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Vol. IV No. 29   ·   6 April 2001 


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Frost papers document the poet's journey from obscurity to celebrity

By Eric McHenry

In 1925, answering a letter from an admirer named H. Trolle-Steenstrup, Robert Frost listed "some of the poems in my books I care most for." He included "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" among his favorites.

So did America -- 75 years later. In fact, when CAS Professor of English and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky asked Americans to nominate the poems they'd most like to read for his Favorite Poem Project archive, "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods . . ." finished first and second, respectively. With 957 of the project's 18,264 nominations, Frost can lay pretty confident claim to being America's favorite poet.

  A venerable Robert Frost attends BU's Commencement exercises in 1961, just a few months after reading at the inauguration of President Kennedy. He received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University. Photo by BU Photo Services

Nearly 250 pieces of Frostiana, including the Trolle-Steenstrup letter, a typewritten and signed manuscript copy of "The Road Not Taken," and a handwritten and signed copy of "Stopping by Woods . . . ," are on display through March 2002 in Mugar Memorial Library. The Less Traveled Road: The Papers of Robert Frost includes personal correspondence, photographs, rare first editions, and handwritten drafts of unfinished poems.

The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Department of Special Collections' Frost holdings, an exceptional cache of material donated to BU by the late Paul C. Richards (CAS'60). Eminent as a rare manuscript collector and dealer, Richards was also a tremendous admirer of Frost. He began acquiring the poet's papers not for profit but for his own enjoyment, says Perry Barton, exhibitions coordinator for Special Collections, and "was rather relentless in his pursuit of them."

BU is now the beneficiary of that persistence, with one of the finest Frost archives in the country. "It's one of the three best," says Barton. The University of Virginia and Dartmouth College are home to the other two, he says. "It's certainly one of the cornerstone collections of Special Collections."

Occupying 16 showcases on the library's first floor, the exhibition includes such remarkable items as a British first edition of Frost's earliest book, A Boy's Will, which is the only known copy in a particular trial binding, a manuscript notebook from 1911 to 1912, and dozens of personal letters. Correspondence with such notable writers as Willa Cather and Van Wyck Brooks is mounted alongside tactful but unambiguous responses to poetasters who had sent Frost their own work: "I have read these once or twice with interest," Frost wrote to a Miss Wilde of Amherst in 1933. "They are rather good as such things go. . . . But any way it can't hurt you to try to be a little bolder in speaking realities and springing metaphors. Throw grenades. You may be all right to print now but if publishers' neglect leaves you with time on your hands you might as well put it in improving indefinitely. That's what I used to say when I was out."

"The letters really show Frost's character, talking about everything from poetry to chicken farming," says Barton. "The language in all of them is, I've found, quite extraordinary."

Frost spent the second half of his life as a celebrity and the first in near-complete obscurity -- "out," as he put it to Miss Wilde. In 1901, at the age of 27, he inherited a modest annuity and the use of a farm in Derry, N.H., from his grandfather. The will stipulated that Frost work the land for 10 years, after which he would become its owner.

During this period, Frost's efforts both to raise a profitable crop and to publish his poetry were largely unsuccessful. Upon coming into full ownership of the farm, he immediately sold it and moved his family to England, where he quickly found both a publisher and an audience for his work.

With this English imprimatur, it soon caught on in America as well. A 1915 essay in Poetry magazine, published just months after the appearance of Frost's second volume, North of Boston, made clear both the suddenness and the profundity of its impact.

"It is a significant fact that Mr. Frost has made the characters of a New England community . . . live for us as no American novelist has done since Hawthorne," the critic wrote.

Frost's reputation, both popular and critical, continued to grow until his death in Boston in 1963, just a few weeks before his 89th birthday. He received the Pulitzer prize an astonishing four times, and in 1961 became the first poet to read at the inauguration of an American president, reciting "The Gift Outright" from memory at the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy.

"His death impoverishes us all," Kennedy would say of Frost a little over two years later, "but he has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding."

Read the sidebar "Frost and Pound, lost and found"


6 April 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations