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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Robert Frost and Helen Thomas: Five Revealing Letters

WILLIAM R. EVANS

Frost biographers celebrate his powerful and enduring affection for the English poet, Edward Thomas, the man Frost valued as 'the only brother I ever had.' Although the Frost-Thomas friendship and the impact each had on the other has been studied closely by scholars, scant attention has been paid to a third figure in that relationship, Thomas's wife Helen. Frost's friendship with Thomas was cut short by his tragic death in World War I; but, even some forty years later, Helen Thomas struggled to keep warm ties with the Frosts. Her five letters to Frost, spanning the period from 1917 to 1950, show her sharing her grief with the Frosts; then defending the memoir of her husband she had published; and finally piercing the veil of silence that had separated her from Frost for three decades. These unusual letters not only shed new light on a fascinating chapter in literary history but also show Frost, initially generous in getting Thomas's poems published, then hardening into unforgiveness when Helen Thomas displeased him with her unabashedly frank portrait of her husband in As It Was (London: Heinemann, 1926). Even the chronicle of Frost's friendship with Thomas, which appeared in her second book, World Without End (London: Heinemann, 1931), did not mitigate his displeasure.

Perhaps because of similar problems and interests, Frost and Thomas were drawn to each other from their first meeting in London in 1913. Seth had suffered extreme emotional torture, both had attempted suicide, both were devoted to poetry, and both were family men whose wives and children became part of the friendship that Helen Thomas tried to keep.

Helen Noble (1877-1967) loved her father, the writer and editor James Ashcroft Noble, and was alienated from her mother as much as Edward Thomas loved his mother and hated his father. Fortunately James Noble liked Thomas when the young writer came to call on the editor, and Helen Noble saw him frequently in her family's house. Shy at first because he was shy, Helen then sought him out, and, in time, they became lovers united by their love of poetry and the beauty of the English countryside. When Helen Noble became pregnant, Edward Thomas married her, and their first child, a son, was born in 1900. Intensely in love, they lived together in near-poverty on Thomas's earnings as a writer and reviewer. Often melancholy and depressed, Thomas was cold and almost cruel to Helen and their children-then he hated himself afterward. He frequently left his family in order to travel alone ostensibly to gather material for his travel books, but more, perhaps, to satisfy the demon inside him. When he met Frost, he was harried, overworked, and emotionally ill.

The Frost-Thomas friendship, intense, fertile, and brief (1913-1917) bloomed fully in 1914-'our year,' Frost called it. During this time the families of both men were often together at Little Iddens in rural Dymock where the two poets explored the countryside and talked deeply about their feelings and about poetry-Frost had ignited the poetic force in his closest friend.

But their wives did not forge a strong bond. Both women were sensitive, intelligent, and gifted, devoted to their husbands and children, but Elinor Frost was quiet and withdrawn-Helen Thomas thought she seemed careworn and tired- whereas Helen Thomas was outgoing, even ebullient. In 1915, With England at war, Frost returned to America; Thomas, after prolonged soul-searching, enlisted in the Royal Army, even though he was considerably overage, and Helen Thomas kept the Frosts informed about her husband.

In her first letter she responds to Frost's news that he has found an American publisher for Thomas's poems and that he had sold two or three of Thomas's poems to Poetry, which Harriet Monroe was editing. Out of diffidence, perhaps, Thomas wished to publish his book under a pseudonym, Edward Eastaway, but Helen Thomas, as well as friends like John Freeman, for example, were attempting to dissuade him.

Later in the letter, she recounts news of their three children, Merfyn, Bronwen, and Myfanwy, nicknamed Baba, who had been playmates of Lesley and the other Frost children. And knowing Frost liked gossip, she adds tidbits about some of the poets he had been acquainted with in England: W. H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, and W. W. Gibson.

The letter ends with a few faintly scrawled sentences. Helen Thomas tells Frost that on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, her husband had been killed by a shell. She thought he had died at Vimy Ridge, but later information revealed he was killed in the battle at Arras.

