The persona Robert Frost presented to the public was that of an amiable hayseed with a twinkle in his eye: a Yankee nature poet masquerading as a snowy-haired New England farmer.
It was a carefully fashioned image that helped Frost to become one of America's most popular poets, but it was also an image that belied the dark, troubling themes of his work, its preoccupation with loneliness and fear and dispossession.Within the literary community, however, Frost's image has often been as dark as his verse, thanks in no small part to Lawrance Thompson's three-volume "official" biography, which painted an ugly portrait of the poet as a cruel, cantankerous curmudgeon, vain, selfish and gruesomely competitive with other poets.
Since the last volume of that biography appeared in 1976, various efforts have been made to rehabilitate Frost's reputation. Richard Poirier's "Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing" redirected attention to the poet's work, while William Pritchard's "Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered" tried to put a positive gloss on both the life and the art, by tracing the transactions between the two.
Jeffrey Meyers' new biography, "Robert Frost" continues this process further, attempting to redress what Meyers calls the "considerable defects" of Thompson's book.
Indeed, the sympathetic tack of "Robert Frost" stands in almost diametrical opposition to Meyers' earlier biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, in which he - much like Thompson with Frost - belittled his subjects by focusing on their personal foibles and follies.
In this volume, Meyers devotes considerable space to Frost's relationship with his secretary Kay Morrison, a married woman who Meyers says was also sleeping with Lawrance Thompson. Still, the snide, voyeuristic tone of his earlier books is not in evidence in these pages.
Instead of using his subject's art to expose his life, Meyers uses Frost's life to illuminate his work, while drawing upon his own considerable powers of literary analysis to place Frost's verse in context with the work of other American and English poets. The result is by far Meyers' most persuasive and thoughtful biography yet.
It is Meyers' contention that the more unpleasant aspects of Frost's character - his famous put-downs of other poets and his infantile urge to upstage everyone around him - have been exaggerated, and that his friendships with poets such as Robert Lowell and Wallace Stevens have been seriously underplayed.
He also argues that Frost's controlling personality and need to be the center of attention were rooted in the financial and emotional in-securities of his youth. Subjected to the violent rages of his heavy-drinking father and spoiled by his overprotective mother, Frost grew up an oversensitive child, afraid of the dark and afflicted with psychosomatic symptoms.
Those anxieties, Meyers suggests, were exacerbated by his girlfriend Elinor White's reluctance to marry him. Although she later became his wife, her initial rejection laid a foundation of mistrust in their marriage, and it also left the poet with the sense, as he once put it, that he "could lose everything and not be surprised."
A series of later losses - his sister's nervous breakdown and the early deaths of several of his children - only served to confirm Frost's pessimism, ratifying both his belligerent attitude toward the world and the tragic vision laid out in his poems.
Meyers does a nimble job of demonstrating Frost's reliance on poetry as a guide to life (apparently he even used a Shelley poem to seduce Elinor before they were married) and he dexterously traces the autobiographical sources of his verse.
We learn, for instance, that "The Road Not Taken" had roots both in his friend Edward Thomas' indecisiveness, and in a dreamlike experience of Frost's own, in which he glimpsed a doppelgaenger-like figure walking toward him in the snow.
We learn (not surprisingly) that many of the poems in "A Boy's Will" obliquely refer to Frost's wife, Elinor, and that many of the poems in "A Witness Tree" were inspired by his passion for Kay Morrison, who Meyers says became his mistress after Elinor's death in 1938.
Although Meyers' overall interpretation of Frost's work remains highly indebted to the pioneering studies of earlier critics like Randall Jarrell, he proves himself a perceptive reader of individual poems. He illustrates the strong influence that the classics exerted on Frost's chiseled technique (the poet studied Latin for six years and Greek for five) and also deconstructs the poet's densely allusive style, a style that for all its apparent simplicity remained closely grounded in Frost's voracious reading.
Meyers points out that the opening lines of "Desert Places" ("Snow falling and night falling fast, oh fast") echo the closing lines of Joyce's story "The Dead" ("snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling"), and that the imagery, diction and mood of "After Apple-Picking" pointedly recall Keat's "Ode to a Nightingale" with its drowsy longing for escape from the temporal world through art.
In the end, the reader may quibble with aspects of "Robert Frost": with Meyers' tendency to over-praise many of Frost's later, weaker poems and with his tendency to rationalize the poet's more outrageous acts.
Nonetheless, Meyers has written a judicious book that serves as a welcome antidote to Thompson's angry screed and to his own earlier exercises in literary destruction. The reader can only hope that with this sympathetic book, Meyers has eschewed pathography for good.