‘Anybody want to Hear R. Frost on Anything?’ the poet asked Louis Untermeyer in 1916. Frost was 42 years old and believed he had an impressive list of lectures ‘in stock’. One of them was the ‘True Story of My Life’. It would begin with early signs of temerity and talent – ‘Stealing pigs from the stockyards in San Francisco. Learn to whistle at five’ – before moving on to bigger things: ‘“North of Boston”. Address Great Poetry Meal. Decline. Later works. Doesn’t seem to die. Attempt to write “Crossing the Bar”. International copyright. Chief occupation (according to Who’s Who) pursuit of glory; most noticeable trait, patience in the pursuit of glory. Time three hours. Very intimate and baffling.’
Frost was entitled to crow. A year earlier, his second collection, North of Boston, had been published in America to glowing reviews, and he was now in demand as a public speaker. He was writing to Untermeyer from his new farm in Franconia, New Hampshire; a few months later he would boast about the income he was getting from his poetry, and from the lecture circuit: ‘One feels that we ought to have something to show for all that swag; and we have: we have this farm bought and nearly paid for. Such is poetry when the right people boom it.’
The swag had been a long time coming. Frost’s fast-living and hard-drinking father died of tuberculosis when his son was 11, leaving the family $8 after funeral expenses had been paid. Frost’s mother, Isabelle, took Robert and his sister east from San Francisco to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived initially with her parents-in-law before Isabelle tried – with mixed results – to hold down a job as a teacher. Frost was many things before he was a poet; by the time he married at the age of 21, he’d worked at a shoe factory, a leather shop, various farms and a woollen mill (he changed carbon filaments in ceiling lamps). So when he ends his letter to Untermeyer with a price-list for his speeches – ‘Dollar a minute or sixty minutes for fifty dollars. I have to ask a little more where I introduce my adjectives immediately after instead of before my nouns’ – he isn’t just announcing that he’s finally made it, he’s saying that he doesn’t mind being seen to be on the make. Frost’s difficult childhood would continue to fuel his craving for attention, and his need to make hay while the sun shone (within a year or two he was charging three times the amount he suggests here). Enter R. Frost, poet for all occasions – whom Allen Ginsberg would describe as ‘the original entrepreneur of poetry’, the man who would tell Robert Lowell that hell was a half-filled auditorium.
The auditoriums were usually full, but one observer noted that ‘even when [Frost] consents to sit on a platform, he has a vanishing and peripatetic look.’ For somebody who made himself so intensely, incorrigibly available, he is a well-guarded figure. You could say his availability became his way of maintaining his guard. Here’s his reply to a critic who wrote in 1915 to congratulate him on his success:
Dr Mr Eaton:
It’s not your turn really. Before I have a right to answer your best letter of all there are a whole lot of perfunctory letters I ought to write to people who have been rising out of my past to express surprise that I ever should have amounted to anything. You may not believe it but I am going to have to thank one fellow for remembering the days of ’81 when we went to kindergarten together and once cut up a snake into very small pieces to see if contrary to the known laws of nature we couldn’t make it stop wriggling before sundown.
Like many of the letters, this has the makings of a Frost poem: an intimacy conjured up out of thin air, coupled with an unpredictable sense of where that intimacy might lead; talk of triumph over recalcitrant circumstances, alongside an implicit reservation about what the triumph really amounts to; and a dark toying with ‘the known laws of nature’ to see where your limits lie. A page later, Frost is talking to Eaton as if he has known him for ages (‘you know I don’t mean that’), while offering tips to the newcomer (‘I am really more shamefaced than I sound in a letter’). Eaton should feel privileged to be told that some things do not need saying, even as he is left wondering about what these other things are that are not quite being said.
Frost may have confessed to cutting up the snake, but he wasn’t about to dissect his own life. In this superb first volume of the Letters (two more are on the way) he doesn’t mention many of the crises that shadowed his early years. There are no letters, for example, from 1898-1901, although during these years he dropped out of Harvard (his grandfather lent him the fees), his mother died of cancer and his three-year-old son died of cholera (he blamed himself for not calling the doctor sooner: it was like ‘murdering his own child’, he said later). Frost’s family life became no less harrowing. His sister was placed in a mental institution, as was one of his daughters, and he would live to see the deaths of all but two of his six children: one daughter died three days after her birth in 1907; another died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her first child; his surviving son shot himself in 1940. The letters have less to say about the events in the poet’s life than about the life of his writing, although at several points the unspoken pressure of the life that informs the writing makes itself felt. The whole volume reveals a lot about the way Frost’s imagination works – and his desperation to make it work.
