Robert Frost has novelist's sympathy in this new story about his life
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"Whose woods these are I think I know," "Good fences make good neighbors," "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/ I took the one less traveled by."
These lines are instantly recognizable as the work of Robert Frost. He is, in many ways, our national poet, writing poems with metrical elegance that nonetheless sound like natural American speech.
Though his poems are familiar to the lay reader, his biography is not. This is perhaps by his design. He was reticent about personal affairs and discouraged critics from reading his life into his poems. He had a strained relationship with Lawrance Thompson, his official biographer, but Frost kept him on out of loyalty.
Thompson's biography, perhaps inaccurately, presents the poet as irascible and arrogant.
Novelist Brian Hall gives a more sympathetic portrait. In his work, the poet is depressed, angry, perhaps even a little crazy, but still undeniably brilliant.
The book touches on the major events of Frost's life:
His alcoholic father's death, his battles with depression, his struggles to keep his young family afloat before fame, and the deaths of four of his children, including the suicide of his son Carol in 1940.
Hall's narrative skips around in time, and he fills in with speculation and imagined details. Those unfamiliar with the poet's life may find the jumps in chronology difficult to follow, and Frost would cringe at some of the passages in which Hall imagines the events that inspired the poet's best-known works.
Hall also includes second-person passages, which at times can sound like someone (the author or Frost's conscience?) is bullying the poet, accusing him of causing his first son's death through laziness and selfishness. (Elliott died of cholera, perhaps from drinking well water.)
As the book progresses, the tone of these passages changes to sympathetic and even admiring.
At its best, Hall's prose attempts to reach the lyric intensity of Frost's poetry. Hall sets the scene for the day Frost interred the ashes of both his wife and his son Carol. Hall writes, "The sugar maple next to the plot is tinged at the top with red. ...Silvered bark, too young yet to split and curl. Someday it will tower over the gravestones, drop leaves on them -- flesh-colored hands, turning as they fall."
Frost was almost 40 when he published his first book, and success came swiftly after. He was enormously popular. He also rose to prominence in public life, reading a poem for John F. Kennedy's inauguration and traveling to the Soviet Union to try to persuade Premier Nikita Khrushchev to end the Cold War.
That final event is one of the most compelling parts of the book. Hall bases the scene on the account of Frank Reeve, Frost's translator. The poet was 89 at the time, but spoke forcefully of the role of poetry in government, arguing that poetry brought character and magnanimity to world affairs.
Hall flexes his novelist's muscle with a rambling, stream-of-conscious commentary. Though in third person, it reads as though it is meant to be Frost's inner thoughts. He writes:
"What's coming is the age of Leo. Not the saphead liberals' peaceable-kingdom guff, the lion lying down with the lamb, but lion to lion, lionhearted, magnanimous."
A poet couldn't stop the Cold War, but that was the fault of the politics, not of the poetry.
Ultimately, what emerges is a complex and sympathetic portrayal of Frost. A man of weaknesses to be sure -- selfishness, egoism -- but also of a man who delighted in his children, was generous with young writers and passionate about poetry and the world. It's a highly subjective portrait to be sure, but an enjoyable one if it's read as intended -- as a novel, not as fact.
First Published April 13, 2008 12:00 am