Rediscovering the War Thoughts of Robert Frost
In 1918, Robert Frost inscribed a new poem, "War Thoughts at Home," in a copy of North of Boston, his second book. In the eighty-eight years since, the poem never quite resurfaced—until now. Published [in the Virginia Quarterly Review] for the first time, "War Thoughts at Home" embodies the stories of two great friends in Frost's life. The first was Edward Thomas—who died in the trenches during World War I—and the poem narrates Frost's ambivalence about the war that claimed Thomas's life. The story of the other friend picks up where the first leaves off. It is the story of a new beginning for Frost in his friendship with Frederic G. Melcher, a rising star in the book trade, and it was Melcher who preserved this lost passage of Frost's poetic thoughts about the war. By placing the stories of these two friends side by side, we may begin to put this lost poem in context.
For me, the story begins while I was digging around the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. I had been tipped off about a new collection of Frost's correspondence and rare editions. These books and papers once belonged to Frederic Melcher, about whom I knew next to nothing. After just an hour or so sifting through some not-yet-catalogued binders, I found a few letters that set off little scholarly alarm bells. The first was from Charles R. Green, the librarian of the Jones Library in Amherst Massachusetts. In 1947, Green wrote to Melcher, "Knowing [his] long time and intimate friendship with Mr. Frost," to inquire whether Melcher had any "important" or "interesting" inscriptions that the library might preserve on his behalf. Melcher, demurring, replied:
I would like to think the inscriptions in my books were important, but they're really not. . . . [A] copy of a North of Boston which [Alfred] Harcourt gave me way back in 1918 has an unpublished poem about the war which has not been reprinted, and I am not sure whether he would want me to pass it around, even for filing purposes.
The words "unpublished poem" written in 1947 could easily mean, "published hundreds of times since." Still, I went back to the desk for the book in question and, within minutes, I had in my hands a puzzle. There, inscribed by Frost, was a poem that began with a "flurry of bird war" and ended with a train of sheds lying "dead on a side track." What war thoughts were these, and who was this Melcher who had held on to them?
A letter Frost's editor, Alfred Harcourt, wrote in 1916 helps tell the story of how Frost and Melcher came to know each other:
. . . Robert Frost was visiting me yesterday and was idly glancing through the Publishers' Weekly, a copy of which he had never seen before, when he happened on what you say in the last issue about North of Boston and A Boy's Will. He was so pleased that he wanted me to tell you. It was nice to have two friends meet that way in my home. I do hope you will have the pleasure of really knowing Frost in the flesh some time. I am still in a glow from the day with him.
Frost at that time was newly returned from England and just starting to make his reputation in America. Melcher was a bookseller in Indiana who was quick to spot a trend. He would soon move to New York and go on to be an editor of Publishers Weekly, in whose pages he had made the early and accurate prediction, so pleasing to Frost, that this New England poet was one to watch out for. When the two did finally meet, Melcher and Frost seemed to feel the same glow Harcourt did, and the two became lifelong friends.
Frost fast became a publishing phenomenon, occasionally turning to Melcher for business advice, asking what he thought of certain illustrations or how to handle minor disputes with his publisher. By 1936, Melcher was able to report that first-printings of Frost's books were running up to 55,000 copies (not bad for an American poet). Melcher, in the meanwhile, was becoming a ubiquitous force for civic good in the publishing industry. In 1921 he established the respected John Newbery Medal and in 1937 the Caldecott Medal, awarded for children's literature. After Pearl Harbor, Melcher joined with other established publishing executives to form the Council on Books in Wartime, seeking "to make the book publishing industry essential to the prosecution of the war effort." One could hardly imagine such a project coming together today. Because of the Council, a collection of Frost's poems, Come In, was printed in a handy, pocket-sized Armed Services Edition, one of many such editions cherished by American soldiers overseas.
