When I grew up—in the suburbs, at suburban schools—I heard adults mention one living poet, and only one. Professors might prefer Eliot; young poets might imitate Auden—but for the American public Robert Frost was the Great Living Poet. His Complete Poems, like Longfellow’s the century before, were wedged among popular novels on affluent bookshelves. Everyone knew him, and everyone loved him. With the aid of Life, we recognized Frost’s character: rustic, witty, avuncular, benign. Now, a decade and a half after his death, his reputation has changed totally, and a consensus agrees that the old commonplaces were fraudulent. Reviewing a biography in the New York Times Book Review, an outraged critic confirms that “Frost was a liar . . . Frost was cold. . . .” The same culture that applauded Frost as a simple farmer now reviles him as a simple monster. But he was not simple.
He was vain, he was cruel, he was rivalrous with all other men, but he could also be generous and warm—when he could satisfy himself that his motives were dubious. He was a man possessed by guilt, by knowledge that he was “bad,” by a craving for love, by the necessity to reject love—and by a desire for fame which no amount of celebrity could satisfy.
I met Frost when I was sixteen; I saw him last a few months before he died. Over the years, he changed for me, from a monument to a public fraud to something more human and complicated than either praise or blame could deal with. When I look back now, with knowledge of the life he lived, I look at old scenes with new eyes.
To him—I learned over the years—his family background seemed precarious, dangerous; and his adult life cursed with tragedy, for which he took responsibility. His father was a sometime drunk, dead at an early age; his mother endured a bad marriage, was widowed young, and failed as a schoolteacher when she returned to her native Massachusetts; yet she was a fond mother, kind to her children—and she wrote poems. Her son felt dangerously close to her, and followed that fondness into devotion to one young woman, Elinor White, whom he courted extravagantly, romantically, and doggedly. Apparently losing her, he considered suicide; at least, he later dropped hints to friends that he had considered suicide. When Elinor and Robert finally married, they settled in Derry, New Hampshire, and lived in poverty, enduring an extraordinary series of family misfortunes: their firstborn child, a son named Elliott, died of cholera infantum at the age of three; in later years, warning or bragging about his “badness,” Frost said that the doctor who attended Elliott blamed him for the death, for not having called a doctor sooner. The next child was Lesley, daughter and eldest survivor, celebrator and denouncer of her father. Then there was Irma, mad in middle life and institutionalized; Frost’s only sister had been insane, he himself frequently fearful of madness; he blamed himself and his genes for his daughter’s insanity. Then came Carol, son, who killed himself at the age of thirty-eight. Youngest was Marjorie, dead after childbirth at twenty-nine.
When I speak of poverty in Derry, I speak of something rural, not so desperate as the poverty of cities. The family lived in natural beauty, among country pleasures. But the Frosts were almost destitute, owning only a few chickens and a garden, nothing else. In the Derry years, only an ego as obdurate as granite could remain firm; for years, without encouragement from editors or critics, Frost worked at writing his poems—instead of weeding vegetables or tending his chickens or teaching school to support his family.
Finally he took a job at a school, and gathered thereby a small income. Then he sold the farm, and with the capital took off with his family for England until the money ran out. There, by a stroke of luck, he found a publisher—and began the journey to fame. But by the time he returned to the United States—to find magazines at last open to his poems, universities ready to hire him—he was almost forty years old, and his children nearly grown up. In retrospect, he realized that they had grown up insecure, anxious, poor. In retrospect, it seemed to him that out of selfish ambition he had starved and mistreated his family, that from his family’s suffering came madness, suicide, and early death.
His family agreed with him. A thousand stories affirm that Elinor Frost never wholly forgave him the deprivation suffered. He asked her forgiveness as she lay dying, and she would not grant it. Shortly after her mother’s death, Lesley told him in bitterness that he should never have married; at the very least, he should never have had children. Frost felt guilty every minute he lived, and sought forgiveness everywhere, and accepted none of it. “When I am too full of joy,” he told another poet, “I think how little good my health did anyone near me.” He knew he was a bad man. Writing to a close friend, he said he “wondered about my past whether it had not been too cruel to those I dragged with me. . . .” And this was before he watched his son slide into suicide—watched, and argued with Carol, argued with his own son not to kill himself, and lost. Of course he found reason to blame himself for the suicide, as he did for everything else. In his guilt, his ego showed its old omnipotence, but he felt true anguish also, nearly to the point of madness. And when he thought he was dying in Florida, in 1962, he told a friend that in his delirium he saw the vengeful face of one of his children, staring at him, finger pointing, “accusing, accusing.” He told his friend, with a laugh unpleasant to hear, that the vision had terrified him back into life.
In August of 1945, when I was sixteen, I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at the old wooden inn outside Middlebury in Vermont. Frost had been connected with the Writers’ Conference from the beginning, and he was my main reason for going. The year before, I had spent my first year at prep school, and I had met an English teacher who knew Robert Frost personally, quoted him in conversation, and told me about Bread Loaf. Aspiring writers could spend two weeks there in the summer, being read and criticized by professionals; there, you could catch a glimpse of Robert Frost.
At fourteen I had decided to become a poet, and I had worked on poems two or three hours a day after school. I collected rejection slips from the New Yorker and Atlantic, and when I was sixteen I began to publish in little magazines—very little magazines, like Trails, Matrix, and Experiment. I was exhilarated; surely book publication and undying fame would follow as the night the day. Going to Bread Loaf would accelerate matters.