Following her husband's death, Helen Thomas suffered severe shock, and Eleanor Farjeon took her to a country cottage to recuperate. Farjeon was the talented and shy young woman devoted to Edward Thomas whom Helen Thomas had welcomed warmly into their home. She describes the intimate details of this friendship with Eleanor Farjeon in World Without End, details that provoked Frost's scorn.

As the second and third letters indicate, Helen Thomas's immediate recuperation was helped by the excitement surrounding the publication of Thomas's Poems, which Roger Ingpen printed in 1917. But pouring out her emotions to her husband's closest friend also helped to soften, ii not to deaden, the blow from which she never completely recovered.

[ALS r2 pp.]

High Beech
March z.
Late at night
[1917]

Dear Robert

What a bit of luck to get your letter at all. I thought all the mails had gone down in the Laconia, but evidently not. I'm so excited & happy about your splendid news, & I've already written to the dear man & told him, & to John Freeman to find out about those 'insists'. I feel sure it will be all right. I'm not at all sure that Edward Eastaway will consent to be Edward Thomas, but I will add my 'insists' to yours & hope for the best. Also I like the idea of your preface & feel sure he will too. It's all very good news & you sound as pleased & you knew we would be.

By now you will have heard from him. He's at Arras & expecting a hot time presently. I don't suppose I can tell you much about him may I. He's at present at head quarters as adjutant to a ruddy Colonel whose one subject is horse racing & jockeys & such & with whom our man gets on so well that the he's longing to be back at his battery, he's afraid the Colonel has taken a fancy to him & will keep him. It will probably mean promotion, but Edward wants the real thing & wont be happy till he gets it & what is one to do with such a poet. In a pause in the shooting he turns his wonderful field glasses on to a hovering kestrel & sees him descend & pounce & bring up a mouse. Twice he saw that & says "I suppose the mice are travelling now". What a soldier. Oh he's just fine, full of satisfaction in his work, & his letters free from care & responsibility but keen to have a share in the great stage when it begins where he is.

At first after we'd said 'Goodbye' & we knew what suffering was, & what we meant to each other, I did not live really, but just somehow or other did my work, but with my ears strained all the time for his step or his coo-ee in case he came back. But the one can only wait & hope & not let panic take a hold of one, his happy letters & the knowledge that all is so well between us, are making life life again, & the Spring helps too & the feeling that the end is near-must come soon, & that that end will be-if it is at all-a beginning again for us with such knowledge of each other as nothing can ever obliterate, nothing can ever, that is what we know & what makes life possible now.

I must tell you that [the] last evening we were talking of people of ourselves of friends & of his work & all he'd like done. And he said "Outside you & the children & my mother, Robert Frost comes next." And I know he loves you.

I send you this photograph. Merfyn took it. People don't like it because they say he is too much a soldier here, & not at his best. But I send it thinking that you know him so well you'll be able to read him into it, if he is not there to you. We too will send to Leslie [?] We are all well, & Merfyn has attested [?] & will 'join up' when he is I8. Bronwen is happy & careless & so useful & willing. Baba is well & growing long [?] & clever & disconcerting often with her shrewd observation & her totting [?] up of character. And I am just the same, & despite [?] all the terrible anxiety & terror in me, a great calm nothing can unruffle.

I'll leave this letter open for details to be added [?] about the book.

Edward will be 39 tomorrow March 3rd, & we are hoping our parcels of apples & cake & sweets & such like luxuries will get to him on the day. Our letters take a week to reach him. Yours not much longer I expect.

Two weeks later.

I've kept & kept this letter & just have not had the opportunity to add to it. You've heard by now I expect from Edward & perhaps from Mr. Ingpen too. Eastaway will not be Thomas & thats that he says, but all about the 'insists' you'll have heard from others. Edwards letters are still full of interest & life & satisfaction in his work. He's back on his battery now in the thick of it as he wanted to be, firing 400 rounds a day from his gun, listening to the men talking, & getting on well with his fellow officers. He's had other times of depression & home sickness. He says "I cannot think of ever being home again, & dare not think of never being there again" & in a letter to Merfyn he says "I want to have six months of it, & then I want to be at home. I wish I knew I was coming back." Oh if only I knew that too!

