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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Robert Frost and Helen Thomas Revisited*


I HAVE been aware for some time of specific deficiencies in the third volume of the Thompson/Winnick biography 1 of Robert Frost. As one example only, I noted the often questionable attribution of motive in the diary entries for the Frost visit to the British Isles, in May and June 1957, where Lawrance Thompson had joined the poet for the bestowal of honors. William R. Evans, in his piece on Robert Frost and Helen Thomas, 2 quotes Thompson/Winnick prominently in the conclusion of the second part. He also draws heavily from the recollections of Helen and Edward Thomas's youngest daughter, Myfanwy, who gave permission to publish her mother's letters. 3

In researching the Frost family's stay in England from 1912 to 1915 and subsequent visits (with Elinor and Marjorie in 1928, and alone in 1957 and 1961), and as the poet's granddaughter, I realized how risky it is to seek definitive psychological explanations for events or for the dynamics of personality. The complexities and intangibles are themselves the warp and woof of the subject's life, as of his art. By enlarging the context in which the interaction between Robert Frost and Helen Thomas occurred, and by filling gaps in the sources from which any interpretation may be drawn, we come closer, but only closer, to an understanding of motive.

There is general agreement among Frost's biographers with regard to the depth of RF's (as we affectionately called him) love for the man about whom he wrote, 'The closest I ever came in friendship to anyone in England or anywhere else in the world I think was with Edward Thomas.' 4 Robert helped release the pent-up flood of poetry in his friend, and sought ways to have his verse recognized in America. Despite obvious differences in background, he helped Edward take a more positive view toward life and toward his marriage, which was experiencing serious tensions. At the outbreak of World War I, he brought Edward's son Merfyn back to America with him, and he sent money to Helen after Edward's death in 1917, money sorely needed by his own family. But it is also true, as Helen herself concedes in her memoirs, that she 'never became close to Robert as Edward was,' 5 just as she never became close to Robert's wife, Elinor. With the publication of As it Was, the first of Helen's memoirs (London: William Heinemann) in 1926, followed by World Without End (London: William Heinemann) in 1931, RF responded to the intimate autobiographical reminiscences with dismay. When he visited England in 1928, he called upon Edward's widow and, as the correspondence shows, was honest in conveying to her his and his wife's distress. He thought Helen made Edward look ridiculous, by going into such detail in their marital affairs, and in her portrayal of Eleanor Farjeon, whom Robert thought Helen had hoped to 'conquer . . with magnanimity.' 6 He wrote Jack Haines that the meeting with Helen 'ended one passage in our lives.' 7 And there is where I believe Robert and Elinor would have wanted to leave it. They had concluded that Helen's sentimental journey in print-which, for Helen, was a retrospective attempt to work off her grief and to give meaning to her life-was an unseemly distortion they considered injurious to what they loved in Edward. They were uncomfortable with Helen's desire to carry on a friendship that had meant so much to her husband when alive. Yet, while Robert did indeed distance himself from Edward's widow, it would be incorrect to conclude that he was in some grand manner unforgiving or deliberately hurtful. The record of the circumstances of their final encounter, in May 1957, shows there are no villains, and goes far to soften the impression left by Thompson/ Winnick and Evans.

I had joined my grandfather in London on 1 June 1957, from Madrid, where I was employed in the American Embassy. I was privileged to accompany RF to Oxford and Cambridge Universities when he received his honorary degrees, and I was at the Connaught Hotel on Sunday, 2 June, when it became necessary to cancel his scheduled trip to Lambourn with Eleanor Farjeon and me to lunch at Bridge Cottage with the Thomas family: Helen and her three children, Bronwen, Merfyn, and Myfanwy. In a 3 June letter from London, I wrote my mother, Lesley Frost, that during a drive out into Sussex country (on 1 June, my first day in England) to visit Frost's old and ailing friend Sir John Squire, 'RF was in a draft and for several days it was doubtful we would get him through the Oxford ordeal -- we did and in flying colors. Had to cancel a trip out to see Helen Thomas.' RF had explicitly requested and seemed to enjoy the rapid pace of social, press, and lecturing activities, and he pulled out of only a few of the large number of engagements scheduled during his visit (often with as many as three functions in one day!), but he avoided long trips whenever possible, and the journey to Lambourn represented at least a three-hour drive in the Embassy car. Larry had to call a doctor, who said the old man's heart was jumping around dangerously. He was also suffering, he told me, from so much personal attention:' He says they don't give him a chance to forget about himself,' I wrote home at the time.