My teacher’s conversation not only made me want to go to Bread Loaf; it restored Robert Frost to me. My mother had read him to me when I was small. Then, just as I began to write poetry myself, when I was thirteen, an eighth-grade teacher praised Frost to our class in terms which forced me to despise him: he was a lovable codger with a heart of gold. Becoming a poet, I knew that poets were dangerous figures despised by ordinary society. For a while I dismissed Robert Frost as a poet that English teachers and parents promoted. Now I read him again, with my new teacher’s help, and recovered him. I remember finding the poem “To Earthward,” which became my favorite poem that year. I recited it to anyone who would listen. There was one stanza in particular I said for the saying’s sake:
I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
The shape of this single sentence—deployed so artfully over four tight, rhymed lines—delighted me, the rhyme itself satisfying, almost amusing, and the rhythm an eloquent swoop of syntax. I loved especially the way the third line shaped itself like a saucer, a whole clause separating the first and last words, which are themselves another clause.
By the time “To Earthward” finishes, however, it’s a harsh journey. It starts, “Love at the lips was touch/As sweet as I could bear,” but the poem is about aging, and about losing with age the ability to feel—except the ability to feel pain. Frost ends by saying that he looks for pain in order to feel; and then he says that he looks forward to death—or he almost says it:
When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,
The hurt is not enough.
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.
I loved the pitch and roll of these sentences, and the rhymes—but I loved also the danger of the lines, the brave approach to forbidden feelings.
I could not name the forbidden feelings at sixteen—but I felt them there, and they made the lines honest and powerful. With the help of some friends—and thirty years of aging—I know more about the poem now. When Frost longs for a “weight” to press down on him from above—the way his body pressed his hand down—the weight could be six feet of dirt, and the body still sentient although dead; but the weight could also come from sexual assault, an imagined rape by an Amazon, or by a man, with Frost turned into a woman. A poem that begins “Love at the lips” ends with rape and suicide; because if you long for “strength” to achieve this painful pressure, it must be strength of will to undertake the pain. This Robert Frost—masochistic, androgynous, suicidal—was not my eighth-grade teacher’s Frost, nor a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Frost, nor Frost’s Frost either. But it was, in fact, a real ambivalent human being; trust the poem not the poet.
The first night at Bread Loaf we heard a speech of welcome by the director, Theodore Morrison. All of us gathered in a large lecture hall. I sat next to a row of French doors. As Morrison talked—the history and the purpose of Bread Loaf, what to expect—my eyes wandered over the gathered people, wondering which of these people were writers I knew about. I was keeping my eyes out for Frost, in particular, hoping that he might attend the opening lecture, hoping for a glance at a man who made great poems. Looking casually to my right, through the glass doors, I saw him. He was walking with two friends, Frost a little ahead, his mouth moving humorously as he talked. The ground outside sank away, and Frost, approaching the lecture hall uphill, appeared to be rising out of the ground. His face was strong and blocky, his white hair thick and rough. He looked like granite, some old carved stone like menhirs in Ireland which I saw in the National Geographic. But he could walk and speak. Through the window I saw his mouth move with speech, and the faces of his companions broke into laughter.
But I had no mind, at sixteen, for his companions. I had seen the great poet, the maker of “To Earthward” and “After Apple Picking.” He was palpable, human, in the flesh. I felt light in head and body. Merely seeing this man, merely laying startled eyes upon him, allowed me to feel enlarged. My dreams for my own life, for my own aging into stone, took reality in the stern flesh of Robert Frost, who rose out of a hill in Vermont.
Frost attended some of the poetry workshops, conducted outdoors by Louis Untermeyer after lunch. When Frost came, we learned to tremble. Whatever poem was up for discussion that day, Frost was liable to be cutting, sarcastic, dismissive. The day when Untermeyer chose to read and discuss my poems was a day Frost didn’t come. I was relieved. One day Frost took over the workshop all by himself. He chose a young woman’s poem to read aloud, and asked for comments. A few people said a few fatuous things; only the brave or the stupid would lay themselves open to Frost’s wit. He dismissed the fatuities with a cast of his forearm. Then he said, “Who wrote this poem?,” his voice heavy with disgust. The young woman—I remember that she was small, attractive in a Cambridge manner, married to a Harvard graduate student—acknowledged authorship, looking deliberately stalwart. “No,” said Frost, “I mean, who really wrote it?” There was silence, bewilderment. After a long pause, while Frost held to the sides of the podium with evident anger, and stared at the audience as if he dared anyone to speak, the woman spoke again. “I wrote it,” she said, “and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You didn’t write it,” Frost said, and waved the typed page in the air. “You know who wrote it?” his voice pronounced the name with the heaviest sarcasm he could summon, and he could summon sarcasm as well as anyone: “T.S. Eliot!”
That afternoon at the workshop I gulped at Frost’s asperity, but I accepted the notion that it was warranted. And it was warranted—I will argue, now—if we take poetry more seriously than we take social smoothness. The poem was “written by T. S. Eliot,” on a bad day; and if anyone imitates another author, and shows it to other poets—well, she gets what’s coming to her. If we devote our lives to poetry, and take our lives seriously, we must praise and denounce with equal ferocity. People who follow the notion that praise is requisite—“Boost Don’t Knock”—should sell cars. To be a poet, as Frost was wont to say, you’ve got to have a snout for punishment.
But there was another side to his harshness: if the young woman had imitated Robert Frost instead of T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost would not have been so angry. He would have been scornful, but he would not have been angry. Frost was angry because most of the professionals in the modern poetry business—teachers or critics or reviewers—preferred Eliot over Frost. In his competitive ambition, Frost was outraged. For him—as he liked to say—there was room for only one at the top of the steeple—and he demanded to be the one. He was jealous of all other poets.
And not only of poets.
One day, I sat on the porch talking with him. I sat with a young woman from Bryn Mawr and her mother, both good looking. Frost rocked and spoke laconically yet wittily, proud and strong, delighted to hold this audience. We sat in the breeze, late afternoon, late summer, three of us, waiting for the words he would utter, and I was aware—as at times of love, of triumph, and of catastrophe—of the moment as I lived it. He asked me about my school, and about where I would go to college. Then Frost, who had gone to Lawrence High School and fitfully to Dartmouth and Harvard, disparaged higher education. At the time I felt uncomfortable, and did not know why; he was one-upping me; he could not help but make himself out to be better than any male around him, even if the male was sixteen.
