As told to a child – A remembrance from the Frost family archives

Lesley Lee Francis


hat drew me initially to the Frost biography was the uncollected ballad "La Noche Triste," inspired by Prescott and the retreat of Cortes from Tenochtitlan. I was by then immersed in my doctoral studies in Romance Languages and was intrigued by my grandfather’s fascination with Indian civilization in the pre-colonial times. Where my approach was scholarly, his was haphazard, drawn from knowledge that stuck like burrs in the field; in sharp contrast to my linear studies in biography, the poems blurred the lines between history and legend to serve the poet’s purpose of meaning and metaphor.

I soon found myself drawn to the dynamics of the Frost family during the years prior to public recognition in America — that is, prior to 1915 and the return of the Frost family from England. In my biographical study, The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim, I explore these interactions exhaustively through personal correspondence, journals, and other primary source materials. Of special interest was the at-home education of the children and the shared family experience. Only recently, the Cyder Press at the Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, honoring the trans-Atlantic ties from those pre-World War I years, published a fine-art quality volume of the little stories RF wrote for and about his own children, entitled As Told to a Child: stories from the Derry notebooks.

One of the shared poems from the Derry period is "The Last Word of a Bluebird: As Told to a Child." When first read to me as a child, and I heard the lines "I just came to tell you/To tell Lesley (will you?)", I thought it had been written for me. Only later I learned that my grandfather wrote it for my mother Lesley, his eldest daughter, when she was a child. Composed in rhymed couplets and originally titled "The Message the Crow Gave me for Lesley one Morning Lately when I went to the Well," the poem sets the tone for the little stories.

The poems and stories were part of my grandfather’s as-yet-unrecognized creative imagination. It would be his young audience, at school and at home, that helped shape RF’s early verse: on the one hand, his teaching experience at Pinkerton Academy in Derry Village and at the Plymouth Normal School, and on the other, interaction with his family, now grown to six (Robert, his wife Elinor, his daughters Lesley, Irma and Marjorie, and son Carol).

Life and poetry were so intimately related at home, in fact, that only Elinor was fully aware of her husband’s personal ambition. My mother Lesley would recall, in the introduction to her Derry journals (published as New Hampshire’s Child), that her father, "after exposing me to a variety of narrative and lyric poems (some of which I quickly learned by heart) and after getting me to write brief critical essays, never so much as hinted that he was frequently writing poems of his own, at the table in the kitchen of our farmhouse, long after we children had gone to bed."

Living on the Derry farm, the children were exposed from a young age to their parents’ "education by poetry." They learned that the natural thing is always the adequate symbol, that the reality around them and the "imagination thing" are inseparable. In my mother’s notebooks, we can trace her father’s hand in developing the skills of his children as writers. She told me that her journals were the result of her father’s way of teaching writing — by writing — and that learning to write, from his viewpoint, was learning to have ideas. Each entry should have a title and some sort of plot, or at least a shape. Indeed, they were called stories: "The hunting story," "The cow story," or "Meeting a Fairy — A Story." Through their journal entries, RF expected the children to convey the excitement of discovery on the farm: the fun and laughter, the startling and sometimes scary event, and the overcoming of fear. While the scary moments stuck in their minds, other emotions, of joy and wonder, anger and love, strike an equally genuine note. The natural speech of children at play gives the little stories an immediacy and charm: the children "spanking" the cow that escaped or chasing a bull or one of the horses; "playing school" with mama in the front parlor, then marching out into the kitchen to show papa what they had learned; watching a deer or a crow at the window; a row between the children; Papa’s April fool’s joke; collecting nuts or quartz stones. To these are added the literary allusions and attempts at dramatic dialogue.

For the children, the love of drawing and painting competed with the writing. In her journal, my mother explains: "i do not like to rit a story when I go outdoors because I want to pant [paint] and I sho mama and papa them after I pant them"; "but just then papa called me to rite my story." While RF taught the writing, Elinor taught the organized subjects: reading, arithmetic, and spelling, to which she added her special love of drawing and painting.

