The English years of Robert Frost.
From 'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost
ROBERT Frost (1874-1963) was the most popular American poet of the twentieth century. Millions of volumes of his poems have been sold--collections, selections, illustrated editions, paperback and hardback editions, children's editions. Huge crowds attended his public readings and lectures, buildings were named in his honour, top universities offered him professorships. Frost received America's highest literary award, the Pulitzer Prize, four times; and he received honorary degrees from forty universities. In January 1961 he famously recited 'The Gift Outright' at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
But this quintessential American poet first achieved poetic recognition in England--not as one would expect in America. How did this come about?
Frost's first poem was published in 1890, in his high school newspaper in Lewrence, Massachusetts. He was 16 years old. He continued writing poems during the next ten years, while attending university, and while working at a variety of jobs, from mill-hand and factory worker to newspaper reporter and schoolteacher. In his late 20s and early 30s, he owned a small farm at Derry, New Hampshire, where he bred poultry and kept a few cows. He wrote many poems during these years, and occasionally one was accepted for publication. But when it became difficult to support his family, Frost stopped farming and instead worked as a teacher. During this period of 22 years only a dozen of Frost's poems were published.
In 1912, when he was 38 years old, Frost resigned his teaching post because he wanted time to concentrate on his poetry. The Frosts decided to go to England where they could live cheaply for a few years. He must have seen this as his last chance to become a real poet, not just a full-time farmer/teacher who wrote poems in his spare time.
Robert, Elinor and their four children--aged 7, 9, 10 and 13--arrived in London in September 1912. What timing! London was in the midst of a poetry revival. The 'Georgian movement'--a reaction among young poets in favour of realism and plain language, and against the grand rhetoric of the Victorians--was just beginning, and although Frost was never part of the movement he certainly benefited from it.
Harold Monro was at the centre of this movement, as founder in 1907 of the Samurai Press (which published contemporary poetry), and as founder-editor of The Poetry Review in 1911. In September 1912--just as Frost arrived in London--Monro took the bold step of renting a three-storey property in Bloomsbury that would soon become The Poetry Bookshop--a combined bookshop, editorial office and publishing business dedicated to promoting contemporary poetry.
Another central figure in the Georgian movement was Eddie (Sir Edward) Marsh, Winston Churchill's private secretary at the Admiralty who used his spare time and spare cash to support artists and writers. Also in September 1912, Marsh and a small group of young poets (Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater) decided to produce an anthology of the best poems published recently. Marsh agreed to edit it and Harold Monro, using The Poetry Bookshop imprint, agreed to publish it. Georgian Poetry appeared two months later--named after the new king to signal that Victorian and Edwardian ideas were now outmoded. The anthology created a huge stir and thousands of copies were sold.
It was a fortuitous time for Robert Frost to arrive on the scene. But he didn't know a soul in England; he didn't have one letter of introduction. The family found temporary accommodation in a London hotel, and Frost then called at the Bloomsbury office of a magazine called T.P's Weekly. He asked for advice about where to live from the author of the magazine's column on walks in London's countryside. As a result, the Frosts were soon settled in the attractive town of Beaconsfield, nestling in the Chiltern Hills, about 40 minutes by train from London.
Soon after settling into the Beaconsfield house, Frost read through a trunk full of unpublished poems he had drafted in New Hampshire. He realised that with some tweaking and rewriting he would have enough poems to fill a book. He titled the volume A Boy's Will, and his 13-year-old daughter typed the manuscript. As Frost later remembered, 'I was up bright and early the next morning for the London express on the Great Western.' (Walsh, p. 36)
Frost went back to his 'friend' at T.P.'s Weekly for advice. 'When I told him that I had come up to London to get myself a publisher for my book of poems, he laughed uproariously ... a stranger from a faraway land, coming to a country of great poets and hoping to find a publisher for his unknown wares! The idea was fantastic. Nobody knew it better than I.' (Walsh, p. 37) He was told that poets normally paid to have a book published, and he should try David Nutt and Company whose office was nearby.
This small firm was founded by David Nutt in 1830, and it specialised in 'high-brow' books. When Frost arrived with his manuscript he was confronted by a bitter and eccentric French woman, dressed in widow's black, who disliked men and spoke with a French accent. This was Mrs Nutt. She had been running the business on her own since the death, two years earlier, of her husband Alfred Nutt (son of the firm's founder). When she told Frost that most poets paid for publication, 'I told her emphatically no. I would never do it.' (Walsh p. 40) She softened a bit, and agreed to look at the poems; if she liked them she was sure Frost would help to bear expenses.
