Frost at Midnight | by Dan Chiasson


On April 29, 1934, Robert Frost composed to his buddy Louis Untermeyer that his “favorite poem long before I knew what it was going to mean to us was [Matthew] Arnold’s ‘Cadmus and Harmonia.’” In the initial misconception, Cadmus, creator of Thebes, and his other half, Harmonia, sustain the deaths of their 5 kids as retribution for Cadmus’s eliminating a snake treasured by the god Ares. Arnold’s variation gets late in the couple’s story, after the “grey old man and woman” have actually asked to be changed into “placid and dumb” snakes, “far from here” amongst the lawns and mountain flowers of Illyria. There, “The pair/Wholly forgot their old sad life, and home,” composes Arnold. No longer reliving “the billow of calamity” that “Over their own dear children roll’d,/Curse upon curse, pang upon pang,” Cadmus and Harmonia are at last “placed safely in changed forms.”

A couple of days later on, Frost once again composed to Untermeyer, reporting that his youngest child and preferred kid, Marjorie, had actually passed away of a postpartum infection. “Here we are Cadmus and Harmonia not yet placed safely in changed forms.” But the letter explaining Marjorie’s last days, among the most effective Frost ever composed, is itself a modification of kind from the raw distress that it explains:

Marge constantly stated she would rather pass away in a rain gutter than in a medical facility. But it remained in a medical facility she was captured to pass away after more than a hundred serum injections and blood transfusions. We were torn afresh every day in between the temptations of letting her go untortured or cruelly attempting to conserve her. The just alleviation we have is the memory of her achievement through all. Never out of delirium for the last 4 weeks, her reactions were naturally inaccurate. She got little or absolutely nothing of what we stated to her. The just method I might reach her was by putting my hand backwards and forward in between us, as in suspending and stating with overemphasis You—and—Me. The last time I did that, the day prior to she passed away, she smiled faintly and addressed All the very same, frowned a little and made it Always the very same.

Though it feels harsh to see it, you can discover in this terrible last scene in between dad and child the primal aspects of a Frost poem: that “counting out” and meaning-making by choice and “overemphasis” is his prosody in action. He imagined sentences removed of their words, pared down to their “sentence sounds,” those “brute tones of our human throat that may once have been all our meaning.” Here the whole of English has actually been painfully decreased to 6 words, Frost’s 3 and Marjorie’s 3. The “brute tones” and the accompanying pantomime alone interact the significance. Once extraneous language goes into the image, confusion and disappointment—Marjorie’s smile developing into a frown—quickly follow.

Frost’s “not yet” (“Here we are Cadmus and Harmonia not yet placed safely in changed forms”) was wishful. He and his other half, Elinor, had great factor to hope that the prediction of Arnold’s poem had actually lastly exposed its whole “meaning”: Marjorie was the 3rd of their 6 kids to pass away. A boy, Elliott, was lost in 1900 at the age of 4, after a natural treatment for cholera stopped working. An infant child passed away 3 days after her birth in 1907. But “Cadmus and Harmonia” bore even more, still unimagined, ramifications. In 1938, 4 years after Marjorie’s death, after years of marital discord, Elinor passed away of heart problem, declining to call Frost to her deathbed. Their boy Carol, bothered by mental disorder considering that youth, moved into misery and eliminated himself with his searching rifle in 1940. His body was found in the cooking area of their stone farmhouse by his fifteen-year-old boy, Prescott. Frost discovered factors to blame himself for every single among these catastrophes. His 2 living kids, Irma and Lesley, looked for a protective range from the maelstrom that had actually swept the majority of their household away.

And so by 1940, at the age of sixty-six, Frost, possibly the most well-known and precious American poet, had actually suffered a series of losses practically unthinkable to the lucky amongst us. By one method of counting, he was basically alone worldwide.

This duration that broke Frost likewise resulted in his looking for audiences (and, increasingly more, poems that catered them) as a diversion. Stories are plentiful from his later years of the poet’s using his trainees and pals out by carrying out long into the night. Rarer, however, were the intimate self-confidences imparted to Robert Lowell, his young “friend in the art”—the art of composing, however likewise of bearing torment, and possibly the particular torment of bipolar affective disorder. In a sonnet released in 1969, Lowell memorably recorded the senior Frost as he combed through the particles of his individual life:

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone
to vapor, the excellent act laid on the rack in mothballs,
his voice musical, raw and raw—he composes in the flyleaf:
“Robert Lowell from Robert Frost, his friend in the art.”
“Sometimes I feel too full of myself,” I state.
And he, misconstruing, “When I am low,
I stray away. My son wasn’t your kind. The night
we told him Merrill Moore would come to treat him,
he said, ‘I’ll kill him first.’ One of my daughters thought things,
knew every male she met was out to make her;
the way she dresses, she couldn’t make a whorehouse.”
And I, “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself.”
And he, “When I am too full of joy, I think
how little good my health did anyone near me.”

