Vermont Reads: Robert Frost - New England, a Sense of Place
09/16/08 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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(Mitch Wertlieb) VPR is considering the life and work of poet Robert Frost, as told in the book "A Restless Spirit", The Story of Robert Frost by author Natalie Bober. It's part of Vermont Reads, a statewide reading program sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.
Frost lived in Northern New England for many years - first in Lawrence, Massachusetts, then in New Hampshire and Vermont. He wasn't born here - he was born in San Francisco in 1874 - and he spent time in Florida for his health and also several very productive years in England, but he taught here, wrote here, farmed here, and raised a family here. He is also buried here - in Bennington. And though his mother was from Scotland, his father's ancestors were among New England's first Puritan settlers.
His poetry is all about sense of place.
Frost spent five years and many summers in Franconia, New Hampshire. The executive director of the Frost Place, Jim Schley, says it's one place the poet's family, including his wife Elinor, was entirely happy, and that helped create a fruitful period for Frost:
(Schley) Elinor loved Franconia, the four children who spent that crucial time - they were between 8 and 14 when they moved in there so it was really their school years, their young years - the interim in Franconia was not only a happy time for the family but it was also where Frost concentrated on writing full time and went from being basically unknown to being on the verge of national and then international fame.
(Wertlieb) Now, in her biography of Frost, Natalie Bober notes that it was a place where he felt comfortable enough to stop in on his neighbors and say, "Oh, do I smell coffee? That smells delicious." Did his neighbors appreciate him?
(Schley) I think he was seen as eccentric and interesting and he was also a really good listener. People who know his work would not be surprised to hear me say that, because his work is full of talk, and in some cases the poems are almost like plays in that there are dialogues between people talking and he has one poem, called "A Time To Talk", where he describes a sort of a personal ethos, which is: if you're hoeing potatoes and someone comes by on the road, you don't just wave to them, you go over, it's the time to talk.
And I think that was because he was really interested in the way people expressed themselves - sometimes indirectly or obliquely - and he did a lot of walking. You know he wasn't a write-at-your-desk kind of writer. He would go out for hours and hours and walk and compose that way and come back and write down what he had been working on, and I think he often stopped in for a coffee.
(Wertlieb) But I do wonder how much of New England - going out for walks, visiting with neighbors, being part of this place - doesn't that lend a kind of staying power to his poetry?
(Schley) Yes, and I think he had the feeling of: this place deserves a poet and has an opening and I'm going to take that opening.
(Wertlieb) Frost's granddaughter Robin Hudnut says Frost's love of the natural world of New England was evident at the Stone House in Shaftsbury, where he lived for a time:
(Hudnut) If I could imagine grandfather at this house right now, walking along, I should think he would be busy, checking on how something was growing, checking whether or not there were branches that needed to be pruned, if there was an area that could increasingly be planted. He'd be looking for weeds. If he were here, there would be a vegetable garden. I see rhubarb - he might be cutting rhubarb, and taking it in and hoping somebody might boil it up or turn it into a pie. I would see him at work.
(Wertlieb) In her book, author Natalie Bober tells about Frost's love for "Botanizing" as he put it - an interest in the close observation of the natural world that was inspired by a boyhood friend, and one that found its way into his poetry in sharp detail.
(Bober) He made plans to take Elenor on a delayed honeymoon. They asked Carl Burell, their old friend from Lawrence High School, to help them find a cottage to rent in the country. This he did - in the village of Allenstown, New Hampshire, near the Suncook River. Before Rob and Elinor arrived, Carl planted flowers around the house and started a kitchen garden of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peas and string beans for his friends. The original interest in "botanizing" that Rob had absorbed from Carl years before was about to be reawakened.
Carl's enthusiasm was easily transferred to Rob and Elinor. They delighted in the specimens of plants he gathered along the road between the boardinghouse where he was living and their cottage. He told them stories about the color and structure and fragrance of flowers and soon had Rob borrowing his books on botany, reading them avidly, then taking long walks to look for specimens himself.
At first Elinor accompanied him on these walks. As the summer wore on, though, she found herself more inclined to rest than to walk. She was by then, seven months pregnant. She encouraged Rob to go without her, often napping while he was gone. When he stayed away longer than expected the old feeling of guilt would return - particularly when Elinor characteristically said nothing to reproach him. His tender love poem "Flower Gathering" was written as an apology to her.
I left you in the morning,
And in the morning glow
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty gray with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not,
Or dumb because you know?
All for me? And not a question
For the fadded flowers gay
That could take me from beside you
For the ages of a day?
They are yours, and be the measure
Of their worth for you to treasure,
The measure of the little while
That I've been long away.
(Wertlieb) Middlebury college professor of literature John Elder says the poem "Flower Gathering" is a good example of Frost as a naturalist.
(Elder) "One of the things that's in fact notable about Frost is that he was a wonderful botanist. He had a friend, right before he got married who was an ardent amateur botanist and introduced Frost both to field guides to the New England wild flowers, and to Darwin's overall system of evolution that makes sense of the varieties of flowering plants and for the rest of his life wherever he traveled, Frost took with him his field guides, he was always botanizing. So this is much more than simply a metaphor for the complexities of love.
It's also a story of a person who goes out gathering flowers, goes into his own little system of associations and - and reverie and then comes back and offers what he's found to the one he loves. Every day, given his psychological storminess, he would go out and stabilize his spirit by seeing what was flowering, what was happening in the seasons of the world. And then from those experiences, he would bring back telling images, moments of insight, that make his poetry so enduring.
(Wertlieb) I wonder if you can tell us about some poems where that kind of knowledge of botany comes through, where the reader learns something about the natural world that Frost was experiencing.
(Elder) One poem that comes to mind is called "Spring Pools" and it's about the fact that in spring in Vermont - in New England - northern New England - when the snows melt we have little temporary pools called ephemeral pools or vernal pools.
In this poem, Frost expresses regret that the beauty of the wildflowers will soon be gone, when the water is drunk up, as he says, by the trees which are just beginning to put in their leaves and after the leaves are out the - the midwood flowers are gone.
But in the same poem, Frost talks about these flowery waters and these watery flowers. He makes it very clear that there's a larger structure going here. The leaves come out, the flowers go away, but the flowers came because the snows went away, turned into pools and then were lifted up into the leaves.
What it's possible to miss in Frost but it's important not to miss is that within the regret - "Oh let them think twice" he says, speaking to the leaves that are going to put an end to these ephemeral beauties - we regret the passing of beauty but we can bear it because there's a larger system of dynamic stability.
(Wertlieb) Robert Frost was also an innovative teacher and poet, we'll explore that aspect of his life next. You can find out more about Vermont Reads, this series and offer your own thoughts about Frost and his work on-line at VPR-dot-net.
Photo: Robert and Carol rest against the backdrop of Lafayette Mountain in 1916. (Photo Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library. Item Located in Rauner Special Collections Library)