NH school acquires Robert Frost’s letters to pal

Posted April 05, 2011, at 6:53 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — Writing from England as World War I got under way, Robert Frost was more worried about his personal finances than the threat of war.

“This row was exciting at first. But it has lost some of its interest for us,” the poet wrote to his friend Ernest Silver in August 1914, just weeks after Great Britain declared war on Germany. “Not that I think the Germans will come. I bet one of my little amateur bets that other day that not one of them would set foot in England.”

The letter is one of six recently donated to Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where Frost taught for a year before moving to England in 1912. His reputation as a poet grew after the publication of his first book a year later, but Frost still worried about how he would provide for his family upon returning to the United States.

“I wonder if I can count on your friendship to help me to some place where I can recoup. You know the kind of thing I should like — something in the English department, if possible, where I should have some energy to spare for my poetry,” he wrote. “I can probably hang on another year if I have to, but there will be the more need in the end of my finding work because by that time I shall be in debt.”

In another letter dated Feb. 2, 1915, Frost said he was considering moving to Vermont or Maine to be near friends. “But money is really going to be short and we must go where we can go with a reasonable chance of making ends meet,” he wrote.

Frost, the celebrated New England poet known for such verse as “The Road Not Taken” and “The Gift Outright,” met Silver at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, where Silver was the high school principal and Frost taught English. When Silver became the president of what was then known as Plymouth Normal School, he invited Frost to come teach education and psychology.

But after a decade of teaching combined with unsuccessful farming, Frost’s move to England marked his shift toward poetry as a vocation, said Alice Staples, librarian for the archives and special collections at Plymouth State. The letters come from a time in which Frost faced a choice not unlike the dilemma posed in 1916’s “The Road Not Taken,” she said.

In England, Frost befriended other literary greats, including William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound. In a May 7, 1913, letter, he described Yeats’ manner as being “like that of a man in some dream he can’t shake off,” and called Pound “the dazzling youth who translates poetry from six languages.”

“Someone says he looks altogether too much like a poet to be a poet,” Frost wrote of Pound. “He lives in Bohemia from hand to mouth but he goes simply everywhere in great society.”

Frost also described reading Yeats to students in Plymouth before meeting the poet overseas, a detail Plymouth State University President Sara Jayne Steen found particularly striking.

“To think that he was bringing such a contemporary writer to the students and working with them, and then to think how exciting that must’ve been for him, to be in a position where he could meet and talk with the man he had just been teaching,” Steen said.

The letters, which have not been published before, were donated privately to the university, Steen said. To mark the 100th anniversary of Frost’s time on campus, the school has set up a display including audio of Frost reading his poetry along with photos and other memorabilia.

“There could hardly be anything more perfect in the centennial year of Robert Frost and Ernest Silver coming to Plymouth than to have the letters that were part of that correspondence come to us,” Steen said.

Frost returned to the U.S. in 1915. In addition to his connection to Plymouth, the letters also show how Frost’s time in England solidified his identity as a New Englander, Staples said. (Frost was born in California but moved to New England as a child.)

Though accustomed to New Hampshire’s harsh winters, Frost complained that he’d rather be stuck in snow than the mud that surrounded him that spring in England.

“My original theory was that mud here took the place of snow at home. It is worse than that. Mud here takes the place of everything at home. … We had three hours sunshine last week a thing so remarkable that it set the ladies cooing over their tea, ‘Don’t you think the English is a much maligned climate?’”

“I suppose the amount of it is that I am home-sick, and so not disposed to like anything foreign,” he concluded. “Twenty-five years in New England have made very much of a damned Yankee of me.”

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