AT A TIME when British writers are said to have arrived only when they've been noticed in New York, it's quaint to be reminded of an era when the process happened in reverse - when American writers looked to the Old Country, or at any rate Europe, for vindication. Henry James, Ezra Pound and Stephen Crane came to live here before the First World War. T S Eliot made himself more English than the English, even down to the views he held on religion and race. And then there was Robert Frost, whose poetry, much more than Eliot's, sometimes sounds English:
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound -
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It's not just the pastoralism here (woods, sun and hayfields) that might make an innocent reader mistake the poet's nationality. There's also the ruminative plainness - none of that striving for bold effect you get in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Frost's scythe doesn't flash in the air: it's low, quiet, easy to miss; it doesn't mind being (as Frost admired Wordsworth for being) a touch dull.
If Frost does sound Englishly dull, it's not surprising. The first book of poetry he ever bought was Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and he said that he went to England in 1912 partly because he wanted to live "under thatch" and partly because "he wanted his poetry to be printed first in the land which had produced the Golden Treasury".
Frost had his wish: having left America a failure, he found a London publisher (a French widow with the name of Nutt), had two collections out in a year, lived under thatch (in Gloucestershire), and returned to the US in 1915 as a success. By the end of his life, he had become the sage of the Kennedy administration and a flag-bearer, not to say flag- waver, for the values of Middle America. But it was England that made him, and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads which taught him to use a "language really spoken by men".
Despite or because of his immense popularity in the US (his last collection sold 100,000 copies), Frost had a hard time with the critics. His simplicity was taken for naivety; his rural theme for narrow regionalism; his indebtedness to English sources for nostalgia. Not that the whisper of his scythe fell entirely on deaf ears. Randall Jarrell, in the 1950s, was the first to speak of another Frost, a dark and deep and subtle poet, a man scared by his own desert places, not the cracker-barrel anti-Modernist or straw- chewing yokel he sometimes played at being. "It takes all sorts of in- and outdoor schooling / To get adapted to my kind of fooling" Frost wrote late on, dropping his peasant mask for a moment. But he enjoyed the fooling, and relished his hidden powers. As another couplet memorably puts it: "We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows."
There are still plenty of readers who have not adapted to Frost, who are led a merry dance by him. Forty years after Jarrell, Jeffrey Meyers, in his new biography - wishing to emphasise his subject's intertextuality - resorts to a 12-page appendix listing the literary allusions in Frost's poetry. The insistence is almost comical: as if we haven't got the idea by now that Frost was immensely well-read; and as if we'll think any more highly of his most famous last line, from "Stopping by Woods . . ." - "And miles to go before I sleep" - for being told that it comes from Keats ("And I have many miles on foot to fare"). But Meyer has to insist like this because Frost continues to be thought of as backwoods and folksy and self-made.
The other little difficulty Frost has run into since dying, in 1963, is his Life - that's to say, the authorised biography which Lawrance Thompson began while Frost was still in his fifties and which appeared in three volumes once he was dead. …