The English Years of Robert Frost

Article excerpt

'Two roads diverged in a wood and I--I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.'

From 'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost

ROBERT Frost (1874-1963) was the most popular American poet of the twentieth century. Millions of volumes of his poems have been sold--collections, selections, illustrated editions, paperback and hardback editions, children's editions. Huge crowds attended his public readings and lectures, buildings were named in his honour, top universities offered him professorships. Frost received America's highest literary award, the Pulitzer Prize, four times; and he received honorary degrees from forty universities. In January 1961 he famously recited 'The Gift Outright' at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

But this quintessential American poet first achieved poetic recognition in England--not as one would expect in America. How did this come about?

Frost's first poem was published in 1890, in his high school newspaper in Lewrence, Massachusetts. He was 16 years old. He continued writing poems during the next ten years, while attending university, and while working at a variety of jobs, from mill-hand and factory worker to newspaper reporter and schoolteacher. In his late 20s and early 30s, he owned a small farm at Derry, New Hampshire, where he bred poultry and kept a few cows. He wrote many poems during these years, and occasionally one was accepted for publication. But when it became difficult to support his family, Frost stopped farming and instead worked as a teacher. During this period of 22 years only a dozen of Frost's poems were published.

In 1912, when he was 38 years old, Frost resigned his teaching post because he wanted time to concentrate on his poetry. The Frosts decided to go to England where they could live cheaply for a few years. He must have seen this as his last chance to become a real poet, not just a full-time farmer/teacher who wrote poems in his spare time.

Robert, Elinor and their four children--aged 7, 9, 10 and 13--arrived in London in September 1912. What timing! London was in the midst of a poetry revival. The 'Georgian movement'--a reaction among young poets in favour of realism and plain language, and against the grand rhetoric of the Victorians--was just beginning, and although Frost was never part of the movement he certainly benefited from it.

Harold Monro was at the centre of this movement, as founder in 1907 of the Samurai Press (which published contemporary poetry), and as founder-editor of The Poetry Review in 1911. In September 1912--just as Frost arrived in London--Monro took the bold step of renting a three-storey property in Bloomsbury that would soon become The Poetry Bookshop--a combined bookshop, editorial office and publishing business dedicated to promoting contemporary poetry.

Another central figure in the Georgian movement was Eddie (Sir Edward) Marsh, Winston Churchill's private secretary at the Admiralty who used his spare time and spare cash to support artists and writers. Also in September 1912, Marsh and a small group of young poets (Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater) decided to produce an anthology of the best poems published recently. Marsh agreed to edit it and Harold Monro, using The Poetry Bookshop imprint, agreed to publish it. Georgian Poetry appeared two months later--named after the new king to signal that Victorian and Edwardian ideas were now outmoded. The anthology created a huge stir and thousands of copies were sold.

It was a fortuitous time for Robert Frost to arrive on the scene. But he didn't know a soul in England; he didn't have one letter of introduction. The family found temporary accommodation in a London hotel, and Frost then called at the Bloomsbury office of a magazine called T.P's Weekly. He asked for advice about where to live from the author of the magazine's column on walks in London's countryside. As a result, the Frosts were soon settled in the attractive town of Beaconsfield, nestling in the Chiltern Hills, about 40 minutes by train from London. …