The set list Frost liked to check out for audiences in his aging left out a few of his finest, and practically all of his most revealing, poems—“Home Burial,” “The Subverted Flower,” “A Servant to Servants.” These poems remained in essence reduced. The procedure of recovering Frost from the phenomenon of his own self-erasure—Randall Jarrell called him “the Only Genuine Robert Frost in Captivity”—started not long after his death.

With every volume of his letters that appears, Frost grows more vibrant, even as “the great act” fades from memory. The poet we satisfy at the start of The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 3: 1929–1936, modified by Mark Richardson, Donald Sheehy, Robert Bernard Hass, and Henry Atmore, is almost fifty-five, at the height of his creative powers and on the cusp of literary celeb. He remains in the middle of a duration of strong, if frenzied, build-up—of status, together with home. In 1928 Frost bought a 2nd farm, which he called the Gully, in the Vermont town of South Shaftsbury, a mile or two from the stone home that he had actually provided as a present to Carol and his household in 1924. Frost anticipated the publication of his Collected Poems by Henry Holt in 1930; as part of the offer, he was made an investor in the company.

In 1926 Frost had actually once again used up mentor at Amherst College, on excellent terms—terms that were, certainly, kept in mind with significant envy by his coworkers. Though his responsibilities were light, quickly he purchased a home in Amherst, a great stick-style Victorian, constructed for the president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, with far-off mountain views. The Frosts likewise owned a summer season home in Franconia, New Hampshire, high in the mountains above the ragweed line (Frost suffered awfully from hay fever). Owning 4 homes indicates that you’re not in your home even when in your home—which, in any case, Frost frequently wasn’t: a hectic countrywide exploring schedule, made required, in part, by all those expenditures, put him in front of rapturous audiences from coast to coast. “If you see me start a real estate agency pretend not to notice,” he composed to a good friend, Lew Sarett. “Oh yes I have some of the arts of the salesman.”

We understand from the pedagogy set out in Frost’s poems how to comprehend, at esoteric scale, the inconsistent drives—towards structure, towards taking down—that bothered him throughout this duration, however the letters frequently tally human expenses undiscovered in those popular formulas. In “The Wood-Pile,” Frost encounters a “cord of maple, cut and split/And piled—and measured, four by four by eight,” deserted in a snowfield, “far from a useful fireplace.” Its precise making and measuring is simply the sort of work a poet finishes with language versus the white field of the page. Also like a poet, whoever constructed this thing forgot everything about it when he’d completed, taken in by “fresh tasks”:

I believed that just
Someone who resided in relying on fresh jobs
Could so forget his workmanship on which
He invested himself, the labor of his ax….

This is naturally a sterilized ethical situation. The woodpile feels absolutely nothing at all when it is forgotten. Its desertion by the woodchopper, in truth, enables this little manufactured artifact to rejoin nature, where it may “warm the frozen swamp as best it could/With the slow smokeless burning of decay.” Frost’s metaphors for poetry-writing frequently phase it in this manner, as an ethically neutral and self-expending procedure: poems are “bits of order” fringed by mayhem, or “a momentary stay against confusion,” or “cigarette smoke rings” distributing even as they form. They tire their author’s resourcefulness; then they end.

But the “bits of order” Frost built in his life were not so quickly put aside. The world of responsibility appears to be getting on him from the opening pages of this volume. Around March 14, 1929, Frost composed to a young protégé, the woodsman-poet Wade Van Dore, “I wonder what you would say to taking charge of my farm for a year.” Then, Frost offered this complicated prospectus:

The work might be as much or as low as you cared to make it. There would be tree-planting and tree-moving. There would be taking down a few of the old structures we wish to eliminate. There would be some trench digging and stream damming. There would be some fixing and doing over of the old home (a genuine antique however in just a so-so state of conservation) and there would be some improving of the roadway in to address. There would be or might be; as I state you might choose on your own just how much of anything you cared to offer time to.

Frost appears less thinking about the upkeep of the farm than in carrying out for a fan—blending tones, having fun with the senses of “would be” and “could be,” and taking particular enjoyment in the piled-up gerunds. And he’s put his employed guy in some Frostian dilemmas: how to cultivate the conditional as an irreversible frame of mind; how to put down stakes in the participial flux of nature; how to choose within an environment that does not accept human company. Frost’s last uncertain required, the most crucial of all, gets the syntax of those previous non- or un-assignments: “You could take all the time you pleased for your writing.”