Frost spent a long time telling other people that there was more to come from him. ‘A young man knows more about himself than he is able to prove to anyone,’ he observed, and in the early letters he is repeatedly undertaking a future for himself. ‘Even in my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition,’ he wrote, at twenty, to the poetry editor of the Independent. Seventeen years later, in 1911, the ambition was still going strong: ‘The forward movement is to begin next year … So it is still mañana, you see. But don’t think to laugh with impunity at my boast as you may have laughed at the boasts of so many before. In my case you would find yourself mistaken.’ It turned out that mañana wasn’t far away. Frost had finally decided to sell the farm in Derry, New Hampshire that his grandfather had bought soon before he died. Frost had settled there in his late twenties, writing poetry late into the night. ‘It all started in Derry, the whole thing,’ he said. In 1912 Frost moved his family to England and met many writers, including Yeats, Pound and Edward Thomas, who would become his closest friend. Before returning to America in 1915, he wrote home with some news: ‘To be perfectly frank with you I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time. That will transpire presently.’
In their sharp-witted introduction, the editors of the Letters excuse this by claiming that ‘bragging isn’t really “bragging” when it’s so manifestly a performed thing.’ Well, it really is bragging, but it isn’t just that; the performance helped Frost imagine himself into being. Even after the success of his first volumes, he is anxious to impress on correspondents that he hasn’t got started yet; several other poems written during the years of neglect are ready to transpire, presently: ‘I have myself all in a strong box where I can unfold as a personality at discretion.’ Poems, like letters, could provide the opportunity for the discreet unfolding of ‘a personality’, but not necessarily of a person.
This edition aims to bring us closer to the person, so the editors are mindful of the ghost of Lawrance Thompson, the biographer and editor of Frost who was eager to disabuse readers about the personality they thought they knew. Thompson’s biography – shot through with personal grudges and unverifiable anecdotes – portrayed a deceitful, self-deceiving man; Thompson introduced Frost’s Selected Letters by noting his ‘manner of seeming to be so natural, direct and confiding in all forms of communication; but he was never as natural as he seemed.’ Sheehy, Richardson and Faggen are keen to set the record straight. Thompson, they write, ‘thought he found the poison of calculation tainting all the letters Frost addressed to editors, anthologists and critics’, but these ‘calculations’, the editors believe, ‘are almost always above board, and most often very winning’. This is stretching things a little. Besides, Frost can be winning even when he’s not being above board. When trying to influence Jessie Rittenhouse’s choice of poems for the Second Book of Modern Verse, he admits he’s up to no good and adds, in mock horror, ‘next I shall be telling the critics what to say about me in their reviews.’ He shall indeed. He was bothered enough to write to Rittenhouse again a few weeks later: ‘I am going to let you decide entirely for yourself … I mustn’t influence you one way or the other. I didn’t influence you in my last letter. I’m not influencing you now. No, I’m sure I’m not.’ This is a cunning impersonation of being above board from the man who confessed elsewhere: ‘After all I am but a timid calculating soul always intent on the main chance. I always mean to win.’
The volume really gets going in 1912, the year in which the 38-year-old Frost walked into a publisher’s office in London to inquire whether they would take his poems. ‘I suppose I did it to see what would happen,’ he recalled, ‘as once on a time I short-circuited a dynamo with a two-foot length of wire held between the brushes.’ Most of this first volume covers the period in which Frost’s career finally took off. The letters don’t just talk about the poems; in the tones they take and the figures they make, they bring the poetry to mind even when it’s not being discussed. One version of Frost – the advice-giver, or the teacher who gravitates towards epigram and aphorism – is very much to the fore. From the age of 19 he taught at several schools and colleges, and this volume ends just as he is resigning as professor of English at Amherst. He enjoys offering sage counsel, and he’s good at it too (his letter to his daughter about how to write an essay is the best thing I’ve read on that ticklish subject). Having said that, he is also aware of his tendency to gravitate towards the glib or the showy (‘War is war and sometimes I think peace is too. Damn, there goes an epigram’), and often takes care to guard against it (‘didn’t you notice my attempts to be sententious?’), or to offer comments that are not prescriptive in any straightforward way (‘We haven’t always to be either good or bad you know … Give yourself a chance’).