Mrs Nutt soon wrote to say that she would publish A Boy's Will. Frost described this as the happiest day of his life, and we can imagine why: his first manuscript had been accepted by the first publisher he had approached, in the country that had given the world Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Words worth. But Mrs Nutt drove a hard bargain. The formal contract specified spring publication, a 12 per cent royalty on sales to take effect after the first 250 copies were sold, and an exclusive option on Frost's next four books on these same terms. This was vanity publishing hiding behind a contract based on the royalty principle. Frost was in effect giving Mrs Nutt the first [pounds sterling] 24 of his share of the earnings--[pounds sterling]1.300 in today's money. Frost's literary ambition vied with his commercial instincts, but by the end of December 1912 the Muse had won over Mammon. He signed what he called 'a fool's contract.' Still, anyone who admires and enjoys Frost's poetry must give Mrs Nutt credit for taking a risk on this unknown poet who arrived on her doorstep from rural New Hampshire.
Frost was back in Bloomsbury at the beginning of January 1913, at Harold Monro's party to officially open The Poetry Bookshop. Three hundred people were squeezed in-poets, play wrights, publishers, philosophers and editors. By the end of the evening Frost had met many of London's most important intellectuals and writers, who would later introduce him to other people. One Frost biographer says that 'he left Harold Monro's party dazzled by his good luck. In his first attempt to break into English literary life, he had succeeded beyond his hopes.' (Parini, 124) During the next two years Frost was acquainted with or befriended by leading intellectuals and writers such as Robert Bridges, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Frank Flint. Ralph Hodgson, Georgian poets such as Wilfrid Gibson. Lascelles Abercrombie, and Rupert Brooke, and of course Harold Monro himself. It was through contacts at The Poetry Bookshop that Frost met the English critic, biographer and essayist Edward Thomas, which led to one of the most notable literary friendships of the twentieth century.
A Boy's Will was published on 1 April 1913. Most of the 32 poems in the collection are lyrics in which the poet-speaker is reacting to the world around him in a variety of moods-from despair to hope, from withdrawal to acceptance. Even these early poems illustrate Frost's trademark approach: the poet draws ideas about the human condition from his observations of the natural world. Reviews of the book were mainly short and only mildly encouraging. But the anonymous reviewer in the Academy, a leading literary journal, was very enthusiastic: 'We wish we could ... express the difference which marks off A Boy's Will from the other books [reviewed] here. ... The poems combine ... the essential qualities of inevitability and surprise. We have read every line with that amazement and delight which are all too seldom evoked by books of modern verse ... it is undoubtedly the work of a true poet.'
The first review that Robert Frost ever received in America was published in May 1913 in a Chicago literary journal called Poetry. Its author was the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound, whom Frost had met in London after attending the party at The Poetry Bookshop. Pound remarked on the poet's 'utter sincerity' and his ability to 'speak naturally and to paint the thing, the thing as he sees it.'
Frost experienced a period of intense creative activity in 1913, as he revised some old poems and wrote some new ones for his next volume, North of Boston. It was published by David Nutt in May 1914, and is generally reckoned to be his most important and certainly his most original volume. The lyric poems of A Boy's Will, celebrating a single emotion or moment, were left behind. North of Boston contains 16 dramatic dialogues and monologues--the voices of people who worked and lived in rural New England, i.e. north of Boston.
There are poems about an apple picker, exhausted from his day's labours; a husband and wife coming to terms with the death and burial of their young child; a farmer and his wife, troubled about the hired hand who has returned to them after a long absence; a man whose feet have been crushed in a factory accident; a doctor who must share a hotel room with a travelling salesman; two farmers repairing the stone wall between their properties. What made the book unique is that the poems deal with situations from ordinary life, and these are related and described in language used by real people-not the language of poets.
North of Boston was widely reviewed in the English press, and for the first time in his life Frost could begin to think of himself as a recognised poet. The Times said 'Poetry burns up out of it'; Lascelles Abercrombie in The Nation called the poems 'unique and entirely original'; the reviewer in The Egoist said 'I have gone on reading a poem here and a poem there during the last fortnight until I am positively fascinated with the book.' Edward Thomas, renowned for his prescient literary criticism, wrote that North of Boston 'is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times'; '[it] is a beautiful achievement, and I think a unique one.' He praised Frost for trusting his conviction that human speech could be used as the basis for poetry.
In May 1914 the story of Frost's English years shifts from Beaconsfield to the parish of Dymock in rural Gloucestershire-about 120 miles west of London. Frost and his family moved there to be near Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, two popular Georgian poets who were living in Dymock and publishing their own poetry journal, New Numbers. The opportunity to experience rural England at first hand may have been a factor in Frost's moving so far west, but a more practical reason is that he was desperately short of money and it was cheaper to live in remote countryside. Mrs Nutt was not paying him any royalties, and when he sold some poems to Harold Monro for publication in his new journal, Poetry and Drama, she was furious and told him not to do this again.
