There is an old view of Robert Frost as a talented simpleton—but his letters reveal the deep intelligence behind his poetryby Clive James / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Frost in Vermont, 1958: “When not actually practising his art, he thought about it so hard that it was a wonder he had time for anything else” © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
While its subject was still alive, the first two volumes of Lawrance Thompson’s relentlessly hostile biography of Robert Frost had already come out, creating a lasting image of the simple poet as a manipulator without conscience. Journalists of all altitudes loved that image because it made for easy copy: cracker-motto bard envied real poets, etc. After Frost died, a third volume of the biography finished the job. On the basis of the complete trilogy of dud scholarship, published between 1966 and 1977, the opinion formed that the gap between Frost’s achievement and his real life was too glaring to be tolerated. Helen Vendler, justifiably regarded in the US as a guru in matters of poetry, pronounced Frost to be a monster of egotism.
When I last heard of her, Helen Vendler was proclaiming the virtues of John Ashbery’s circular poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which has been published in limited edition circular book. While she deals with the vital critical question of whether the reader should turn the book around, or take a turn around the book, we can assume that if there is any further correcting to be done to Frost’s reputation as a monstrous egotist, it probably won’t be done by Helen Vendler. Too good a critic to be completely deaf to Frost’s poetic quality, she published, in 2012, an essay that praised his lyricism, but the essay did not do much to make up for her 1996 Paris Review interview in which she lavishly name-checked dozens of her touchstone American poets while mentioning Frost exactly once, and only in passing.
Luckily not even America—still a puritan culture in which an artist’s integrity must be sufficiently unblemished to impress Oprah Winfrey—has proved entirely devoid of critics and academics who can handle the proposition that the creator of perfect art might be a less than perfect person. Though Thompson’s hostility was a powerfully attractive theme for the kind of dabblers who would always rather read blame than praise, it could not quite offset the praise from such an expert witness as, say, Randall Jarrell. In his mighty little book Poetry and the Age, Jarrell showed…