Robert Frost, now half a century after his death, continues to be America’s most popular poet. His name has become almost synonymous with certain images of a New England of days gone by. Consider his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” where the speaker is a man in a horse-drawn sled going home on a darkening, snowy night in rural New England:
“Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
That poem has been often reprinted, put to music, and illustrated. Although Frost’s poetry contained—and sometimes artfully concealed—darker truths about man and nature, there is a Currier and Ives quality to his descriptions of New Hampshire and Vermont.
When fellow New Englander John Kennedy was inaugurated as President in 1961, Frost was given a spot at the ceremony to recite one of his poems. The image of the elderly poet Frost and the young President was a triumphant moment for New England.
Even his physical stature, a large granite-looking profile with a shock of white hair, seemed to personify the strengths of the rocky, rugged New England landscape. While he was a poet, a teacher, a lecturer, Frost was initially and always a farmer. The stone fences, apple trees, new born calves, and haying seasons were all a part of his life experiences. His ear for the idioms and lilt of New England talk fell naturally into his poetry.
Yet this man who is so much associated with the northeast corner of the United States was never just a regional poet. It is not just that his poetry has a wide universal appeal or that such phrases as “miles to go before I sleep” open up possibilities beyond the literal meanings. Frost himself had ties and connections with lands beyond the stone-laden hills of boyhood years. Robert Frost’s life took him across the American continent and, for a time, even to England. Less known is the fact that Frost was a man with very strong connections with the American South.
The first connection came from Frost’s father, William. William Frost was the son of a Massachusetts mill owner. However, he was a rebel son, in more than one sense of the word. Politically Will became a “Copperhead,” a term used to describe a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Young Will ran away from home during the Civil War to go join the Confederate Army and fight alongside his hero, Robert E. Lee. He only got as far as Philadelphia before the police captured him and returned him to his parents.
When Will was old enough and independent, he broke away again from his father, moved to San Francisco, and entered into a life of journalism and politics. Never abandoning his youthful views, he kept a small engraving of Robert E. Lee on his desk. When his son was born in 1874, he named him Robert Lee Frost, after his hero.
When Robert was eleven, his father died, and his mother was forced by economic necessity to return to Massachusetts. This began Frost’s many years and attachments to New England. But this quintessential New Englander carried a name evocative of Southern history and inherited his father’s strong independent spirit. His New England years would, strangely enough, create another Southern connection for Frost. That connection was farming. When Frost was in his early twenties, he was determined to devote his life to poetry. Poetry, however, doesn’t offer much financial stability. Frost rightly predicted that it would take him twenty years to achieve success as a poet.
So he turned to farming. With a little financial assistance from his grandfather, Frost purchased a thirty-acre farm, complete with a house, a barn, and an apple orchard. Surrounded on different sides by hayfields and woods, there was also a west-running brook fed by a spring on one part of the farm, and patches of blackberries and raspberries growing beside the barn. With a flock of 300 chickens, Frost devoted the next two decades to farming. He stepped into a world that fill his poetry with images, metaphors, wit, and wisdom. Even the speech and personal quirks of his farmer-neighbors would come to life in his poems.
Far to the south of Frost’s farm, a literary and cultural movement that would largely dominate Southern literature during the twentieth century was coming to life. Centered around a group of men who were poets, professors, and literary critics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, these men wrote poems and books proclaiming the place of tradition, family, and rural values. Deeply rooted in the classical traditions of literature, they caught the modern world by surprise. The key treatise they wrote was I’ll Take My Stand, and the contributors came to be called the Agrarians. The three men who were most prolific in writing and speaking about Agrarian themes, especially as regards literature, were John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren.
Robert Frost so admired the Agrarians that he called himself a Yankee Agrarian. Frost biographer Jay Parini said, “Frost had much in common with that school of Southern intellectuals identified with the Southern Agrarians, who were essentially anti-industrialists, believers in agriculture as the basis for culture.” These connections were noted by Robert Penn Warren when he heard Frost speak at a writers’ conference in 1935. Warren said, “Frost’s lectures in Colorado were deeply in harmony with what the Southern Agrarians were saying.”
One criticism of the Agrarians was that even though they wrote of the rural life, they were academics living in suburbia. Frost, although himself a teacher, was a farmer, although his time spent on poetry made neighbors think he was a bit lazy. His poems that speak of cows, chickens, horses, hay fields, apple orchards, and farm work all grew out of his farm life. Whether the farmer is in New England or the Deep South, there is much about that life that is alike.
Frost’s first encounter with the Vanderbilt Agrarians came in 1922 when Ransom invited him to lecture there. Warren said, “Ransom and Frost admired each other—they were both traditionalists at heart. Frost’s poetics—his unconventional use of conventional meters and forms—appealed to us.” Frost also met Donald Davidson, who was a poet, professor, and literary critic. In 1944 Davidson entertained Frost for the time he was in Nashville for a poetry reading. On the last night of the visit, a party was hosted by Davidson for Frost and his fans. Although Frost was recovering from illness, he was still up at 2:00 AM entertaining the guests. When told that his train would be leaving at 6:30 AM, Frost said, “Then it’s not worthwhile to go to bed. Let’s stay up all night.”
There would be lots more late-night and all-night visits between Frost and Davidson through the years. Both men gave lectures from the 1940’s until the end of their lives at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference located near Middlebury College in Vermont. Davidson bought a summer home there that was near Frost’s home.
The very Southern Davidson and New Englander Frost were an interesting pair. Discussions of Southern history and the Civil War took place among the other professors and Davidson, which led him to writing the poem “Late Answer: A Civil War Seminar.” But despite the regional separation between Davidson and most of the other teachers, he and Frost were kindred spirits.
Frost and Davidson not only shared views on poetry styles but on politics as well. Frost, lived in Republican New England but called himself a “Disgruntled Democrat” and was a strong foe of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He had not liked any President since Grover Cleveland. On a few occasions he announced that he voted for the Southerner Strom Thurmond and his States’ Rights Party in 1948. Davidson was very much at home with Thurmond’s political views. Both men shared a preference for states’ rights and an opposition to government programs and interferences in local matters.
Although Frost lived to age eighty-eight and was actively traveling, reading his poetry to large crowds and staying up to all hours of the night entertaining admirers, he lived with lots of health problems. Because of that, his doctor advised him to get away from New England during the winter months. Following doctor’s orders, Frost and his family went to Key West, Florida, in 1935, which, at that time, was an isolated island with little population.
Later Frost bought a house that was two prefabricated bungalows in Florida. This place, which he called Pencil Pines, would be his winter home for the rest of his life. Ever being the farmer at heart, he bought five acres of scrubby property and began cultivating fruit trees on it. Frost also put up a forty-foot-long stone wall, perhaps similar to the fencing described in his poem “Mending Wall.”
New England has every right to proudly claim Robert Frost as their own. They just can’t claim him totally. He did spend the first eleven years of his life in California, but there is even a larger part of Frost’s legacy that belongs to the South.
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