Tents, emotional hurricanes and alfresco lovemaking

Robert Frost
October 3, 1997

The heroine of Paul Theroux's Picture Palace snatches an unposed shot of Robert Frost. "He knew he had a good profile, but his noggin was narrow as a hatchet and I wanted him head-on...." Maude says, "I can't see you" and writes: "Naturally, he turned, and just as he said, 'Goddammit' I clicked and got the curmudgeon I wanted.... He said sourly, 'When do I get my 50 dollars?'" Maude's photograph catches the Frost we find in Lawrance Thompson's biography and Thompson, often Frost's body servant in the 35 years he spent researching Frost, found it "easy enough to get mad at the old bastard". In Kay Morrison, Thompson shared a mistress with "the old bastard" and this relationship, together with the fact that Morrison could have shown Thompson Frost's letters ("these emotional hurricanes and thunderstorms of (Frost's)") ensured that Morrison's parallel relationship with Frost, one that lasted for the 25 years Frost had yet to live, would never find inclusion in Thompson's biography. Morrison's inclusion in Jeffrey Meyers's book gives us a Frost both vulnerable and sympathetic.

Without Morrison we cannot understand Frost's sonnet "The Silken Tent". "She is as in a field a silken tent/ At midday when a sunny summer breeze/ Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent/ So that in guys it gently sways at ease....". Meyers points out that Frost's tent, which is also his beloved, relates to the line, "I am ... comely ... as tents of Kedar" in the Song of Solomon, that "guys" is a triple pun (ropes, mockery, men). Frost's Kay is bound both to her husband (a sad lecturer sacrificing himself to Frost's greater poetry) and to Frost's desire for her. The final lines, referring still to guy ropes but also, of course, to Frost's desire, go, "And only by one's going slightly taut/ In the capriciousness of summer air / Is of the slightest bondage made aware." Frost was a demented widower when he re-encountered Morrison in 1938. Frost had been 40 years in a passionate, monogamous and often deeply troubled marriage. The Frosts had six children and at the time of Elinor Frost's death they had lost two children in infancy and one in adulthood while two others were mentally ill (Frost had already committed his sister Jeanie to the asylum in which she died in 1929).

Frost did not use contraception with his wife, believing that the race would only throw up geniuses if people had many children, but he carried condoms on a walk in the Vermont woods with Morrison while her husband was away at the Bread Loaf writers' conference. Morrison, a woman of 39, responded to the 64-year-old Frost's advances: "He was astonished that a woman who behaved so conventionally could be so wild sexually." Their alfresco lovemaking meant that "Never again would birds' song be the same./ And to do that to birds was why she came." The sonnet is ostensibly about Eve but the double entendre of the last word returns it to the moment of Kay's seduction. Frost's letters to friends were equally secretive and boastfully revelatory. He wanted to marry his new muse (his "Dearest", "Milady" to mock her social pretensions, "Venusta", "Augusts", "Egeria": Frost read Latin and Greek) but she refused to leave Ted Morrison or disturb her children's childhood (the youngest born the previous year). Frost's mistress and business manager found in Frost's fame consolation for the failure of her husband and Scottish clergyman father. Kay Morrison managed to convince both husband and lover that she had ceased sexual relations with the rival and Frost found evidence in Ted Morrison's poetry to support her lie.

Frost was a Puritan who had premarital sex with his wife. Frost made New England his literary property though born in San Francisco. An archetypal northerner Frost was named for a confederate general by his fiery, failed father. The man destined to become America's best-known poet achieved publication and promotion only by spending the years of the first world war in England. Meyers sets this contradictory, private personality (with his exaggerated appetite for public honours) alive before us in a highly readable biography that will please scholars as much as it will everyone else who ever guessed "Stopping by Woods" was as much about suicide as it was about snow.

John Mowat is lecturer in American studies, University of Hull.

Robert Frost: A Biography

Author - Jeffrey Meyers
ISBN - 0 09 476130 2
Publisher - Constable
Price - £20.00
Pages - 424

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