My Own Desert Places: On “The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 3: 1929–1936”

June 5, 2021   •   By Gregory Dowling

The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 3: 1929–1936

Robert Frost

THOSE WISHING TO know more about the thinking of one of the greatest poets of the last century have had little to rely on other than his correspondence — and, since 2006, his notebooks. Robert Frost’s collected prose (published in 2007, like the collected letters, by Harvard University Press) fits into 230 pages, the longest items being stories for two poultry farming magazines published a decade before his first collection of poems appeared. He wrote no extended critical or theoretical essays and never reviewed books. Before HUP undertook this monumental enterprise of the collected letters (five volumes envisaged, the volume under review being the third), readers could draw on three books of selected letters, some of them occasionally unreliable; we therefore have many reasons to be grateful to the editors, Mark Richardson, Donald G. Sheehy, Robert Bernard Hass, and Henry Atmore, who have added greatly to our knowledge of the poet’s life, his family ties, and his various friendships — as well, of course, as his thoughts on his own art.

It was in letters to close friends that he first expounded his notions of “sentence sounds” and “the sound of sense,” concepts that lay behind the quiet revolution of his “talk” poems in North of Boston (1914), at a time when most of the poets rebelling against the faded lyricism of late Victorian verse seemed to put all their emphasis on the image. A trio of friends (Sidney Cox, John Bartlett, and Louis Untermeyer) were the recipients throughout Frost’s life of many of his most important letters on craft. Of these names (they were the dedicatees of his last volume of poetry, published in 1962), only the anthologist Untermeyer is at all known outside the circle of Frost scholars — just as few people other than lovers of Keats know the names Benjamin Bailey or Richard Woodhouse, even though they may be familiar with terms like “fine excess” and “egotistical sublime.”

This third volume, which contains 601 letters (425 previously uncollected), covers the years 1929 to 1936 and contains fewer groundbreaking passages on poetry than the first two volumes. This is only to be expected. Frost had become a highly successful poet. At the outset of his career he had expressed a desire not to achieve only the “kind of success called ‘of esteem,’” which, as he put it in deliberately homely fashion, “butters no parsnips.” He had now become, as he put it, “a poet for all sorts and kinds” who could “stand on [his] own legs as a poet and nothing else.” His status was assured and he felt less need to explain his intentions.

As the editors point out, this third volume “is to a greater degree than previous volumes about the Frost family — about Robert and Elinor’s children and grandchildren, their aspirations, their successes and setbacks.” The most tragic event is the 1934 death from puerperal fever of the Frosts’ youngest daughter. Perhaps the most moving communication in the whole book is the telegram sent to his eldest daughter: “NO MORE MARJORIE IN THIS WORLD EXCEPT MEMORIES.” But even leaving aside this tragedy, the impression given by many of these letters is of a constant battle against illnesses, both minor and serious. The Frosts’ movements in these years are often dictated by health concerns. “I am also,” Frost writes, “a resorter northward for hayfever and southward for influenza.” In another letter he reports: “Next we are going to Colorado to see for ourselves if Marjorie’s tuberculosis is getting subdued by the climate. Marjorie has tuberculosis and so has Lillian. Carol [his son] will move to California for Lillian’s health.”

Our reading of Frost’s letters to Carol is naturally colored by our awareness that in 1940 his son would commit suicide. These letters do much to cancel the impression given by Frost’s official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, of the poet as a monstrous egotist who drove his son to suicide by crushing his poetic ambitions. It is true, as the editors point out, that Frost was “almost never at a loss as to how to ‘carry himself’ in letters, except when writing to Carol, to whom his manner of address is seldom sure,” and he occasionally remonstrates Carol rather oddly for his punctuation and misuse of capitals (Frost’s own spelling is notoriously erratic and the volume is dotted liberally with sics). However, his letters on his son’s poetry are both encouraging and tactfully monitory: Frost was clearly worried that Carol, who showed an aptitude for farming, might instead pin his hopes on poetry.

