A Poet Perfectly at Ease: 'The Letters of Robert Frost'

Known for his evocative use of place, Robert Frost's work, once out of fashion, is enjoying a renaissance, as seen in this impressive volume.

The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 -1920

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 848 pages
Editors: Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Faggen
Price: $45.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-02

In his 1997 mountaineering classic Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer described how Mt. Everest’s allure as a climbing challenge had faded considerably by the '70s and '80s as many in the adventure community viewed it as more of a tourist destination that any climber, regardless of skill, could navigate as long as they were willing to pay for the privilege of doing so.

However, by the time of Krakauer’s own ascent in 1996, and the deaths that accompanied his expedition, Everest had once again assumed mythic proportions in the eyes of climbers who saw climbing the peak was more of a mental challenge that many could attempt, but few could actually attain.

A similar analogy could be applied to the allure of Robert Frost, possibly the most recognizable poet in American history. While celebrated during his lifetime, he became the disdain of modern and post-modern poets who ridiculed his “formal” and rigid style which, in the eyes of many, was so overtly simplistic as to be the work of a tyro, and not a “real” poet. And yet, like Everest, Frost’s stature has risen again. It's not surprising, really since pop culture is cyclical. The poet, known for his evocative use of place, has become celebrated again and academics, perhaps the very same who lampooned Frost two decades ago, are once more singing his praises.

The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 – 1920 is a staggering effort by the three editors – Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen – and Harvard University Press to present, for the first time, the entire collection of all of Frost’s preserved correspondence. What's unique about this effort is that there's no discernible bias made by the editors; instead, their expectation, as suggested in the preface, is that unlike prior biographies and incomplete collections of correspondence, “the availability of the correspondence in its entirety will present both an occasion and a means to come to know Robert Frost anew.”

At 848 pages, The Letters of Robert Frost appears to be a bibliophile’s wet dream; a collection so massive that casual readers may look at its fatty binding and flee in terror with memories of being forced to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Joyce’s Ulysses or Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But those people would be mistaken; while visibly daunting, The Letters of Robert Frost, should be read by everyone.

The book is divided into five sections: “The Early Years” (1886 to 1912); “England in the Grip of Frost” (1912 to 1914); “This Quiet Corner of a Quiet Country” (1914 to 1915); “Making It in America” (1915 to 1917); and “Amherst” (1917 to 1920). I think it's absolutely essential for any reader to first tackle the introduction because much of Frost’s motivations can be gleaned from this section.

One issue that blew my mind was mention of T.S. Elliot’s landmark The Waste Land in 1922; according to the editors, “the problem may well have been that Frost didn’t terrify most of his readers… But Frost un-anxiously took up where Wordsworth left of … The letters collected here show us a poet perfectly at ease with tradition.”

Now, I did not read this collection in its entirety before penning this review (I will enjoy it fully at my leisure); rather, using the exhaustive, 14-page index, I skipped around. Of particular interest to me were Frost’s letters to and references made of other writers, and there is much respect evident in his correspondence to those who came before him (Emerson, Byron, Dryden, Burns, James, Bronte, ) as well as his contemporaries (Shaw, Aiken, Sandburg, Pound, Hardy).

In the end, writing a review of an 800 page collection of letters in a 34-year span of a former U.S. Poet Laureate seems at once intimidating and feckless. However, why not end with one of Frost’s shorter poems, “Fire and Ice”, (read by Richard Burton, below), that clocks in at a pithy nine lines, and reverberates with realism and encapsulates why we continue to love Frost's poetry.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.