This tussle between the sententious and the unassuming aspects of Frost animates – and sometimes enervates – the poems. Randall Jarrell once referred to his ‘cast-iron whimsy’, and noted that ‘we begin to read Frost, always, with the taste of “Birches” in our mouth – a taste a little brassy, a little sugary.’ The taste might have something to do with the poem’s pronouns. ‘Birches’ opens with the words: ‘When I see birches … I like to think some boy’s been swinging them,’ before shifting to ‘You’d think … You may see,’ and ending with a pearl of wisdom: ‘One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.’ The movement from ‘I’ to ‘you’ to ‘one’ feels a little too cosy or coddling, as though the one thing needful were for the experience to be converted into a form of knowledge. The ending of ‘Neither out far nor in Deep’ strikes a weirder, less knowing note. The speaker thinks about people on a beach who turn their back on the land and look at the sea all day:
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
This doesn’t try to tell us that one could do worse than be a stander on beaches. Imagine if ‘we’ took the place of ‘they’, or if the closing question were phrased as a statement (‘But that was never a bar …’). What would be lost is the fragility of the poem’s hold on what it thinks it understands, and the sound of a voice that recognises how alien other people can be, even from – especially from – someone who shares their perspective. Even the closing rhetorical question seems to be in need of an answering assent. Writing like this does not come from the poet who on other occasions is content to offer audiences a knowing wink; it comes from the poet who once admitted: ‘I am too flooded with feeling to know.’
At their best, Frost’s letters and poems are wonderfully untutored even while they refuse to give up on the attempt to eke out something knowable from the mist of their apprehensions. The poems that made Frost’s name, the blank verse narratives in North of Boston, are full of wise saws – ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ and so on – but even though readers might sometimes catch themselves thinking ‘Damn, there goes an epigram,’ the poems also put the proverbial or the homespun phrase under pressure. In ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, one speaker defines ‘home’ as ‘the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in’; another says that home is ‘Something you somehow haven’t to deserve’. What the poem communicates is not which of them should win the prize for the best nugget of wisdom, but rather a sense that both are trying to make themselves more at home in the world, to render their experience hospitable through aphorism.
Frost claimed to a friend that ‘I make it a rule not to take any “character’s” side in anything I write’; he had to make it a rule, perhaps, because he found it so hard to resist the temptation. He may not take their side in what they say, but he does take their side in their needing to say something, and this is related to his sense of himself as a ‘character’, someone who is aware that his own recourse to definitive utterance may be a trap as well as a support: ‘All I insist on is that nothing is quite honest that is not commercial,’ he writes to Untermeyer. ‘You must take that as said in character. Of course I don’t mean by that that it isn’t true.’ Frost’s letters are plagued and energised by concerns about how they might be taken, and by doubts about whether they really mean what they say, partly because he writes letters like he talks – and like he composes poems. He writes to improvise with himself: ‘Places are more to me in thought than in reality. People are the other way about. (Probably not so – I am just talking)’. Or to begin a conversation: ‘I said to Sidney Cox years ago that I was non-elatable. While I wasn’t actually fishing I hoped he might see I wanted to be contradicted.’ Which is of course not to say that he is elatable.
Sometimes this slippery, furtive posture makes you wonder what Frost is hiding, and sometimes it makes you wonder what you’re hiding if you don’t play along. He’s not generally the sort of person who makes a joke and then says, ‘but seriously’. His letters are instead interrupted by the phrase ‘but seriousness aside’, as if to imply that a certain type of serious thinking is holding him back from what’s really worth saying. ‘Perhaps you think I am joking,’ he warns one correspondent. ‘I am never so serious as when I am.’ He is ‘Sinceriously yours, Robert Frost’, and he wants it understood that words like ‘sincerely’ and ‘seriously’ may be overrated. This roguishness can become wearing (he sometimes flaunts it merely to get himself off the hook), but more often it indicates his willingness to explore the values as well as the dangers of being precariously placed. Humour becomes a sort of confession:
Any form of humour shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a kind of guardedness… At bottom the world isn’t a joke. We only joke about it to avoid an issue with someone … Humour is the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out of gunshot.
This is revealing, although the exaggerated, almost self-lacerating tone is dropped elsewhere when Frost conceives humour not only as ‘engaging cowardice’, but also as a method for engaging with cowardice by reimagining avoidance as an achievement.