Have you seen the 'Annual'? I've only had it in my hand a minute because I sent it at once for his mother to see, & she has not returned it yet. So I've not read your poems in it or anyones. I think Edwards are wonderfully good. I love 'Aspens' particularly.

You have W. W. Gibson over there I hear. Have you met him yet. I hope he's not being the success he expected to be. De la Mare I hear talks of nothing but America & is keen on going out again. He made a lot of money I think & got a lot of adulation too I think. I suppose Gibson must make some money, but I can't imagine giving him adulation-there's something so very small & mean about the man. Davies I hear is mad with rage that de la Mare & Gibson have been out & getting rich before he's had his 'go' at the Americans, & is planning to go & read his poems at 500 dollars a time. So you'll get the whole brood of Dorset poets over there before long. All the ones not helping in the war talk as the Gibson has written several 'moving' poems from the trenches damn him.

Well, its about time I sent this off. So I'11 say goodnight. I hope someday when this cursed war is over we'll see you all again over here. Poor England, but isn't she fine tho! But oh so tired & weary & sick, but never hopeless, never losing courage and faith. Underneath all her rotteness of pride & hypocracy she is splendid still, & I think that scum that threatened & still tries to cover her will be skimmed off her by this war, the now the best are all away. But some will come back; one must, & he will he says.

Goodnight. My love & the childrens to you all.

HELEN THOMAS.

This letter was returned by the Censor ages after I posted it. I have had to take out the photographs.

But lately I have just received the news of Edward's death. He was killed on Easter Monday by a shell. You will perhaps feel from what I have said that all is well with me. For a moment indeed one loses spirit [?]& feeling. With his love all was well & is. We love him, & someday I hope we may meet & talk of him for he is very great & splendid.

H.

[ALS 10 pp.]
May 7 [1917]

High Beech
Loughton
Essex

My dear Elinor & Robert

It is now almost a month since I had the letter telling me that I should never see my beloved again. All that time I have had it in my mind to write to you again knowing well the sorrow you would be feeling, & yet Ive been unable to. I have been unable to think at all. My heart & my mind have been disunited, all I knew was despair & terror & pain so terrible that I lost my hold on life for a bit. Now I am in a beautiful part of Sussex called Billingshurst, not very far from Petersfield, & in the cosiest little cottage & lovely garden & orchard with Eleanor a great peace has come to me, & amongst all the things that he loved I am feeling his nearness. Sometimes panic takes hold of me & I seem to see the years like a long road stretching away & away & me on it stumbling along all alone without him who is my very life & my all, but then it is as if he took my hand in his great strong tender one & held it & gave me courage again. Then the children fatherless having lost such a father. Then I feel a strong resolution to live as he would have me live for them, happy & careless & true. I try to forget my poverty in wanting his voice, his arms about me, his beautiful face & his wise talk, & remember how rich I am in his love & his spirit & all that is eternal, & all that was & is between us that he said again & again "Remember whatever happens all is well between us forever"

Do you know Robert on that fearful day of parting Jan. 11th, in each of our hearts was the conviction that it was the last time we should ever be in each other's arms. Neither of us spoke of it but I knew & he knew in our hearts the our reason bade us hope.

Oh, he was beautiful in his truth & his beauty. And how he was love Such wonderful tributes of love & admiration have appeared in the papers, from people whose love he would have prized & whose admiration he would have been glad to have. And I because of him have been surrounded by love & help & sympathy each offering in his different way the help he had to give. Eleanor came to me & did everything, for my body which had never failed me failed me then. But it is not of me you will want to hear but of him.

With the letter which came from a brother officer telling me of his death on Easter Monday April 9th came one from Edward written on the day before Sunday, bubbling with happiness & excitement. He said "You would laugh to see Horton & me dodging the shells" for he was in one of the most dangerous jobs that the war offers-a forward observation post on the Vimy ridge. `Between the terrific noise of the guns I can hear two hedge sparrows making love' I send you a copy of a letter from his commanding officer. You can't realize what an unutterable comfort it was to me, & when the war is over Merfyn & I are going to France. I wish his dear body lay in English earth, near me too.

