Robert Frost, Family Man

Review: Lesley Lee Francis, ‘You Come Too: My Journey with Robert Frost’

Robert Frost / AP
December 5, 2015

In a key scene in Lawrence Thompson’s almost entirely negative biography of Robert Frost, the poet and his wife, Elinor, are fighting in the kitchen when the poet goes upstairs to get their six-year-old daughter, Lesley. He points a revolver at himself and at his wife and tells Lesley to choose which parent she prefers because "Before morning, one of us will be dead."

Thompson adds that the event, which Lesley recounted shortly after her father’s death in 1963, may have been a dream, but the anecdote fits Thompson’s narrative so well that it is regularly cited by those who want see in Frost a brooding misogynist and pathological egoist who cared little for his children’s well-being.

Jay Parini would call this account into question over 30 years later in his own biography of Frost. According to her brother Carol, Lesley, who had frequent nightmares as a child, "was dreaming, that the incident with the gun never happened." Lesley’s own daughter, Lesley Lee Francis, tells him that "In all the years my mother and I talked about her father, there was never any mention of this scene … I don’t doubt that tensions did arise in the family and that Robert Frost was, at times, moody and difficult; but the idea that he would threaten Elinor with a gun is absurd, and the story runs against the whole tenor of the Derry years, which were quite idyllic."

Now, in You Come Too: My Journey with Robert Frost, part memoir and part continued correction of the "monster myth," as it has come to be called, Francis takes a closer look at her grandfather’s relationship with women and children. She only mentions the "revolver incident" once, but the thrust of the first part of the book is that those early years in Derry were indeed idyllic—if also difficult for a young family struggling to make ends meet.

The children (there were four of them by 1905) were schooled at home, and while Frost farmed and later taught at Pinkerton Academy, he was also heavily involved in their education, teaching them botany and astronomy, writing stories and poems for them, and responding to their writing.

Lesley’s journals show a healthy, active family in which the daily lives of parents and children were tightly interwoven. Not only did Frost ask his children to type clean copies of his poems, but as many as thirty of his early poems treated topics that his children also wrote about in their compositions. This suggests that these topics were part of a larger family conversation.

As Francis shows, family life was important to Frost’s work. While his poems are very much for adults and both playful and dark, which Francis too often ignores, she’s right to note the importance of children as characters in his work. Frost once remarked to Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren that he wanted to throw readers "back on their Mother Goose…with the play of ideas in it; how deep Mother Goose is."

When Lesley went to Wellesley College, Frost’s letters to her show him to have been a patient, supportive, and occasionally worried father, particularly after she had failed to make the tennis team. He encourages her to spend her money wisely and tells her, though Francis does not mention this exchange, to "Keep your balance—that’s all. Your marks don’t matter."

Many of these anecdotes of the Frosts’ early years were treated (some verbatim) in Francis’s earlier volume, Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900-1918. In You Come Too, however, she also looks at her father’s relationship with his wife and his eldest daughter, Lesley, after 1918 and his relationship with three women outside the family who played an important role in his life as a poet—Susan Hayes Ward, Harriet Monroe, and the poet Amy Lowell.

Susan Hayes Ward, literary editor of the New York Independent, published Frost’s "My Butterfly: An Elegy," which started a correspondence and eventually friendship between the older Ward, her clergyman brother, and the younger Frosts. Ward was pivotal in encouraging the young poet. Frost’s correspondence with Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry, and Lowell was at times good-naturedly combative on matters of prosody, yet it was through such interactions that Frost came to develop his ideas about what he called the "sound of sense," which he first mentioned in a letter to John Bartlett while he was living in England.

In all of these relationships, Elinor was an equal party, frequently writing letters to both Monroe and Lowell, and participating in visits and discussions when she could, though obviously limited by the responsibilities of child-rearing. Frost loved Elinor, and Elinor was deeply committed to Frost’s poetry and willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary for him to pursue it, even if she disliked the fame it brought. She was his first and most important critic—"the unspoken half of everything I ever wrote," Frost once told his friends, "and both halves of many a thing."

Elinor’s willingness to sacrifice a great deal for Frost’s art, however, came to vex Lesley. When Elinor died of a heart attack in Florida in 1938, Lesley believed it was caused by Frost’s insistence that the older couple occupy the upstairs so as not to be disturbed by the grandchildren running above them. In her anger, Lesley prevented her father from visiting his wife before she died.

Francis does not take sides in this dispute between her mother and grandfather, which is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that Frost could be difficult and selfish as well as loving. Strong-willed but reserved, Elinor herself never expressed regret regarding her marriage to Frost or the other choices she had made.

You Come Too is a series of almost entirely positive memories, recounted in a conversational manner, with little interest in keeping to a predictable timeline. This may annoy some readers, but it does have a certain charm. The long sections on Lesley and Francis’s own schooling and professional lives are less interesting the further they stray from the poet’s own life or work.

Frost once remarked that it is best "not to have children remember you as having taught them anything in particular. May they remember you as an old friend." Were he alive today, he would certainly be pleased to be remembered as such here.

Published under: Book reviews