Apart from my own record of these events, the archival papers on Frost's 1957 visit are revealing. Before traveling to England and Ireland as part of the United States Department of State's Educational Exchange: American Specialists Program, RF was invited to submit a list of names of persons he would like the American Embassy in London to contact prior to his arrival on 19 May. Included on the handwritten short list of friends were the names of Eleanor Farjeon and Helen Thomas. In the first of three undated letters from this period (May-June 1957), letters not mentioned by Evans in his essay, Helen corroborates:

My dear Robert

I have just heard from the American Embassy that you are coming to England on May 20th & that you want to see me. I am so delighted and ecstatic, but I am aware that you must be inundated with invitations & all that. But somehow we must meet. But how? Of course the best would be for you to come here & spend at least a night with us, but I fear that is too much to hope for. Can you suggest a time & place that would suit you, if to come here is not possible? The children would love to see you & it must be managed somehow to have a family talk, not with others except dear Eleanor whom you will especially want to see. I'd love you to be here in our little home -- an ancient thatched cottage with a stream running by -- a place among the chalk downs Edward would have loved. Ann & I live here, but Bronwen is close by & Mervyn would come. Robert, it will be [unclear] to see you & talk with you

We all send our love
Your loving

In her foreword to the English edition of You Come Too,' 8 Eleanor Farjeon (a close personal friend of both Edward and Helen Thomas) remembers the gathering of the poets and their families at Little Iddens, the Gallows, and the Old Nailshop in August 1914; she goes on to describe what happened forty-two years later:

In May, 1927, I heard from the American Embassy that Robert Frost was coming to England to receive Honorary Degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities.... I was invited to a lecture he was giving in London University the day after his arrival, preceded by a small tea-party for some of his friends. (You Come Too, p. 10)

Eleanor was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from Robert before the lecture; he told her he wanted to meet with her 'away from the crowd.'

I told him the Embassy was arranging a day for us. Helen Thomas and Bronwen traveled from Berkshire that day, and we went together to London University, where a small shaky lift took up to the tea-room the two old ladies who had somehow replaced the two active women Robert had known more than forty years ago. We approached a white-haired man who was talking to T.S. Eliot. "It's Helen and Eleanor, Robert." He turned towards us quickly, unmistakably Robert. Were we as unmistakably ourselves? Eliot smiled at us and withdrew a little. "And here's Bronnie," said Helen. Robert muttered, "Well, well, well." Soon he and Helen were talking of their grandchildren. We turned away as other friends arrived. Presently Robert disappeared, to collect himself before his lecture. . . . After the talk students crowded on to the platform to ask him questions and get his autograph. We did not join them, but went to the edge of the platform and called up our goodbyes. He started, turned, stooped down to come closer to us, and said to me, "You got that fixed, haint'yer!" I knew he meant our day "away from the crowd."

It came on June the sixth [tenth], a golden Whit Monday. Before that I had seen him twice more, at a party given by his publisher, and at his hotel, where I met his granddaughter, Lee, who had come from Spain to be with him, and Professor Thompson from Princeton, who was looking after him. He was beginning to feel the exhaustion of his too-many engagements, and was going next day to Oxford to receive his first Honour. This day we were to drive with him into Berkshire, where Helen Thomas was expecting us, but he was suffering from a heavy cold; it was a bitter disappointment to us all when we had to persuade him to go back to bed. . . . He still had his cold on him when our day came, on the eve of his visit to Cambridge. ( You Come Too, pp. 11-12)

In the first of two letters, written to Robert on 26 May, Eleanor anticipates their meetings:

Dear Robert,

I shall be at the [Hotel] Connaught next Sunday [2 June] round about 9.45 and sit and think until you and the car appear. Helen longs for as much time as the American Government will allow. Mervyn will be coming after lunch; and whatever the time=table is, you and I will [have] some hours to talk in the car. But I want you to come here too-the hay loft I live in is a better place for talking in, and I am full of your plan to do Edward's poems in America. I am now writing my Memoir 9 of him steadily from the end of 1912 to the bit in the London Magazine that will conclude it. It will be filled with his letters -- he begins to speak of you to me first in March 1914, but I know you & he met in 1913 and I want to ask you about that. My book will be published next year here by the Oxford Press, and possibly in the States too, but I'm specially reserving the right to let you have the piece you think of using with your own foreword to the poems, and I can't tell you how glad I am you want it.

