A Walk with Robert Frost

by Reginald L. Cook

In our country Robert Frost is a seasonal recurrence. Each year he arrives shortly after the green grass. This has been happening for fifteen years and he is now in his eighties. A kneeler at well-curbs; a stopper by woods on snowy evenings; a subduer of birches; a mender of walls; a further ranger, he is indeed one well-versed in country things. But, above all else, like Thoreau, he is "a home-cosmographer" who sees the world in the local habitation. At present it is Ripton, Vermont, where, during the summer and early autumn, he lives in a cabin on the Homer Noble place. It is upper range country and no matter in which direction you turn, friendly Green Mountain peaks are within eyeshot. Boone-free, the poet has elbow-room to walk the wood-paths and cut-over land.

Invariably, when he invites you into the snugly built cabin, he stretches out in an old Morris chair and ambles on a talkathon with the relaxed gaiety of a guest at his own party. What a talker he is! The charm of the man comes to focus in his conversation. He has, indeed, been dealt a rare gift in being able to freshen almost any given occasion by the turn of his idiom, by the provocativeness of phrase, by trenchant and piquant sayings, but mostly by the tone of voice. Habitually quotable, he says things you can lay to heart, and the way he says them is a natural, easy spending, like fumbling in the pocket for coins to make the exact change at the counter. He forces a revision of Villon's contention that "Good talkers are only found in Paris." Mr. Frost has the materials, the words, the original twist which the imagination gives a thing, and presence of mind which Johnson thought made a conversationalist. Talking to him is like reaching into a big bundle and pulling out a package and untying it deliberately with a nice sense of timing, scattering the wrappings all over the place, until the contents lie there before you, to look at and think about. His retentive memory-- it is almost as though his perceptors had glue on them -- records and reproduces deliberately. He talks about Morgan horses, tung oil, spun glass fishing rods, but mostly about people, education, politics, and of course, poetry in a seemingly reckless pouring out of stuffs that ought to be saved for the poetry. You think: "What will be left?" Yet there is always another time when the talk will be just as casual, fresh and prodigal. There is little apparent rigor in his manner, but rigor there has been as only exacting fluency can testify. This is a rare gift, to make memory verbal so that one's words light up experience. He waves, as it were, a peculiarly wandless kind of natural magic, and often the listener feels, in Delacroix's metaphor, "spellbound like the serpent in the hand of the snake charmer."

 
 When we went outside in the fields and woods he proved as deliberately deviable a walker as a talker. We commonly started from his Ripton cabin, picked up two walking sticks and entered the woods with Gillie, a Border collie, hugging our heels. Soon we were tramping beside a brawling roadside stream that was not "too lofty and original to rage," and we had to amplify our voices to get off the brook's sound wave. Bread Loaf Mountain - nearly four thousand feet high - loomed before us on the eastern horizon. At a clearing when we stopped to look over several abandoned farms, we remembered how this town was once so much larger and so much more important than it now is. Five or six schools, it is said, were hereabouts; now there is one which is not the cynosure of all passing eyes.

It was nearly eight in the evening before we once started our walk. White-throated sparrows were in clear note at the field's edge, and as we stopped in the woods to listen to the cool, sweet, variable, clarinet notes of a pair of thrushes -- "Thrush music - hark!" -- the light was dimming fast.

 By the time we reaches a fern-bordered wood-road it was so dark that Mr. Frost who only knew the way took the lead. Inside the deep, dark woods it was like a forest scene in Grimms' Fairy Tales. It was very quiet, no owl stirred, no animal hunted, and no sound from Gillie.

The road was the one Mr. Frost said he had in mind when he wrote "Closed for Good"; the woods he referred to as "my wild place." When we came into an opening a round-faced moon rose behind tall firs and Jupiter blazed in the East.