I talked with Frost a few times during my four years at Harvard. He lived in Cambridge fall and spring. Around Harvard, Frost was cagey. America’s foundation is possibly not so much freedom of religion as freedom of competition; or possibly the religion of competition: Harvard is its Vatican City. The only Americans more competitive than Harvard undergraduates are Harvard faculty members. When I saw Frost at Harvard, it was among undergraduates and faculty, and he kept his elbows close to his sides, and he saw to it that he sat in a corner of the room, with his flanks covered. This was a sophisticated Robert Frost, suspicious, combative, happy, blessedly far from the benign farmer, capable of verses, one met in the news magazines. The great competitor appeared to enjoy the schoolyard of competition. If he made a slip it would never be forgotten. He made no slips.
Here sits Robert Frost in a corner, his eyes scanning the room for approaching enemies. Undergraduates ask questions about Yeats, Eliot, Pound. The corpses of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound litter the floor of the housemaster’s living room. Someone mentions Robert Lowell’s name. Frost says he guesses Lowell is pretty good. Of course he’s a convert, he says; he lays the word out like a frog in a biology lab. Frost remembers a story. Because he smiles when he remembers it, his audience understands that it is a malicious story. Frost tells us that Allen Tate’s a convert too; once he saw Tate at a party standing next to a Jesuit, and he walked over to them; he asked the Jesuit, “Are you a convert?” “No,” says the Jesuit. “Well, neither am I,” says Frost, and walks away. Telling his story he grins, and when he finishes, he laughs a slow long laugh, happy and mean. We laugh also. Tate’s and Lowell’s bodies join the heap on the carpet.
Three years after graduation I spent a year at Stanford on a writing fellowship. When I heard that Frost would read his poems there, I was delighted. But the reading was horrid. It took place in a huge auditorium, packed full. Some faculty attended and some students, but most of the audience appeared to be Robert Frost’s peculiar audience, who would not have attended a poetry reading by Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, but would have crossed flooded rivers to hear Robert Frost. Many were people who celebrated Frost for what he was not—and for them, he pretended to be what he was not. Finding himself with this audience, he cooed and chuckled, he trotted out his country sayings, and he performed his tricks: speaking one poem, he interrupted himself in the middle, smiled a “mischievous grin” at his audience, and cackled, “Now, that’s a good line.” And Frost put down “the professors,” those fancy intellectuals who read all those hidden meanings into a simple old fellow’s poems. Everybody laughed, everybody roared in delight. Almost everybody. I felt angry at his betrayal of himself and of poetry; he pretended to be the poet my grade-school teacher had praised. He performed in order to be loved. He played Mortimer Snerd for these people; he played the combination of Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd, making himself his own dummy.
Yet I went to Wallace Stegner’s cocktail party afterward. Stegner was an old friend of Frost’s from Bread Loaf, and he lived in a modern house fashioned neatly into the dry grass of California hills, great glass panels looking west toward sunsets. In the living room with its low soft furniture, blond wood and glass, Robert Frost sat in a deep chair with a martini in his hand. But this was not the creature of an hour before—kindly and folksy, cuddly and chuckly; this Robert Frost held the stem of his martini glass neatly between thumb and forefinger, drank a few, held his liquor, and denounced other poets. I remember that he spoke of Yvor Winters—who taught at Stanford, and who had written unfavorably of Frost—as “clever,” using the word as they use it at Oxford, as permanent dismissal: shallow, callow, meretricious, pretentious.
I had seen two versions of Frost: one a performer who manipulated an audience by lying to it, the other a malicious literary figure attacking his enemies. Neither version seemed connected to the poet who had made great poems. I went home and read “Home Burial” again, that early narrative, better than “The Death of the Hired Man,” sensitive to all measure of feeling. The wife has lost a child, and stands always at a special place on the stair, from which she can see his grave. The practical husband says that the living have got to go on living. But the wife finds it irreconcilable that life should simply go on, when her baby has died:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it.
Frost was inconsolable, over the losses of death. I think of “Out, Out—” where the boy loses his arm to a saw, and then dies of shock. “And they”—the poem ends, outraged—“Since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
So what was this man doing—I asked myself—being a buffoon on the platform, and a literary hit-man at a cocktail party, when he had written such poems?
The question was part silliness. The man on the platform, and the man at the cocktail party, was vain and vulnerable, needed adulation, needed victory; he was a man, not a monument. Because he had written great poems, I demanded greatness at all times and in all matters. “And I am not a demi-god,” said Pound in a late Canto. The old poet had created—over decades of work, rejection, suffering, failure, and success—a body of work; not an edifice, not a monument, not an institution. If he is a great poet, then that body is an alternate to his own; it is permanent, and it contains the best of him. The poet in his own skin will never equal his poems.
Still, the question bears asking another way: what purposes did it serve Frost to mount and present—that day at Stanford and on many other days—a public character so far from his own? The deception I think served large purposes. The best of his poems represented his feeling with honesty and accuracy—and with terror. Robert Frost lived in terror of madness and suicide. (If a child dies, and you cannot go on—what is it that you plan to do?) When he wrote the poems that told the terror, and that summoned intelligence to control the terror, he must have suffered in the telling. When he retold his poems at poetry readings, or answered questions about them, he lied and lied and lied—in order not to repeat that ordeal over and over again.
There was, I think, another reason as well: the need for love and applause was a need for forgiveness. I will speak of this later.
When I was back at Harvard as a Junior Fellow I helped Robert Pack and Louis Simpson edit The New Poets of England and America. I wrote Frost to ask if he would write an introduction for us; I did not think he would. For some months he did not answer. I wrote a second time; still no reply. At the publisher’s impatient request, we tried someone else, and a few days later I had a letter from Robert Frost:
September 18, 1956
Dear Don Hall:
There would be no excuse in the world for my not writing you juniors a preface to your poetry unless it were the poor one that I try to keep a rule of not writing prefaces. But rules aren’t meant to be kept. They’re meant to break on impulse when you have any impulse left in you; before the evil days when fun ceases. So if you will let me see some of the poems to take off from I’m your cheerful victim. I’ll be down in Cambridge in a week or two now where I can see you to talk the matter over. I’ve been hoping to see you anyway.
