Inside the cluttered mind of a genius; Robert Frost's musings are both insightful, insane
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 August 2007)

Long ago, the world regarded Robert Frost (1874-1963) as a kindly old gent, the United States' national grandfather, a New England farmer who just happened to write great poems when he wasn't picking apples or mending fences.

After his death, the truth came out. Biographers revealed him as a self-righteous, jealous egomaniac, hard to like, impossible to love. Story after story demonstrated that he punished and humiliated anyone who helped him. His swollen pride pushed him close to madness.

Still, the poetry endures. In the anthologies, Frost remains a major figure. Recently, Paul Muldoon (who won a Pulitzer in 2003) called Frost the greatest 20th-century U.S. poet. One of his unlikely but passionate admirers was Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel-winning Russian poet.

From youth to the year before his death, Frost recorded his thoughts in school exercise books and stenographer's pads. He left four dozen of them, now edited by Robert Faggen as The Notebooks of Robert Frost (Harvard University Press), the first of six volumes in the Collected Works.

They make marvellous reading: 809 pages of opinion, wisdom, prophecy and disconnected scribblings, a life's intellectual debris. For the reader, this is a long, leisurely tour through Frost's mind, a chance to see at close range one of the oddest of all the odd ducks who wrote the last century's poetry.

Because he seldom kept drafts, the entries rarely show the seeds of his well-known poems. They also say nothing of his private life -- you won't read here about the love affair of his late years, which his lover's husband accepted because closeness to Frost helped his career.

Faggen has left the notes alone, even where they're incoherent, and he's corrected neither spelling nor punctuation. He's added a few hundred footnotes, most of them helpful and necessary, but he's left the Frost material as he found it -- fragmented, frayed, sometimes grotesque. At one point, Frost writes, without explanation, "The bat flew out of my mouth." Odd phrases float in from otherwise unknown corners of his mind. One simply says, "marriage Japanese dwarf tree."

We watch Frost producing definitions in the form of aphorisms -- though he disowns the most famous phrase attributed to him, "Good fences make good neighbours," claiming it comes from the Spartans. "What is truth?" he asks at one point. "Truth is that that takes fresh courage to tell it."

And poetry? "Poetry is that good in human nature which can never become habit." Or: "A poem is a momentary stay against confusion." Or my favourite: "Poetry is that in us that will not be terrified by science."

And how about life? "Life can consist of the inconsistent," holding together the irreconcilables of good and evil, peace and strife, etc. "Life is a bursting unity of opposition barely held."

Or, in a sadder moment: "Life is taking punishment. All we can contribute to it is gracefulness in taking the punishment." That's when we remember the son who committed suicide, the sister and the daughter confined to mental hospitals.

Frost's opinions flow across the pages. Freud was wrong, he says. We are not obsessed with sex; we are obsessed with looking for opportunities to interfere in the business of others. In private life, he advocates stoicism: "Every human being must learn to carry his own craziness and confusion and not bother his friends about it." He also has some of the instincts of a barbarian. He confesses that he wishes the world could "blow Shakespeare out of the English language. The past overawes us too much in art."

He writes that he hates the poor. Why? "Because they bother me so. I have to think of them when there are so many other things I want to think of." He finds investigative journalism useless. He stopped reading Lincoln Steffens, the author of The Shame of the Cities (1904), when he realized that, since he couldn't do anything about the corruption Steffens exposed, reading about it would do nothing but make him angry and give him a reason to feel superior to the politicians, businessmen and voters involved.

He shows a special interest in Canada, though few Canadians (and especially few descendants of the United Empire Loyalists) will be flattered. He claims to have heard often that, after the American Revolution, "All the best people pulled out and went to live in Canada. There was nothing left in the United States but the revolutionary rabble."

But then the United States leapt ahead of Canada in the arts, sciences, commerce, etc. So if you accept the original premise, you must conclude that "the best people" aren't much good -- or colonial states can't produce first-class work. Come to think of it, "Nothing like Emerson Thoreau Whitman Longfellow Dickinson Howells etc. ever happens in a colonial state." Frost was fascinated by Canadian mediocrity in the 19th century. He outlined this history twice in his notebooks and mentioned it a third time.

Without identifying his subject (possibly it's himself ), he neatly summarizes the least attractive quality of senior citizens: "What pleasure he took in his old age was in what didn't please him." He happily boasts about avoiding worn-out words. He claims that in a long writing life he allowed myself to write "lovely" only twice ("at most") and never used "beautiful." He indulged in few exclamation points and rarely used "O" -- though I feel constrained to mention that I have caught him using "lo." He makes fun of T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (a famous play in 1950), renaming it Eliot's Cocktailian Episcopalians.

In many places, he goes beyond fragments and sets down little anecdotes. They appear without warning, like unscheduled vaudeville acts suddenly rushing in from the wings, their origin and purpose unknown. In connection with nothing else, he tells this little tale:

"The father was hanged for killing the mother. Years afterward the son was hanged for killing a police officer." On the gallows, the son gave to the attending priest the address of two illegitimate sons of his own, so that the priest could follow their lives to determine whether hanging runs in families.

Frost doesn't mention the man's profession. I like to think he was an obsessive compulsive sociologist who couldn't resist outlining a promising research project even in his last minute on Earth. But, of course, he was more likely the product of Robert Frost's restless and often quite astonishing imagination.

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