After publishing an elegant mix of bibliography and biography in an essay for The Colophon in 1930, Melcher quickly came to the attention of a newly forming class of Frost scholars, including his early biographers, Lawrance Thompson and Elizabeth Sheplay Sergeant. In 1938, one would-be Frost biographer, Robert Newdick, asked about Frost's personal inscriptions to Melcher. Melcher initially promised to copy out the inscriptions in his collection but quickly withdrew the offer, leaving Newdick feeling a bit teased:
I have your letter of September 28 bringing me the news that you think none of your Frost inscriptions are among the "interesting" ones. You rascal, I think you may be fearful I'm going off half-cocked!
Newdick died before he could finish his biography, leaving behind only his notes published posthumously in Newdick's Season of Frost. If Melcher ever asked Frost about "War Thoughts at Home," there is no record in the correspondence. Discretion seems to have won out over the pleas of scholars. Aside from one mention of a "fairly long poem which [Frost] wrote in the front pages of ‘North of Boston'" in a remembrance Melcher wrote for Publishers' Weekly just weeks after the poet's death, Melcher kept "War Thoughts at Home" hidden from public view.
The few years that followed that first chance "meeting" in Harcourt's home would see America's entry into the Great War, many thousands dead, and many poets' attempts to reckon themselves to the grief of that war. In 1917, Frost would lose Edward Thomas, a poet and soldier and his best friend from the years he spent in England, to a shell-burst in France. Frost's poem "To E. T." would, in due course, serve as his memorial to Thomas. "War Thoughts at Home," however, was a step along the difficult path to that poem.
Any poet knows that, sometimes, two roads diverge on the page and the road taken goes nowhere. Frost's rationale for abandoning "War Thoughts at Home" may have something to do with this sort of poetic frustration. If you read on a few pages, Glyn Maxwell will give his reasons for thinking this might be so. In a time of war, though, poets face some other tough choices at the fork where poetry and history meet. In 1916, William Butler Yeats wrote in "On being asked for a War Poem":
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right. . . .
Yeats's pessimism may have been justified, but coming from the laureate of the uprising, and the author of the searing "Easter, 1916," his call to silence drips with a bitter irony.
Though the war in Europe was on, no one seemed to be knocking on Frost's farmhouse door in Franconia, New Hampshire, begging him for a war poem. Nor was Frost so assured as Yeats of his right, however ironic, to refuse. Late in 1915, Frost wrote to Thomas, "You know I haven't tried to be troubled by the war. But I believe it is half of what's ailed me ever since August 1914." Around that time, Edward and his wife, Helen, were full of nerves and determination while Edward was off at Hare Hall Camp training to be a soldier. A few months later Frost sent Thomas his first explicit poem on the war. "Not to Keep," inspired by the couple, imagines a wounded soldier's brief visit home:
They sent him back to her. The letter came
Saying . . . And she could have him. And before
She could be sure there was no hidden ill
Under the formal writing, he was there,
Under the formal writing, though, the war remained a hidden ill for Frost. By August, Frost had another poem, "Snow," which he eagerly sent to Thomas: "I have a long thing about Snow you might care for a little. I wonder if it would be likely to get to you." In "Snow," a gritty New Englander stops at a neighbor's house during a late-night journey in a fierce blizzard. Though it's a "long thing" about snow, the snow sounds an awful lot like a war: "Hear the soft bombs of dust / It bursts against us at the chimney mouth." When this traveler, called Brother Meserve, announces to his hosts, "Well, there's—the storm. That says I must go on. / That wants me as a war might if it came. / Ask any man," you can almost hear Frost wrestling into poetry the grim task Thomas undertook in steeling himself to enlist for the war in France. Meserve, as the pun in his name foretells, would serve if called. What did this mean to Frost? "You rather shut me up by enlisting," he wrote to Thomas. "Talk is almost too cheap when all your friends are facing bullets."
But Frost hadn't quite been shut up; he was still thinking his thoughts about the war through his poetry. In December of 1916, Frost wrote again to Thomas: "Silly fools are full of peace talk over here. . . . It's none of my business what you do: but neither is it any of theirs. I wrote some lines I've copied on the other side of this about the way I am struck. When I get to writing in this vein you may know I am sick or sad or something." Frost chose not to publish the sonnet that followed:
France, France I know not what is in my heart.
