The Story of a Friendship
As might be expected Robert Frost gets forty pages in The Norton Anthology of American Literature compared to his fellow poet and contemporary, Wallace Stevens, who only gets fifteen. But then, by the time of his death in 1963, Frost had effectively been America’s poet laureate for three decades.
My first contact with Robert Frost came many years ago when I read about his stay in Britain as the First World War loomed, and his friendship with the British poet Edward Thomas, a friendship that, for both of them, was life changing.
That same story came back to me recently when I read poet Matthew Hollis’s biography of Thomas, Now All Roads Lead To France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, which is a masterpiece of its genre: beautifully written with love and a clear understanding of the period, and of the effect that Thomas and Frost had on each other, and the sharing of a genuine love that stopped the two men from travelling along the road to self destruction, although Thomas’s death in 1917 when serving as an artillery officer in France, now has a feeling of inevitability about it, with Frost’s professed desire to fight, but eventual avoidance (he was too old anyway) of the conflict — and his attempts, after his return to the US, to get Thomas to move there and out of harm’s way — and his subsequent literary triumph a heavy counterweight the American carried with him for the rest of his long and troubled life.
Frost and Thomas first met in October 1913 at St. George’s Cafe in St Martin’s Lane, London (Thomas held court there every Tuesday afternoon), where they hit it off immediately, finding in each other such similarities of feelings and literary ideas. Their subsequent friendship was the deepest either man ever had.
Robert Frost’s Puritan ancestors had sailed to America from Tiverton in Devon in 1636, landing in the fledgling New England. As Jeffrey Meyer’s has written, one of Robert’s 17th century forbears, Charles Frost, duped a bunch of native Americans into dining with him and some friends who, once the invitees had laid down their weapons, were slaughtered by Frost’s merry band of thugs. When the rest of the Frost family heard of this they waylaid Charles on his way home from church one Sunday morning and summarily, and brutally, murdered him. Justice indeed.
Robert’s father, William Prescott Frost, Jr, was born in 1850 on the family’s New Hampshire farm, and later sided with the Confederates during the Civil War but, to his annoyance, was refused admittance to the rebel army. He began to brood, and after graduating from Harvard in 1872 rebelled against his puritanical family and was soon a fully fledged and rebellious and angry young man with full side whiskers and a temper to match.
Robert Frost’s mother, Isabelle Moodie, was born in Scotland in 1844, the daughter of a sea captain who drowned soon after her birth. Isabelle’s mother, Mary, (“ a hussy…”) then ran away from her motherly duties leaving Isabelle to be brought up by her father’s strict Presbyterian parents, which didn’t go down too well with the child. At the age of eleven she was sent to live with a rich uncle in Ohio, which was an improvement. After finishing High School she taught for several years in the same school, and then, in 1872, was accepted to teach the girls at Lewiston Academy where William Prescott Frost, Jr was teaching the boys. They were attracted to each other and after five months of talking about art, literature and poetry William proposed and the couple were married in Lewistown in the Spring of 1873.
Early the following year William headed for San Francisco where he became a journalist and later city editor of the Daily Evening Bulletin. The now pregnant Isabelle soon followed, with her son Robert born on March 26th 1874 in a hotel overlooking the bay.
As Jeffrey Meyers writes in his biography of Frost:
“ Belle had one happy year of marriage . But she was soon struck by the contrast between Will’s idealistic proposals and sentimental effusions when he arrived in San Francisco and his brutish and violent behaviour at home. Her intimate friend Blanche Rankin, who lived with the Frosts for six years, later told Robert: ‘ Your father was not cruel to Belle, nor could I say he was good to her. As for showing affection for her, he was too selfish to be affectionate…”
Isabelle’s only escape from William and the unhappiness he brought her was that of religious mysticism, culminating in her joining a Swedenborgian sect.
After the death of William in 1884, Isabelle took Robert back to New England to live with his grandparents (William’s parents) in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was not a happy situation, with the child and his mother often criticised by the elderly Frosts for their slovenly ways; but what could you expect, the elderlies may have thought and said, from a mother who had been born out of wedlock.
This criticism of Isabelle’s origins (unproven) would stick with Robert for the rest of his life, even to the point that he, as an older man, became convinced that his mother was indeed illegitimate and that he must be too. It was more fuel for his periods of deep depression and his father-like brooding and anger.