Inside and outside the letters, he appears to be searching for ways to be afraid that won’t make him feel like a coward. In his introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s King Jasper, he quotes a couplet from Robinson’s ‘Flammonde’ – ‘One pauses half afraid/To say for certain that he played’ – and adds:
his much-admired restraint lies wholly in his never having let grief go further than it could in play. So far shall grief go … and no further. Taste may set the limit. Humour is the surer dependence … His theme was unhappiness itself, but his skill was as happy as it was playful … One ordeal of Mark Twain was the constant fear that his occluded seriousness would be overlooked. That betrayed him into his two or three books of out-and-out seriousness.
The theme, the ordeal and the fear are Frost’s too. The best jokes in his letters are shadowed by anxiety, just as laughter in the poetry is endowed with fearful consequence. ‘I shall not forget how his laugh rang out,’ one speaker recalls in Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will, and he has an ear for laughs you can’t get out of your head, from the agonised claim of the husband in ‘Home Burial’ – ‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed’ – to the ‘rueful laugh’ of the boy who accidentally cuts off his hand in ‘Out, Out – ’. In ‘The Bonfire’, the figure who encourages the children to scare themselves by setting fire to brushwood is felt to be the poet’s double, and the poem ends with a bewitching invitation:
I wasn’t going to tell you and I mustn’t.
The best way is to come up hill with me
And have our fire and laugh and be afraid.
The laughter won’t simply palliate the fear; it will be part of it, and may even accentuate it. These words are spoken by a man who has it within himself – as Frost would later put it – to scare himself with his own desert places. And he wants others to feel something similar so he can feel a little less alone without giving himself away. ‘I’d rather be taken for brave than anything else,’ Frost said towards the end of his life. If his public were to take him like this, they would need to take a hint from his humour, to sense that he was courting danger when he was courting laughter. For Frost, these are things good writing should court: ‘Write something for me,’ he implored a friend. ‘Give it a pain, a laugh, a thrill.’
Despite the thrills – or because of them – several of Frost’s letters appear to be written in order to ward something off. ‘I have nearly written myself tired for tonight,’ he ends one letter. ‘Write often and keep my courage up.’ A few months later, he confesses: ‘I’m too tired to be awake writing.’ The night fears he suffered as a child continued throughout his life (in an interview with Hyde Cox, Frost said he wanted ‘somebody there at night so that he could talk himself to sleep’). Writing to friends became one means of doing that talking – and of keeping the light on. The poetry too has the air of something written at night and against night; his first published poem, composed when he was 15, is titled ‘La Noche Triste’. Recalling those formative years on the Derry farm, he said: ‘I always liked to sit up all hours of the night planning some inarticulate crime.’ When they were articulated, the crimes were poems or letters; he imagined these forms of expression both as whistlings in the dark and as decisive acts of daring. Take ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’, a poem Frost singles out in these letters as the best thing he’s written. The story is told of a man who kept a house in which ‘all out-of-doors looked darkly in at him’:
He stood with barrels round him – at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off; – and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
One method for coping with fear is to out-scare what scares you; another is to try to stage-manage when fear makes its entrance; another is to share it or pass it on, to make it catching. These lines depict the first two options while stealthily attempting the third. As so often with Frost, the word that raises the pulse is the apparently innocuous one: ‘has’. ‘Had’ would have kept everything safely in the past, but ‘has’ insists that the sounds that were meant to be drowned out by the clomping and the beating continue to reverberate into the present. Beating on a box may help for a while, but when you get tired the trees and branches will still be making their unrelenting noise. ‘My poems … are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless,’ Frost wrote in 1927. ‘Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.’
Several letters in this volume – especially those in which Frost explains the acoustics of literary craft – have long been considered essential for casting light on his dark arts. ‘Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature,’ he writes to one correspondent, ‘metres are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature.’ Frost wants to get into print sounds that appear to come from the body before they come from the mind. The sounds are creaturely, uncivilised things:
[A poem] begins as a lump in the throat … It is never a thought to begin with.
A certain fixed number of sentences (sentence sounds) belong to the human throat just as a certain fixed number of vocal runs belong to the throat of a given kind of bird.
All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book … They are always there – living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were.
Like the strongbox, or the dark house, or the woods, the cave of the mouth is another of those Frostian dark places both cherished and feared – sometimes a shelter and sometimes a place from which one must emerge. Edward Thomas appreciatively remarked that North of Boston contained language ‘more colloquial and idiomatic than the ordinary man dares to use even in a letter’, and the letters are similarly daring. Their recipients are told that the only way to read them satisfactorily is to ‘renew in memory from time to time the image of the living voice that informs the sentences’. ‘This pen works like respiration,’ he observes, and once he’s paused for breath insists on having a conversation rather than a correspondence: ‘What do you say?’; ‘Let’s see what I was going to say’; ‘You don’t listen with much patience, I notice.’
