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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Robert Frost and Helen Thomas:
Five Revealing Letters*

WILLIAM R. EVANS

In 1923 Frost dedicated his Selected Poems to Helen Thomas ' In Memory of Edward Thomas.' In 1926 she published As it Was, memories of her life with Edward Thomas, which she had written as therapy to help her recover from the shock and horror of his death. In it, she is explicit about the sexual aspects of her love affair with Edward Thomas, perhaps an element in why the book had a wide circulation. When World Without End, a sequel to the earlier work , appeared five years later, even more attention was paid to the author. A review of her book was `broadcast by Vita Sackville-West,' and- Helen Thomas was invited to dine with the Harold Nicolsons (Vita Sackville-West) at Long Barn near Sevenoaks.' 1

But Frost -- and apparently Elinor, too -- were shocked by Helen Thomas's candor. At their brief reunion in 1928 in London, Frost frankly told Helen Thomas how he and his wife felt; Elinor was noticeably absent from the meeting . The emotional distance between the two women is indicated by Helen's wry portrayal Time & Again (published posthumously in 1978) of Elinor silently cooking nothing but potatoes for dinner. 2 Years later, Myfanwy Thomas said of her mother and Elinor:

I think, regarding Elinor Frost, Mother felt a sort of motherly compassion for her seemed rather quiet and meek, and a little inadequate to cope with the wild ways of her husband and four teenage children. Mother always remembered, too, that she peeled the potatoes in a dry bucket, whereas most women peel them in water, as they tend to get earthy otherwise. I think Mother felt Elinor was a little unworldly and she longed to take her under her wing, for Mother was an excellent manager, however poor we were, we always had nourishing meals at regular times! 3

Following the 1928 reunion with Helen Thomas, Frost wrote to Sidney Cox: 'It took a good deal of squirming on her part to justify it. . . . Worse than As it Was are some other chapters in his life she has been undressing to the public since.' 4 Anxious to heal the breach with the Frosts, Helen 'Thomas sent the following invitation with its apologia shortly afterwards, but apparently it was declined.

[ALS 3 pp. ]
[c. 1928]

5, The Gables
Hampstead, N.W. 3
Hampstead 2687

My dear Elinor

It was a great disappointment that you could not come, but I hope you & Robert will come visit Monday. I find that all the children & Eleanor Farjeon can be free that evening, so please come. I so much want you to be here by my own fire side, & though Ive never felt really at home in London, still these rooms have slowly taken on a homey feeling, & each friend that comes here a adds to that.

How I am sure [?] that [?] rooms [in] hotels are horrid places to live in. I wont write more now, but I would like to tell you how very much I appreciated yours & Robert's frankness about my work, it showed true friendship & interest, & if I felt a bit sad with your feeling about it, I was happy & grateful that you spoke as you did. After all I cant have it all ways. I had the comfort of writing & the satisfaction of publishing the book, & if I have not pleased each of the special people I must face that, to be content, or try to be, with the pleasure the book seems to have given a lot of people. And this is a real satisfaction to me that the book has definitely helped Edward in all sorts of indirect ways. I don't say I wrote it for that purpose -- I didnt -- nor do I think Edward's work would not have gone on without it, but it has hastened a wider acknowledgment of him & interest his work. My dear love to you & Robert.

HELEN [THOMAS]

Although she was eager to continue the friendship, Frost, according to Thompson, felt, after the 1928 meeting with Helen Thomas, that 'one passage' in his life -- the relationship with Helen Thomas -- was over. 5 In 1928 he tried unsuccessfully to cancel his dedication to her in the new edition of Selected Poems: but finally in the 1934 edition, he won out. In a letter to Richard H. Thornton, his editor at Holt, Frost wrote:

Mrs. Thomas ceased to be a friend of ours some years ago. I'm deeply humiliated to be put in the position of trying to keep it up with her after it is over. I hope not too many copies of the book have been bound up and that something can be done to discontinue the mistake. 6

Trying to cover his tracks, Frost also told Thornton he didn't want the Public and the collectors to know about the break with Thomas: '... and let's not help them in the least to surmise the reasons. I don't want a story made of it' (Thompson 636-637).

In 1931 Helen Thomas Published World without End, in which she discussed the Frost-Thomas relationship:

Between him [Frost] and David [Edward] a most wonderful friendship grew up.

He believed in David and loved him, understanding, as no other man had ever understood, his strange complex temperament. The influence of this man on David's intellectual life was profound, and to it alone of outside influences is to be attributed that final and fullest expression of himself which David now found in writing poetry. 7

Again we have apparently no record of Frost's response to this passage.

