A historical perspective of Robert Frost at the Derry, N.H., farm
Even though it has been over 100 years since its most famous resident arrived by horse and wagon to manage a dual career as poet and poultry farmer on this small plot of New Hampshire land, the Derry home of Robert Frost continues to attract visitors from all over the world.
The historic marker on the edge of the property underlines its significance:
Some of the best-loved poems in the English language are associated with this small farm owned by the poet from 1900-1911. Here Frost farmed, taught at nearby Pinkerton Academy and developed the poetic voice which later won him the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times and world fame as one of our foremost poets.
Indeed, many places are famous because of Robert Frost, but none played a more vital role in the poet’s life than this 30-acre farm with pasture, fields, woodlands, orchard and gentle spring. This jewel of a literary landmark represents a special era in the poet’s life because it was here that he decided to write poetry…without reassurance of publicity or public acclaim…and despite years of rejection from the literary establishment. For ten long, lean, and hungry years, Robert Frost worked his small farm and taught English at Pinkerton Academy, all the while gleaning from his poverty, hardship, and heartbreak, the essence of his literary genius.
As a farmer trudging through his fields, interacting with the local farm folk, and performing his laborious daily chores, Frost was meticulously observing nature at work, and drawing unparalleled inspiration for the bulk of poetry that would eventually belong to the world for all time. He spent untold hours studying nature’s intricacies and developing an exceptional and powerful sensitivity to its intoxicating influence. The entire countryside around the farm stimulated his creative abilities: pastures, rose pogonias, sugar maples, a west-running brook, birches, apple trees, birds, snow-covered hills, star-lit skies, wild grapes, fallen leaves, wood-piles, and even butterflies; in essence, flora and fauna from across the New England landscape observed through his discerning eyes became unending sources of inspiration for his most enduring poems.
During these years on the Derry farm, the poet also began to study, admire and imitate the peculiarities and colloquial expressions of his New Hampshire neighbors. One of these influential acquaintances was Napoleon Guay who insisted on the springtime ritual of mending the stone wall that served as the boundary line between the abutting properties. Later immortalized in Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall,” the neighbor (Guay) never deviates from his firm belief that “good fences make good neighbors.” Incorporating the familiar speech, work, and idiosyncrasies of his fellow farmers into his verse provided Frost a fresh and familiar way to portray the common experience of mowing, apple picking, and everyday living for his reader.
Frost was never a successful farmer; in fact, his efforts during these years provided him only a poor man’s subsistence. Rather, his success on this small and unassuming farm was a discovery of his own original poetic voice, the voice by which we can immediately recognize him today. His success during these years is clearly demonstrated by the evolution of his unique poetic style: his use of metaphors to clarify and strengthen central ideas in his poems, his innovative use of dialogue to advance the dramatic situations, and his growing genius for crafting common speech in such a masterful way that his audience could easily believe it was privy to an actual conversation. Frost’s voice became that of the ordinary man, farmer-husband-laborer, and through this character he deftly described his place in the natural world. Years later in a letter to a friend, Frost wrote about the significance of his years on his Derry farm:
You might be interested to know that during my ten years in Derry, the first five of them farming altogether and the last five mostly teaching but still farming a little, I wrote more than half of my first book, much more than half of the second and even quite a little of my third, though they were not published until later.
I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had on the farm down the road a mile or two from Derry Village toward Lawrence. The only thing we had was plenty of time and seclusion. I couldn’t have figured on it in advance. I hadn’t that kind of foresight. But it turned out as right as a doctor’s prescription. (Selected Letters)
Frost’s decision to pursue poetry as a vocation most likely resulted from a crucial realization that no man can serve two masters. Although a well-respected, highly successful teacher by the conclusion of his six years at Pinkerton Academy, Frost eventually acquiesced to the powerful inner force compelling him to embark upon his less traveled road to pursue poetry on a full-time basis. In 1912, a year after leaving Derry, Frost used the money from the sale of his Derry farm to help finance his trip to England where he finally received the recognition and literary acclaim he so fervently sought and so richly deserved.
"There is nothing I had rather be called than an American and a poet,” Frost said in a letter acknowledging a Senate resolution congratulating him on attaining his 75 th birthday. In his lifetime, Frost became America’s most revered literary figure. Except for the Nobel, no literary prize or public honor eluded him. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times and earned honorary degrees from no fewer than forty-four colleges and universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. The
U. S. Senate adopted formal resolutions honoring him on his 75 th and 85 th birthdays. He became Vermont’s first poet laureate, and the first representative of the literary arts community ever to speak during a presidential inauguration. Surely, his memorable recitation of “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony will always be remembered as one of the major milestones of his long and illustrious literary career.
On learning of his death in January 1963, J.F.K. said of Frost, “His death impoverishes us all; but he has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding. He had promises to keep and miles to go, and now he sleeps.” A half-century later, Frost’s place in literary history is secure and his popularity and worldwide acclaim continue to increase as the years go by. In fact, he is one of the few major poets whose work is taught and appreciated from grade school through graduate school.
What happened on this little farm in Derry one hundred years ago was integral in helping Frost achieve a literary stature beyond even his wildest dreams. Here he developed his poetic style, found his literary voice, and garnered a lifetime of inspiration from his surroundings and from the good neighbors he never forgot. Here he earned the community’s respect, not as a farmer, but for such locally published poems as “A Tuft of Flowers” and “The Last Minstrel.” From his years at Pinkerton, he developed a valuable sense of self-confidence as his standing in the teaching field grew and his innovative approaches to education gained widespread acceptance throughout the educational community.
Most importantly, what happened on this farm a century ago began the metamorphic transformation of this humble poet/farmer into the individual who, in time, became one of the world’s foremost poets. Undoubtedly, humanity is immeasurably richer for Robert Frost’s having lived here on this small plot of New Hampshire soil.
References and further reading:
Gerber, Philip. Robert Frost. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Thompson, Lawrence, ed. Selected Letters of Robert Frost. New York, Holt, 1964.
Tuten, Nancy Lewis and John Zubizaretta, eds. The Robert Frost Encyclopedia. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2001.