Of Welsh origins, Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth, London in 1878 (four years Frost’s junior), the eldest of six sons. His mother was Mary Elizabeth Thomas (nee Townsend),who, as best she could raising six kids, was always a great supporter of her eldest son’s literary ambitions. Edward’s father, Philip Thomas was not so supportive but was, nevertheless, a great inspiration to Edward through his love of his homeland of Wales, as Phil Carradice has written Philip Thomas was:
“…a Welsh speaker from Tredegar, a man with family connections right across south Wales. He had done well and risen in the ranks of the civil service but remained in close touch with his Welsh roots. The young Edward consequently spent many of his childhood holidays with family in various parts of Glamorganshire and the western counties.”
When Edward was born Philip was a civil servant working at the Board of Trade (today’s Department for Trade and Industry), with the family living quietly in the London suburb of Balham. As Edward grew he felt more and more imprisoned by the ever expanding suburb, and the quickly disappearing countryside.
Perhaps as a form of compensation Edward read from an early age, absorbing the works of Shakespeare and Hardy (encouraged by his mother), and when of school age attended Battersea Grammar School before being accepted for the prestigious St. Paul’s School in the City of London, where he was considered to be a sensitive and, by some, a ‘morbid’ child. Morbid or otherwise he managed to get into Lincoln College, Oxford in 1898 (no mean achievement) where he read history, and where, according to Jeffrey Meyers, he drank too much, took laudanum, discovered sex and caught gonorrhoea and, in 1899, was forced to marry his now pregnant lover, Helen Noble, a woman two years his senior. The couple had fallen in love almost at the first sight of each other, with Edward spilling out his heart to the attractive, slightly motherly and well read Helen. But through sheer hard work, and less booze, Edward managed to graduate with an acceptable degree in 1900. From that moment on he vowed to live by his pen. It was to be hard work.
While still at High School, Robert Frost fell for Elinor White, a slim and attractive girl eighteen months older than Frost. Both were Classics and English scholars, with Elinor writing poetry that often appeared in the school magazine.
By the time Frost had graduated in 1892 he declared he’d also fallen deeply in love with Elinor, convincing her that the reading and writing of poetry to each other must, and should, inevitably lead to sex. Elinor was not convinced, but submitted. Frost later admitted he’d been rather “…ruthless with Elinor and had bent her to his will…”. Elinor admitted later in life that she had been disgusted by his “…lust in action.” A bit of chip off the old Frost block.
Robert Frost, after leaving Dartmouth College (his grandparents had refused to send him to Harvard), didn’t really know what to do with his life (although becoming a writer was a dream) working at anything that came along including long shifts in the local weaving mills, delivering newspapers, plus the occasional teaching job. Then, possibly out of desperation, he asked Elinor to marry him, but she refused him on the grounds she wanted to finish her education.
After that rejection, and fully down in the dumps, Frost took off on a long walking tour of the Dismal Swamps on the Virginia/Carolina border where he tried to commit suicide by drowning in the dark and uninviting waters: he was chased off by jelly fish. He then took up with a bunch of drunks who were camping in the swamps and had a great old time drinking their wine. When he eventually returned home and told Elinor of his suicide attempt, which upset her hugely, he managed to convince her to marry him, which they did on December 19th, 1895. Their son Elliott was born in September the following year.
After their marriage Robert managed a short stint at Harvard, before leaving to try his hand at farming which, like his suicide attempt, didn’t work out too well, this time being chased off by chickens. But with a couple of published poems under his belt he was now determined to make it as a poet, and the obvious place to be to achieve that was England.
When all of this was going on, and the Frosts were packing up to leave for the land of Shakespeare, Edward Thomas found himself in great demand as a writer who could get things done and quickly, which meant he never had a minute for himself or his family, but he was earning money writing reviews for leading magazines and newspapers of the day, plus short biographies of dead writers and historians, plus a beautiful 1914 memoir of cycling across England called In Pursuit of Spring. But sadly, in Thomas’s view it wasn’t poetry, and Thomas really wanted to write poetry as he had in his youth. But he had to earn money.
In my opinion In Pursuit of Spring is poetry, every word and line as it takes a look at the England and the English, and the English countryside just before WWI. Frost thought it should have been written as a long poem, but he did make Thomas see things more clearly, that Thomas was a poet and not a hack. Edward Thomas had never been a hack.
