(John moves over to the table and slumps down, he is gradually becoming more Frost like in posture and voice.)
Frost talked and wrote a great deal about poetry, but one of the truest things he ever stated is, “A piece of writing is as good as its drama.” He certainly proved it that day.
You know we think of Robert Frost as the quintessential New Englander, but he was actually born in San Francisco, March 26, 1874. His father was a political rebel who named his new son, Robert Lee Frost, after the Southern Civil War Leader. His father was alcoholic, abusive and remote so it fell to his mother to nurture and instruct him. She read him religious stories, myths and fairy tales. Later, she read aloud to him the poems of Burns, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Longfellow. The boy didn’t really read for himself until he was fourteen, but he wrote his first poem at fifteen and had his first published in a local paper three years later.
When Frost’s father died of tuberculosis in 1885, he left his family with just $8 after his funeral expenses had been paid. Robert, with his mother and younger sister, moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts to live with his grandfather. He married Elinor in 1895. She and Robert had been co-valedictorians of their high school class. He then headed off to Dartmouth College where he was bored and quickly dropped out of college. He fell more and more into long walks, night and day walks in the woods and hills. At the fraternity he had joined, where his antisocial behavior was making him unpopular, he was asked what he did in the woods alone. His response was, “I gnaw wood.”
Frost next enrolled in Harvard living with his wife, young son and mother-in-law in a small Cambridge apartment. Plagued with ill health and now having a new daughter added to the family, he dropped out of Harvard and took up poultry farming. His first son died of cholera at the age of four. But with his grandfather’s help, he purchased a 30-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, working by day and writing by night at the kitchen table.
About those days he said, “I was ambition-less, purposeless. For months on end I would do no work at all. I didn’t write because I wanted to write; I wrote because I wrote. I would exchange work with another farmer, perhaps during the haying, and for three weeks would sweat and toughen up. Then the hay fever would come on, and I would do no work until another haying.”
“No one can make a living at poetry,” his grandfather told him. “But I tell you what,” he added shrewdly, “ we’ll give you a year to make a go of it. You’ll have to promise to quit writing if you can’t make a success of it in a year. What do you say”? “Give me twenty,” the nineteen year old replied. And twenty years later, almost to the month, Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, was published in England where he, his wife and children had temporarily moved, followed a year later by North of Boston. One enthusiastic critic wrote, “Mr. Frost has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry.”
When he and his little family landed in New York, he had only a few dollars left. They carried their hand luggage across town to the elevated train, took it to 42nd Street and then rode a 42nd Street trolley across town to Grand Central Station. On one of the newsstands they passed, Frost’s eye was caught by the issue of the New Republic with his name and the title “The Death of the Hired Man” displayed on the cover. He had never heard of the New Republic; he had not even heard that Henry Holt and Company were publishing his poems in the United States. He left his family sitting in the station and went to the Henry Holt office. There he was given a check from the New Republic. He and his wife could now get to New Hampshire and start their life in America again. The man who had left as an unknown writer came back to be hailed as a leader of the new era in American poetry. He later went on to teach at Dartmouth, Amherst and the University of Michigan, and four times Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the best book of poetry of the year—the only poet to ever achieve that quadruple distinction.
But let me take a short detour here and tell you a little story of something I discovered myself about drama from Frost’s poetry. (to be continued)