Frost At Dartmouth

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(HOST) Robert Frost, the Vermont poet known worldwide, has been dead more than 40 years. But scholars recently found some fascinating lectures and discussions Frost had with Dartmouth students. Commentator Tom Slayton, veteran journalist and editor-emeritus of Vermont Life magazine, was especially interested, and has some reflections of his own on the Frost legacy.

(SLAYTON) A series of lectures that Robert Frost gave to Dartmouth students in the 1940s, 50s and 60s is headed for publication, and there’s a lot of justifiable excitement about that, since the lectures haven’t previously been circulated off-campus.

But will the wider circulation of these lectures and discussions illuminate Frost in new ways? Will they reveal unknown gems in the poems or unknown facets of the Frost personality? My guess is probably not, for a couple of reasons.

First, because Frost, during his long ascendancy as America’s favorite poet, gave many, many lectures to many, many students at campuses around the country. In fact I was fortunate enough to attend one of those lectures, back in the early 60s, when I was a student at UVM. And I can attest that Robert Frost, in addition to being a great poet, was a great teacher.

Ira Allen Chapel was packed to the rafters for the Frost talk, which was part of a series of lectures that he called "the last go-round" because he was n his 80s and knew his health was failing. I can’t remember how long he talked and recited his poetry, but it seemed like a long time – and not long enough. He was wise, witty, avuncular, learned – and thoroughly charming.

That was, after all, a part of what Frost did to perpetuate his own legend – being the embodiment of the wise old Yankee poet. Frost called it simply "barding around,"

And admitted that as the years went by he got "Yankier and Yankier."

And that’s the second reason I have my doubts that the Dartmouth lectures, however fascinating they may be, will significantly alter how we see either Frost, or his poetry. The fact is that Frost created, for public consumption, a public persona – essentially a mask – that allowed him to play the role of the genial country bard, the wise old yankee dispensing poetic rural wisdom, the compleat country sage. He became very good at it. It was a charming performance.

But it was, essentially a performance.

As any serious reader of Frost knows, much of his poetry reveals a much darker side than his country sage persona projected. Frost was deeply skeptical about many of the deeper aspects of human existence – about the beneficence of God, for example, about the meaning, if any, of life, about the worth or futility of human endeavor. Perhaps, he suggested more than once, the world was governed by "design of darkness to appall." Or perhaps there is no design at all, just contending forces – an even bleaker vision. His greatest poems, embody that skepticism, expressing the tragedy of a farm boy’s fatally maiming himself on a power saw, or the crumbling of a marriage after the death of a sickly child.

Perhaps it is no wonder that Frost kept his darker side out of his public appearances and played the charming country sage. But ultimately it is his willingness to grapple with his own grim inner doubts, and to face his vision of life as tragically flawed, that confirms his greatness as a poet.

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