Mind you I’m roused up to do this con amore and I’m not so lazy that I can’t do it.
I was surprised, and pleased for the book. I sent Frost some poems. I did not see him. Although his letter invited me to pay a visit, I waited for him to telephone, as if he should prove his invitation’s sincerity by pursuing me with a lasso. After another wait, the brief and elegant introduction arrived. It was called “Maturity No Object,” and did little dances among notions of poetry and growing older. The prose was typical in its eloquent tortuousness, epigram softened by idiom. Frost was concerned that almost all American poets were students or teachers, and in his preface dealt with his doubts by promenading them without calling them doubts. And oh, he could make a sentence; he could make a pun, and turn his heel on it for a transition:
In fact the poet and scholar have so much in common and live together so naturally that it is easy to make too much of a mystery about where they part company. Their material seems the same—perhaps differs a little in being differently come by and differently held in play. Thoroughness is the danger of the scholar, dredging to the dregs. He works on assignment and self-assignment with some sense of the value of what he is getting when he is getting it He is perhaps too avid of knowledge. The poet’s instinct is to shun or shed more knowledge than he can swing or sing. His most available knowledge is acquired unconsciously. Something warns him dogged determination however profound can only result in doggerel. His danger is rhyming trivia. His depth is the lightsome blue depth of the air.
It’s the work of an older man. As I read it now, and I come close to fifty, it talks to me more than it used to talk.
Now the book was ready, and I sent the introduction to New York. But I did something else—or I failed to do something else. I did not write Frost to tell him that we had received the introduction, that we admired it, that we were grateful. I was still too young or too cloddish to understand that Frost of all people would be waiting to hear our approval. Really, anyone would be waiting—but perhaps especially an artist in his seventies making connections with artists in their twenties. I could not conceive that “Robert Frost” could care for my opinion. I could not grant him that humanity. Institutions do not have feelings, do not need bolstering. In a week or two, an aggrieved Kathleen Morrison, who as Frost’s neighbor and. friend often served as his go-between to the outside world, telephoned to wonder what was happening. I am sure she had heard certain grumblings.
When Frost wrote the introduction to our anthology, I knew that he served himself. He wanted to stay in touch with the young; although he would be jealous of any of us caught mounting the steeple, he wanted us to like him, to praise him. At the same time, perched where he was, it was generous of him to write for us at all, and he wrote well. Whatever the motives he acknowledged to himself, his motives were complicated; I believe that he could only acknowledge the selfish ones. When caught in the act of virtue, he would proclaim it vice. And about the time he wrote the introduction, he began to involve himself in another act of generosity. Or rather, Archibald MacLeish saw to it that he became involved.
Everyone knows that Ezra Pound was locked up in Washington from 1945 to 1958, as a result of treason charges. Almost everyone knows that Frost had a hand in the release. This magnanimity fit Frost’s old reputation for benignity, but does not square with Frost’s new, posthumous reputation for nastiness. But Frost’s character wore at least three faces. He could appear simple and sweet to the masses, twenty years ago, while in private and to his literary acquaintances he avowed that he was selfish and cynical. The third and least obvious Frost was secretly magnanimous, while accusing himself of being a saint for the devil’s reasons. To get Frost to do something good, you had to convince him that he could do it for a wicked reason.
Archibald MacLeish was leader of a circle of people who worked to free Ezra Pound. Perhaps MacLeish was the most effective of all the group, because his dedication was accompanied by political sophistication, by friends in Washington and in government. Still, the push to release Pound needed a stronger public force. Only Robert Frost was visible enough and respectable enough to push Congress.
The first and essential move was to persuade Frost to act. Now Frost never liked Pound. He owed Pound a debt of gratitude, which may account for initial dislike; they are rarely generous people who can forgive anyone for helping them get started. Pound had nothing to do with Frost’s original publication, but as soon as Pound read Frost’s poems, he promoted them with Poundian zeal, reviewing them, recommending them, and bullying the American public about this neglected writer. Frost didn’t like the bullying part, disliked Pound’s ridicule of America for Philistinism, and was fearful that American editors and critics would associate him with Pound’s rhetoric. There were obvious disparities between the two men. Frost was older, from New England, quiet, and private. Pound was young, noisy, flamboyant—it was the period when Pound wore trousers fabricated of green billiard-table cloth—and Frost would not have taken to him under any circumstances. Then for forty years Pound was champion of modernism and free verse, while Frost wrote sonnets and took every occasion to ridicule verse without meter. “I’d just as soon play tennis without a net,” Frost said one million times. While Pound, in his remarkable detachment, could praise Frost because Frost was excellent, even when Frost’s excellence ran contrary to Pound’s theories and advocacies—Frost was more like the common run of humanity, and could not forgive the difference.
Finally, Frost was a patriot. Pound considered himself a patriot, for that matter, and found it ironic that he should be called a traitor. But Frost shared the more conventional opinion that to broadcast for an enemy, in time of war, and to ask American troops to lay down their arms, sounded like giving aid and comfort to an enemy. Frost came from the world of the Republic, when Fourth of July orators denounced the British empire—and all other empires, ignoring our own adventures in Cuba, Panama, and the Philippines—and praised the independence and separation of this continent from the crowned heads of Europe and their wars. When the United States went to war, you knew that it was a righteous war, and you knew who would win. When Chinese troops overran the Americans in Korea, in the Yalu Valley, and Marines and regular army made the most massive retreat in American history, Robert Frost wept for three days. When Frost returned from a USIA trip with Faulkner, and Faulkner had been drunk on foreign soil, he denounced Faulkner as “a disgrace to the colors.”