Till Sunday, and after-and before
This doesn't have to be answered. It's just an advice-note in advance

In her last letter to Robert, dated 6 June, Eleanor provides directions for Robert to find her hayloft in Hampstead. She takes the occasion to tell Robert that Helen's son Merfyn 'wants you to know that he would gladly come to London at any time if you have a free hour for him. . . . The disappointment to him and to all of us on Sunday needn't be spoken of, for everybody felt the same, and everybody knew that not to go was the only thing to do. I do hope that the day's rest helped to make Oxford a little easier for you.' Robert and Merfyn appear not to have made contact during Frost's stay.

The other two letters from Helen Thomas to Robert Frost (also undated but in all likelihood written shortly after the cancellation of the 2 June luncheon) provide insight into the nature of Helen's response to the cancellation:

Dear Robert,

Ann [Myfanwy] & I together send our love & hope, above all, that your throat will soon be well. We hope too that before you leave for home you will be able to come here now, & have some homely[?] home nursing & care-early to bed & late to rise, & simple country meals & just sitting in our little garden by the stream, & a little talk when you felt like it. That is what I wish could be, but I know it can't. When you can come later on when all this official part is over, then we can get the children (all grown up now) together again, but it would not be tiring for you, I wouldn't let it be.

I hate to think of you not well in London, though I am sure you have many kind friends there who will take care of you, and of course you have your granddaughter whom we were to see too. Never mind, we try not to let our deepest[?] disappointment take [?] over our distress that you are not well.

The Thomas family sends you our love & every good wish. And if it possible for you easily to come here, you know how [we] will welcome you.

Your loving, old friend

We know that Helen and Eleanor communicated between 2 June and 6 June, when Eleanor conveyed the message from Helen about Merfyn in her letter to Robert. Helen's third letter makes reference to their communication and must have been written on or around the same date:

Dear Robert,

I am so relieved to see in today's Times that you were able to go to Oxford to receive your honour, which means that you are better. At Oxford you are not far from here, but Eleanor has told me that you are 'booked' for three days & that your time here can't be carried forward to another day. So I am thankful that Bronwen & I had that delight of seeing you & hearing you talk.

Eleanor said that you would especially like to see Merfyn who would also love to see you. I gave Eleanor his address & telephone number in case it was possible for him to see you in London. He is a dear man, most dependable & a good husband & father-happy in his work & marriage. Ann (Baba as was) & who lives with me would have loved to meet you and she can remember the Ledbury time, but will I think have the best of it when all is said & done, for 'aglay' 10 is what life so often is for men.

You are wonderful to be able to do all that you are doing & will do in England. I have been very ill & have to stay put most of the time. But in spite of the 'aglayness' life has been rich & wonderful to me & best of all I have seen & heard Edward recognized & honoured as a poet. God bless you Robert. Do you believe that Edward & you & I will meet somehow inconceivably! I do.

Your loving friend

To put these events, so perplexing to the participants, into a broader perspective, I have drawn from one of a number of laudatory narratives that suggests the range of the demands on the elderly dean of American poets in those final years, and on this occasion. Harold E. Howland, in the United States State Department at the time, explains the circumstances of Frost's visit to England as cultural ambassador:

When we in the State Department discussed our desire to invite Mr. Frost to take on this cultural "mission" we debated in our own minds whether we should ask this distinguished and venerable man to undertake the arduous task of lecturing and traveling throughout England. Our experience with much younger men on these cultural lecturing tours had provided us with ample evidence that these assignments could be taxing ones, indeed. The "stakes were high," however. . . .

It was our belief that we needed someone, not in politics, not in government, but rather from "our people" who was loved and respected by both England and America, to remind the British people of our mutual aspirations and hopes. Mr. Frost's greatness as a poet was discovered in England even before our country recognized his abilities. . . .

So we called on Mr. Frost and discussed with him our desire for him to go, but also our especial concern over his age and his well-being. I shall never forget his words: "I was re-reading recently the life of Voltaire. You will recall that Voltaire, in 1778, left the serenity of his village residence in Ferney, Switzerland to again appear with the crowds of Paris. It was a stren[u]ous visit and he died on that trip. His age then was, as is mine now, 82. Nevertheless, if my country believes I can be of any use in reminding the British people of our own warm affection and strong friendship, why, of course, I'II go. I don't want to be an unguided missile, however; don't spare me. Tell me where you want me to go and when. I'II be ready." 11

That he was ready, and that he was successful, may be attested to by the abundant acclaim, honors, and tributes he received throughout the British Isles. Oxford and Cambridge Universities (among others) presented him with honorary degrees, the first American since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868 and James Russell Lowell in 1873 to be so honored. In honoring Robert Frost, the British paid tribute to America.