At 81, Mr. Frost led the way along narrow trails, like a fox nimbly picking its way over tree trunks and boulders, and around wet spots, over stone outcroppings, and under dangling branches. He walked like an Indian, keeping straight ahead, relaxed. He never seemed anxiously bent on seeing something nor grimly determined to revel in the open air. He was completely naturalized, and the inflections of his voice drifted slowly to me. He talked about reading and how he liked The Voyage of the Beagle. "A Reckless reader," is the was he described himself. He referred to his struggles as a poet when he published A Boy's Will; he talked about mutual friends, and about science and "the bombsters." The talk ran from subject to subject - baseball, General Grant, the pre-Socratic Greeks, Lamarck's theory of acquired characteristics, Tolstoi's deterministic theory of history. It is apparent that in two or three hours Mr. Frost ranges a good deal of ground in the fields of human knowledge. How like a coin he spins his wit! "How long would you like to be dead people ask me. I say twelve hundred years back to Cheops and the Pyramids." Or he characterizes the temper of this time as "more of expectation than hope." Or he flatly asserts: "There's as much decimation in peace as in war." And, aware of forces beyond our ken, he will say, "It's all out of my hands." Then adds a clincher, "I just use my brains."

 
 

On another walk, on the Long Trial, we went in search of orchid stations in the high swamps. We passed ferns bordering the trail, and I attempted to draw out Mr. Frost. A friend had said he knew the ferns well. But he dismissed these. "Oh, they're all the common ones: the hay-scented and the ladies ferns!" On a sharp and fairly long pitch at the top of which the trail forks, the north branch leading to Bread Loaf Mountain and the east branch over to Silent Cliff, Mr. Frost went ahead, identifying this plant and that shrub: oxalis, patches of clintonia, baneberry, true and false Solomon's seal, bunchberry, hobble bush, mountain ash, cohosh, saxifrage. 

There was a curious plant growing in the path but not detectable off the trail. It was an exposed rootlet, with a small snake-like head and long runners. When we tried to find out what the roots were like the tender runners broke in our fingers. One or two excavated seed pods were round pellets with a slight brown sheath for cover. Mr. Frost showed a lot of interest. "You've discovered something I'm interested in," he said. "We'll follow it up the mountain." So, curiously, we began to grub for specimens which dropped into his overall pocket. It appeared the plant moved by reaching out and stabbing into the ground like a walking fern. Usually we detected the plant quickly for it was abundant and the naked white runners lay exposed against the
green. Mr. Frost kept ruminating on the plant. Was it a parasite? (One of the old and primitive fungi, perhaps.") How deep did the roots go? (An inch or two at most.) Was it to be found far off the trail? (We scouted unsuccessfully a few feet on each side.) Did it grow higher up? (We would see for ourselves as we went on.) He thought that probably there were people who once lived around here who could tell us what this plant was - its history and associations. He would find out for himself. As we worked up the pitch collecting specimens, examining the ground closely, he said: "We ought to be up here more often. We farm too hard."

En route to the swamp we stopped to inspect a tree girdled by some bird, noticed the torsion of another, watched a pair of ichneumon flies breeding, and Mr. Frost, with a geologist's instinct, knocked off a piece of quartz from the seam of a rock, using a ten-penny mail and a flat stone for hammer and chisel.

The rain of the night before left the swamp wetter than yesterday, so we took off our shoes and rolled up our trousers to the knee. About twenty-five yards in we came to the orchids - a grand show, a whole bog full of tall lovely queen slipper orchids. We looked around thoroughly and Mr. Frost poked into all the nooks and crannies of the swamp, searching for different kinds of orchids, and, as he went, bemusedly he hummed a jingle. Close by he discovered a stalk of spring ladies tresses orchids and another kind called the green bog orchid or green-eyed ladies tresses. One of the local professional flower-gatherers had invited him to fly to an island off the coast of Newfoundland, to look for some rare flowers, and he said characteristically: "I'd like to see the island," and then dryly, "I'm casual. I see what I see." He would do his own exploring within his own range.

 

 

 

 

At the edge of the swamp we stopped to pick wild berries and listen to the sound of a bird whose bell-like notes we could not place. We got back to the log where we left our shoes, found a trickle of water seeping down, washed off the muck, and pushed along the trail to Silent Cliff, stopping to talk many times. Once Mr. Frost's head was bent to one side on the trail when I touched him on the shoulder to call his attention to a hermit thrush singing clearly just a little ahead. I think I surprised him - took him unawares. "What is it, a bear? he shot at me brusquely.