So when MacLeish decided to convince Frost to help release Pound from St. Elizabeth’s, where he languished rather than stand trial for treason, it appeared a formidable charge. But MacLeish knew his man. I asked MacLeish how he planned to persuade Frost to intervene. Oh, he said, he would just tell Robert that Ezra was getting too much attention, locked up down there; if we get him out, people won’t notice him so much.
So Frost talked to the Attorney General on a couple of occasions, he called on some legislators, he talked with Sherman Adams, and his opinions were accepted in the newspapers as benign and fair-minded. MacLeish started the campaign, but once he was committed to help, Frost worked hard, making special trips to Washington, trying with his charm to influence the influential. Gradually Washington’s attitudes toward Pound altered and the Justice Department was able to release him in 1958. Four years later, when I saw Frost next, I asked him how he had happened to work for Pound’s release. He looked cunning, amused, and pleased with himself as he told me that Ezra was getting too much attention, being locked up down there; we got him out, now people don’t notice him so much.
At the inauguration of President Kennedy, in 1961, Robert Frost read his old and fine poem about the sense of nationhood, “The Gift Outright,” altering the tense of one verb, predicting great things by means of the future tense. He knew the poem by heart. Harsh sunlight kept him from reading aloud some chatty lines he had written for the occasion. For the first time in our history, a poet had taken part in an inauguration; and for the first time in our history, tens of millions of Americans heard a great American poet read a poem.
Frost was eighty-six, with only two more years to live. The inauguration changed his life, at the end of it. He became famous, like a President or an athlete. When he flew to Russia, and talked with Nikita Khrushchev, two books were written about that quick trip. When he went off to England for honorary degrees, and returned to his walkways of fifty years before, the return was well photographed and reported on; his life became a series of media events.
He loved it.
I was teaching at Michigan where Frost had been poet in residence briefly in the early 20’s. He had planned to stay in Ann Arbor back then, but the university president who invited him died, and the new president asked Frost an indelicate question: as I understand it, the new president asked him just exactly what he did around here. This insult gave Frost in his pride an excuse to pack up and return to New England, where he wanted to live anyway.
In 1962, the Student Union wanted Robert Frost to return to Ann Arbor and read his poems. He agreed to come, wanting to return to Ann Arbor on the tour he was making of places crucial to his life, the great goodbyes of an energetic ancient, goodbyes cherished and then repeated, the old man always retaining some confidence that he would, somehow, really be back yet again. The Student Union asked me to introduce him. I agreed, but I was nervous about it, half-expecting him to say something rude about me, maybe one of his lines about professors.
He would read April 2, on Monday night. Student Union officers met him Sunday at the airport, and took him to Inglis House, an elegant estate willed to the university and used as a guest house. Then a small group of us—undergraduate officers of the Student Union and his old Ann Arbor friend, Erich Walter, and I sat around with Frost for an hour, chatting while he drank a 7-Up. Walter talked old Ann Arbor times with him. I told Frost I had seen Pound two years before, and that Pound regretted what the newspapers had quoted him as saying—that Frost had taken long enough, to help him get out of St. Elizabeth’s—and Frost said, well, he should regret it.
Then he went on about Pound. He had seen a lot of people about Pound, he told us, but he never saw Pound; he didn’t want to see him, because of all the crazy things he heard Pound quoted as saying; he didn’t want to see him in that shape. Then he told us that he had never really liked Pound anyway, though he had things to be grateful for. In fact, he said, Pound was one of the reasons he moved from Beaconsfield, near London, down to a farm in Gloucester. He left Beaconsfield in order to avoid seeing Pound, at the same time not wanting to offend him; if he had stayed in Beaconsfield, he would have had to refuse invitations all the time. Why did he dislike Pound? He found Pound affected, always looking for something new, trying to find what hadn’t been done yet and doing it. Then he went on to say that he found Yeats affected too, and didn’t like him either. He told how Yeats had once observed to George Russell, “I think we must absolve the stars.” And old Robert Frost—sitting in Inglis House surrounded by admirers, eighty-eight years old, in 1962 remembering fifty years back—roused himself to anger over the ancient blarney of William Butler Yeats.
“Bunk!” he roared in his best American. “Bunk!”
Monday, the day of his reading, began with a press conference at eleven. We picked Frost up at Inglis House, and took him to the Regents’ Room in the administration building. A man from the university television studio showed Frost a drawing of himself made by a local artist for use in a television series. He signed the picture as requested, but grumbled: he didn’t like the picture, it thickened his face and made him look too stolid; also, the artist had swept his hair romantically down over his forehead. “I don’t wear my hair that way,” he said. “They’re trying to make me look like Sandburg.” Then he remembered a story to tell on Carl Sandburg, and as he told it, his own malice cheered him up, and his grumpiness vanished. I heard him tell the story twice later in the day, when he found some new faces to tell the story to:
When Frost was in Ann Arbor—the year he lived out on Pontiac—he brought Sandburg to read his poems at the university. Before the reading, Frost, who was living alone, cooked Sandburg a lamb chop. As dinner was ready to serve, Sandburg went upstairs to the bathroom and didn’t come downstairs for an hour and a half. Frost was furious, the dinner was ruined. “What were you doing there?” he asked Sandburg. “I had to do my hair,” Sandburg said, “for the boys.” Or that’s what Frost said Sandburg said.
At the press conference, Frost sat at the head of a long table, the television lights bright in his eyes and three cameras cranking. I sat beside him, my job to bellow repetition of questions into his ear, on account of his deafness. Frost was funny and lively, repeating things he had said before, happy, the center of everything. Then he signed some books for people, and we went back to Inglis House for lunch. Now he talked politics. We should have settled the Cuban problem a long time ago, he said, but he didn’t tell us how. And he ridiculed welfare, which he had been doing for thirty years. And he told about an argument he had with Justice Black.
