Authors: Michael Hofmann
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Dear Heart's-Ease,
we rest from all discussion, drinking, smoking,
pills for high blood, three pairs of glassesâsoaking
in the sweat of our hard-earned supremacy,
offering a child our leathery love. We're fifty,
and free! Young, tottering on the dizzying brink
of discretion once, you wanted nothing
but to be old, do nothing, type and think.
This is the poet as houseplant, as aspirin-munching studio beast, as day-for-night velvet hairband. Lowell is the linebacker-turned-pasha as poet, Bishop is the lifelong dervish.
Small wonder that Lowell (maybe) felt fraudulent. He knew the value of Bishop's lettersâwhen he sold his papers to Harvard, he made sure she was paid a decent sum for hers, but that's not what I meanâeven as he apologized (“your letters always fill me with shame for the meager illegible chaff that I send you back”) for the thinness of his own. “You & Peter Taylor both make me feel something of a fakeâso I love you both dearly,” he remarks in 1949. It sounds flip, but of course it was deadly earnest. Lowell understood that there was an agility and a naturalness in Bishop that he would never have; he and most of the rest of his generation were manufactured. To my possibly anachronistic modern ear, he sentimentalizes and patronizes her all the time. His letters keep her in place, and almost invariably the wrong place; telling an audience that with her he “felt like a mastodon competing with tanks” is typically inept, but maybe no more than telling her, “Honor bright, I'm not a rowdy.” For decades he championed her prose, the story “In the Village” in particular ad nauseamâan obviously ambiguous accolade to any poetâand praises her poemsâit's a heretical thought, but it did cross my mindâwithout much sign of having read them. One succeeds the other in his “billfold,” but maybe they didn't do him much good there: “It's like going on the pilgrimage of your Fish, or the poem ending awful and wonderful, yet the journey is as utterly new and surprising as a first discovery of what life is all about. And so it is. If I can't stop what I've already done, I must stop. Maybe, if I carry your â[Under the] Window' around long enough, I'll learn. It's a kind of patience and freshness.” The enthusiasm is vitiated by the confusion around the “what” and by the stale terms at the end. I've developed a thoroughgoing aversion to the (now routine) cult of Bishop as a perfectionist slow coach (Lowell was an early high priest): she was a fast and sure and instinctive writer, but when a vein or a jag broke off, it was much harder to patch or extend than with less sensitive matter. Beyond that, it's mystifying how anyone could misremember “awful but cheerful.” But then, in a letter near the end, he manages to misremember the whole of her: “I see us still when we first met, both at Randall's and then for a couple of years later. I see you as rather tall, long brown-haired, shy but full of des[cription] and anecdote as now. I was brown haired and thirty I guess and I don't know what.” This elicits a characteristically accurate harrumph of friendly fire from her:
However, Cal dear, maybe your memory
failing!â Never, never was I “tall”âas you wrote remembering me. I was always 5 ft 4 and Â¼ inchesânow shrunk to 5 ft 4 inchesâ The only time I've ever felt tall was in Brazil. And I never had “long brown hair” either!â It started turning gray when I was 23 or 24âand probably was already somewhat grizzled when I first met you. I tried putting it up for a very brief period, because I like long hairâbut it never got even to my shoulders and is always so intractable that I gave that up within a month or so. I think you must be seeing someone else!*
The asterisk is to her footnote: “so
don't put me in a beautiful poem tall with long brown hair!” which of course, as she very well knew, is just what he would have done.
He knew she had everything he didn't; sheâin terms of his persistence, his confidence, his diligenceâwill have known the same. A kind of justice and a kind of vicariousness prompted each of them in hopes for the other, though in the end I don't believe that either helped the other's
very much. (The title, “words in air”âthe words are Lowell's, incidentallyâtells its own story.) She is afraid to read him while writing; it influences her too much. While her praise and minute criticism, droppered out over years (“âganging' is just right”), would have made him think she was responding on an insignificant, immedicable scale, and beyond anything he could do. “I'm mailing you a copy and wish you'd point [out] any correctable flaws.
