In 1912, when Frost left teaching at the New Hampshire State Normal School in Plymouth to take his family to England in search of seclusion and more time to write, he was thirty-eight years old and all but convinced that, as a poet, he would never be a success. His first two volumes, A BOY’S WILL and NORTH OF BOSTON, had been published in London before he returned to America in 1915. The American edition of NORTH OF BOSTON, published with sheets imported from England, had been favorably reviewed in the New Republic by Amy Lowell and by Louis Untermeyer in the Chicago Evening Post. Soon after his return Frost undertook the public appearances which, continuing throughout his life, contributed so much to the legend that grew up about him as the cracker-barrel philosopher beloved for his homely wit and benevolent charm, the same man who was excused from leading chapel exercises when he was teaching at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire, because the prospect of such an ordeal so obviously terrified him. But he needed the twenty-five or fifty dollars he got for each reading; and he realized that letting the public see him would establish more firmly the literary reputation he had worked and waited so long to achieve.
MOUNTAIN INTERVAL, a third volume of poems, was published in 1916; and the following year Frost, who, as he put it, had run away from two colleges, accepted a teaching appointment at Amherst College where he continued until 1920, the year he sold his Franconia, New Hampshire farm and moved his family to another in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. Prizes, honors, other teaching appointments followed fast. Yet, in a sense, his difficulties were just beginning. The world intruded on his time; teaching, while it enhanced his financial independence, curbed his freedom to work; the lecture platform drained nervous energies he would have preferred to use for writing. To keep his equilibrium as he continued the search for his own poetic idiom was not easy. He was providing, moreover, for a sizable family two children had died; four remained as well as coping with the vicissitudes of domestic life. It is against this background of long neglect followed by sudden acceptance, of complicated and increasingly burdensome personal responsibilities, that his letters must be read.
Until the pressures of growing fame nudged him too sharply and too often, Robert Frost wrote letters chiefly because doing so gave him pleasure. Later, resolving to write no more letters of obligation, he threatened to wait until he wanted to say a particular thing in a particular letter to a particular person if he had to wait till the Second Coming. What, he wanted to know, did he get into writing for if it wasn’t for fun? That is not to say that when roused by resentment, or the need for a forceful rebuttal, he could not construct a letter as carefully as he felled a tree on his farm or built a stone path across the bog in his meadow. The construction itself was part of his fun. Since working with words so obviously delighted him, his letters, like his poems, are the reader’s delight as well, even when it must be that happy-sad blend Frost once spoke of as belonging, in the nature of things, to the final phrase of a poem.
In his intimate letters Frost liked to play with words as a retriever plays with a ball, used hyperbole almost as often as metaphor, and could give his lyric-dramatic imagination free rein with brilliant effect. Such letters may not be taken literally. Like poems, they simply are, and they make their own truth. Over a period of years, as he later confessed, he deliberately wrote letters to a certain correspondent in such a way as to keep the over-curious out of the secret places of his mind. It is not surprising that the poet who was of two minds about the statement that good fences make good neighbors should have hinted, in another poem, at the propriety of not exploring too deep in others’ business. Yet these letters of Frost’s are now being deeply explored by those who wish to distinguish between the Frost the American people loved and thought they knew, and the Frost who, much of the time, was acting a part he had consciously chosen to play. But if, for the purpose of protecting his privacy, Frost often threw dust in people’s eyes, he did not fool himself. He knew very well that petty resentments influenced him inordinately; that he sometimes resorted to deceit for more selfish purposes than to shield himself from those who would pry. Other reasons, too, make it difficult to read the man through his letters, for in Frost extreme...
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