The family walks included Elinor, whose protective, more gentle voice is heard as it welcomes word of the children’s adventures at end of day. Often joining her father on longer walks, my mother was not only learning from her natural surroundings but, equally important, absorbing her father’s peculiar receptiveness to those surroundings: crossing a pasture with groves of pine, maple, or chestnut trees; swinging birches; sitting on stone walls; chatting for hours with friends in town; imagining goblins or fairies in the neighbor’s woods; or following Papa’s lead in dealing with her fears — of the cold nights, the dark cellar, sudden movements of animals in the woods, the sound of gunfire, or too much snow, too fast, from a snowstorm coming on.

All part of what RF referred to as "a life that goes rather poetically." He emphasized the need of "reading for pleasure" in a family "where the word improvement is never heard." It is preferable, he said, "not to have children remember you as having taught them anything in particular. May they remember you as an old friend. That is what it is to have been right with them in their good moments." He and Elinor saw to it that the children were exposed through their readings, writings, and direct observations to the clarifying concepts of justice, fidelity, love, and courage, not as lessons imposed by their parents, but as discovery, as experience, as an organic part of the adventure of living.

At the time of their precipitate departure for England in late summer of 1912 — the matter settled by the toss of a coin — Lesley had turned 13, Carol, 10, Irma, 9, and Marjorie,7. Settled in Beaconsfield, and later in Dymock/Ryton, the children’s "education by poetry" continued with several composition notebooks and production of The Bouquet, an in-house magazine to which the four Frost children and chosen friends (and several parents) contributed. The accomplishments of the children in England were a natural sequel to the journals Lesley kept on the Derry farm from the age of five. The trusting childlike view of life and freshness of response, the suspension of disbelief and inebriation that reduced the distance between reader, the writer, and the real world in the journals are carried on in the children’s projects while in England.

The Frost children’s crowning achievement was The Bouquet. As the mastermind and "managing editor," Lesley typed and assembled the stories, poems, essays and illustrations by the invited contributors. The single copy was to be issued monthly for circulation among the "subscribing" families. Now and then, a poem by Robert Frost or Edward Thomas was included in The Bouquet: "Pea-sticks" and "Locked Out" by the former, "The Combe" and "Nettles"by his new friend and nascent poet. The ongoing and almost constant exposure to each other’s ideas, opinions, and artistic tastes, while contributing to the magazine’s appeal, provides greater understanding of RF’s poetic output during this critical period. Six issues of The Bouquet survive and reside in the University of Virginia Library. As the editor, Lesley came to her task with a literary yardstick. Typing phonetically by the age of four, she would later transcribe, on the Blickensderfer brought from America, the manuscripts for her father’s first two volumes, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston.

The body of compositions and artwork produced by the Frost children gives full rein to the "imagination thing" combined with a heightened power of direct observation. Not surprisingly, the "education by poetry" provided by their father — as father, teacher, and poet—is reflected in the children’s journals and little magazine. As in the Derry notebooks, and in his own stories for his children, my grandfather’s creative genius was constantly enriched by his sharing of experience. While the often harsh and straightened circumstances in those early years prior to public recognition neither should nor could be replicated, the creative sharing of experience transcends material deprivation and is what we can hope to pass on to our children and grandchildren. v


Editor’s note: Lesley Lee Francis, the granddaughter of Robert Frost, spoke at the Caxton dinner meeting, March 20, 1996. At the editor’s invitation, she kindly provided for the Caxtonian this essay, which is drawn in part from her "Introduction" to As Told to a Child: Stories from the Derry notebooks (Cyder Press, 2000) and her biographical study The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim (University of Missouri Press, 1994). She is one of the organizers of the annual Frost colloquium (see "Musings," p. 2) and she often brings her own children, RF’s great-grandchildren, to the event.

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