Tuesday, October 20, 2009

9: Derry and South Shaftsbury: A double layer of Frost-ing

At first I thought the pun in the title was a bad idea, but Robert Frost embraced puns—even bad ones, I’m sure—so I went for it.

Frost bounced around a fair amount during his life, so I’m doubling up my adventures to two of his homes. That way no one feels the effects of extreme Frost. Especially me.

The first was an impromptu afternoon outing with my friend Christa. We had just planned to meet for lunch, but it was such a beautiful day—one of those rare September ones that hover perfectly between summer and fall—a visit to Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire, seemed like a good way to spend it. Fortunately for me, Christa is the sort of person who is up for spontaneous adventures.

(Oh yeah, about that lunch. We went to Joe Fish in North Andover—the name sounds like a salt-of-the-earth character from one of Frost’s poems. We have a habit of ordering fish and chips whenever we see the dish on a menu, so that’s what we did. Along with lobster bisque, just because. It was all delicious.)

The house in Franconia (September 25 post) that Robert Frost bought in 1915 met his idealized view of a farm in the mountains where a poet should live. That’s why he bought it. The Robert Frost Farm in Derry, where he lived from 1900 to 1909 (more or less), was someone else’s vision—his grandfather’s.

The farm is right on Route 28, and we hoped as we approached Derry and passed fast-food restaurants and other modern-day roadside landmarks that the farm didn’t sit smack in the middle of a stretch of neon and asphalt. Thankfully, it doesn’t. There’s a modest sign marking the entrance, an unpaved parking lot and a visitor center in the barn. Inside, wooden benches faced the screen that shows a video on Frost and his poetry, and one wall was hung with winning entries in the youth poetry contest.

Our youthful tour guide Stephen gave us a low-key tour of the farmhouse. Frost was only a few years older than Stephen when he moved to the farm. Frost’s paternal grandfather was concerned that his grandson, at 26, had no profession and no way of supporting his young family.  So gramps bought the farm for $1,700 (in his name, not Frost’s) and enlisted a hired man to teach the fledgling farmer the ropes.

Frost’s young adulthood (well, his whole life actually, but that’s a longer story) had had considerable ups and down. In 1892 he and his soon-to-be wife Elinor White had graduated from Lawrence High School as co-valedictorians, but Frost lasted at Dartmouth College for less than a semester. He returned to Lawrence and for the next couple of years taught at local schools, worked in the mills and as a newspaper reporter. He sold his first poem in 1894 to the New York Independent for $15. This may have been a confidence booster, because he proposed to Elinor that year and married her in 1895 (after she had finished college). He enrolled at Harvard, but he left after two years to support his growing family—son Elliott was born in 1896 and daughter Lesley in 1899. Sadly, Elliott died of cholera in 1900, shortly before his fourth birthday, and Frost’s mother died of cancer a few months later.

It was in this sad state that the young family moved to Derry. Frost took up poultry farming (he liked chickens) and tried to settle down to the business of making a living. He didn’t care for the details of money (keeping track of spendings and earnings), and he didn’t like getting up early, so his was an unorthodox farm.

His grandfather died a year after the family moved to Derry. He provided an annual allowance for Frost in his will and stipulated arrangements for the farm, which would become Frost’s in 1911 (and until that time, the family could have the place rent free).

The family grew during the Derry years to include son Carol and daughters Irma and Marjorie. (Another daughter, Elinor Bettina, lived only a few days.) The children loved the fields and woods that lay outside their door, and their father took them on rambles and taught them the names of the various plants. The farm today has a nature trail through the woods, and on our lovely afternoon a herd of small children (a mommy group on an outing) was enjoying a ramble of their own.

            The well was dry beside the door,
                        And so we went with pail and can
            Across the fields behind the house
                        To seek the brook if it still ran; …

*   *   *

At the peak of leaf-peeping season my friend Susanna and I ventured to Vermont on another Frost pilgrimage. (Sus and went to grad school together at Goddard College, so driving to Vermont with her just seems right.) Stimulus money has been poured into road construction projects, which will make for a smooth ride in the future, but on this fine fall day it made for detours and lane shifts and almost as many Jersey barriers as leaf-peepers.

We got to Bennington, Vermont, at late lunchtime and headed for Lil’ Britain. Like I said about lunch with Christa, I just have to try the fish and chips whenever I see them. But the bangers and mash were irresistible too. (Luckily, I talked Sus into ordering both and splitting them.) This isn’t fast food; it’s all made to order, taking all the care and time needed to make it delicious. Nobody seemed to mind waiting—the small restaurant had eight tables (for two or four) and all were full, plus a few folks came for takeaway orders. They all seemed to know if was worth waiting for.

I was happy to have found a Brit-food restaurant tucked away in Vermont. It had the nice connection that satisfies my sensibilities—Frost and his family lived in England for a couple of years, after Derry, before Franconia. And after Franconia he came to Vermont. As I said before, he bounced around a fair bit, and once he was established as a successful poet, he undertook reading tours and teaching gigs that took him away from whatever place he was calling “home” at the time.

Before we went up the road to South Shaftsbury, we walked through Bennington to visit the cemetery at the Old First Church, where the Frost family is buried. A handful of folks off a tour bus and a friendly cat were also visiting the gravesite. The location of the graves is clearly marked with small arrows, so there’s no wandering around—any tangential gravestone reading has to be on purpose, but that didn’t stop people. It’s an interesting old cemetery.

The Stone House in South Shaftsbury, like the other Frost houses I visited, is minimalist in its presentation. The focus is on information over restoration. The house is in fine shape, but rather than filling the rooms with Frost furniture (or Frost-like furniture) the museum has chosen to mount exhibits addressing Frost’s life and poetry. Only the downstairs is open to visitors. Entering through the back brought us into the visitor center, where we paid our admission to the three galleries in what were the living room, front hall and Frost’s study.

The first gallery presents biographical information with interesting excerpts from family letters. Frost to a friend on his son’s work at farming the property: “The farm goes rip-roaring as no farm ever went with me …”

The hall is hung with examples of the woodcut artwork created by J.J. Lankes to illustrate a number of Frost’s books.

The third room is where Frost composed “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922 (on a summer morning, when perhaps he was wishing for cooler conditions). The exhibit tells the story of the poem’s life, from its creation and structure to its reception by critics and long life in popular culture.

None of the Frost houses I’ve visited even attempt to present a full-blown look at his life. (This is a good thing.) He was not an easy man, and he didn’t have an easy life. Author Brian Hall wrote a fascinating biographical novel called Fall of Frost (2008) that captures much of the inner and outer turbulence of the poet’s life.

The cars and tour buses had thinned out by afternoon, and our return drive along Vermont Route 9 was much less crowded. But we still felt a need to stop before we hit the highway, so we turned in at the Chelsea Royal Diner in West Brattleboro. C’mon, who can say no to pie? Not me.

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