The break that followed in the Helen Thomas-Frost relationship continued for over two decades. Then, speech after long silence. In 1950 Frost's portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and a feature article chronicled his success as America's unofficial poet laureate. In England Merfyn Thomas saw that issue and mailed it to his mother -- now seventy-three. Glad for Frost's triumph, Helen Thomas impulsively wrote to him, sending the letter care of Time magazine. She recalled the old friend of the poets, John W. Haines, a barrister and book collector: Janet and Harry Hooton, early and staunch friends of the Thomases; Jesse Berridge, who was a frequent companion of Thomas on his bicycle tours; and Clifford Bax, the writer and editor of the theosophical quarterly Orpheus.

She touched on her strongest tie to Frost -- their deep love for Edward Thomas --before she moved into her account of her children's lives. Frost chose not to reply to Helen Thomas's letter but perhaps because it was, however tenuous, a link with the man. he loved as a brother, he saved it.

ALS 6 PP.
[undated]
[postmarked Dec. 10, [1950]

Starwell Farm
Sheldon, Chippenham, Wiltshire .

Dear Robert Frost,

This is Helen Thomas wife of Edward who writes to you. If I should hazzard a guess 'yes' or 'no' as to whether you like my attempt to pierce so much time, by [?] so many years of silence, & the vast space that lies between us, I would guess 'no'. A great experience in your life ended with Edward's death, & with all [?] experience, that twin experience of yours & Edwards I had little or nothing to do, how then can I have anything to do with you now who without Edward I am nothing.

But I am impelled by some strong desire to speak to you. Merfyn do you remember him? -- sent me a magazine called Time with a portrait of you on the front [?] & an article about you inside, seeing that face which I have never forgotten, nay very often remembered, & reading about you & your peaceful life evoked such a pain & yet pleasure too that I cannot help my self, & so write.

There are few now who knew Edward, but all those who are here loved him too, & talk of him. Not long ago out of the blue I had a letter from Mr. Haines of Gloucester, & I at once wrote to him & asked him if he ever heard from you, & from him I heard of Elinor's death & of other deaths of those you loved & whom we had known. Then there are the Hootons -- I dont know if you ever met them, & Jesse Berridge a parson from whom I had my yearly letter today. There is Clifford Bax who took the photograph I enclose -- a snapshot -- he accidentally found taken I suppose about 1938 or 9 & enlarged & sent to me a little while ago. I like it so much & hope you will.

People who love his poetry which you gave him the confidence to attempt grow every year in number, but his is too quiet a voice ever to be acclaimed anything but quietly among the few. But it is lovely that the young turning from the harshness of what are called 'the moderns' come to Edward's poetry & find it satisfying . Of these I have met many. If he had lived he would have been fully recognized, though you know how averse he was from cliques & society & all that. But if he had lived how bitterly he would have hated the times, & how betrayed he would have know all those million brave young lives to have been. Sometimes -- when I can forget my own longing & lonliness -- I am glad he did not have to know this cynical material, warring world. Perhaps he would have joined you in some peaceful corner of the world, where he could walk & talk & write & again feel the virtue in the earth.

For me these long years have been a struggling often despairing time. & I have longed for some help , some one stronger than my self to turn to. Still somehow or other I have come through these periods of most tragic events & anxiety on all planes.

Both Bronwen & Myfanwy (we call her Ann) have had tragic lives. Bronny 's young husband died of a tumor on the brain leaving her with a baby boy & quite penniless.... These terrible years my two beloved girls & I managed -- I dont know how -- to battle through, but everything made harder by poverty.

Now Ann is with me & her girl is working happily on a farm, & Bronwen is married again & her boy is serving his National Service in Germany. Ann like me is alone in the world, but she has great courage & a nature that is happy with simple things & OUT life here in the country, which Edward loved, & near the downs where he & I walked, is full of the things we love doing. She will teach after Christmas. We are too poor to go about to see our friends or even to have them here except for a rare treat, but we are very united & Bronny who can come aver in a car comes as often as she can.

All this caused me this year to become very ill, but after nearly a year I have come through, but older & sadder. I am 73, & was very active & strong, & still try to be & still can be sometimes. I & my two girls are so close to each other & their children that when I am with them I think what a fortunate rich woman I am.

