity for the discreet unfolding of ‘a personality’, but not necessarily of a person.
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