Arts, Culture & Media

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and Robert Frost took the fork to stardom

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Credit:

Michael Papish

When Robert Frost returned from England, he settled into what is now the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H.

This story begins with a plank of wood.

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Maudelle Driskell directs the Frost Place, Robert Frost's old homestead in Franconia, N.H. Recently, as she and her staff were cleaning up the house and packing away for winter, they found something odd wedged into a closet under the stairs.

It appeared to be the top of a crate with a label scrawled in Frost's hand: "SS St. Paul. November 16th. Please forward with dispatch."

That crate lid, Driskell realized, was no ordinary piece of wood. It was part of the crate that Frost used when sailing back from England in 1915.

Like many American teens across the country, I memorized Robert Frost in school. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." But this quintessential American poet was actually a nobody before he set sail to England three years earlier.

Nearly 40 years old, Frost was a college dropout, a farmer living in rural New Hampshire and an amateur poet.

"He had one or two poems published, but only in a magazine — not in a poetry, but in a poultry magazine — a magazine for chicken farmers," said Jay Parini, who wrote "Robert Frost: A Life."

The poet's time in England, says Parini, was crucial to his entrance into the American canon and it all came about on a bit of a whim. Frost inherited some money and in 1912, he sold his chicken farm and packed up his family and set sail across the Atlantic. With only a letter of introduction to an obscure British poet, Frank S. Flint, he was determined to infiltrate the British literary scene. Somehow he did.

"Within a year, Frost had met Yeats, Ezra Pound, the poet Wilfred Gibson, the poet LaSelle Abercrombie and lots and lots of other poets and editors," said Parini.

The American unknown published his first two books, A Boy's Will and North of Boston, in England and was heralded by his British colleagues for capturing the American voice.

"Sometimes a writer needs separation to hear the accents of back home," Parini said. "You can hear the voice of the New England farmer being transformed."

That would be the voice of the farmer, for instance, in one of his most well-known poems, "Mending Wall." The poem was written, says Parini, during Frost's stay in Kingsbarns, Scotland, a landscape full of stone walls and farms. But it's a New England landscape at the center of the poem and a New England coloquialism that you might recognize in a verse towards the end of the poem.

He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Without his experience in England, suggests Parini, it's unlikely we'd be memorizing any of his poems. Frost left England in 1915 as World War I ramped up.  

"When he stepped off the boat in America, walked up to the dock, he saw a copy of New Republic saying, 'New American Voice, Robert Frost, Poet of the People,'" said Parini. "From that moment on, he was Robert Frost — famous American poet."

The newly-famous literary figure didn't head to New York City or Boston, he settled down in the quiet village of Franconia, where he presumably unpacked his things, shoved them into a closet under the stairs, and just needed a little extra shelf space.

Listen to some of The World's staff reading their favorite poems by Robert Frost.

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    Credit:

    Michael Papish

    Addressed for Robert Frost's return from England in 1915.

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    Credit:

    Michael Papish

    The view from Frost's porch. On a clear day you can see the White Mountains. "Five mountain ranges one behind the other under the sunset far into Vermont," he wrote in his poem "OUT, OUT --"

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