Those who are willing to listen will notice that Frost keeps returning to one of his central principles – he calls it ‘the sound of sense’ – with devious energy. Whatever else this tricky phrase signifies, it points to the way tone enhances and complicates meaning: ‘Suppose Henry Horne says something offensive to a young lady named Rita when her brother Charles is by to protect her. Can you hear the two different tones in which she says their respective names, “Henry Horne! Charles!” I can hear it better than I can say it.’ On other occasions, Frost makes his point by rewriting the ostensibly toneless – ‘The dog is in the room. I will put him out. But he will come back’ – as the vividly toneful: ‘There’s that dog got in. Out you get, you brute! What’s the use – he’ll be right in again?’ His most famous example, in a letter to John Bartlett, is full of provocations:
The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:
You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher.
This is a bracing yet wily prose poem of sorts. It focuses on one person’s possible misinterpretation of what the other person means, and yet just because they ‘said no such thing’ doesn’t mean they are in fact saying that they can read. ‘You’re not my teacher’ could be stalling for time or covering for embarrassment, or it could be a genuine refusal to take a lesson from this upstart pedagogue. The sound of sense can be heard clearly, but the sense that lies within or behind the sounds is not wholly clear. And that’s when we know the words, not when we’re behind the door. If that is indeed ‘the best place to get the abstract sound of sense’, what is obtained is an intimation of meaning, not its confirmation. Whichever side of the door you’re on, things are murky.
Frost spent much of his life wondering whether he was on the wrong side of the door. He seemed haunted by the moment when, as a young man, he turned up late to work at the mill to find the door locked on him: ‘You can’t do this to me!’ he shouted to the foreman through the iron grille. But he also feared being shut in, and in both his life and his writing a sense of exclusion jostles a feeling of claustrophobia. The poetry, too, is particularly mindful of doors and doorways: in ‘Home Burial’, the wife’s grief is entangled with anger when she tells her husband, ‘I heard your rumbling voice/Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,/But I went near to see’; ‘The Housekeeper’ ends with a man who has opened the door to a conversation he needs to hear but can hardly bear to know about, backing away almost immediately: ‘She raised her voice against the closing door:/“Who wants to hear your news, you – dreadful fool?”’ In neither poem is it wholly clear what is to be gained by the opening of doors. In ‘The Lockless Door’, the speaker inhabits a house alone for many years until at last there comes a knock at the door that has ‘no lock to lock’. He blows out his light, tiptoes around, even raises ‘both hands/In prayer to the door’. But the knock comes again, so he climbs onto the windowsill and descends into the night. The poem ends:
Back over the sill
I bade a ‘Come in’
To whoever the knock
At the door may have been.
So at a knock
I emptied my cage
To hide in the world
And alter with age.
The scene revisits the terms of a letter Frost wrote to Harriet Monroe in 1917 about his love for some poems in which the ‘meaning is meant just to elude you going out as you come in’. This poem revels in such elusive behaviour, while also suggesting that its maker lives in terror of a reader who knocks and seeks entry. And yet, the speaker could have chosen simply to disappear into the darkness without pausing to say ‘Come in.’ It’s as if he wants to be hospitable, but has to get out of the room. ‘A poem would be no good that hadn’t doors,’ Frost later observed. ‘I wouldn’t leave them open though.’
When he claims that ‘every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements,’ Frost is also writing autobiography; he knows himself to be the most wilful of men, and he tends not to relish his will without sensing something trying to block or resist it. In his poetry, that something is the formal demand of the metrical line; in his letters, it’s usually the recipient (‘You don’t listen with much patience, I notice’); and in his life, it’s often the literary or educational establishment: ‘I remember one professor when he heard I’d had a few things published looked down his nose and said to me, “So we’re an author, are we?” I just got up and left. It’s an old story. Courage and adventure. Courage for that kind of adventure.’
