England Discovers Robert Frost

New England essayist and biographer ELIZABETH SHEPLEY SERGEANT was long a resident of Brookline,Massachusetts, is a sister-in-law of E. B. White,and has been for three decades a friend of Robert Frost. She drew a brilliant profile of him in her FIRE UNDER THE ANDES, and from her biography, ROBERT FROST: THE TRIAL BY EXISTENCE, which will be published next month by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, we have selected this description of the poet when young.


ROBERT FROST’S English experience, which began in 1912 and within two and a half years established his place in modern poetry in a final way, stands out as dramatic in the very manner that a Frost poem is dramatic. It starts out innocently with the arrival of a little country family from New Hampshire, without money or connections, in great, dark, brooding, historic London. One evening they spent rashly at the five-hundredth performance of Fanny’s First Play by Bernard Shaw: if poetry failed, Frost might have to turn playwright. Then poetic forces take over, sweeping them all to a conclusion hardly suspected till the surprise ending is reached.

Yet was it wholly a surprise? Today we discern that the lonely poet was overwhelmingly ready for his first book. Though three years of total dearth in magazine publication had preceded the year 1912, three of the most lovely lyrics of A Boy’s Will were published at home, just as he was preparing to cross the Atlantic: “October,”in the Youthh’s Companion of October 3; “My November Guest” in the November Forum; and “Reluctance" in the November 7 issue of Companion, as Frost in England evasively referred to the young people’s magazine.

These lyrics stand separated in the little book that was to come, yet to the thoughtful reader they make a triad, a set of three with some likeness to a musical chord. In “October” the poet celebrates, in almost Keatsian vein, the luscious charms of autumn, and bids them linger; in “My November Guest" he sorrowfully and firmly take the arm of muted yet appealing winter; in “Reluctance,” through his nostalgic drifting mood, both accepting and rejecting, he admits some sort of end.

If “Reluctance” had been his last word, the mighty wave from below, sweeping a poet toward a rich fulfillment in England, could scarcely have failed to break into storm and shipwreck. But the poet told me that when he said good-by to Superintendent Silver and secondary-school teaching in Plymouth, he had unexpectedly heard himself utter a sturdy phrase from Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians: “Quit you like men.”

He had repeated the admonition to himself on shipboard, and on the second morning in London he set forth, not to show his children the sights, like Westminster Abbey and the Tower, but to run down a list of country cottages near London, where the canny Frosts would grow subsistence vegetables to save money to prolong their English stay. On a hunch he went to the “Country Walks" columnist of T.P’s Weekly — an ex-policeman, he told me with eyes atwinkle — and in a few countryman’s explorations on foot found the real right place for the family at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.

Elinor, Robert’s wife, fragile though she was, took on the perils of British housekeeping without a murmur. (Picturesque brick stoves were hard to heat.) She had brought along her rocking chair in the hold of The Parisian and sat in it as close as she could to the fireplace, doing her darning and thinking of colds, pneumonia, chilblains, and poetry. Robert, also a fancier of chairs, sat opposite in his own Derry Morris chair, similarly brought to Merrie England in a packing case.

“The chair I could write in,” he recalled for George Whicher many years later, “had to have just the right arms to support a shelf stolen from the closet and not to interfere with my elbows.”

There was no question of school for the children: their education was to grow out of the concrete and practical comparisons they were busy making between New England and old England. His daughter Lesley’s composition book is full of them. Nothing about ancient Norman churches or Elizabethan houses with dark beams. She describes the stony British soil, so different from the manycolored earth of New Hampshire, so intractable to the shovel when dried out; the active children in their rubbers caked with an inch-thick platform of clay mud; the old, old man in a torn gray shawl and burst-out boots with hanging threads who, when met on the road, kept demanding of their father, a nonsmoker, “baccy” and matches.

AS FOR Frost, properly chaired: he says that his first real impulse as poet in exile was to dig a handful of manuscript poems out of the bottom of the family trunk and lay them in a pile by the fireplace.

