The dark side of a cracker-barrel poet

Lachlan Mackinnon on the life of an assiduous self-promoter: Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, Constable, pounds 20
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A month before he was killed, President Kennedy spoke at the opening of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst, saying that "If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths". Frost was indeed honoured beyond the fortune of most poets: between 1918 and 1962, for instance, he averaged one honorary degree a year. Yet no acclaim was ever enough, and behind the cracker- barrel popular image was a darker life, and a profoundly bleak body of work.

Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. His educational career was unsuccessful but he acquired a considerable knowledge of Latin and Greek literature. In 1894 he published his first Poem, "My Butterfly", but his first book, A Boy's Will, did not appear until 1913. It was published in London because Frost had taken his family to England in 1912.

England introduced Frost to the literary life. Among the writers he met were Ezra Pound and, most importantly, Edward Thomas. Their friendship was the closest of Frost's life.

Frost returned to America in 1915. In 1924 be won his first Pulitzer Prize, a sign of the popularity which made many other writers mistrust his work's apparent simplicity. In 1947 the poet-critic Randall Jarrell wrote for the first time about the true grimness of his work, but when Lionel Trilling made the same points in 1959 he was reviled by the literary press.

Few poets have promoted themselves as assiduously as Frost, or as fraudulently. He pretended to be a simple countryman, but he had all the skills of the metropolitan literary politician. He was ruthlessly self-seeking and wrote amid family circumstances of appalling tragedy.

His sister, Jeanie, was confined to a mental hospital in 1920. His marriage to Elinor White lasted from 1895 to her death in 1938, but was intensely unhappy. The Frosts had six children. Two died in infancy, and an adult daughter in 1934. Their surviving son killed himself in 1940, and another daughter was in a mental hospital from 1947 on. The remaining daughter, Lesley, never forgave her father for the night in 1905, when she was six, which Meyers describes as follows: "Her father suddenly woke her up in he middle of the night and led her barefoot through the cold, dark house to the kitchen. Her mother, seated at the kitchen table, was holding her head and sobbing. Frost, pointing a pistol at himself and then at Elinor, screamed: 'Take your choice. Before morning, one of as will be dead!' Terrified and clearly unable to choose, Lesley was led back to bed by her mother."

After his wife's death, Frost became close to Theodore and Kathleen Morrison. The news Jeffrey Meyers brings us is that she and Frost were lovers, which accounts for the often passionate eroticism of many later poems.

Although a little brisk and chatty, and at times uncertain about fact, this is a good account of the poet's life with some useful observations about the poetry. It is not entirely the author's fault if Frost remains enigmatic.

Frost's lifelong terror of the dark suggests an ambivalence about his self-destructive impulses. In the poem "Design", Frost wonders what brought a flower, a spider and a dead moth together: "What but design of darkness to appall? - /If design govern in a thing so small." That the universe might not even be malign, but simply meaningless, terrified the essentially non-believing poet. What his family saw was the existential dread his public persona was designed to mask. Frost aspired to stoicism, yet he never quite achieved it. He was too reticent to leave the evidence of his own agonies which might have exonerated him: as things stand, I am not sure whether his human relations were forgivable, but he wrote at least a dozen poems which will always be read. That makes this sorry story worth the reading.