Between Friends: Rediscovering the War Thoughts of Robert Frost

Article excerpt

In 1918, Robert Frost inscribed a new poem, "War Thoughts at Home," in a copy of North o/Boston, his second book. In the eighty-eight years since, the poem never quite resurfaced-until now. Published here for the first time, "War Thoughts at Home" embodies the stories of two great friends in Frost's life. The first was Edward Thomas-who died in the trenches during World War I-and the poem narrates Frost's ambivalence about the war that claimed Thomas's life. The story of the other friend picks up where the first leaves off. It is the story of a new beginning for Frost in his friendship with Frederic G. Melcher, a rising star in the book trade, and it was Melcher who preserved this lost passage of Frost's poetic thoughts about the war. By placing the stories of these two friends side by side, we may begin to put this lost poem in context.

For me, the story begins while I was digging around the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. I had been tipped off about a new collection of Frost's correspondence and rare editions. These books and papers once belonged to Frederic Melcher, about whom I knew next to nothing. After just an hour or so sifting through some not-yetcatalogued binders, I found a few letters that set off little scholarly alarm bells. The first was from Charles R. Green, the librarian of the Jones Library in Amherst Massachusetts. In 1947, Green wrote to Melcher, "Knowing [his] long time and intimate friendship with Mr. Frost," to inquire whether Melcher had any "important" or "interesting" inscriptions that the library might preserve on his behalf. Melcher, demurring, replied:

I would like to think the inscriptions in my books were important, but they're really not.... [A] copy of a "North of Boston" which [Alfred] Harcourt gave me way back in 1918 has an unpublished poem about the war which has not been reprinted, and I am not sure whether he would want me to pass it around, even for filing purposes.

The words "unpublished poem" written in 1947 could easily mean, "published hundreds of times since." Still, I went back to the desk for the book in question and, within minutes, I had in my hands a puzzle. There, inscribed by Frost, was a poem that began with a "flurry of bird war" and ended with a train of sheds laying "dead on a side track." What war thoughts were these, and who was this Melcher who had held on to them?

A letter Frost's editor, Alfred Harcourt, wrote in 1916 helps tell the story of how Frost and Melcher came to know each other:

Dear Melcher:

... Robert Frost was visiting me yesterday and was idly glancing through the Publishers' Weekly, a copy of which he had never seen before, when he happened on what you say in the last issue about North of Boston and A Boy's WiI/. He was so pleased that he wanted me to tell you. It was nice to have two friends meet that way in my home. I do hope you will have the pleasure of really knowing Frost in the flesh some time. I am still in a glow from the day with him.

Frost at that time was newly returned from England and just starting to make his reputation in America. Melcher was a bookseller in Indiana who was quick to spot a trend. He would soon move to New York and go on to be an editor of Publishers Weekly, in whose pages he had made the early and accurate prediction, so pleasing to Frost, that this New England poet was one to watch out for. When the two did finally meet, Melcher and Frost seemed to feel the same glow Harcourt did, and the two became lifelong friends.

Frost fast became a publishing phenomenon, occasionally turning to Melcher for business advice, asking what he thought of certain illustrations or how to handle minor disputes with his publisher. By 1936, Melcher was able to report that first-printings of Frost's books were running up to 55,000 copies (not bad for an American poet). Melcher, in the meanwhile, was becoming a ubiquitous force for civic good in the publishing industry. …