Beautiful as He Did It

Glyn Maxwell reviews Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another, edited and with an introduction by Matthew Spencer, in The New Republic:

For two poets, two facial expressions. One is simple enough: the blankness with which I, as a graduate student, and every one of the thousand or so graduate students I have taught, first received the words “Edward Thomas.” Since this is wrong, and dismaying, I try to have some fun with it. I tell them about a poet they need to know called Thomas, lyrical, fond of pubs, Welsh background, died too young, and I wait for the hands to shoot up like saplings and for the whole class to go not at all gently into that good night, via the Chelsea Hotel and the White Horse Tavern, at which point I say, “That’s right, Edward Thomas,” and watch the saplings dwindle and die. Then I get that look.

The other expression is more complex. The best way to grow it is to tell a group of bright postgraduates, up on Eliot, down with Derrida, already duking it out with Pound and Stevens and Olson and Ashbery, that we are going to learn some Robert Frost poems. And I get this polite smile, somewhere between amusement and bemusement, a smile that, as it becomes clear that I mean it, slowly hardens into a sort of half-grin, half-frown. It’s as if I’ve asked them to bring in some colored paper next week, so we can make flowers.

Perhaps a similar sequence of expressions would have been observed at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday dinner in 1959. Many of the guests were veterans of his seventy-fifth and sixty-fifth birthday dinners, and several more besides. Friends and relations and disciples and rivals presumably fastened on that smile again, at least until Lionel Trilling rose and described Frost as “a terrifying poet,” an intervention that, at the time, seems to have puzzled or offended almost everyone present. And although many students–and indeed many poets–journey toward a full and serious appreciation of Frost’s splendor and gravity, still they meet him in childhood as that old-time uncle on his farm, making sailboats out of wood, full of proverbs, quoting himself. They have miles of rural book jackets to get through before they come face to face with the terror in the midst of the trees. Such is the fate of a “national” poet. By the time his ninety-fifth birthday dinner comes around, he is marble, engraved, frozen, claimed by the populace, readers, non-readers, untouchable, alone. But he had been that for years.

How contrasting, then, are their reputations, Frost the giant, Thomas the rumor, and yet how akin in isolation.

More here.