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This article is taken from PN Review 7, Volume 5 Number 3, April - June 1979.4th August, 1914-Robert Frost
This is a chapter from Time and Again, memoirs and letters of Helen Thomas, collected for publication by Myfanwy Thomas, and due out in the summer of 1978 (Carcanet).
WE WERE to spend a long summer holiday with Robert Frost and his family. They had taken a furnished cottage in a remote hamlet in Herefordshire near Ledbury, and we had taken rooms in a farmhouse across the fields nearby. Edward and Merfyn were already there, having cycled from Steep, and I was to follow on August 4th with our two girls, our dog Rags, and a Russian Bedales boy, Peter Mrosovski, who spent his holidays with us. So on the 4th of August, 1914, quite undeterred by the news in the morning papers that war between England and Germany had been declared, we set out on the long and complicated journey from Petersfield to Ledbury.
I forget if there was any unusual crowd of passengers on Petersfield station, but as we proceeded on our journey it was obvious from the crowds in the stations we stopped at that people were in a state of excitement. Families on holiday were hurrying home, reservists were being called up and soldiers recalled from leave, and everywhere the stations were thronged with trunks, kitbags and other luggage and with restless and anxious people. However, very much later than our scheduled time we reached Oxford. Here we were told to leave the train which, in the ordinary way, would have gone on to complete the journey. That station was in a state of chaos. It was now late in the day and I asked the station master when I could expect a train to Ledbury. He said he could not tell me, and advised me to stay the night in Oxford when I told him I had three children with me. But even if I had been able to afford such a thing, all available accommodation was filled, I was told by a man who had helped me with the luggage.
So we waited and waited, after sending Edward a telegram. At last a train came in and the station master told me it was at least going in the direction of Ledbury, so I and the children got in hopefully. After a slow journey with many stops between stations, we arrived in Malvern at midnight and here we were told the train would go no further. So out we all bundled, the children tired and frightened. I again found the station master and asked if a train would be going to Ledbury. He answered, 'Not tonight.' I asked him if I and the children could sleep in the waiting room, but he was quite firm in his refusal. I asked him what he would suggest I do, but he had no ideas at all. All he knew was that I must leave the station. However, a kind and intelligent porter heard my story and said he had a friend who owned a cab and he thought he would be willing to drive us to our remote farm beyond Ledbury. The cab eventually came and our considerable luggage and the children were packed in and off we went. The country was entirely unknown to me, and I had not the least idea, as we drove off uphill in the darkness, how far away we were from our destination or in what direction it lay.
But I shall never forget that drive over the Malvern Hills which a huge full harvest moon lighted up like a stage set. Even in my distress and weariness I was entranced by the beauty of the scene and the silence and mystery of the deserted countryside, either in deepest shadow or brilliant moonlight.
Once over the Malvern Hills the country changed and became very wooded and gently undulating, and still the moon most dramatically lighted it for us. And before long we were in the lovely little town of Ledbury, silent and empty and sleeping. In the market square our driver stopped to ask a solitary policeman the way to the farm. He came over to the car and shone his lantern on to the sleeping children and myself.
`Who are you and why are you travelling at this time of night?' he asked suspiciously. So I described our journey from Petersfield and told him that I was joining my husband at the farm. He wanted to know who everyone was individually and when he came to Peter the Russian boy his suspicions grew to a certainty that we were up to no good. The fact that our friend Robert Frost, whom I had mentioned thinking his name would be known, was also a foreigner, did not help. However, after taking down all I had told him in his notebook, with some agonizing delays over the spelling of Mrosovski, he let us go, after giving the driver directions as to how to find the farm, which he told us was about three miles further on.
The driver went slowly along the last mile so as not to miss the house in that sparsely inhabited country and before we reached it I saw in the bright moonlight-Edward standing at the gate. So all was well. We had arrived.
In the morning we were able to take stock of our surroundings and found everything very much to our satisfaction. The farmhouse stood among large orchards in which were grown the choicest of dessert plums, each hanging in its own muslin bag to protect it from wasps, birds and insects. These plums had to be without blemish and of perfect shape. When they had reached perfection, they were packed for Covent Garden each in its own cotton wool lined compartment. The outside of the farmhouse was hung with delicious fruit which we were allowed to pick-greengages and large golden or purple juicy plums.