âthe big ones alas I'm stuck with,” Lowell wrote to accompany a typescript of
. But of course he was stuck with the little ones too, in the end not so little. With his swaggering inexactitude Lowell was absolutely wrongâa red rag for Bishop. In one dangerous letter, she wonders: “If I read it [“The Old Flame”] in
under someone else's name I wonder what I'd think?” He, too, had cause to wonder from time to time: “I see in a blurb you've written you object to confession and irony”âit doesn't leave much of him, and he sounds accordingly bemused and hurt. They were contraries. Each enshrined the other. Short of enmity, it was all they could do.
I thought all the mails had gone down in the
, but evidently not.
âHelen Thomas to Robert Frost
Parnassian friendshipsâin particular friendships between poetsâare rarer than one might imagine. A friendship late in life is unlikely, poets are so botanically specialized and overdetermined, each one stuck at the extremity of his or her personal development, craning and twisting apotropaically toward his or her personal light. Early friendships are subject to volatility, the vicissitudes of life, competitiveness, and the torqueâor torcâof the Muse. When one has further taken away such things as alliances (Pound and Eliot), dalliances (Lowell and Bishop), rivalries (Goethe and Schiller), dependencies (Spender and Auden), romantic entanglements (Verlaine and Rimbaud), and mentor-pupil relationships (Akhmatova and Brodsky), one is left with really not very many.
Montaigne's marvelously, irreducibly simple formulation for friendship, “
Parce que c'Ã©tait lui, parce que c'Ã©tait moi
”âbecause it was him, because it was meâcan have few juster claimants among poets than Robert Frost (1874â1963) and Edward Thomas (1878â1917). Friendship is such a mystery (and therefore such a provocation, a diaphanous rag to a bull) that it's no surprise scholars have queued up to explain this instance of it, but it doesn't come down to such things as more or less one-sided influencings, or the critic Linda Hart's impressively foolish list of congruencies. For Frost, who outlived by the best part of half a century the friend he saw for one year, and wrote to for another two, the relationship was unrepeatable and irreplaceable. For Thomas, it was both an enabling agencyâbut for it, we might never have read him, or even heard of himâand an object of intensest focus. One could do worse, as one reads through the letters, poems, and reviews assembled in
than murmur Montaigne's words to oneself from time to time.
A starting point better than the second-guessing and computer-matchmaking of some of the critics, is to understand that the friendship between Frost and Thomas came about, in a strange way, out of time and out of place. This creates the space for some of its electiveness. Frost, evidently, was not in his own country but in the England he had bravely and arbitrarily plumped for a year earlier; nor did Thomas have home advantage either. Often, he was guesting in his hated London, touting for work (“I hate meeting people I want to get something out of, perhaps”), or else, in the Edwardian fashion, passing himself around like the port among various addresses (Eleanor Farjeon he met in the course of a “cricket week”). In fact, if one imagines, in one of P. G. Wodehouse's “Psmith” novels, a meeting in a London chophouse or a country pileâsay, Blandings in Shropshireâand a fast friendship being formed between Psmith's likable friend Mike Jackson andânot Psmith but instead Ralston McTodd, “the powerful young singer of Saskatoon”âI don't think the story of Frost and Thomas is altogether unlike a serious version of that. Even when they were living in adjacent cottages, in Ledington and Ryton, Thomas didn't know that particular bit of country (not far from the imaginary Blandings); there was a local hill from which he could see Wales, but basically he was no more “at home” there than the American visitor.
Nor could either man draw on the authority of years, family, accomplishments. True, they both had familiesâFrost with his four children, Thomas his threeâbut to some extent, both were on the run from them. They were in settled, or serious years, mid- to late thirtiesâFrost the older by four years, and seeming older than that, I would guess, by virtue of being American and having traveled, of having grown up half-orphaned, of having come into money from his grandfatherâbut basically neither had very much to show for his time on earth, and both were well aware of the fact. If anything, Thomas, who was a hugely prolific and hardworking literary journalist with a string of books to his name, should have had the upper hand on an erstwhile farmer and occasional teacher, an idle and irascible man who had published hardly anythingâonly he saw in his own extensive production chiefly grounds for shame. (In fact, he was a wonderful writer of prose: the original texts have long since disappeared from sale, and even selections like Roland Gant's
Edward Thomas on the Countryside
and Edna Longley's
A Language Not to Be Betrayed
are not easy to find, but they are all worth the trouble: marvelously alert and rapturous prose.) Both Frost and Thomas had the discontents and aspirations of much younger men, though both, evidently, had seen and experienced far more of life. This strange mixing of ages characterized them, separately and together. On the one hand, the immoderateness and capacity and ebullience of youth, and youth's faith in friendship's great exchange, and on the other, the urgency and narrowing purpose of midlife, what the Germans call
(fear of the gate closing). It was one of the conditions of their friendship, the inability of either man to “be his age.” They were unfinished, unappreciated, adrift, and thrown together.
