AT A TIME when British writers are said to have arrived only when they've been noticed in New York, it's quaint to be reminded of an era when the process happened in reverse - when American writers looked to the Old Country, or at any rate Europe, for vindication. Henry James, Ezra Pound and Stephen Crane came to live here before the First World War. T S Eliot made himself more English than the English, even down to the views he held on religion and race. And then there was Robert Frost, whose poetry, much more than Eliot's, sometimes sounds English:
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound -
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It's not just the pastoralism here (woods, sun and hayfields) that might make an innocent reader mistake the poet's nationality. There's also the ruminative plainness - none of that striving for bold effect you get in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Frost's scythe doesn't flash in the air: it's low, quiet, easy to miss; it doesn't mind being (as Frost admired Wordsworth for being) a touch dull.
If Frost does sound Englishly dull, it's not surprising. The first book of poetry he ever bought was Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and he said that he went to England in 1912 partly because he wanted to live "under thatch" and partly because "he wanted his poetry to be printed first in the land which had produced the Golden Treasury".
Frost had his wish: having left America a failure, he found a London publisher (a French widow with the name of Nutt), had two collections out in a year, lived under thatch (in Gloucestershire), and returned to the US in 1915 as a success. By the end of his life, he had become the sage of the Kennedy administration and a flag-bearer, not to say flag- waver, for the values of Middle America. But it was England that made him, and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads which taught him to use a "language really spoken by men".
Despite or because of his immense popularity in the US (his last collection sold 100,000 copies), Frost had a hard time with the critics. His simplicity was taken for naivety; his rural theme for narrow regionalism; his indebtedness to English sources for nostalgia. Not that the whisper of his scythe fell entirely on deaf ears. Randall Jarrell, in the 1950s, was the first to speak of another Frost, a dark and deep and subtle poet, a man scared by his own desert places, not the cracker-barrel anti-Modernist or straw- chewing yokel he sometimes played at being. "It takes all sorts of in- and outdoor schooling / To get adapted to my kind of fooling" Frost wrote late on, dropping his peasant mask for a moment. But he enjoyed the fooling, and relished his hidden powers. As another couplet memorably puts it: "We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows."
There are still plenty of readers who have not adapted to Frost, who are led a merry dance by him. Forty years after Jarrell, Jeffrey Meyers, in his new biography - wishing to emphasise his subject's intertextuality - resorts to a 12-page appendix listing the literary allusions in Frost's poetry. The insistence is almost comical: as if we haven't got the idea by now that Frost was immensely well-read; and as if we'll think any more highly of his most famous last line, from "Stopping by Woods ..." - "And miles to go before I sleep" - for being told that it comes from Keats ("And I have many miles on foot to fare"). But Meyer has to insist like this because Frost continues to be thought of as backwoods and folksy and self-made.
The other little difficulty Frost has run into since dying, in 1963, is his Life - that's to say, the authorised biography which Lawrance Thompson began while Frost was still in his fifties and which appeared in three volumes once he was dead. Thompson did enormous damage: presenting Frost as jealous, manipulative and megalomaniac, he prompted one reviewer to conclude that "a more hateful human being cannot have lived" and another (the novelist Harold Brodkey) to speak of "demonic vileness". The biography was a classic example of the disciple's revenge - teased and patronised by his subject, Thompson paid him back in poison. It can't have helped that Frost (whose parents had died at 34 and 56) added to his biographer's labours, and delayed the gratifications of publication by unaccountably living on to the age of 88.
Already, there has been one biography since Thompson's, by William H Pritchard, which tries set the record straight. But Pritchard lacked two pieces of knowledge which have emerged only recently; that the seemingly celibate Frost had a long affair, after his wife Elinor's death, with his secretary Kay Morrison (who died in 1989); and that Kay's lovers also included Lawrance Thompson - whose feelings about this must have added a bitter twist to his book. Armed with this new evidence, Jeffrey Meyers tries to tell Frost's story with more sympathy than previous biographers have done.
A drunk, volatile and tubercular father and a neurotic and over-protective mother gave Frost an unsettled start in life. At High School, he courted a girl called Elinor, a year and a half older than he was. Meyers thinks they became lovers (basing this on a poem called "The Subverted Flower"), but soon afterwards they went off to different colleges - Frost to Dartmouth, from which he was expelled for a sadistic prank. When Frost turned up at Elinor's digs in the middle of the night with a privately printed edition of poems, she closed the door in his face. A half-hearted suicide attempt impressed her more. They married in 1895, in their early twenties, went on to have six children (two of whom died young), and stuck together till Elinor's death. Friends of Frost's could be condescending about his meek "little" helpmeet. Frost didn't care. She was his, and, he said, the source of his greatest poems.