I have never written poetry every clay as you know. It was just every so often that I would weed out this pile or do something to a poem. One evening I found myself sitting on the floor by the fireplace, burning what I could spare. These were poems of youth, written separately, between 1892-1912, not in a design to be together.

They were all of the period when I thought I preferred nature to people, quite at the mercy of myself, not always happy. They represented a sort of clinical curve. I put the [unburned] poems in my pocket, and next day realized that they had a unity, could be a book [A Boy’s Will].

The poetry itself represented evasiveness, furtiveness. The boy in the poems couldn’t be publicly a poet. He was too shy. ... I wrote some prose lines to tie them together. Thirty-some poems. Lesley typed them for me on our old Blickensderfer. I decided to take them to the policeman columnist — my only English friend; I hadn’t met anybody yet.

I thought he might know about smaller publishers. It didn’t even occur to me to go to the bigger ones.

The policeman said: “Little books like that cost the author about fifteen pounds.” I declared I’d never publish a book at my own expense. Then he proposed Elkin Matthews. I said Matthews was a “vanity” publisher. Then the policeman suggested David Nutt and—recalling that I’d noticed something of W. E. Henley’s under this imprint — I felt that might be the place.

So I found the Nutt office, said I had some poems, and wanted to see David Nutt. A strange lugubrious lady, a Frenchwoman, appeared in deep black weeds saying: “I will speak for David Nutt.”

Nutt was dead, but I did not know this or that Mrs. Nutt had also lost her son David by drowning. I just left the manuscript with her.

In three days I had a card to come in. I went. The book was accepted!

She never told me anything, though — the relict. Whether she admired the book or why, or who advised her to admire and publish. To have nobody in England to advise or confer with was baffling.

Frost’s state of mind is further expressed in a long letter to the Portland, Maine, publisher Thomas Bird Mosher, whose small, finely printed volumes of verse he had admired and read at home. Mosher had evidently asked him for a volume:

The Dea knows I should like nothing better than to see my first book, A Boy’s Will, in your Lyric Garland Series. It even crossed my mind to submit it to you. But under the circumstances I couldn’t, lest you should think I was going to come on you as the poor old man comes on the town. I brought it to England in the bottom of my trunk, more afraid of it, probably, than the Macnamara of what he carried in his. I came here to write rather than to publish. I have three other books of verse somewhere near completion, “Melanism”, “Villagers”, and “The Sense of Wrong”, and I wanted to be alone with them for a while. If I ever published anything, I fully expected it would be through some American publisher. But see how little I knew myself. Wholly on impulse one day I took my MS. of A Boy’s Will to London and left it with the publisher whose imprint was the first I had noticed in a volume of minor verse. ... I suppose I did it to see what would happen, as once on a time I short-circuited a dynamo with a two-foot length of wire held between the brushes. What happened pleased me at first —in the case of the MS., I mean.

I am not so sure how I feel about it now. David Nutt made me a proposal on a royalty basis. I have signed no contract as yet, but after what has passed, I suppose I am bound to sign, if pressed, almost anything that doesn’t seem too one-sided. I expect the publisher will drive a hard bargain with me; who am I that he shouldn’t have a right to? One thing that disconcerts me, however, is the eleventh-hour claim he makes on my next three or four books, verse or prose. I wish 1 knew what you would say to that. I suppose I ought to be proud to be so much in demand: the embarrassment is so novel in my experience. But won’t it seem traitorously un-American to have all my first work come out over here? . . . Why couldn’t you have spoken two-weeks sooner and saved me all this perplexity? It seems to me you owe me something in the way of helpful advice for not speaking. Perhaps I can stave off that contract till I can get an answer from you. Have I made a serious mistake in going to David Nutt? Do you know anything about him (orher, if I may drop the business fiction)? Am I too far committed to draw back? I am nearly the worst person in the world in a muddle like this.