Robert Frost and his family landed in England in 1912, settling in Beaconsfield (now better known for its splendid motorway services), with his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, published on April I the following year. And although his poems in that first volume use pastoral settings they are, as Frost admitted, not of England but of New England, and said something to the effect that the further he got away from New England the Yankier he got.
The poem ‘October’ is from that first collection. A taste:
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all…
Frost quickly made himself known to the London crowd of writers such as W. B. Yeats, Ford Maddox Ford, Robert Graves and the modernist, Ezra Pound, and, perhaps more importantly, the so called ‘Georgian’ group of poets, some of whom, in early in 1914, persuaded Frost to move with his family to a cottage to the north of the village of Dymock, Gloucestershire where they had settled and where he could be free to write, away from the noise and smoke of London. That often dwindling and changing group was, at its core, made up of Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfred Gibson, John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke. Frost agreed and moved and loved that part of Gloucestershire from the start. Eventually, in August 1914, just as war was declared, Frost persuaded Thomas and his family to join him and the others. All so very out of kilter with the rest of Europe that summer.
As Matthew Hollis writes, the village of:
“ Dymock lay to the north-west corner of Gloucestershire, in an enclave that spilled untidily into Herefordshire a few miles from the market town of Ledbury. The vale took its name from the Leadon or ‘broad stream’ which winds south and east through Dymock before tumbling into the Severn west of Gloucester. The valley is bounded to the north by the ancient Malvern Hills which rise for eight northerly miles toward the Iron Age fort at British Camp and their peak at Worcestershire Beacon…”
For the so-called ‘Dymock Poets’ it was a magical place that could become a new poetic nirvana, or put another way, seen from the perspective of history, a way of burying poetic heads in the cornfields, crumbling cottages and wooded hilltops. Naturally they would, of course, be seen by many of the locals as German spies and therefore something to be feared and not welcomed. D. H. Lawrence and Freida would suffer the same fate when they settled in Cornwall in 1917. A nevertheless understandable, but hopeless kind of naivete ruled.
Frost was an outspoken and loud and angry man who soon had run-ins with local farmers, which usually included the threat of being run out of town at the business end of a shot gun, or being woken in the early hours by the local policeman knocking on his front door asking to see his papers. During one encounter Thomas feared he had acted cowardly when he failed to back Frost in a confrontation (doubtful if Frost even noticed)with a gamekeeper. It was something that would haunt Thomas in France as he faced the enemy: did he have courage?
But then, when not riling the local constabulary, Edward and Robert took long walks to the borders of Wales, or north to the Malvern Hills, stopping at Inns, always talking: talking away their depressions and how poetry should be written — fewer adjectives — and that Thomas should write poetry again and become a great poet as Frost intended to be. Then they’d talk about the war, how Edward felt he should join up and Robert too, then stopping to listen to the birds singing in a copse of trees along a Roman Road, or the song of a lark rising from the cornfields, and watch the late summer breeze make patterns across the last of the corn as teams of men scythed, and dark clouds rose from the east with the sound of thunder in the distance — or was it artillery fire? — and then the two poets would laugh and wonder how far they were from home, and tell stories of different homes in different places: of New England and California, of holidays in Wales, and of wives and children, and of poetry — always of poetry with the sound of thunder, and the swish of scythes and Hares breaking cover before them, and the laughter of children and the barking of dogs and the rattle of a train heading who knows where. A last freedom as they soaked it in never wanting to stop, and both men knew they were brothers, but more than brothers, more than anything else on Earth.
And both poets always wrote of Dymock, whether they realised it or not.
What things for dream there are when spectre-like,
Moving among tall haycocks lightly piled,
I enter alone upon the stubble field,
From which the laborers’ voices late have died…
Under the after-sunset sky
Two pewits sport and cry,
More white than is the moon on high
Riding the dark surge silently;
More black than earth. Their cry…
But the violent reality of 1914 would catch up with both poets and the rest of the Dymock gang, and all would dissolve as the casualties mounted with Frost heading back to the US in 1915, and Thomas heading for France and war, and a different poetry that was now full of Dymock, but more importantly Robert Frost, with Frost’s full of the shock of his friend’s death.
Edward Thomas died as a result of shell fire during the battle of Arras in 1917, aged 39.
Robert Frost died of old age in 1963, aged 89.
Two of the greatest poets that ever lived.
Jeffrey Meyer’s biography of Robert Frost is essential reading for anyone interested in the poet.