HAVING READ AND WRITTEN about the first two volumes of Lawrance Thompson's life of Robert Frost, I did not look forward with relish to this last; in part because Frost's life had been in such important ways miserable, unlucky, and spiteful; in part because Lawrance Thompson, whom I much admired as a man and as a teacher, failed to outlive his 32-year labor on behalf of Frost and his readers; and in part because I am no longer as willing as I once was to offer judgments on the character of another man, and least of all on the character of a man who suffered what Frost suffered.
He was utterly disregarded as a poet until he was forty. His wife Elinor married him with extreme reluctance, and never satisfied herself that she hadn't been right the first time, when she said no. Of six children, only two survived him: two died as infants, another in childbirth, and another by suicide. One daughter fell mad, and was pent up. The other, Lesley, told her father that he should never have married. Her harshness toward Frost should be put in the context of an impoverished and tormented childhood, one of whose principal features was terror. Once when she was a child Frost roused her late at night from her sickbed and summoned her to the kitchen of their New England farmhouse. There she found her mother and, on the kitchen table, a revolver. She was asked to decide which parent she preferred that her father shoot.
Frost could be treacherous, especially to friends, and there are many stories in this final volume (assembled in its published form and in large part written by Lawrence Thompson's Princeton graduate student, R. H. Winnick) that confirm the ugliness of the previous two portraits. The book begins with Elinor's death in 1938, and Frost's near nervous collapse because she never forgave him his trespasses. At once he attempts to break apart the marriage of two friends who have taken him in to console him. A few pages later he creates a humiliating disturbance at Bread Loaf during a poetry reading by Archibald MacLeish, and this provokes Frost's long-time friends, Bernard DeVoto to remark: "You're a good poet, Robert, but you're a bad man."
Frost agrees, and as though to emphasize his agreement, he slanders DeVoto in a most cruel manner, designed to injure both his personal and professional reputation. At length DeVoto forgives Frost. Well, not that it should matter to anyone but me, but I have now become more interested in the forgiveness than in the trespass. Writing in Newsweek about the previous volume in Thompson's biography I concluded that "to read this book and then still to admire Frost's verse is to prove your capacity either to hold a poem apart from its maker or to accept the difficult proposition that beautiful things can be made by monstrous men."
That review provoked a firestorm of letters, all cursing my works and days, and testifying in abundance to their authors' affection for Frost. Not a few of those letters took as dogma the by now old New Criticism that rigidly refuses the intrusion of a poet's history upon any consideration of his poems, but most of them said, in effect, "Frost suffered, wrote well, died: enjoy his verse, leave him be," I am now inclined to agree with the latter division among my critics, and am pleased to put paid for once and all, a few lines hence, to the life that paid for Frost's wonderful poems.
This final volume is mostly a winding down from the years of Frost's greatest power (it begins when he is 64); it tells of birthday testimonials, exhibits of Frost manuscripts, prizes and pains, travel as a cultural diplomat, public occasions.It details Frost's life as a resident writer and lecturer at Amherst, Harvard, Dartmouth, and the Library of Congress, his readings (what he called "barding around") and his publishing strategies. He is at last free of material wants, and seems on the hunt for reconciliations. He seems less self-conscious in his eargerness to wear what he called a "light mask" to disguise his darkest apprehensions, yet the most telling episode in this book describes his discomfort dinner, judges him to be a "terrifying" writer, which of course he is.
James Agee once described the public Frost lecturing, a man who "wrinkled up his face when he was going to have a whimsicality, like having a baby." This is the Frost played by WilI Geer in Donald Hall's dramatization for the stage of Frost's poems and prose, a kind of Granpaw Walton, a self-described "jester about sorrow." This is the man described in the New Adams as "one of the most lovable of men and, though he would be the first to disclaim the adjective, one of the most admirable in character also.
Frost's appetite for such approbation was unappeasable. He never got over wanting the Nobel Prize, which he never got, and should have had. A so-so review of a new book of poems in Time brought on a heart attack, and very late in his life, which ended at 89, he maneuvered for the striking of a Frost Medal by the Government Mint, telling one of the honors I can get." He had many years before told an interviewer "you've got to score ," and like Hemingway (whose suicide struck him as just, a candid acknowledgement of the end of a career) and now Mailer, he liked to take his notions of victory from the lexicon of the fight game. "There can only be one heavyweight champion at a time," a sentiment expressed in the previous volume, evolves into a wish in the present volume for "something like the prize ring where we could fight to a finish, where work went down on the mat and had its arm lifted by the judges at the end." (Could he have had wrestling in mind?)
It is always sad to witness a writer declining to the station of a National Institution, but it is crucial to say that Frost, whatever his private turmoils, managed to attain to a generosity and dignity in keeping with the Laureate status to which he so ardently aspired. He softened towards his family, and became touchingly eager to serve them as best he could, as he had not when he should have when they most needed his nurture. His courage at the end is beyond question, though it is like him to have remarked once that the "saddest thing in life is that the best thing in life is courage."
"Cast for gloom as the sparks fly upward," as he once wrote, he was never the servant of gloom, and held it at bay in his work: the beauty of his verse is just this tension between what he called "confusion" and what he could make of it, a kind of benign order, hard-won for its author and for its readers a mighty consolation. When he went into the hospital for the last time, he knew he would never come out, but he went, not without a good struggle, but he went . . . While he was abed the last time he wrote his daughter Lesley: "I am not hard to touch but I'd rather be taken for brave than anything else." He was very hard to touch, and very brave.
But there is another death in these pages, the death of Frost's biographer. Thompson had a lot of Frost in him: he was a New Hampshireman, with Frost's lifelong ambivalencies about Protestant theology, about belief and disbelief, the state of man before and after his fall, candor and deceit. In the spirit of these dichotomies it is only just that Thompson love Frost (who chose him, both electing him up and taking him prisoner) and hate him, and sometimes both at once.
His student, Winnick, is both meticulous and respectful. If he too frequently elaborates the minute ("At five o'clock . . . Frost and Thompson went out for a walk, so that Frost could mail some letters. On the way back from the post office he bought a box of chocolates and four bottles of Schweppes ginger beer.") so did Thompson before him, trying to strike a balance as a biographer between the consequential and the quotidian. I believe the strategy ot have been wrong-headed, but in keeping with its author, it is conspicuously fair. Life is not to biographers, for Frost left behind a dying hurt and durable, living poems, while Thompson made a monument to a man's pained and wounding slow slide toward death.