But God forbid that I should be more brave
As a watcher for a quiet place apart
Than you are fighting in an open grave.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Not mine to say you shall not think of peace.
Not mine, not mine. I almost know your pain.
But I will not believe that you will cease,
I will not bid you cease, from being slain.
Frost barely conceals the "hidden ill" here: though he would not bid aloud that a soldier cease from being slain, he could hardly help but wish another fate for Thomas even as he kept his poet's mouth silent.
At some point in the course of this self-torment, a torment Frost confided to Thomas, Frost composed "War Thoughts at Home." Whether Frost knew it or not, the landscape in the poem resembles Epping Forrest, the woodland outside London where the Thomas family moved to be closer to Edward's military training camp—at least as Helen later described it in her memoirs. With its "jerry-built cottage" standing "in the grounds of nursery garden which had run wild owing to the lack of men to keep it in order" the Thomas's house may also have lacked a coat of paint one side.
In March 1917, Helen Thomas wrote to Frost with reassuring news. Though Edward had been shipped off to the trenches, he was "just fine, full of satisfaction in his work, and his letters free from care and responsibility but keen to have a share in the great strafe when it begins where he is." The letter contained no warning of the blow to come in the postscript:
This letter was returned by the Censor ages after I posted it. I have had to take out the photographs.
But today I have just received the news of Edward's death. He was killed on Easter Monday by a shell. . . . You love him, and some day I hope we may meet and talk of him for he is very great and splendid.
Because the censors returned the letter, Frost was given the unwanted opportunity to imagine that moment between the posting of good news and the arrival of the worst.
Something of Helen's letter finds its way into that uncertain caesura Frost imagines in "War Thoughts at Home." As such, "War Thoughts at Home" may well be a companion to "Not to Keep." This time, the soldier is absent. The woman in the house thinks only dimly of a camp where soldiers for France are "made" like so many parts of a rifle. The woman inside looks on as the blue jays conspire to go AWOL from their own small war. As they watch for their chance to escape her gaze at the window, she gives it to them; she draws down the shade. In thinking of a soldier's winter camp, her silent action bids these blue jays cease from being slain even as Frost felt he could not ask such a thing of Thomas. Meanwhile, outside, the storm and the war drag on.
There is something of Frost's darker New England imagery in the poem, as well. There are echoes of "Storm Fear," where the speaker counts his family's strength against another menacing snowfall:
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,—
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt. . . .
All fires die at length (some say the world will end in fire). "War Thoughts at Home" dwells in that moment before darkness, doubting the necessity of the bravery that drives a soldier-poet like Thomas to enlist. Its doubt stands at odds with the poet's own stoic convictions about war and violence. And the ending, dead on a side track? This is neither fire nor ice, but this is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend. These stanzas' troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.
But the echoes that matter most are perhaps those that Frost heard many years later, echoes of the fragmentation and disconnection that haunt the last stanza of "War Thoughts at Home." After the Second World War, Frost would write in his essay, "A Romantic Chasm:
I wish Edward Thomas (that poet) were here to ponder gulfs with me as in the days when he and I tired the sun with talking on the footpaths and stiles of Leddington and Ryton. I should like to ask him if it isn't true that the world is in parts and the separation of the parts as important as the connection of the parts.
Isn't the great demand for good spacing? But now I do not know the number of his mansion to write him so much as a letter of inquiry. The mansions so many would probably be numberless.
Frederic Melcher and Edward Thomas were two parts of Frost's life separated by an ocean, by war, by death, and by time. Little seems to have connected them except the friendship of the one poet they held in common. In rediscovering "War Thoughts at Home," we find a poem that helps us make sense of the separate parts, of the spacing, good and bad. Edward Thomas had a copy of Frost's Mountain Interval with him at the front when he was killed. Because of Frederic Melcher, we have Frost's poem from that time with us now as we think our own thoughts of war.
Copyright © 2006 Robert Stilling. This essay appears in the Fall 2006 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
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