Their time, their era, too, left them alone. The whole beginning of the twentieth century was in a somewhat similar muddle to themselves, a sort of soft interregnum. It was old and young, and it didn't have long to go. Historians don't know quite what to do with it; often, they simply add those fourteen years to the nineteenth century, as if that was where they really belonged. The great reputationsâJames, Hardy, Yeatsâhad all been founded in the Victorian age. When Frost's favorite living poet died in 1909, it was George Meredith. The reputations of the 1900s and 1910s, of the Edwardians and Georgians (those characters listed in the “Biographical Table” at the backâI would almost call it a glossary!) have disappeared more thoroughly than those of any other decade. No one now reads those poets Edward Thomas spent a great part of his lifetime sifting in the
. And against that, the Modern had pushed its foot in the door. “On or about December 1910,” as Virginia Woolf would have us believe, “human character changed.” Lawrence is a dangerous presence, Pound is at home in Londonâ“sometimes,” as he wrote on his visiting card to a predictably nettled and crestfallen Frostâand the soon-to-be Imagists Flint and Hulme are there to be met, and always our knowledge of the impending war. It is a confused and unimpressive waiting, the situation of Saul Bellow's first book,
, George Orwell's
Coming Up for Air
, or Julian Maclaren-Ross's
Of Love and Hunger
In this brief abeyance, the friendship took hold and grew. They met twice in 1913; 1914 was “their year”; in February 1915, the Frosts sailed (taking with themâas a kind of wonderful pledge or earnestâThomas's oldest child, Mervyn or Merfyn); Thomas started to write poems and enlisted, Elinor Frost suffered ill health and a miscarriage, Frost embarked on his prodigious career as a professional bard and performer (“Dear Edward: First I want to give you an accounting”). Everything is changed, changed utterly. This was, for all involved (even, one suspects, the onlookers), a transformative relationship. The plot has the bold X shape of a perfect short story (say, Chekhov's “Lady with Lapdog”) and, indeed, the friendship has absolutely the intensity of an affair.
This “story”âa kind of natural, unprocessed narration, with beginning, middle, and endâis most exquisitely set off, or inverted, by the epistolary form. Because there can be no doubt that its deepest moments were when the two men were together at Ledington, improvising walks and conversations. It was not in its essence a written (or even primarily a
, except inasmuch as both men were literary) relationship at allânot
, heady and disinhibitedâbut one founded on time eagerly and intensely spent together, and it is of precisely this that we are necessarily ignorant. First namesâthe
form that registers electrically upon a European earâare only used once the Atlantic has come between the writers. Intimacy, perhaps, to redress distance. Strikingly, and sadly, there seems not to be a single photographâwhat one might jokingly call prima facie evidenceâof the two men together. A handful of poems (one by the awful Gibson), a few paragraphs of recollection from the principals, and by Helen Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon. What is proposed to us is the form of an arch, but all we see of it are the beginnings or foundations. We see the men building toward each other. The middle, their meeting, eludes our inquisitiveness. Letters are predicated upon absence; in an extreme instance of this, one single letter from Frost to Thomas seems to have survived from the time before his departure. They have a natural, aleatory tact, very much in keeping with the characters of both men. In her wonderful memoir,
As It Was
, Helen Thomas wrote of Edward: “for though he needed and loved my impulsive and demonstrative nature, these qualities were foreign to him.” Frost, meanwhile, wrote to Edward Thomas: “I have passionately regretted exposing myself”âthough not to Thomas.