We met the Frosts. Robert and Elinor and their four children-three girls and a boy. They had rented a very scantily furnished cottage standing in the middle of a field about a quarter of a mile from our farm.
Robert was a thickset man, not as tall as Edward, with a shock of grey hair. His face was tanned and weatherbeaten and his features powerful. His eyes, shaded by bushy grey eyebrows, were blue and clear. It was a striking and pleasing face, rugged and lined. He was dressed in an open necked shirt and loose earth-stained trousers held up by a wide belt. His arms and chest were bare and very brown. His hands were hard and gnarled. He spoke with a slight American accent. Elinor Frost-in comparison with her husband-is only a vague memory to me. She had a rather nebulous personality and had none of the physical strength or activity of her husband. Housekeeping to her was a very haphazard affair and I remember that when dinner time approached in the middle of the day, she would take a bucket of potatoes into the field and sit on the grass to peel them-without water to my astonishment-and that, as far as I could see, was often the only preparation for a meal.
It was at once obvious that Robert and Edward were very congenial to each other. They were always together and when not exploring the country, they sat in the shade of a tree smoking and talking endlessly of literature and poetry in particular. When it was wet we all assembled in the Frosts' cottage; and as there were only two chairs in the living room we sat on the floor with our backs against the wall, talking or singing folk songs in which of course the children joined. I say 'against the wall' but actually the walls were stacked up with ramparts of shredded wheat packets, tins of rather cheap sugary biscuits and boxes of highly scented soap-the Frosts' idea of preparing for a possible siege.
The poet Wilfrid Gibson lived a mile or two away and Edward and Robert often visited him. But sometimes Mrs Gibson would not invite them in as her husband was in the throes of a long poem and must not be disturbed. This evoked in Edward and Robert an attitude of faintly contemptuous ridicule. Behind this lay a little honest jealousy, for Gibson was at this time a very successful poet whose work was eagerly accepted by the American magazines and highly paid, whereas Robert hitherto had had hardly any sort of recognition in America. On the whole, however, the relationship between the poets was friendly enough, and Wilfrid wrote a charming poem, 'The Golden Room', commemorating this time of their association.
We had not been there many days when the village policeman called on us and told us that several anonymous letters had been received at his headquarters, suggesting that there were spies among us. Evidently, we thought, the result of our midnight interview with the policeman at Ledbury, or the villagers' suspicion of us as strangers who sat up very late at night in the Frosts' isolated cottage, and whose unconventional ways they could not understand. The policeman was, he said, convinced that the suspicions were false, but he said it was his duty to follow up any complaints from the public and to make enquiries. Edward of course took the affair as a joke, but not Robert. He was very angry and said, 'If that policeman comes nosing about here again I shall shoot him.' In the end Edward managed to calm him and we heard no more of such a ridiculous idea.
I remember another remark of Robert's which also surprised and distressed me. In the course of talk the Negro question was raised, and Robert said, 'If my wife and I were in a gathering and a Negro came in, I should immediately take Elinor out.' I cannot remember if the subject was pursued or if it was at once dropped.
I never became as close to Robert as Edward was. To Edward he was an inspiration, and he and Robert could hardly have been more devoted. They had been drawn together by Edward's recognition of Robert's genius, when Robert had failed to make any mark in America. Edward's reviews of his early volumes of poetry published in England laid the foundation for Robert's success here and later in his own country. And Robert in his turn encouraged Edward-who had not then written any poetry-to think of himself as a potential poet, and thus in the last two years of his life to give Edward his deepest intellectual satisfaction and pleasure.
The month soon passed and we returned to Steep. The war had come and all our lives were to be changed. Robert and his family returned to America where he found himself famous, and Edward enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and began to write poetry. But there was no enthusiastic reviewer to praise his poems. No publisher would take them and only a few of his intimate friends thought well of them. He never saw a poem of his in print under his own name, just two or three under the pseudonym 'Edward Eastaway' which he himself had, with a wry smile, included in anthologies he was commissioned to edit.
This article is taken from PN Review 7, Volume 5 Number 3, April - June 1979.