The contract was nevertheless signed, at 12 1/2 per cent. No down payment. It was getting to be Christmastime, and there was no extra cash in sight. The children, carrying out their Derry habits, went in a swarm to the grocer’s back room to barter with their three or four pennies each of spending money for old wood to make one another presents.

Lesley, the poet told me, recalls the first winter in Beaconsfield as one of real hardship in their family life. But her father disagreed. Theirs at least, he said, was not the misery of the beautiful little timbered cottage of the English country laborer who had no pigs, no cow, no hens, as Yankee farmers had; and who lived on tea, bread, and sugar, giving the baby weak tea from a bottle with a nipple. The English poets they came to know also lived like the rustics.

“But we had, with our extra American pennies, eggs, meat, milk. I ought to know — I did a great deal of our cooking!”

Frost’s revolt against the subservience of the English laboring countryman with his acceptance of class restrictions was eloquent, indeed indignant. Some of his British friends were ruffled by his views. The tough independence of the hill people with whom the American had neighbored for a decade haunted him, for there was not a man among them who failed to shoot quail or partridge in the fall of the year or who did not at will fish a trout brook in spring; not a child but had a favorite berry patch.

His village neighbors in Beaconsfield had no fish or game unless they had a poacher in the family. Their little girls went berrying in peril of having their baskets dumped by the game warden, who also claimed the birds wounded by the gentry’s guns and scattered into the bushes. In Herefordshire, where they lived in 1914 and 1915, a bucolic couple boasted that they “had only two girls on the street.”

The subtle, free-flung liberties that were practiced by farmers’ families in Frost’s poem “Blueberries,” the dangerous conflict between the pride of the man hired for haying and that of the farmer unfamiliar with the hired man’s code had no parallel in the English class system.

THE early winter of 1913, when A Boy’s Will was at press but not out, was restless and lonely. Mrs. Nutt remained unapproachably Delphic and introduced her American poet to nobody. Frost, in 1949, told me how he first found, entirely on his own, a little center of Georgian poetry. He liked the Georgians because they too had discarded the nineteenth-century poeticisms and made poetry of the harsh tragedies of common folk, in common speech.

I used to steal off to London for an occasional day and wander about the streets. One dark morning, early in the New Year, or maybe it was late in December, I found myself pausing before the window of a shop where a clerk was arranging volumes of current poetry. A notice announced the opening, that night, of Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop. I went in and asked if I might return for the evening. The assistant told me the guests were “Invited.” But I might try.

Like any other American, Rob Frost had a couple of photographs taken after he had placed A Boy’s Will. So we today can understand why nobody scowled at the Yankee with tossed fair hair, Grecian profile, deeply plunged, speaking, blue eyes, long upper lip, finely molded sensuous mouth, who looked about him with a shy, vulnerable air. He had made his way through the crowd of poets and patrons of the arts to a seat on a stairway beside a charming British lady who promptly inquired, “Are you a poet?”

“I accept the omen,” replied the stranger who hardly looked older than the “I” of A Boy’s Will. “Have you a book?”


The lady, the wife of Ernest Gardiner, an archaeological scholar who later introduced the Frosts to the Beveridge circle, had, however, taken his measure, and so had F. S. Flint, an American poet who lived in London and had allied himself with Ezra Pound’s budding group of Imagistes. Flint asked the American (Frost has told me), after a reading by John Drinkwater, if he knew Ezra Pound.


“Well, you should,” commented Flint, and just a few days later Frost received, in Buckinghamshire, a card:

Ezra Pound, Number Five Church Walk, London. At home sometimes.

Frost ruminated in his mildest manner:

I didn’t like that very well.
Several months passed. Then one day, maybe in

March, finding myself in Kensington near a sign ‘Church Walk’ I pulled out the card from my vest pocket and knocked at the door.

