Jeffrey Hart on a satisfying new biography of the American poet Robert Frost, who deserves to be up with Yeats and Eliot in the poetry pantheonby Jeffrey Hart / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
As we end the 20th century a rough consensus has emerged. The pre-eminent poets writing in English have been Yeats, Eliot and Frost. A bit lower many would place Stevens, Pound and maybe Auden. I note that Americans score well; also that, taken as a whole, this has been a glorious century for poetry in English, perhaps the best since the 17th century.
Jay Parini’s new biography of Frost enters a strange situation. We already have the three-volume biography (1966-76) by Lawrance Thompson and RH Winnick. That project has a grotesque aspect. Thompson was chosen as biographer by Frost himself, but well into his undertaking Thompson discovered that he loathed the poet. To every aspect of his subject, Thompson gave the darkest possible interpretation. When Thompson died, the third volume was completed by Winnick.
In 1984, William Pritchard, an Amherst professor, came to the rescue with Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Pritchard, who had known Frost well, provided a credible but far from hagiographic portrait. The best approach to Frost thus became Thompson-Winnick for their accumulation of fact, but corrected by the judgements of Pritchard.
Can Parini, professor, poet, novelist, add anything? Yes. He has uncovered much in letters, tapes and other material. He has also conducted many interviews with people who knew Frost at various stages of his life. The varied voices in montage produce a portrait that is credible and often very moving.
It bears repeating that the public image of Frost is far from the truth. He was not a kind of cuddly, reassuring, white-haired Will Rogers who also wrote some easy poems. From the beginning, he had a steely determination to be a great poet. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard only briefly and rebelliously, but he was comprehensively learned. The title of his first volume, A Boy’s Will (1913), established him as a poet when he was almost 40. That noun “will” is important. William James wrote The Will to Believe, Schopenhauer The World as Will and Idea, Nietzsche The Will to Power. These were declarations of a “will” against pessimism and nihilism, moral reconstruction efforts. Frost, too, was a man of that certain late 19th-century outlook.
Frost’s family history is something out of the House of Atreus. There were terrible tensions in his marriage to Elinor White. They lost their firstborn son in infancy, an adult son to suicide, a daughter and Frost’s sister…