Robert Frost: Tortured by Love

EXCERPT: Heartbroken, the young poet fled Dartmouth for the Great Dismal Swamp.

Robert Frost was determined to marry his girlfriend, Elinor White, as soon as they graduated as co-valedictorians from their high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. During the summer of 1892, he got a job at a textile mill to bolster his finances, went for long walks with Elinor in the countryside, rowed her in a boat on the Merrimack River, and visited her as often as possible at her home at 10 Valley St. in Lawrence. He often read her poems by Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth, taking particular pleasure in the rhapsodic lines of Shelley’s “Epipsychidion,” “Prometheus Unbound,” “The Revolt of Islam,” and “Queen Mab.” 

“Epipsychidion” was his favorite poem, partly because it recommended ignoring social conventions in the pursuit of romantic ideals. Rob, as he was known at the time, hoped his intense love for Elinor would keep him spiritually united with her when they went their separate ways to college. As Shelley said about his beloved in the poem: “We shall be one/Spirit within two frames…/One passion in twin-hearts.” During their idyllic summer, Rob convinced Elinor to “be one” with him in a prenuptial ceremony that involved exchanging gold rings.

Rob’s original plan was to attend Harvard while Elinor enrolled at the Harvard Annex, a new women’s section of the university. But like the besotted Shelley who wanted to remain with his mistress at “the height of love’s rare Universe,” Rob was destined to be disappointed. His impecunious mother could not pay his college bills, his wealthy grandfather refused to pay them if he went to Harvard, and Elinor was determined to attend St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, about 10 miles from Canada. Frost’s grandfather, William Frost, Sr., had enough money to pay for an Ivy League education (he was manager of a profitable textile mill in Lawrence), but he feared that his grandson would squander his time at Harvard on drink, gambling, and prostitutes, as his son Will had done. William Sr. insisted that Rob attend a college located a safe distance from the distractions of a big city and that he become the lawyer he had wanted Will to be. Elinor’s father Edwin, who considered Rob a shiftless dreamer, wanted to make sure he ended up far from his daughter. A small town in the New Hampshire woods 225 miles east of Canton would be ideal.

A Lawrence High School teacher and Dartmouth alumnus also urged Rob to attend Dartmouth and even arranged for Rob to get a scholarship to defray the annual tuition of $90. Rob’s paternal grandmother recommended Dartmouth, as well. Many of her Colcord relatives had gone to the college, and a distant relative, Samuel Colcord Bartlett, had been the college president from 1877 to 1892.

With the Frost and White families united against Rob’s wish to stay close to home and close to Elinor, he applied to Dartmouth, was accepted, and at the end of the summer of 1892 prepared to head north to Hanover, while Elinor prepared for her journey to the small town of Canton. Used to living in cities, both teenagers thought of their destinations as outposts in the hinterland. At the time, St. Lawrence University had a student body of about 60 men and 30 women; Dartmouth had about 490 male students.  

In a melancholy mood, Rob took a train from Lawrence to Manchester, New Hampshire. While waiting for the next train to Norwich, Vermont, he went to a bookstore and bought the Thomas Hardy novels A Pair of Blue Eyes and Two on a Tower mistakenly believing that the famous English novelist taught at Dartmouth. A Lawrence High School teacher had encouraged Rob to read the novels of Arthur Hardy, a Dartmouth math and engineering professor who wrote poetry and fiction. (Rob never met Professor Hardy, who resigned in 1893 after losing his bid to replace Colcord Bartlett as Dartmouth’s next president.) Rob’s confusion over the two novelists proved serendipitous. Thomas Hardy’s vision of fate as a malignant force working against the romantic aspirations of rural folk would have a lasting influence on Frost’s poetry.

In 1892, Dartmouth was just about to undergo a transformation from the stodgy years of the Bartlett presidency. The courses offered at the time were limited and generally mandatory; they covered such subjects as English literature, mathematics, political economy, political science, foreign languages, physical sciences, and the Bible. Students attended lectures, gave recitations from textbooks, and took numerous exams. Most historians of the college describe its teaching methods at the time as old-fashioned and mechanical and the buildings around the green as dilapidated and uncomfortable. No dormitory had running water or electricity. Furnaces heated only two of the buildings on campus. Small coal stoves or fireplaces heated the others. William Jewett Tucker, the president who succeeded Bartlett, would increase the quantity and quality of professors, students, courses, and buildings; he would also install electricity and running water. These renovations, however, would not begin until 1893.

Dartmouth’s biblical motto Vox clamantis in deserto expressed Rob’s loneliness well as he rode in a horse-drawn carriage from the Norwich train station over the Connecticut River bridge and up the hill to the campus. One of the first things he saw was the rectangular, elm-bordered green, which was entirely fenced to keep cows from grazing on the grass where students played baseball, cricket, football, tennis, and other sports. The fence had been a flash point for town-and-gown skirmishes for years.

During the early 19th century, when no fence existed, students corralled cows belonging to locals into Dartmouth Hall to protest the way they fouled their playing fields. Hanover citizens raised funds to build a fence that would protect the field, but part of the fence was removed to make way for a road, and the rest of the fence was taken down by college administrators. The history of fence disputes, which figured into the Dartmouth lore Rob would have learned as a freshman, may have given him another source for the debate over whether good fences make good neighbors in his famous poem “Mending Wall.”

Rob soon reached his room, 23 Wentworth Hall, near the northeastern corner of the campus. Once he dropped off his bags, he went into town to buy a table, lantern, heating stove, and a can of kerosene to make his room more habitable.