Early on, Frost supported his family through odd menial jobs. But in 1900, his grandfather bought him a farm in New Hampshire, and thereafter a pattern was set - a life divided between different farms and teaching posts, with poetry getting written in between. Frost wasn't much of a farmer: too frail, too fearful, and too fond of writing late at night to keep hours compatible with milking cows. But farming began to define his manner and dress: the drawling country speech, the weather-beaten face, the earth-stained trousers. He liked to portray himself as an idler, but this was idling with a purpose. He knew it might take years to learn his craft as a poet, and it did: approaching 40, he'd had only half a dozen poems in print. But his resolve and ambition didn't falter.
The ambition, once his career had taken off, made him touchy in his dealings with other writers. He said Carl Sandburg had "got no brains", thought Amy Lowell "a fool as well as a fraud", and joked that the ending of "The Waste Land" could only mean that Eliot knew a lot of people who talked Sanskrit. "He feared every living poet," said Mark Van Doren, a critic and acquaintance, but even this was to understate it, since Frost's rivalry extended to the dead, including Shakespeare (he expressed the hope, during the Second World War, that the Germans would "blow Shakespeare out of the English language").
It was the same at public readings: Frost liked the lecture circuit, and kept at it tirelessly, but if forced to share a platform with other poets he couldn't resist sabotaging their performances. Once, listening to the much less celebrated Archibald MacLeish, he muttered, rustled his papers, and finally set them on fire - anything to stay in the limelight.
But there was a playfulness about this, too, and envy didn't prevent Frost giving help and encouragement. Despite his troubled relations with Ezra Pound, for instance, whom he met in England and thought a "fake" and "self-boomer", he was instrumental in persuading Eisenhower's government to release Pound from his incarceration in St Elizabeth's. Above all, there was his friendship with Edward Thomas, whom he met in England in 1913 and nurtured as a poet, dragging him from the hack-work "he was buried alive under". "We were greater friends than almost any two ever were practising the same art," said Frost.
The importance of the relationship to Thomas is evident in the recently published Edward Thomas: Selected Letters (ed R George Thomas, OUP pounds 30). A week before being killed in France, Thomas writes to his old friend, then safely back in America: "You are doing the unchanged things that I cannot or dare not think of except in flashes." No doubt if Thomas had survived the war, the relationship would have dimmed or guttered. But it remained a shining light for Frost, even after the English poet's reputation grew unnervingly large.
Edgy with most men, Frost was difficult and possessive with the two women in his life - first Elinor (who died of a stroke at 66) and then Kay Morrison, who slept with him but refused to leave her husband Ted. How much Ted knew of the affair is unclear, but Kay was a great solace at a time when Frost felt bereft as a husband and a failure as a father (of his four children who survived childhood, one committed suicide, one died of puerperal fever, one spent her life in a mental institution, and the other, Lesley, accused him of ruining all their lives).
The other comforts to Frost's old age were the honours he picked up, and the part he came to play in public life. Politically, he had always been a conservative, a believer in Crusoe- or Thoreau-like self-sufficiency who didn't like to get involved. (Socialism, he said, was about looking after Number Two, a dubious philosophy, since "how do you know what Number Two wants?") His late foray into politics surprised many people, but at 85 he had come to believe in his own wisdom. He had his other reasons, too: vanity (JFK admired his work), delusions of grandeur (he thought he was the man to stop the Cold War) and a hope that greater public visibility might help win him the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't get the Nobel, and his meeting with Khrushchev in September 1962 did so little for Soviet- American relations that the Cuban Missile Crisis followed next month. But Frost was close to death then, and few begrudged him his stumbling efforts at shuttle diplomacy.
Jeffrey Meyers tells the story with more vigour and fidelity than one has a right to expect from somebody whose approach to biography is that of a serial monogamist (Hemingway, Lowell, Lawrence, Conrad, Poe, Fitzgerald: you name them, he has done and dusted them). It's a pity that, rather than quote more of Frost, he quotes who he's quoting from instead. But perhaps it still can't be said too often that Frost is a slyer poet than people think. And if the poems elude the biographer's attempts to peg them to specific events, that too is as it should be. We may dance around them and suppose, but their secret sits in the middle and knows.
! 'Robert Frost: A Biography' by Jeffrey Meyers is published by Constable at pounds 20Reuse content