Eleanor Farjeon, in closer proximity to the American poet and in constant touch with Helen Thomas during his stay in London, seemed to understand not only the problems of illness and logistics but the overriding momentousness of the occasion, as well. She concluded her account of her final meeting with Robert at her hayloft on Whit Monday (10 June 1957):

We did not meet again, and we did not write. The friendship that stretched from the day I met Robert Frost in 1914 to the day he died in 1963, remains as unbroken as in those forty-two years of silence. We do not lose our friends when they die, we only lose sight of them. 12


*I would like to thank the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a grant that made possible the preparation of this article.

1. Lawrance Thompson and R. H. Winnick, Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976).

2. William R. Evans,'Robert Frost and Helen Thomas: Five Revealing Letters.' Dartmouth College Library Bulletin n.s. 30 (November 1983), 2-10, and n.s. 30 (April1990), 38-44.

3. Myfanwy Thomas turned four years old on 16 August 1914. The sole surviving child of Edward and Helen Thomas, she has extended to me every possible courtesy, including the warmth of her home at Bridge Cottage, where I spent a few hours accompanied by my daughter, Melanie, on 30 July 1984. We have corresponded since. I have cherished her friendship and understanding as we try to reconstruct our families' elusive past. There were other contacts between the two families. Letters went back and forth between Robert, Elinor, and Lesley, on the one hand, and Edward, Helen, Merfyn, and Bronwen, on the other, up until the time of Edward's death on Easter Monday 1917. In a letter to Dolly Haines (a mutual family friend from Gloucestershire, whose husband was rejected for military service), dared 7 December 1915, Elinor wrote: '[We] were glad for your sake that Jack was rejected definitely. I can imagine so well what such a parting would mean to me, that my heart aches for those who have to bear it. I am afraid Mrs. Thomas is not standing it any better than I would, and I am so sorry for her. His [Edward's] training is all over, and he is expecting to be sent to france any time. It's all too dreadful to think of. . . I often wish we had gone into the war when the Lusitania was sunk . . .' In 1936, following the death of Elinor and Robert's youngest daughter, Lesley Frost sent Helen Thomas a copy of a special edition (New York: Spiral Press) of Franconia, poems by Marjorie Frost Fraser; the presentation copy, in the University of New Hampshire Library, is inscribed 'in memory of Marjorie.' Sometime between 1963 (the year RF died) and 1967 (the year Helen died), my mother, Lesley Frost, traveled to Bridge Cottage to visit Myfanwy and her mother. They also corresponded: in January 1969, when my mother contributed $100 to the window engraved by Laurence Whistler 'in celebration of the lives of E.T. & H.T.'

(in the church of St. James the Greater in nearby Eastbury), and again in January and February 1977 concerning a possible pooling of reminiscences that did not materialize. Lesley was by far the most prolific letter-writer in the Frost family!

4. Eleanor Farjeon, You Come Too (London: The Bodley Head,1964), 7-8.

5. Helen Thomas, Under Storming (London: Paladin Grafton Books, 1990), 230.

6. Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 335.

7. Ibid., 334.

8. Farjeon, You Come Too, 10-12.

9. Published as Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (London: 1967); also, The Green Roads, Poems by Edward Thomas Chosen and With an introduction by Eleanor Farjeon (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965), dedicated 'For Edward Thomas's Children Mervyn, Bronwen and Myfanway [Ann] and for Their Children and Theirs.' Although it seems probable that no letters passed between Eleanor Farjeon and Robert Frost after his 1957 visit, Eleanor did write to my mother, Lesley Frost, concerning her father. The first of two letters from Eleanor in my possession is dated 12 November 1962, thanking Lesley for sharing a copy of her children's stories, Really Not Really (Manhasset, N.Y.: Channel Press, [1962]), and praising RF's last volume of poems, In the Clearing (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, [1962]); the other was written 23 January 1963, upon Robert's death: 'So he has gone, Lesley, leaving what will live as long as America does. I cant write about him, or my feelings today -- no words seem real enough, they are all cliches. Only he, who never used a cliche in his life, could put his finger on the pulse and find its true beat. It isn't grief or a sense of loss. There's a great deal of gladness in it that such a man was, and is; and that he was and is my friend. It's that I'm sending you. With my love Eleanor.'

10. From Robert Burns (meaning against hope, expectation, or plan; awry, wrong): 'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.'

11. At the time of Mr. Frost's visit to England and in 1959 when this text was written Harold E. Howland was Chief, Special Cultural Programs Branch, International Educational Exchange Service, in the Department of State. The document is located in Robert Frost's Correspondence. 1906-1963 (Special Collections. Frost 906129).

12. Farjeon, You Come Too, 16.