From their cottage in Dymock, Frost's wife Elinor wrote to her sister: 'I wish I could make you feel what a lovely country this is. When we first came, the meadows were covered with yellow daffodils and the cuckoo had just begun to sing. ... From a hill about four miles away one can see the Severn River winding along, and the mountains of Wales in the distance. Wilfrid Gibson and his wife live about a mile from us and Abercrombie and his wife and two children are three miles away. We see them often. ... Edward Thomas, who is a very well known critic and prose writer has been here ... and he is going to bring his whole family to lodge near us through August. Rob and I think everything of him. He is quite the most admirable and lovable man we have ever known.' (Letters, p. 126)
Edward Thomas and his wife and three children arrived in Dymock just as the First World War began. While the seven Frost and Thomas children played together, Robert and Edward went on long walks. Edward's wife Helen later recalled that 'They were always together and when not exploring the country they sat in the shade of a tree smoking and talking endlessly of literature and of poetry in particular.' (Thomas, p. 230) Their walks were the inspiration for one of Frost's most popular poems, 'The Road Not Taken".
That summer, as the friendship between the two men deepened, Frost encouraged Thomas to start writing poetry. At the end of 1914--when his freelance work had dried up because of the war--that's exactly what Edward Thomas did. In the next two years, before his death on the Western Front in April 1917, he wrote about 140 poems and is today ranked as one of England's finest twentieth-century poets.
The poet and playwright John Drinkwater (best known for his chronicle plays which include Abraham Lincoln, Mary Stuart, Oliver Cromwell, Robert E. Lee and Robert Burns) was a frequent visitor to Dymock between 1911 and 1915. Not only was he a close friend of Gibson's and Abercrombie's, but he was also contributing to their quarterly poetry journal, New Numbers. The fourth contributor, who occasionally visited Dymock, was the young iconoclastic Rupert Brooke. Today these four poets, along with Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, are known as the Dymock Poets because of their links, over several years, with the parish of Dymock. (Their rural idyll would be brought to an end in the years following the outbreak of World War I; Brooke and Thomas would die in the conflict.)
Reviews of North of Boston appeared throughout the summer and autumn of 1914. Frost was delighted when he learned that Abercrombie's long review in The Nation had been reprinted in a Boston newspaper (his second notice in America). Then he received a letter from Mrs Florence Holt in Vermont, saying that she had been sent a copy of North of Boston and found that Frost's poetry beautifully captured life in rural New England. She didn't say that her husband, Henry Holt, was the proprietor of a long-established and respected New York publishing firm that bore his name, and she was urging him to publish Frost's book.
Before long the firm of Henry Holt in New York wrote to the firm of David Nutt in London, asking about terms and conditions for American publication. Mrs Nutt finally agreed to sell Henry Holt 150 copies of unbound sheets of North of Boston. Frost knew nothing of these difficult negotiations until November, when he learned that Holt planned to publish North of Boston early in 1915. (Letters p. 138). He said to his wife Elinor, 'Now that the book has gone home, we can go home.' (Walsh, p. 205)
Frost borrowed money to pay for six berths on the SS St Paul, sailing from Liverpool on 13 February 1915. Eight days later, walking down 42nd Street in New York City. Frost stopped at a newsstand and picked up a copy of the New Republic. Imagine his surprise to find a prominent review of North of Boston by the New England poet and critic Amy Lowell. She called it 'the most American volume of poetry which has appeared for some time,' found it to be 'a book of unusual power and sincerity,' and praised its realistic portrayal of rural New Englanders (New Republic 20 Feb 1915).
Frost then went to meet his new publisher, where he learned that Henry Holt also wanted to publish his first book, A Boy's Will, despite continuing problems with Mrs Nutt. The situation was resolved when Holt's lawyers saw that Frost's contract required the publisher to render accounts annually -something that had never happened. Mrs Nutt was told that Frost's contract was immediately null and void. He had never received a penny from her in royalties for either book.
Word began to spread that the author of North of Boston was now back in America. Over the next few months Frost was introduced to poets, publishers, editors, critics and academics. Before too long a newspaper article appeared saying: 'Boston's literary sensation of the day has been the home-coming of Robert Frost. Three years ago the young New Hampshire schoolmaster went over to England, lived in retirement for a while, and published a volume of poems which won him many friends in a quiet way. [Then] another volume of verse went to the same publisher and one morning Robert Frost found himself famous. His work was hailed as striking a new note in modern poetry.' (Boston Herald, March 9, 1915) That summer there was one final boost from the English literary establishment, which helped Frost enormously. The Atlantic Monthly published a highly laudatory article about North of Boston by the leading English literary critic, Edward Garnett.
Frost spent the next 48 years teaching, lecturing, winning prizes, accepting awards, receiving honorary degrees, and writing poems that are read all over the world. He had taken a huge gamble by moving to England in 1912, and it had paid off. When he returned in 1957 to receive honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge universities he visited both Beaconsfield and Dymock, thereby acknowledging the importance of his English years.
John Walsh, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost
Lesley Lee Francis, The Frost Family's Adventure in Poetry
William Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered
Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years and ed. Selected Letters
Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life
Robert Ross, The Georgian Revolt: 1910-1922
R. George Thomas, Edward Thomas: A Portrait
The Friends of the Dymock Poets website is at www. dymockpoets.co.uk
Linda Hart is a freelance writer, editor and lecturer. She founded the Friends of the Dymock Poets in 1993 and was chairman for many years. She is the editor of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology (Green Branch Press, 2000).
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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