Friday, March 18, 2016

The Death of the Hired Man

Robert Frost (1874–1963)
From Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

Haymaking, undated, oil on canvas by American artist Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
During the earliest years of the twentieth century, long before he became a household name, Robert Frost wrote short stories and articles for such periodicals as Eastern Poultryman and Farm Poultry. (Two of these tales, “The Original and Only” and “The Question of a Feather,” were presented previously as Story of the Week selections.) While writing these amusing sketches about imperfect pullets and over-productive poultry, he began planning several narrative poems based on farm-life in New Hampshire. He dreamed of a future career as a fiction writer and, according to Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson, the poems “were very closely related to his hopes that someday he might also write psychological studies in the form of novels, stories, and plays.” His early poems combined homespun narrative with colloquial-filled dialogue; Frost claimed that “he dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above.”

Frost finished “The Death of the Hired Man”—or at least an early version of it—around 1905, but it wouldn’t appear in print until a decade later, when it was included in his second book, North of Boston. By this time, Frost was living in Beaconsfield, England, and had given up his original goal of writing fiction and planned instead to become a poet—but one who bucked the current modernist trends. He wrote to his friend John Bartlett, “I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. . . . I want be a poet for all sorts and kinds.”

To promote his work, he enlisted the assistance of a new acquaintance, Poetry magazine’s London-based editor Ezra Pound, who had favorably reviewed Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, upon its publication in England in April 1913. Frost gave a copy of “The Death of the Hired Hand” to Pound, who wrote to his own father that it “was better than anything” in A Boy’s Will and boasted that he would have no problem placing it somewhere. Frost both hoped and assumed that Pound would convince Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, to accept it. Instead, as Frost related to his friend Sidney Cox, Pound “failed to sell it. It was even worse than that. I had demanded the poem back when I learned the name of the magazine he was offering it to but he went ahead in spite of me. And there began our quarrel.” The magazine in question was The Smart Set—a commercial “high society” monthly that was in a period of abysmal decline. (Its famous years under the editorship of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan were yet to come.)

As it happened, The Smart Set decided not to publish Frost’s poem after all, but tensions remained between Frost and Pound for years to come. “I could never make a merit of being caviare [sic] to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does,” he wrote, and he bristled at Pound’s demands that he “write something much more like vers libre or he will let me perish by neglect.” Frost especially resented being treated as Pound’s pet discovery, and the inability to predict what Pound might do made him nervous. In late 1913, Frost complained to his friend Thomas Mosher, “Pound is an incredible ass and he hurts more than helps the person he praises.”

Soon after North of Boston appeared in England in May 1914, Pound published a favorable review of it, yet (as he did in his review of Frost’s first book) he trashed American editors for “refusing” to publish Frost and he even mocked the editor who had turned down “The Death of the Hired Man.” Frost wrote to friends that Pound’s insistence on adding him to “his party of American refugees in London” didn’t resemble the truth of the situation; many poems had in fact appeared first in U.S. magazines and Frost was currently shopping his first two books to receptive American publishers. As he quipped to Cox, “Another such review as the one in Poetry and I shan’t be admitted at Ellis Island.” Fortunately for both Frost and readers, he returned to New York without incident in February 1915, only three days after Henry Holt & Company published the American edition of North of Boston. It sold 20,000 copies within a year—phenomenal for a book of poetry—and two months later, in April 1915, Holt also published A Boy’s Will.

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