His poems (which all are praising so much-one or two having appeared in periodicals) will soon be out, & I am having a very lovely portrait I have of him included If fame comes to him as it seems it may, it will be no false Rupert Brooke sort of fame, but because those who know his work & him do realize that in his poems is the very essence of both.

He has awakened from the dream of life, that is what I say over & over again, & yet this wonderful late Spring of which he only saw the first tiny promise is almost more than I can bear because he is not seeing it & feeling it & hearing it as I am. And yet in a more perfect way he is, he is part of it, he is indeed made one with Nature, such a better step for him that.

When the restriction is over I will send you all that is worthy of him that has appeared in the papers. WI H. Davies wrote a little poem, done in his best most simple vein & in not one line have I read, either in print or in the very many letters I have received have I felt anything but the truest sincerity & heartfelt love. There has been no cant, no sentimentality, people have been true & impulsive. He demanded such truth always & people could give no less.

I told you in my letter how happy his life in the Army had been, & that 'moment of victory' is symbolical.

Terrible things are happening, & every day men come home blind & maimed & insane or mortally injured. Suppose one had been he, with all his pride & super sensitiveness. The thought is unendurable. So I glean comfort where I can, & soon I shall again be able to face life, knowing & realizing more & more clearly that all is well with him, & so for me all is well too.

Baba is the child most like Edward. She has his quick observation & clear mind & imagination. She will follow in his steps I think How proud he was of her. She was dancing for me the other day, & singing a song of her own composition to her own tune, it was about a fish princess at the bottom of the sea. One line I quoted in a letter to Edward all about this wonderful performance of hers. "There are not more roses in the garden, than rubies at the bottom of the sea". She is with me here, happy all day long among the flowers & with a little girl to play with. My love is yours, love me a bit too for his sake who you love & who loved you.

HELEN.

[ALS 4 pp.]

June 7th [1917]

My dear Robert,
I'm here at John Freemans & your letter has just come with the cheque inside. Thank you. I don't feel sure about that extra [[sterling]]5. I feel Edward would not have kept it, & yet you knew Edward too & there it is. I cant think out things these days.

Ive been away from home six weeks nearly--Baba & I together & the other two with friends. I must get back home. Its got to be done yet I linger & linger not daring to put my courage to such a test. Ive never had a home but what it was his, my home because he was there, his for me. I try to think the children will fill my life as he filled it, but I know they cant. And how can I fill theirs as he did.

I have proved my love for him who is clinging hard round my heart to keep it from breaking, yet who can take hold! I am so confused I cant remember if I told you of the meeting with the corporal who was in Edward's battery & knew him & loved him, as all the men did. Tell me & if I did not I will tell you all he told me. It is splendid. Among his few personal possessions which came back was your book & inside is written in pencil "Read at L'harve & at Arras". Would you like to have it, or what of Edward's would you like' You shall have his portrait. You will come over wont you & we shall meet again, & yet without him I think England would be very barren for you.

Write to me often. He loved hearing from you, & used to worry when there were pauses. I don't know what is happening about the poems in America but Ingpen has written & is arranging it all.

This has been the most wonderful Spring there has ever been, & still the sun pours down, & still the war goes on, & my beloved is in the Spring & away from the war. How could I wish it differently, & yet how can I help wishing it. Oh I cant write any more. To talk would be good, to be near you whom he loved, that would be different, I'11 tell you all about the corporal if I've not done so already, but I so desired you to know I think I wrote at once. My love to you all

HELEN.

I did see the [two words illegible] 'Poetry'.

After 1917 no more letters are available until 1928. Two more letters will be published in the second half of this article




Notes

This article is being published in two installments. The second part will appear in the April 1990 issue.

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

While small portions of the first four letters have been reprinted in various books on Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, they have never been printed in ful.

Last Updated: 4/19/17