Frost was always getting up and leaving, yet although ‘will’ is his usual synonym for ‘courage and adventure’, he very rarely speaks of his will, or her will, or your will, but rather of ‘the will’ – a will that has a mind of its own and might not be amenable to its owner’s designs or directions. Even when the will does have an owner, mischief is afoot; the title of his first collection – A Boy’s Will – lets readers know that the boy done good, yet it’s also the older man’s way of casting sideways glances at an earlier self. Frost may want people to see him as intrepid, venturesome, decisive – and he is all of these things – but much of his best writing explores the possibility that choices are oversights, or accidents, or compulsions. In the letters he speaks of ‘impulses (not motives) in writing’, and when describing the poems in North of Boston he tells Thomas Mosher ‘I chose a sort of eclogue form for them. Rather I dropped into that form.’
The poems in North of Boston, in particular, appear to be fascinated by the ‘I will’s and ‘I won’t’s of life. At the crucial moment when his career was gathering momentum, Frost seems to have been given to studying the wilfulness of words, how they will have their way with you regardless of what you think you’re saying. This predicament is raised to an almost unbearable pitch in ‘Home Burial’, a poem written after the death of Frost’s infant son. The husband in the poem seems to want to move on, to put an end to grieving, but the wife is adamant: ‘I won’t have grief so/If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!’ Randall Jarrell brilliantly observed that this ‘sounds helplessly dissolving, running-down; already contains within it the admission of what it denies. Her “I won’t have grief so” reminds us that grief is so, is by its very nature a transition to something that isn’t grief.’ The poem’s closing lines, issued from the husband’s perspective, are just as tangled. His wife is threatening to leave the house:
‘If – you – do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will! – ’
The Frostian note is sounded in the way ‘I will! – ’ is made to carry both impotence and drive. The line sounds childish, ominous, devastated. And it’s not that we don’t believe him, although it’s hard to tell exactly what he will do; it’s more that his having to say it like this brings him up close to everything his words and deeds cannot solve. As so often in Frost, the image of the door marks a gulf and a possibility; she doesn’t fully know if and where she means to go, any more than he’s sure of what he really means by the words he wants both said and unsaid.
Frost’s letters are vital documents not simply because they throw more light on his work, but because they throw more darkness on it. Perhaps the best example is his most famous poem, a poem initially sent as a letter to Edward Thomas. The speaker of ‘The Road Not Taken’ repeatedly says that the two roads are much of a muchness (one is ‘just as fair’ as the other; they are ‘really about the same’; they both ‘equally lay/In leaves’). Then the last stanza arrives:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by;
And that has made all the difference.
This could be Frost’s grandest statement of self-making and self-reliance. Or it could be a rueful joke about the need to make that sort of statement; the speaker anticipates that, ages hence, he’ll be tidying up an impulsive action and offering it as a touchstone for those who like poems to provide a figure of the will braving alien entanglements. Readers seeking clarification from Frost’s letters will be led a merry dance. In his edition of Selected Letters, Thompson took one of Frost’s claims and rode it hard: the sighing speaker was to be seen as Edward Thomas, but ‘Thomas missed the gentle jest because the irony had been handled too slyly, too subtly.’ Frost does tell Thomas that the sigh is ‘a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing’, and on another occasion teased his friend: ‘No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ But he told a different story to other correspondents: ‘It was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life. I suppose I was gently teasing them.’ So somebody is being teased, maybe. An editorial footnote in the Harvard edition reads: ‘R.F. meant the poem (in part) as a playful registration of Thomas’s indecisiveness, a point lost on Thomas.’ ‘In part’ is intriguing: it could mean that the speaker is partly Thomas and partly Frost, but also that the poem is partly playful and partly something else.
Frost assured Thomas and others that ‘The Road Not Taken’ was merely ‘fooling’. Thomas replied to his friend’s disclaimer: ‘I can only plead that if you now speak the truth then I had good cause for being in two minds at the start … can I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them & advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on.’ Thomas’s canny ‘if’ keeps the poem open in ways that Frost may not have wanted. Richard Poirier suggested that he ‘often seems afraid even of his own poetry’, and I think this is true of Frost’s response to ‘The Road Not Taken’. It made him want to disavow a feeling he’d suddenly found himself creeping up on. Even if one reads the sigh as a ‘mock sigh’, that mockery can still include within it the sound of a pained regret that the poet takes seriously – not only because other roads and opportunities remain untaken, but also because he senses that his need to justify his life-story is itself a cover-story for a life he can’t quite map or measure. ‘How can the world know anything so intimate as what we were intending to do?’, Frost once asked. The question may not simply imply that he’s keeping some things to himself, but that intention is also an enigma to its owner. Besides, as he admitted elsewhere, ‘you can never tell what you have said or done till you have seen it reflected in other people’s minds.’