Monday, March 26, 2012

Robert Frost's birthday

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Frost. When I was very young, probably no more than three or four, my mother began reading to me from Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a well-worn volume with the poet’s signature embossed in gold on its green cover. Not every night—she read me picture books and fairy tales and, later, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden and Beezus and Ramona. But every now and then, she’d take out the old green book of Robert Frost’s poetry and say, “Let’s read poems tonight.”

My mother liked the peaceful, pastoral poems—“The Pasture”—and the searching, reflective ones—“The Road Not Taken.” “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” was her favorite, the one her grandchildren would read in unison at her funeral, forty years later.

I liked those poems, too. I memorized them, and when I told my fourth-grade teacher that I knew them by heart, she had me stand up in front of the class and recite them, all three. Then she sent me across the hall to the other fourth grade class to recite them there, too.

But my own favorites--too long to memorize, but wonderful to hear read aloud--were the ones that told stories. They were stories of simple rural people, but the stories themselves, far from being simple, were infused with dark undercurrents and complicated emotions. “Home Burial.” “The Housekeeper.” “The Mountain.”

By the time I was nine or ten, I was asking her to read and reread “The Death of the Hired Man,” shivering with pleasure and dread through my favorite lines… “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”… “ ‘I’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud / Will hit or miss the moon.’ / It hit the moon.”… until she reached the poem’s inevitable conclusion: “ ’Dead,’ was all he answered.”

My mother was always taking college courses, working toward her master’s degree in library science, and in one class, Robert Frost’s daughter, Lesley Frost Ballantine was her classmate. (At least, I think that’s how the story goes—she met her somewhere, anyway.) Lesley had just published a children’s book called Really Not Really, and my mother brought me home a signed copy, inscribed “For Amy—Really!” There was a black and white photo in the back of Lesley with her father and her two daughters—this photo, as a matter of fact:

I knew Robert Frost had died just a couple of years earlier, and I couldn’t believe I was that close to my mother’s literary hero.

I think the old green Complete Poems is at camp. And I still have that copy of Really Not Really, as well as a 1939 edition of Collected Poems of Robert Frost with my parents’ surprisingly silly bookplate in the front:

They must have bought this volume early in their marriage, and I like to think of them reading Robert Frost’s poems aloud to each other and dreaming of their future together.


  1. When I first read " . .his house is in the village though", I was stunned. My house was in the village; I felt the poet knew what our lives were like in Freedom.

  2. I once made t-shirts for the Robert Frost farm in Derry, NH. I loved walking through the house he lived in (learning he let his children sleep in a different room every night) and also along the stone wall that inspired him. Great blog Amy!