But composing fixes just the issues of composing; it can’t keep the roadway cleared or the heating system lit. Van Dore’s remain at the farm appeared predestined to stop working—or, to put it another method, to prosper in stopping working, and for that reason to substantiate a few of Frost’s preferred, darkly beautiful hypotheses. “My farm is fast going back to wilderness—as fast as can be expected,” he informed Untermeyer in August 1929. Frost’s poems frequently study human reactions to the intruding wilderness, however in the “wilderness” of Frost’s farm Van Dore quickly challenged a range of human difficulty. Carol, a brooding, disturbing existence, may “be with you a little,” the poet composed to Van Dore: “I hope you will like him for all his reserve and timidity. You won’t find him bookish, but you will find him fond of the land.”

Frost had actually likewise welcomed (obviously without notifying Van Dore) an impoverished buddy, the illustrator J.J. Lankes, to camp out with his other half and 4 kids on his land, while Van Dore delighted in the relative conveniences of a roofing over his head. “Lankes is over at the Gully camping out,” Frost composed to Untermeyer, pitting the 2 males versus each other. “But I am afraid we are not giving him just the company he wants in Wade Van Dore.” Lankes “has a family of four to work for and Wade’s emancipation rouses his wrath and jealousy.” Wade, for his part, had actually currently shown to be “a strange boy. His mother tells us that his obediently doing what he is asked to do throws him into long cataleptic sleeps afterward.”

At times, Frost seems amused by the competitions he has actually taken into movement back on his farm, however the word “wrath” recommends the specter of violence, insanity, and fear to be discovered throughout these letters, aspects natural to the hardscrabble pastoral Frost checks out in his work—in poems like “A Servant to Servants” (for me, perhaps the most frightening poem in English) and the relentless anti-Eden of “The Subverted Flower.” In September 1929 Frost suddenly altered his tone with Van Dore: “You speak of the hope of so conducting your future life as to please me. You can please me only by pleasing yourself. I have little use for any who haven’t seen a way of their own to live.” Slapped back a little, Van Dore is then welcomed back in, however with a condition: “In here and there a detail you might show your friendship for me by deferring to my wishes—as in the matter of Walter Hendricks.” Hendricks, a creator of Marlboro College in Vermont, would later on reenter Frost’s enhances, however in 1929 Frost considered him to be a sort of stalker:

You can’t inform him not to come now that you have actually welcomed him. I don’t desire him affronted or harmed. I dont desire a case or a concern made from his go to. But please for my sake state absolutely nothing to Carol of his go to and don’t take him near the other homes.

The “other houses” consisted of one where Frost’s child Irma coped with her boy and hubby. A note in this edition describes the root of the dispute: Irma had actually confided to her dad that Hendricks, who was Frost’s trainee at Amherst, had actually made sexual advances upon her while she was a teen in his care. According to the note, Irma “suffered from paranoid fantasies, often of sexual predation, and RF concluded that Hendricks had been wrongly accused.” It is difficult to understand what took place; definitely there was never ever another idea of such habits from Hendricks. But in 1929 Frost still quite feared the boy’s “persistence in keeping on my trail,” and cautioned Van Dore to keep away from him: “You surely cant mean to make me real trouble.”

If the Gully was a website for the competitions amongst Frost’s protégés to play out, it was the stone home a mile or two away where Frost’s “real trouble” lay. Carol had, in a manner, claimed the home even prior to Frost might offer it to him. Two years previously, in 1922, after an argument about a strategy to invest thirty-five dollars on a rooster, Carol, then nineteen, went out the front door of the Frosts’ home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and set out on foot for South Shaftsbury, disappearing for days. He showed up at the stone home, where, according to Frost, he was “having a fine time building a hen house.”

The picture of Carol in the 3rd volume of Lawrence Thompson and R.H. Winnick’s bio of Frost leans too greatly on his dad’s own account of his boy’s torment. The chapter is melodramatically entitled “The Death of the Dark Child.” Thompson and Winnick cannot, as Frost and his household might or would not, address Carol’s mental disorder and require for psychiatric care. (If Lowell’s sonnet is to be relied on, Frost saw his boy as efficient in devoting murder.) Instead the biographers give Frost’s own folk medical diagnosis of his boy’s problems. In June 1911 the Frosts’ proprietor in Derry, New Hampshire, dedicated suicide. “Frost tried to comfort and reassure his children that Russell’s life had been a happy one, that it had reached a kind of fulfillment,” Thompson and Winnick compose.

But the kids, in their have fun with community pals, quickly heard the word “suicide,” and slowly they got the information of how Lester Russell had actually eliminated himself. For nine-year-old Carol, there appeared to be a curious issue in attempting to associate his dad’s word “fulfillment” and the other word, “suicide.” Thereafter, at different points and crises in his life, he frequently mentioned devoting suicide when it appeared to him that he, too, had actually reached “fulfillment.”

Frost’s response was to keep Carol provided with jobs, land to handle, animals to look after, out of worry he would choose he was “fulfilled.”

Sometime in the early 1930s, however, Carol Frost started recommending to his household that, according to Mark Richardson, he “hoped to publish a volume of poetry.” In a letter from January 1932, Elinor Frost informed Lesley, Carol’s sis, to the possible difficulty ahead. “It isn’t that papa doesn’t think there is some good in what Caroll [sic] has done,” Elinor composed, however that “Caroll isn’t willing to be told things, & also that he fears Caroll’s ambition will get away with him.”

Writing poetry appeared not just a hazardous financial investment of Carol’s hopes however, significantly in these letters, an aspiration he’d chosen in order to provoke his dad’s frustration. In short, Frost and his boy are on a clash throughout this volume, with the concern of Carol’s composing poetry a hazardous accelerant. Frost does all he can to in some way guide out of this horrible trajectory, frequently with perseverance, often with pique. Carol was not “bookish,” as Frost informed Van Dore. His being “fond of the land” was the main celebration line, the technique, the treatment. Carol has “put in a cement reservoir and laid iron pipes,” Frost boasts. He “is off this minute buying three or four pedigreed sheep.”

Careful readers of Frost have long kept in mind that his dramas of human company are set versus a big, cosmic background, where an option such as which course to take at a fork in the woods is eventually useless. “The Road Not Taken” has actually taken lots of earnest trainees down a roadway towards concluding that their own belief in nonconformity and individual guts is shared by Frost. Their instructors then disabuse them of those charming misperceptions. This is likewise the pedagogical cat-and-mouse video game that plays out in much of Frost’s letters to aiming poets, however never ever to his boy. Van Dore’s poetry had actually won Frost’s appreciation, though his discussion of his very first book, Far Lake, committed to his coach, triggered Frost to draw back: “Dont do a thing for me you dont want to do. I can reconcile myself to watching you dream your life away.” Frost might not so quickly reconcile himself to Carol’s dreaming his life away, considering that he understood the sort of dreams that ridiculed him.

“Frost is almost never at a loss as to how to ‘carry himself’ in letters, except when writing to Carol, to whom his manner of address is seldom sure,” composes Richardson, in the fantastic intro to this volume. There is accuracy in Frost’s composing recommendations to Carol, and frequently careful assistance, however on the entire the letters radiate fear. The word that keeps appearing, on both sides of the correspondence, is “mistake.” “Quite often I can control my speed on the typewriter to do perfect work, but not today,” Carol composed, in 1932.

There has actually simply been a lot of young boys using a piece or [sic] the bigger area of the yard I have actually invested all week spading and getting mellow for brand-new seed, which has me riled up so I can’t keep my mind on the work. That appears to be the huge problem, as one discovers ones [sic] speed increases thus making simply as lots of errors, control of ones nerves is the primary aspect.

Carol’s worry of making errors in his composing increases above subtext in these letters. It becomes their topic, their fixation; and even as he deplores his own errors, he makes brand-new errors: “I wrote this letter in some what of a hurry on the spur of the moment to take down and mail today. There are a few more mistakes than usual.”

As his boy’s letters about his errors accumulate with errors, Frost’s letters back end up being more clearly focused on soothing his nerves. In 1931 Frost composed to Carol, then coping with his household in California, of a couple who had actually leased the stone home in his lack and wished to grow sweet peas:

Before I forget it: a great thing you might provide for the Shaws would be to compose them out really thoroughly and plainly all you understand and believe they must understand about raising cultivating handling and offering sweet peas…. Make it easy and simple to follow. Emphasize the crucial things. Tell them about the rotation you prepared and about the brush string and wire supports. I attempted to inform them a little however I didnt understand enough. Introduce the topic by discussing me and informing them I informed you of their interest.

This is a connect-the-dots: Frost’s worry that needing to compose an easy note will trigger his boy remarkable distress comes through, as it needs to have come through for Carol, too. The recommendations is not even truly about composing however about the sequencing of idea (“write them out very carefully and clearly”) and the calm discussion of Carol’s mind. As constantly, Frost denigrates his own propensity for one sort of work—the planting of peas—in order to level his benefit in another sort of work, composing. It appears clear that he did not rank one above the other, however appreciated expertise in either similarly. Writing was as much a metaphor for physical labor as physical labor was for composing. To judge from Frost’s own stress and anxieties about farming, he valued Carol’s ability with sweet peas as much as he appreciated the simply proficient verse, frequently imitative of his own poems, that was composed and sent out to him by lots of a young admirer.

