Frost and the cradle of lyric poetry

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The Independent Culture
"EVERYTHING GOOD that first happened to me, as a poet, happened in England," Robert Frost recalled in old age. He had gone to England in 1912, as he put it, "a nobody". But he returned, just over two years later, as one of America's most celebrated younger poets.

When Frost stepped on to the ship in Boston in September of 1912 with his wife, Elinor, and four young children, he was a totally unknown poet of 38. Although he had been writing poetry steadily for 20 years, he had not yet succeeded in getting a book published or placing more than a handful of poems in magazines.

For much of this time, he had been farming in Derry, New Hampshire. From his family's viewpoint, he had thus far failed at everything he had tried, having left university twice without getting a degree, having barely eked out a living as a chicken farmer, and having not been able to get anything published. England felt, to him and his wife, like a last chance.

With a little money in the bank from the sale of his farm in New Hampshire, Frost put everything at risk by crossing the Atlantic. He had wanted to live in England, he said, because it was "the cradle of lyric poetry". Elinor had come, she said, because she "wanted to live under thatch".

After a frantic search, they rented a house in Buckinghamshire called, unimpressively, The Bungalow. There Frost set about pulling together (from poems mostly in rough draft form) his first two volumes of verse: A Boy's Will and North of Boston. After many months of solitude and hard work, Frost finished the first manuscript.

His farm in New Hampshire and the local types he would meet in the course of a day's work provided the background for much of this work, which focused on rural work and rural people. A Boy's Will was a unique and refreshing volume. Frost offered it to David Nutt, a small publisher in London, who accepted it within the same week. Suddenly, almost unbelievably, Frost was on his way.

Another turning-point came in January of 1913, when he attended the opening of a book shop run by Harold Monro on Devonshire Street in London. There he met F.S. Flint, another poet, who soon introduced him to Ezra Pound and many other influential poets and critics. Before long, Frost found himself folded into English literary society. He soon met W.B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, W.H. Davies, and - most importantly - Edward Thomas, who quickly became a close friend, "the only close friend I ever had", as Frost later said.

In the spring of 1914, Frost moved to the Dymock region of Gloucester, where a cluster of poets lived within walking distance of each other in and around the town of Ledbury. These included Wilfrid Gibson, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Lascelles Abercrombie.

Frost's first volume appeared in the spring of 1913, and it was reviewed by Ezra Pound and others. Frost was hailed, by the TLS, as "a writer not afraid to voice the simplest of his thoughts and fancies". The book did not sell, but Frost hardly cared. He was published. Furthermore, an American publisher called Henry Holt had seen the book and taken Frost on. As Frost put it, "I had to go to England to get published in my own country. It was peculiar."

Frost would have stayed in England but for the war. "England has become half my native land - England the victorious," he wrote in a farewell note to Harold Monro. He was driven back to America in early 1915 by the outbreak of the war, but by this time he was the proud author of two volumes of verse. Soon after his arrival in New York, he discovered that his newly- won fame as a poet had gone before him. A Boy's Will had been warmly embraced by American readers, and Frost would never again be "a nobody".

Jay Perini is the author of `Robert Frost: a life' (Heinemann pounds 20)