When we reached the Cliff which goes off sheer he dreaded the drop and stood back from the stone lip, telling me how he felt when he once visited a cliff with his children. He hadn't liked seeing them playing near the edge. We leaned against trees and talked. Questions I had in my mind to ask him, I popped. Was poetry his first and only devotion? When did the idea of poetry as a vocation first occur to him? He turned these over in his mind during the rest of the walk but he spoke up. No, writing poetry wasn't a matter of any forced or imperative choice. He hadn't taken a stand to die or fall by poetry. As a young man he had simply turned from one thing to another. There was nothing heroic in his attitude. It was catch-as-catch-can, take your chances, try this and try that; no act of devotion and no Bohemia a la Rimbaud. He turned from professions or occupations before they swallowed him up. When he started to write he remembered his grandfather, William Prescott Frost, saying: " 'I give you a year' (that is, to see the light and quit the poetry nonsense and turn to something else), and I said (Mr. Frost said this vigorously), 'Give me twenty'."

As for his attitude toward life - it isn't the attitude of a world I never made. "No, it isn't. I say: here it is. I make my place in life; I am part of it. I take it as it is. I try to make little bits of clarity in it as I see them!" He quoted approvingly Gray's "And be with caution bold." He added: "Life's good-bad, light-shadow, bitter-sweet, but it's fifty and one-third good and forty-nine and two-thirds bad." The margin is that fine. Then I remarked on the fact that his success was in part attributable to imagination. "Yes," he said, "and in making turns of phrase. Memory, too." "I learned," he told me, "that it was better to read not a thousand books but one book a thousand times. That's why I remember so well."

 
Starting back along the trail he was still going strong, suggesting and hinting why he had some success. "I don't want to know what I can't swing. I learned that reading Middlemarch, reading about Causabon. You've got (to be able) to swing your wit." And he recalled the occasion in California when he had met Earl Warren, then Governor, and the Governor in greeting him had commented on the fact that after all Mr. Frost was a Californian. Mr. Frost came right back (recalling that although born there, he had left when a small boy), "Well, I left California screaming." When I said you were lucky to avoid the squabbles in the early days of the movement in modern poetry, he said, "I was smart: I never tried to draw any man's fire." He broke into spontaneous praise of Emerson. "One of the freest of them all in my sense of freedom ...in his wit (that is), in the freedom of unexpected connection."
Then, in an apt metaphor, he compared Emerson to a crucible of quick-silver over the surface of which forms a leaden scum which breaks into silver flashes as you stir it. When I said: "Well, you know they'll always associate 'The Road not Taken' with you," he replied: "Yes I suppose they will but it's about Edward Thomas. And so is the poem 'The Soldier.' Edward Thomas would always gather the spear to himself. I would never be like that; I'd fend it off," he explained revealingly.

Botanizing and ruminating, we were far away from the fumes of carbon monoxide and the sound of tires hissing on asphalt, although we were strafed violently by the short, fiery attacks of no-see-'ems and woodflies. Once a midge darted into his eye, and he said topically, "It's a Kamikaze; it flies into my eye and dies." From the Cliff's edge we looked off at the green hills folding range into range through the heady mid-afternoon haze, to the obscure outlines of the poet's farm a few miles below. The deep green woods smelled good; the air tasted fine; and while a strong sun in a clear blue sky had warmed us while walking, now rising thermals cooled us off. Mr. Frost, looking bigger than ordinary in his jumper and overalls and blue canvas "Keds," did most of the talking, drawing me into the slipstream of his ruminations. Tough-minded and perky, he is a readily conversable and inquiring man, the complexity of whose sophisticated temperament is belied by deceptive simplicity. Seeing the bog full of orchids in the summer sunlight had been one of those occasions he singles out as "nature favors." As he says, "there is the image and the after-image." We were both still in a daze of after-imagery. As I left him as the farm he remarked: "I've still got the sight of them in my eyes."

the end

Reginald L. Cook, Professor Emeritus of American Literature at Middlebury College, served as director of the Bread Loaf School of English from 1946 to 1964. A foremost Frost scholar, he is the author of many articles and two full length books on Frost: The Dimensions of Robert Frost and Robert Frost: A Living Voice. His friendship with Frost dated from 1925, and was a profound part of his literary life. He died in 1984.

Photographs by Lawrence F. Willard. Mr. Willard is a graduate of Middlebury College. A man of many talents including author, photographer, and college professor. Mr. Willard's photographs have been widely published. He is the author of numerous articles in Yankee Magazine. The majority of his photographs are in the Lawrence F. Willard Collection at the New York Public Library. Mr. Willard lives in New Jersey. Photographs copyright 2000. Gift to The Friends of Robert Frost
 

This article reprinted with permission from Yankee Magazine, November 1955.