Frost had met Black at Frost’s eighty-eighth birthday party, just a few days before, and Frost had immediately launched into a hymn of praise for the Supreme Court, one of the greatest institutions the world had ever known—he told us he said—and above partisanship. Black disputed the point, perhaps out of modesty. Frost’s praise, Black said, was sentimental; Black avowed that he was not removed from partisanship; he was a labor man and he had always been a labor man. As Frost told the story, he became angry; he told us that he told Black the Court should put “patriotism above party.”
After lunch someone drove us back to my house. In my living room he signed books for me—“from your old friend Robert Frost with high regard”; “remembering old Bread Loaf days”—and told me stories. Talking about the Kennedys brought up Teddy’s cheating on an examination at Harvard. Then he said that he never cheated in school, he wouldn’t have done such a thing; but his virtue, he hastened to assure me, was the by-product of a vice: he would not cheat because he was proud. He looked at me shrewdly—aware of giving himself away, delightedly giving himself away—and said that when he had gone to Lawrence High School he had been good at Latin; that he would come to school and hide in the bushes until the bell rang, then dash inside.
When he had told me so much he stopped, and watched me to see if I got the point. I did. He hid in the bushes with his Latin homework done by hand and finished. He would take no help on his homework—and he would give none either.
He wanted to see some classrooms, he said. We parked and walked through Mason and Angell Halls. Passing one lecture hall, I mentioned that I taught a class in it, “How much do they make you teach?” he asked.
I liked my schedule. I taught the same number of classes as anyone else, but they were jammed together into two afternoons; morning has always been my best time for work. “Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” I said. “One to four.”
His face changed; we might have been rivals for team captain, or for a girl, or for a last piece of chicken tetrazzini. Smug and powerful, he said, “They didn’t make me teach that much.”
He grew tired, after half an hour, and I took him back to Inglis House. He asked me what I had written lately, and said he wasn’t always sure what people were up to. I told him my latest book was prose, a memoir about my summers on the New Hampshire place where my grandfather farmed. He asked if he could see it; maybe he could read in it before his afternoon nap. After we left him at Inglis House, I went home and picked up a copy and took it back to the housekeeper for him. I was anxious that he like it. It was a book of love for my grandparents, and the other old people of the country, and for the culture they had known when they were young—culture of Lyceum and political debate, fairs, and baseball games that pitted married men against single men, of high schools that required Latin and offered Greek, of two-hour sermons and Christian Endeavor and the Willing Workers Circle of the King’s Daughters. It was a book of love for the dead and the dying, and of bitterness over loss.
When we picked him up that night, Frost wanted to know how tickets had gone, and when he discovered that Hill Auditorium was sold out, his pleasure expanded to fill the limousine which the Student Union had rented for the occasion. Four thousand seats; standing room only. His pleasure in a crowd found its counterpart if ever he lacked a crowd. Someone who ran a series of poetry readings in a large city has told me about Frost’s “madness of old age”—though I suspect that old age only made manifest what had earlier been lightly disguised. When Frost read in a series, she told me, she could allow no empty seats visible from the platform. If there were empty seats, the old poet would be inconsolable, would rage and fume, would invoke conspiracy and intrigue. In desperation, when she had a small audience for him, she and her assistants dredged additional bodies from offices nearby—free tickets, please come, just sit there.
Inside, we walked to a green room behind the stage so that Frost could rest for a moment. He told me he had been reading my book; it was good, he told me, and his eyes took on that amusement which let me know he had a wisecrack. “You talk about the decay of New England,” he said; of course he wouldn’t like that part so much, although he was a poet of deserted villages and abandoned farms. “It’s a compost heap,” he said.
When I left him backstage, to go out to introduce him, he said, “You know I can’t hear you. You can abuse me all you like.” Of course it was a joke; of course it expressed that same distrust which I felt. When he shuffled on stage, to immense and prolonged applause, I stayed long enough to hook the lavalier microphone around his neck. Then I went backstage, and watched the reading for a while on the television monitors; then I snuck out front and stood against the wall to watch him read for the last time. Bread Loaf, Stanford, Ann Arbor. It was the best of the three. He was triumphant, utterly happy, as he returned to a scene of his struggling middle age. In his triumph, he read with energy and conviction, stopping to make jokes on occasion, but no jokes to humiliate poetry, or the professors who looked for hidden meanings. And I, who had been afraid that he would belittle me, heard him speak of me with affection. He said he wanted to come to Ann Arbor, despite his recent illness, for a number of reasons, and one of them was to see a young poet he had helped to bring up. He left the audience with the impression that he had supervised my writing from the age of sixteen. He referred to me as a son. He started to mention String too Short to be Saved but he couldn’t remember the title, so he changed the subject. Then he said that New England was in decay, all right; it was a compost heap from which had come five Presidents and Donald Hall and himself, so it wasn’t so bad.
After reading for an hour, he looked as tired as he looked pleased, and he slowed himself down and stopped. I climbed onto the stage and undid his microphone. The audience applauded and stood up. He waved me off, and holding the microphone in his hand, said one more poem. Then he followed me from the stage—the audience standing and applauding again, determined to stand and applaud forever—and when we stood in the dark corridor behind the stage, he said, “It’s a pity not to let them have more when they are like that. Why don’t you go out and ask them if they want any more?” There was no stopping him. I told him that the question was unnecessary, that if he felt strong enough he should go out and do another.