Frost, of course, had made a career of alternating farming with poetry — and, in many ways, from merging the two — but he derived his main income from poetry, and he knew just how difficult an achievement this was. As he wrote to a hopeful young poet, Wade Van Dore, “Sooner or later you have got to face the problem of earning a living for three people. I’ve told you I dont think you can count on earning it by poetry. Nobody can. Poetry mustn’t be presumed on.” It was only natural that he should be concerned about misplaced ambitions on the part of his son, who had a family of his own to support.

Given the background of the Great Depression it is no surprise that the theme of making a living recurs in these letters. Frost’s income did not come primarily from his books but from the related activities of teaching and lecturing. He was fortunate enough to have a flexible contract with Amherst College, with no fixed teaching requirements. In addition to that — and in order to help out his children, all struggling financially — he took on many other commitments; here is a typical letter from 1935:

By sensible degrees I am already in so deep with colleges back here that it looks as if my year, my winter, was wholly accounted for. I have practically agreed to go to Wesleyan, Texas, Iowa, Yale, Wesleyan and Miami […] and I forgot my series at the New School of Social Research [sic] in New York and opening the new literature house at the City College of New York.

At times, his engagements became punishingly exhausting. In 1933, he was too spent even to attend his daughter Irma’s wedding. He declared that it wasn’t so much the lecturing but “the hospitality that lays me out.” “Texas the Boundless,” he declared, “did me in […] with boundless hospitality.”

The difficulty was not in obtaining such engagements but in having to turn them down. He was, by all accounts, a captivating public speaker, at ease with the public and always ready to hold forth in impromptu fashion. The letters also report what seems to have been a missed opportunity, with Frost turning down an invitation to deliver radio lectures:

But frankly nothing you tell me, nothing I hear from others quite persuades me that I want to go on the air yet awhile. There are several considerations. The first is I may not belong on the air. I can well believe my sort of thing may depend for success on my being present to the eye.

Frost had a canny sense of his own skills and limitations as a performer — but also appeared to suspect that his gifts as a public speaker were getting in the way of his work as an artist. The case of the lectures he gave as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard in 1936 is emblematic.

He was clearly flattered at having been invited to deliver these lectures at the university he had failed to graduate from, and he announced to some of his correspondents that he was the first American poet to have been appointed to this position; this was, among other things, a sly dig at T. S. Eliot, who had held the post two years earlier, but who was now a British subject. The lectures proved enormously successful — far more so than the administrators had anticipated, with more than a thousand people attending each. Frost took pleasure in this success, which was of the kind that certainly buttered parsnips, but at the same time one senses that he was aware of a growing diffidence in certain literary circles toward his popularity. “I dont feel sure they have been a success with the authorities. I had too big a popular success to please the dignitaries I’m afraid. […] There is a strong Pound-Elliot [sic] gang in what is called Eliot House.”

This rivalry with the leading figures of the Modernist movement had been a feature of his career from the beginning; his relations with Ezra Pound were particularly complicated, Pound having been one of the first to acknowledge his gifts, but also one of the first to contribute to the notion of him as a plain-spoken American naïf. “I am not undesigning,” he had declared, somewhat plaintively, in 1913 (interestingly, by 1935 his reputation had swung sufficiently in the opposite direction that he felt the need to tell one reader, “I’m not really designing”). Eliot’s name comes up several times, nearly always as a threatening rival. One telling example is an episode in Boston in 1932:

T. S. Eliot said he would read a poem if I would. I made him a counter offer. I said I would write mine while he was reading his. I went to work on all the place cards I could gather, pretending to make mine up as fast as I could. When my turn came I was not quite finished but said I would do the best I could with the last stanzas extempore. I stumbled a little for verisimilitude.

He has the grace to add: “My lie kept me awake one whole night.”

The image Frost clearly wanted to project was that of the professional craftsman; interestingly, though, he declares elsewhere: “I never wrote an occasional poem in my life.” And in another letter he takes offense that a friend should have thought that during a talk he stumbled “on purpose in my talk in order to make my long long thoughts look impromptu.” Such contradictions in his behavior are not untypical and, indeed, are partly what make him and his poetry so endlessly fascinating. However, it does seem that during this period Frost underwent a crisis of confidence, fueled by an awareness that he was being less productive. He wrote to Untermeyer in 1932:

As for me I don’t care too much whether I am a poet any more. It gives me peace to grant that I may be done with the larger public. I have earned the right to quit and go off trial. Let’s play anyway that I am back where I was before I had much of any audience and wrote more for the poem’s sake than ambition’s.