Ezra was at home, taking a bird-bath; and scuttled into an ornate purple Oriental dressing gown. He showed annoyance that I had not been more attentive to his summons. Immediately wormed out of me that David Nutt was publishing my first book of verse. He said:

“We’ll go over to the press and get a copy.” I had none myself, as yet, but go we did and Pound (not I) took possession of the first copy of my book. I had to walk back to his lodgings with him holding my book.

He began reading it at once, pulling at his beard with me there, standing on one foot. After a bit I caught a chuckle. Maybe he was getting it? Presently he said:

“You don’t mind OUR liking this?”

Oh no — go ahead and like it.

“You’d better find a book to read,” Pound advised me.

Next he said:

“I guess you’d better run along home. I’m going to review your book.”

This simple statement must have, like a lightning flash, illuminated a whole new landscape for Robert Frost. Since 1894, when he published “My Butterfly,” nineteen years had passed, and he had printed but fourteen poems in all. Never in that long stretch had his poetry received formal critical notice. Pound’s review would carry authority and would appear on home ground. For Pound had constituted himself the London American-expatriate adviser of Miss Harriet Monroe’s promising Chicago review, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which had been launched just as Frost took flight.

Frost had, in fact, recently sent Miss Monroe a batch of poems that she had rejected. (Later she said that this had happened because she was away on a trip.) Now, seemingly, she was to have forced upon her a review of A Boy’s Will. Pound assured his new discovery that Harriet, though she was an old maid, was far less of a one than were the editors of Harper’s, Scribner’s, and the Atlantic Monthly.

Pound wrote to Alice Corbin, a poet who was then Miss Monroe’s assistant editor: “Have just discovered another Amur’kn (Robert Frost). Vurry Amur’kn with, I think, the seeds of grace.”

“Sorry,” he said in a letter to Harriet Monroe, “I can’t work this review down to any smaller dimensions . . . it’s our second scoop for I only found the man by accident and I think I’ve about the only copy of the book that has left the shop.

“I’ll have along some of his work, if the book hasn’t used up all the best of it.”

Frost commented:

I always speak of Ezra with praise for having been so quick and kind, for his haste to speak of my poetry before anyone — anyone before him or beside him. But when his review came to me in England—in May 1913 — mind you, my first American review — the piece was so personal that Elinor cried. But it was generously intended, I have always felt grateful to Ezra for the start he tried to give me. He continued generous, he reviewed me justly, even after we’d acutely quarrelled and disagreed, as we did in a very short time.

Certainly Robert Frost in 1913 did enjoy, at first, being singled out by an American poet who, however eccentric, was making an unusual mark in literary London — one who, like himself, did believe that “poetry is the thing” and that it lives, as an art, through flux and changes of manner.

Don’t forget our first moment together — Pound’s and mine — was happy, even romantic. Pound showed me London’s Bohemia — he was boyish about it. He presented me with two little books of his verse, Personae and Ripostes. The last had recently appeared.

I liked them and said so — then he backed off —

“If you value them. . . . But it’s all old stuff. I shall not go back to it.”

But I liked them. This was what Ezra was to me before he got to writing Cantos.

Pound and Frost were in happy agreement about another American, as Frost records in his Introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s King Jasper:

The first poet I ever sat down with to talk about poetry was Ezra Pound. It was in London in 1913. The first poet we talked about, to the best of my recollection, was Edwin Arlington Robinson. I was fresh from America and from having read The Town Down the River. Beginning at that book, I have slowly spread my reading of Robinson twenty years backward and forward, about equally in both directions.

I remember the pleasure with which Pound and I laughed over the fourth “thought” in

“Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,

And thought about it.”

Three “thoughts” would have been “adequate” as the critical praise-word then was. There would have been nothing to complain of, if it had been left at three. The fourth made the intolerable touch of poetry. With the fourth, the fun began. . . .