Merfyn is very happily married & has a boy Edward who is 16, so you see I have 3 most beloved grandchildren, each very different & each interesting & lovable. Ann takes after her father in her literary tastes & her love of the country & so does her daughter. Bronny is sweet & like Edward gracious & meticulous in her ways & her son is a very handsome boy of 18. Merfyn is a mechanical journalist & his boy Edward is very clever & will be successful in the worldly sense.

So there we all are. Ann lived for some years at Malvern & often went to Ledbury & Rosy was at school near Leddington. It was good to read of you & to know that You are loved & will be remembered.

Merfyn & Bronwen & Ann & I send our loving greeting to you & every wish for you that you think is good.

HELEN THOMAS

Please tell me of your children.

The envelope is addressed:
Robert Frost Esq.
c/o The Editor
Time
9 Rockefeller Plaza
New York to New York
U. S. A.
with the notation
" Kindly re-direct to home address"

Unexpectedly, some seven years later, Frost had one final reunion with Helen Thomas. On 21 May 1957, at 5:30 p. m., Frost, beginning his triumphant tour of the British Isles, presented a talk and poetry reading in the magisterial Senate House of the University of London. T. S. Eliot and F S. Flint were part of the overflow crowd of 700 who gave Frost a royal reception and sustained applause. Members of the audience went up to the podium to congratulate him and gain his autograph and among them were Helen Thomas and her daughter Bronwen. Myfanwy Thomas describes the evening:

[Helen and Bronwen] went to the talk, which was excellent, and rather hesitantly went round to see Robert afterwards and were delighted that he welcomed them with open arms, hugs and kisses -- I remember them coming home from the evening, their faces happy, saying 'He was just the same old Robert.' 8

On the basis of that brief but successful reunion, Helen Thomas invited Frost to her home at Eastbury for lunch on 2 June. According to Thompson and Winnick, Frost

was to go with Eleanor Farjeon, once a close friend of Edward Thomas, on a visit to the late poet's widow, Helen. When Thompson went up to tell Frost that Miss Farjeon was waiting with the Embassy car, Frost hoarsely announced, however, that he had caught a sore throat yesterday on the way back from Sussex, and thus could not go. Nevertheless, he dressed hurriedly and went downstairs, to greet Miss Farjeon and make his apologies. After her departure, Frost's symptoms improved so markedly that Thompson's suspicions were aroused. He knew Frost had dreaded to see Helen Thomas, having never quite forgiven her for saying too much in her autobiography about her sexual conduct with her husband before and after their marriage. 9

Myfanwy Thomas recounts the same event:

Then he [Frost] came to London again with a very full programme, and was to receive an Honorary Doctorate at Oxford. The day before Eleanor Farjeon had arranged to bring him down to Eastbury, by Embassy car, to have lunch here. We had assembled the whole family, my brother and sister were alive then. Mother and I spent the morning prepaing salmon a glorious salad, home-made mayonnaise, home-made bread, with bottles of wine tied by their necks to long string attached to our footbridge and cooling in the river Lambourn. All in our best, and waiting only for Robert and Eleanor to arrive -- the phone rang, a message from the Embassy -- Mr. Frost had a throat infection so because of the ceremony at Oxford on the following day, it was not advisable for him to come, and unfortunately his itinerary was too full to arrange another day. He never wrote -- but then he was not much of a letter-writer, I gather. 10

The rest is silence: Frost died in 1963, Helen Thomas in 1967.




Notes

*Permission to publish these letters has been granted by the Dartmouth College Library, holder of the physical property rights, and Myfanwy Thomas, holder of the literary property rights. The letters are reprinted exactly as Helen Thomas wrote them, unhampered by sics by me.

The first three letters were published in the November 1989 issue. Letter five, the last of Helen Thomas's to Frost, is here published for the first time. Ellipses in that letter indicate very brief personal remarks omitted at the request of Mvfanwy Thomas.

1. Helen Noble Thomas, World Without End (London: Heinemann, 1931), 130.

2. Helen Noble Thomas, Time & Again: Memoirs and Letters, ed. Myfanwy Thomas (Manchester [England]: Carcanet New Press, 1978), 97.

3. Myfanwy Thomas, letter to the author, 9 September 1986.

4. Robert Frost, Robert Frost and Sidney Cox: Forty Years of Friendship, ed. William R. Evans (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1981), 191.

5. Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 334

6. Ibid., 636.

7. Helen Thomas, World Without End, 151.

8. Myfawny Thomas, letter, 9 September 1986.

9. Lawrence Thompson, Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 235.

10. Myfanwy Thomas, letter, 9 September 1986. /