Often, for that reason, Frost emphasizes his own errors. “It cuts down the size of the United States to have someone in our own family cross it in a small car on the highway in ten or twelve days the way you do,” he composed to Carol on September 9, 1933. Driving his own brand-new vehicle while ill with the influenza, Frost might hardly handle the mountain roadways near Franconia: “I had in mind what you said about the art of holding a perfectly even rate and made that my interest and object.” Again and once again Frost attempted to presume the function of apprentice to his boy’s gnosis. When Frost’s precious Newfoundland, Winnie, was assaulted by porcupines, Frost eliminated the canine while attempting to wait. “You manage to cross the whole continent without making any mistake,” he composed to Carol on September 18, 1933.

And I can’t remain in one location 3 weeks without making one of the worst errors I ever made. I let Winnie out when I shouldn’t have in the late night when the porcupines are all round your house. She opted for one and got her face so loaded with quills there appeared absolutely nothing for it however to cloroform [sic] her to get them out…. But I over did the dosage and eliminated her…. I can see now that I must have roped her entire body to a board and put her through without the cloroform. I want you had actually existed to assist me judge. It was a bad thing.

But Frost might not, as difficult as he attempted, keep the concentrate on sweet peas and canines and other things Carol might with confidence do. His boy’s poems kept showing up:

I forgot to state I want I had in one holder the entire set of your poems to examine when inclined. Would it be excessive difficulty to make a loose-leaf note book of them at some point this winter season? The depth of sensation in them is what I keep considering. I’ve taken excellent fulfillment in your having actually discovered such an expression of your life. I hope as you happen with them, they’ll assist you have an excellent winter season in the middle of your household.

“Depth of feeling” would have disturbed Carol, considering that it clearly skirts the matter of the poems’ visual achievement. It is likewise difficult to picture his being pleased at his dad’s persistence that the poems stay a personal convenience, a source of perseverance in, and with, his household. Then, in the 2nd paragraph, this reprimand:

One thing I saw in your hand composed letter I never ever saw in the past. You don’t utilize a capital I in speaking of yourself. You compose i which is terribly incorrect. You start a sentence with a little i too. You mustn’t.

Richardson appropriately discovers in Frost’s severe correction a stress and anxiety about his boy’s having “minusculed” himself, though the more essential issue was most likely Carol’s grandiosity, which possibly advised Frost of his own however without the advantage of his excellent present or his stoical character. Speaking of his buddy, the English poet Edward Thomas, Frost when explained something “melancholy about him” as various from his own capability to “mop just about anything out of my system.” The letters to Carol counsel a peaceful, constant life, lived near the mean. His boy’s poems were symptomatic of an inner storm that the composing itself appeared just to intensify.

The letters to Carol represent Frost’s biggest continual effort to compose without metaphor, almost without design, to satisfy his interlocutor in a zone without trope, figure, “form.” But those were Frost’s safe houses. As he composed in “Education by Poetry,” a talk he provided at Amherst in 1930, “What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” It was what he’d composed to Untermeyer after Marjorie’s death: “Here we are…not yet placed safely in changed forms.” And yet “Cadmus and Harmonia,” the Arnold poem, was currently a “changed form,” its convenience obviously real, its transformative power as concrete to Frost as Frost’s own poems have actually been to a lot of—have actually been to me.

The charming considering metaphor (actually “a carrying across,” as from one coast, or one frame of mind, to another) that we discover in Frost’s work was useless in handling his boy’s impulses towards self-destruction. We are fortunate to have this wonderfully modified volume of Frost’s letters, the 3rd of 5, from a time when whatever in his life broke. “I feel as though I was getting better able to make my slumps and blues shorter than they used to be,” Carol composed, pleased with mastering his “mistakes.” Eight years later on, after Carol’s suicide, composing once again to Untermeyer, Frost put it in this manner:

I took the incorrect method with him. I attempted lots of methods and every among them was incorrect. Some thing in me is still requesting for the opportunity to attempt another…. He believed excessive. I question if he rested from believing day or night in the last couple of years.

And then either among the cruelest or most thoughtful things—it depends upon how one hears the “sentence sound”—Frost ever composed: “He was splendid with animals and little children. If only the emphasis could have been put on those. He should have lived with horses.”

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