Now Frost and I were in Ripton talking:

Pound presented me to William Butler Yeats and to another man of influence, Ford Madox Ford (Hueffer), formerly editor of the critically powerful English Review. These two were at this time his chief English friends — he had quarrelled with many of the rest. Yeats and I did not hit it off personally, especially after my fight with Pound, which happened very soon . . . truth is I had begun to make friends of my own in the Georgian group — Harold Monro of the bookshop was a poet himself, but still more the publisher of this group with his Georgian anthology and His review Poetry and Drama.

There was another place I got invited to meet poets and critics — St. George’s Restaurant. There, having tea, I met Wilfrid W. Gibson, Lascelles — he said it like tassels — Abercrombie; also (I think) my closest English friend, Edward Thomas.

For these associations Pound reproached me in this wise:

“If you will frequent the purlieus of literature!”

Pound had a personal hate for Abercrombie. He said to him (if you want the story): “Stupidity beyond a certain point becomes a public affront. I hereby assume the public’s quarrel in your case. My seconds will wait on you.” Abercrombie — a charming fellow rather like an American — and a fine poet, laughed it off by proposing, since he had the right to name the weapons, that they should be unsold copies of the author’s works at a hundred yards.

ROBERT FROST stubbornly refused the chance offered by Pound to sit as learner at established great men’s feet and instinctively sought, instead, the English poets who were still making their own way and open to his strong bent and his immense gift for talk. When he met Robert Bridges, who became poet laureate of England in 1913, he listened attentively to Bridges’ views on the application of classical prosody and quantities to English metrics and wrote home a totally opposite theory of his own, which became all the more clear-cut and vocal for the rivalry he felt with an “authority.”

Pound’s adherence to the concise and the concentrated in poetry, as evidenced in his creation at about this time of the group called Les Imagistes, did not offer novelty: it was not far from Frost’s own conciseness.

I asked Frost, when he was discussing his early relationship with Ezra Pound, whether the latter had tried to correct his verse.

He tried to, he asked me to join the little group of Imagistes who shortened one another’s poetry: F. S. Flint, T. E. Hulme, H. D. and Richard Aldington. The poets were interesting. Flint, especially, became a friend I have kept to this day. But I had to work alone. Pound, to illustrate what it should be, took a poem of mine, said: “You’ve done it in fifty words. I’ve shortened it to forty-eight.” I answered, “And spoiled my metre, my idiom and idea.”

Frost’s ability to balance his lack of reputation and worldly sophistication against his inner knowledge that he had already achieved a personal and original form, especially in the blank verse poems that soon became North of Boston, reveals a stout and heartening self-belief. Yeats could not be his god or model. Frost was closer, in spirit, to Thomas Hardy’s conception of man and nature than to Yeats’s or Pound’s. Like Hardy, he saw the background of nature as dangerously chaotic, beyond man’s reasoning but not beyond man’s power to impose his own design upon. Where Yeats viewed nature, as a poet may, as a sort of backdrop, Frost lived in it concretely, almost as a naturalist, with an eye for the neglected and the seemingly insignificant but fertile detail.

But Frost was lucky and knew it in having come to England in the middle of a poetic renascence. The year 1912 had produced De la Mare’s The Listeners, which he admired, and Abercrombie’s Emblems of Love and Masefield’s Dauber. These poets had influenced Wilfrid Gibson, turning him away from his early pseudo-Tennysonian verse toward the tragedy of the common lot of mankind. His Daily Bread and Fires were collections of the same period.

Actually, Robert Frost’s closest friendship in England was with Edward Thomas, who, when they met in February, 1913, was not known as a poet but thought of as a superior hack writer and excellent critic of other men’s poetry.

Frost’s unpretentious book, which sold for one and six, appeared early in April, and as this was London, notices promptly appeared. The first was an anonymous review by Edward Thomas in the London Athenaeum for April 5. It was then reviewed or noticed over several months in other leading literary periodicals and magazines, like the London Times Supplement, Poetry and Drama, the English Review, the London Bookman, the Academy, and the Nation.

These voices built up to a critical succès d’estime for Robert Frost. He had been named a true poet in a truly critical literary world.