If Rob knew he would be hazed by upperclassmen (hazing was routine in the 19th century), he was nevertheless startled when a group of boisterous students knocked on his door one night, entered his room, and proceeded to scatter his furniture and tip over his kerosene lantern. Rob pushed the marauders into the hall, whereupon they locked the door from the outside with nails or screws. Always scared of the dark, he scrambled to relight his lantern and called for help that never came.

The Poe-like night of entrapment left an indelible impression on Rob, as did the hazing ritual following convocation in the Old Chapel when sophomores pelted the freshmen with handfuls of rock salt and Rob’s classmates hurled seat cushions at their attackers, wrestled them to the floor, and even tried to tear off their clothes.

As temperatures dropped and cold winds stripped the colorful leaves from New Hampshire’s woods, Rob grew increasingly impatient with his courses and uncomfortable room. Meanwhile, Elinor appeared to be enjoying college life in upstate New York and continued to make him jealous with her cheerful letters. Following a childhood pattern of quitting school as soon as he got disgruntled, Rob looked for an excuse to return home to his mother and insisted that Elinor join him. Her decision not to go home for Christmas break (she maintained the train ticket was too expensive) convinced him that she was inordinately fond of college and some of her male classmates.

His romantic worries and his preoccupation with a poetry anthology, The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, made concentrating on his classes nearly impossible. (The anthology, which a Dartmouth English professor, Charles Richardson, had recommended to Rob, had more influence on his poetic career than any other book.) When his mother complained of discipline problems in her eighth-grade classroom, he had the excuse he needed, and he left.

Most Frost biographers assume that Rob’s decision to leave Dartmouth was final.  One biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, has argued that Rob did not leave voluntarily, but rather that the administration expelled him for his involvement in a bizarre hair-cutting incident. It is likely, however, that Rob left in order to resolve his personal and family problems, and that he considered returning once he had done so. The Dartmouth on December 16, 1892, suggested this when it printed the note: “R.L. Frost has been visiting in Methuen, Mass.” An update in the newspaper on January 27, 1893, stated: “R.L. Frost, ’96 is teaching in Massachusetts.” It was not until February 24, 1893, that The Dartmouth announced categorically: “R.L. Frost will not return to college.”

After Rob withdrew from Dartmouth, he intensified his attempts to persuade Elinor to leave St. Lawrence so they could marry. He paid a Massachusetts printer to assemble five of his best poems in two expensively bound pamphlets with the intention of presenting one to Elinor as a kind of wedding gift. Since poetry had originally drawn them together, he was sure that the pamphlet, which he titled Twilight, would convince her of his great love for her and his ability to succeed as a poet.

In the middle of the fall of 1894, Rob traveled to Canton, knocked on the door of Elinor’s boarding house, and asked if he could come inside to speak to her. She told him he could not. (It was against the rules for a man to enter a woman’s dormitory.) He implored her to walk into town with him. Perturbed by his unannounced visit and aware that he wanted to resume their conversation about marriage, she said they could discuss their future during the summer in Lawrence.

She also told him to take the next train home. Stunned by this rebuff, he handed his gift to her, hoping the token of his devotion would soften her resolve. She took the pamphlet of poems, promised to show it to her English professors, and shut the door.

Frost was crushed. He walked down the railroad track to the station, tearing up his copy of Twilight and scattering the pieces on the cross-ties. Back in Massachusetts, he waited anxiously for a letter of apology from Elinor. A letter finally came, but it did nothing to relieve his misery. It was as if Elinor had closed the door on all his carefully laid plans of marital bliss and poetic success. There was, it seemed, no reason to go on living.

So on November 6, 1894, three decades after his father had fled his home in Lawrence to join General Lee’s Confederate army in Virginia, Frost took a train to New York City, where he boarded a steamship for Virginia. Disembarking in Norfolk and “possessed” by memories of the woman he “no longer possessed” (to borrow words from his poem “The Gift Outright”), he trekked in his street clothes along the Elizabeth River toward the small town of Deep Creek. Having passed “Beyond the furthest city light,” as he would write in “Acquainted with the Night,” he headed for the dark woods of the Great Dismal Swamp that stretched into North Carolina.

“I was trying to throw my life away,” he repeatedly told his authorized biographer, Lawrance Thompson. The swamp, which was inhabited by poisonous snakes and predatory animals, was a fitting place for the Hamlet-like poet to drown his sorrows, and perhaps himself, too.

 

Editor’s Note: Somewhere south of Deep Creek, Virginia, Frost came to his senses. His melancholy trek ended when several men operating a small steamer invited him to join them on their trip to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where they planned to pick up a group of duck hunters. Frost got on their boat and accompanied the hunters to the Outer Banks. Soon afterwards, he began to make his way back to Massachusetts. Tired of roughing it and scared of the vagrants and thieves he kept meeting, he got his mother to send money to Baltimore so he could buy a train ticket. He finally arrived in Lawrence on November 30, 1894, more than three weeks after leaving Elinor in Canton. A year later, on December 19, 1895, a Swedenborgian minister married Robert Frost and Elinor White in Lawrence.

 

Henry Hart ’76 is an English professor at the College of William and Mary. He has published four books of poetry and critical books on Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill. His biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie was runner-up for a Southern Book Critics Circle Award in 2000.

Excerpted from The Life of Robert Frost: A Critical Biography, Wiley Blackwell, $68.

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