After the second encore I led him back to the green room again—exhausted, gray-looking, but his eyes bright with triumph. Ten minutes restored him, and he was ready to return to Inglis House for scrambled eggs and 7-Up. When we opened the green-room door, we found hundreds of students crowded into the backstage corridors, waiting for a sight of the old poet. The white hair behind me drew cheers, and there was movement through the crowd as people pushed to see him. Hands held out copies of books for signing, autograph books, scraps of paper. We moved toward the car, Jim Seff and I running interference. Behind us Frost was saying thank you, thank you, and refusing to sign anything. Looking ahead, I could see that the doors were open and the limousine waiting. Hundreds more people milled outside around the car. He had dreamed his entire life of moments like this, and when the dreams came true they were every bit as good as he had expected them to be. At the same time, there was something in Frost that needed to reject the adulation when it took concrete form. In front of me as I struggled through the crowd I saw two girls; one of them looked shy, and held a piece of paper; the other, her bold friend, was urging her, “Go ahead. Give it to him.” So the shy one handed Frost a drawing she had made of him during the reading; the old poet squinted and shoved it back at her, still shuffling forward, growling, “What do I want with that?”
When we reached the car, he turned back to the crowd for a moment, before negotiating his way into the back seat, raised his arms above his shoulders like Eisenhower giving the victory sign, and said in a loud, tremulous voice, “Remember me.”
“We will,” said voices around us and in back of us and in front of us. “We will.”
Wedged into the back seat, Frost spoke slowly as the car moved cautiously out into the crowd, turning into the street. Oh, it was wonderful—to come back in this way, to have this kind of tribute. And it was so strange, he said, because even as late as when he was forty-five years old, he had never expected real recognition. He only hoped, he only felt able to hope, that he might make a couple of little poems that would stick. Stick in an anthology somewhere.
I listened to him, moved, and feeling closer to him than I had ever felt or dared to feel. Many times I had found myself amused or aghast at a poet’s vanity—since I first discovered it at Bread Loaf—Frost’s or my own or another’s. But “vanity” was a word used for the light side of a heavy thing. “Fame is the spur,” said Milton, in lines that faintly embarrass a good many people, “that last infirmity of noble minds.” The notion of fame embarrasses us because we confuse it with mere vanity, like preening before a mirror. Or we confuse it with celebrity, as if Milton had been confessing his desire to become Johnny Carson. Fame is a word for the love that everyone wants, impersonal love, love from strangers for what we are, what we do or make. People write poems when they are ten so that their mothers will love them; when they are sixteen so that their peers will love them; when they are thirty (and eighty-eight) so that the Muse will love them, and ages to come, and all men and women, universally, forever and ever, as long as the language exists and maybe longer. Although Frost had become a contemporary celebrity, and although Hill Auditorium resembled Johnny Carson’s audience more than Milton’s, Frost’s response to applause came from his deep and vast ambition to be a great poet, to be immortal, to write poems that would stick. His ambition was never merely to be a celebrated poet—that is mere vanity; it was larger and more serious than that, for he knew that to write great poems he had to make perfect works of art, which embodied wisdom and knowledge beyond the perfection of art. In pursuit of such ambition you may become pitiless and harsh to those around you. Like Orpheus you kill your wife a second time, by turning around to see if she enjoys your singing; then perhaps you deserve to be torn apart by the Thracian ladies, or by the Furies.
Or you think you deserve it; the poet sees to his own punishment. I was watching Frost’s face in the faint light of the back seat, and suddenly his face turned dark, “But it’s sad too,” he said. He spoke of “sadness,” which is a faint and crepuscular word, but his face looked more like “despair” or “agony.” “It has a sad side, too,” he said. For a while he said nothing; I did not know what he meant. “We were so poor,” he said. I remembered the years at Derry, the deaths of children, suicide, madness.
I left him at Inglis House, to eat his supper with undergraduates. He asked if he would see me the next day, and I told him that I hadn’t planned on it. He asked if I could visit him in Vermont next summer and I told him I could.
The next morning I had an errand in Detroit, so I wasn’t there when he telephoned. He wanted me to come over and talk with him, he told my wife Kirby. He had been reading String when he went to bed, he told her, and he wanted to talk to me some more about it. He asked if I could come over in the afternoon before he left for the airport; no, she said, I was teaching then, but she’d ask me to telephone him when I got back for lunch. Then she told him that she liked his reading the night before. The compliment allowed him to ask a question that had been troubling him: he had brought two different black suits with him, he told her, and while he was out on the platform last night he had realized that he was wearing the pants from one suit and the coat from another; could she tell? could she notice? Did she think anyone noticed? She could tell him without hypocrisy that she had noticed nothing, and he seemed relieved; well, he said, he guessed they were pretty much the same color.
When I called him up we made it definite about Vermont next summer. “I want to see a lot more of you,” he said, and referred to me again in metaphor as his son. All of this visit, he had remarked how tall I had grown. “I hardly recognized you,” he said, “when we first met. I didn’t remember you were so tall.” On the way to the press conference he had said, “You’re getting taller every time I look at you.” When I was sixteen at Bread Loaf I had my full height; it was as if Frost had to invent a new, larger man to explain his interest. Then on the telephone he returned to String too Short to be Saved. “So much more happened to you than ever happened to me,” he said, about a book in which little happened. Then he said something I carry with me. “You can do anything in poetry you want to do,” he said; I took it, correctly, that he meant to say that I hadn’t done a great deal.
In June, on our way from New Hampshire back to Michigan, we stopped at Frost’s cabin on the Homer Noble Farm at Ripton in Vermont, near Bread Loaf.
We were to come at midmorning. First we called at the old farmhouse, where Kathleen and Ted Morrison spent their summers, about two hundred yards downhill from Frost’s cabin. Mrs. Morrison telephoned uphill to the cabin, and told us that Robert would be ready for us in fifteen or twenty minutes. I felt annoyed—ungenerous, suspicious—as if someone with power kept me waiting in order to assert power. We passed the time of day with Mrs. Morrison—who must have spent so many hours like this, as doorkeeper or receptionist—until the phone rang and we were directed toward the cabin. It was a cool, sharp day, little sparks of rain in our eyes, a quick wind, as Kirby and I struggled uphill with our children. The log cabin appeared before us, not beautiful but comfortable, and the old man opened the door, smiling and handsome and vigorous. Behind him a fierce fire of birch logs blazed in the living-room fireplace. He had kept us waiting—he told us when he let us in—because it was such a raw and rainy day; he wanted to have a good fire going.