He published only one new book of poetry in these years, his sixth. A Further Range came out in 1936, eight years after West-Running Brook, and received more negative reviews than any of his previous collections, though it did win the Pulitzer Prize.

There were undeniably weak poems in the book, but it also contained several masterpieces, including “Desert Places,” “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” “Provide, Provide,” and — perhaps his bleakest poem — “Design.” It was unmistakably a product of the Depression years; a number of the poems treat political themes, with satirical takes on the New Deal. There is no doubt that Frost’s conservative opinions did not go down well with some critics. However, as the editors make clear in their cogent introduction, Frost’s politics were far from mere right-wing tub-thumping — as to a certain degree it seems was the case with Elinor, described by Frost, during one bout of sickness, as always showing “animation when the Supreme Court hands down another against the new deal (called in Scotland the Old Deil).” It is worth noting that many of Frost’s friends, including his main correspondent, Untermeyer, were on the left, and he concludes a letter to his daughter Marjorie and her new fiancé with typical equanimity: “Plunge ahead into marriage and progressive politics. We’ll be all right with a little rest. Contemplating you will do us good too.”

As the editors point out, Frost’s politics were based on a profound skepticism about the perfectibility of social arrangements. His poem “Desert Places,” which ends with the lines “I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places,” is described brilliantly by the editors as “privatiz[ing] ‘nameless fear,’ even as FDR sought to dispel it by socializing national losses.” This helps to explain the thinking behind Frost’s open letter to the Amherst Student, which is the closest he came to an artistic credo. He declares that it is “not possible to get outside the age you are in to judge it exactly.” Attempting to do so can only lead to “huge shapeless novels, huge gobs of raw sincerity” (as the footnotes suggest, probably a dig at John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe). But fortunately, he goes on to say, “we don’t need to know how bad the age is. There is something we can always be doing without reference to how good or how bad the age is. There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form.” This is, when considered carefully, a reassuring vision of the artist’s role, but not an escapist one (an accusation leveled at him that he took pains to refute). In the final paragraph of this letter, he states: “The background is hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos; and against the background any small man-made figure of order and concentration.” Here we can see Frost moving toward what is probably his most famous definition of poetry: “a momentary stay against confusion” (“The Figure a Poem Makes,” 1939).

The letters do not make comfortable reading — and there are some that are frankly embarrassing, as in the case of his snide remarks on Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, English poets and lovers, whom he refers to as “those homologosissies” (changed when first published by Untermeyer to “those two girls”) and an “unnatural couplet.” This was not an unusual prejudice at the time, which, of course, makes it no less offensive to us as we read these letters today. But we don’t read these letters in order to approve or disapprove of Frost’s political opinions or prejudices; we read them to gain a greater understanding of where his poetry came from.

Although written amid the pain and worry of illness and family tragedies, and against a background of political and social unrest, the letters are far from dispiriting. Frost’s wit and humor are to be found throughout; and it is worth noting that while he stressed the notion of poetry as his work, it was also his play (“my avocation and my vocation,” as he put it one of the poems in A Further Range). We remember that in “Directive” — for some the culminating poem of his career and perhaps his most deliberate response to Eliot — the seeker is bidden to seek a “broken drinking goblet like the Grail,” which has been stolen “from the children’s playhouse.” The “waters” that the seeker is instructed to drink require that conduit of play if they are to be salvific: “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” These letters, backed by the fine scholarship of Harvard’s team of editors, whose notes and background material are always well judged and to the point, help us to understand the constant need that the poet had for stays against confusion, and to appreciate more fully those poems that brilliantly achieve such a stay.


Gregory Dowling teaches American Literature at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He is the author of six novels, and has also published various academic works on British and American literature and numerous articles and essays.