We visited for two hours, five of us, and the children were attentive and quiet. Frost monologued most of the time, out of his deafness. He wore a white shirt, dark trousers, and canvas shoes with thick rubber soles which comforted his feet. The flap of his belt—the loose part that sticks out past the buckle—incompletely fitted into the leather loop that was supposed to restrain it; this incompleteness bothered my daughter Philippa, who spent much of the two hours attempting to straighten the belt through the loop and smooth it flat. Frost accepted her ministry without complaint. Late in the visit, Philippa made her only show of boredom. “Do you have a TV?” she asked him. There was no set visible in the cabin. Frost would accept adulation from anyone. He looked down on the three-year-old, smiling from his deaf tower, and acknowledged; “You’ve seen me on TV?”
He rambled on, friendly and impersonal. He had turned down an invitation from Robert and Ethel Kennedy that day; they had asked him to a dinner dance, and he told us about it, bragging and making fun of himself. “I never been to a dinner dance,” he said. “That’s not my sort of thing, a dinner dance. They throw each other in the pool. I would have been ashamed. Not for them, for myself.” And he told about Ethel showing him around the grounds, which were “affluent,” he said. “We live like Republicans,” Ethel told him, “and act like Democrats.” Then maybe Frost felt he had gone far enough, showing fondness for the Kennedys. Just the other day, he told us, a Philadelphia newspaper had asked him to write a short patriotic essay, two hundred and fifty or three hundred words, on how the country had changed after Kennedy’s election. The notion made Frost impatient. “That’s bunk,” he said. “It’s not the administration. It was always there.”
So his talk went, in June of 1962, with this strange and happy audience. And all the time, as I sat listening and relaxed, I was aware that I would almost certainly never see him again, aware that this eighty-eight-year-old complexity, that I had seen walk out of the ground when I was sixteen, that I had admired, despised, feared, and loved—would go into the ground forever, before I could see him again. I could almost look ahead to a morning next winter, when we turned on the radio at breakfast and heard that Robert Frost had died in Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. And I could feel the loss as I would not have felt it a year earlier. I would feel—after so many years of fear and defense—that I had lost a model of survival, endurance; a model you need not so much at sixteen as at thirty-five.
That morning in the cabin Frost was vigorous and many-sided, determined to survive, complex and energetic. He talked about other poets; while we had visited New Hampshire, Frost had returned to Ann Arbor—yet again—to receive an honorary degree along with Theodore Roethke. Frost had known Roethke before, and spoke of him tolerantly, but criticized him—of all things—for being so competitive with other poets. Perhaps it was Roethke’s style which bothered Frost: Roethke made his competitiveness obvious with a boyish enthusiasm. (A few months after Frost’s death I saw Roethke in Seattle—not long before Roethke died, as it happened. He met me as I came into a house for a party, pulled me aside, dragged yards of galley out of the pockets of his jacket, and sat me down to read The Far Field, saying, “I’ve got a book coming out that’s going to drive Wilbur and Lowell into the shadows.” This announcement was made without malice toward Wilbur or Lowell.) Frost asked me as well if I knew a poet from the Midwest, a man I’ll call Harry Dutcher who was writing a book on him. Frost had met him and liked him a lot. Was Harry Dutcher a good poet? I said he was, and tried to say what kind of a good poet he was. Frost listened intently, and I felt that I could follow a trail of feelings across his face. I could see Frost the schemer, wanting Dutcher to write a favorable book, anxious that I should carry Frost’s flattery back to Dutcher. But Frost was a poor dissembler, and I could tell that his liking for Dutcher was genuine. And when Frost asked me the quality of Dutcher’s poems, he wanted to hear two distinct answers: one Robert Frost wanted to hear that Dutcher was good, because Frost liked him; another wanted to hear that Dutcher was bad, and be rid of a potential steeple-climber.
As we chatted, I looked around his room, at the lapboard he used for writing, at the books he was reading, notes sticking out of them—Robinson’s edition of Chaucer was there, and a volume of Horace. And I remember him attacking the idea that there was an American language. That notion was silly, he said; at least the notion that American and English poets were writing their poems in a different language was silly. Then with his usual ambivalence he contradicted himself: he said he wrote the way he talked, and it was an American way; he preferred the way he talked to the way Englishmen talked. “You went over there, too,” he told me. I had spent three years in England, and would return a year later. “I’m glad you didn’t stay over there and turn into an Englishman.” I don’t know if Frost knew that I had thought about it; he sounded as if he knew. Then he said something astonishing, that reflected his new amiability. “I like Eliot, and I like Pound . . .”—of course these clauses necessarily led into “but”—“I like Eliot and I like Pound,” he told us, “but they left us behind. They should have stayed over here.” He meant what he said; still, the old mind needed to flip again: “Of course, I heard an Englishman say, ‘What’s there to stay for?’”—and he laughed a brief, mellow laugh.
It was late in the morning. He walked to the door and looked out at the sun beginning to shine through the damp air. “It’s done rainin’, ain’t it?” he said. It was time to go. We shook hands all around, and talked about when we would see each other again. With eighty-eight years on one of us, we agreed to make this Vermont summer visit an annual occasion, and to stay longer next time.
We said these things as Frost walked us to our car. As we started off I watched him in the rear-view mirror, and saw him suddenly run after us. I stopped, and he caught up with us; he leaned in the window on the driver’s side, and reminded me to give his good wishes to Harry Dutcher when I saw him; he repeated that he hoped he was a good poet. We said goodbye again and I started up. This time I didn’t look in the mirror, but slowed down because of a hole in the driveway, when I realized that Robert Frost had run after us again—eighty-eight years old, with sore feet, jogging after the car—because his face suddenly appeared at my window. He had thought of one more thing; I would please not tell Harry that Frost had hoped he was a good poet, because that would reveal that Frost had not read his work.