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Robert Frost According to Joe Frost


Like his cousin the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost, historian Joe Frost of Kittery and Eliot, Maine was a crusty Yankee curmudgeon. Joe was still a young man when his famous relative Robert died in 1963, but he remembered him well.  Joe was himself growing elderly when he spoke about his cousin to a group gathered at the Portsmouth Athenaeum on a rainy evening in 1997.  (Continued below)


“Why you would come out on an evening like this is beyond my comprehension,” Joe told his audience in a thick New England accent, peppered with wry Maine humor.  ‘The older they get, I notice, those chairs get harder and harder.”

Frost on Frost  

Although beloved as New Hampshire poet, Joe explained, Robert Lee Frost (1874 - 1963) was born in San Francisco, grew up in Massachusetts, gained fame in England, and retired in Vermont. The poet’s life was filled with tragedy. His father, a newspaper man, died when Robert was just a boy, leaving the family with just $8. His mother, a teacher, was forced to leave San Francisco and move East to live with her in-laws in Lowell, Massachusetts. She died young. Robert’s sister suffered from mental illness.  His son committed suicide and only two of his six children survived him.  

Robert attended Dartmouth and Harvard, married, began raising a family, and then decided he wanted to be a farmer, although he had no experience. In 1901 his grandfather generously gave him a small farm in Derry, NH and an annual annuity of $800.   

“He didn’t get around to milkin’ the cows ‘til about noon time,” Joe said. “Very hard on the animals, but they adapted to it, better than the people did in Derry. They seemed to think he was a bit of an oddball, which he was.”  

Robert eventually got a job teaching school in Derry, then at Plymouth State College, but his poetry did not attract attention until he moved his family to England in 1912. Poet Ezra Pound liked his work and helped Frost get published. Frost returned home, settled in Franconia, NH, then taught at Amherst College and at the summer Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. Both of his New Hampshire homes are now museums.





Life with Robert  

Young Joe sometimes chauffeured his elder cousin to speaking engagements, or stopped by for a visit. One time Robert Frost gave a reading at Bowdoin College in Maine and invited Joe to attend the standing-room only talk. The moment he rose to speak, Joe recalled, “you could hear a ticking watch.” Afterwards the poet wanted to mingle with Bowdoin students, so he sent Joe off to dinner with the president of the college, promising to join them momentarily. He finally arrived for dinner at 1 a.m.   

Robert worked late and rose late. He was “not always delightful to live with,” Joe admitted, especially for a young college student. After one late night conversation with Robert and poet Louis Untermeyer in Cambridge, Joe says, he slept through three classes the next morning.   

“If I lived next door to Robert Frost, I’d want a good stone wall between us,” Joe joked, referring to “Mending Walls,” the poet’s often-quoted and often-misunderstood verse.  

Joe was a young boy when he first met Robert in the late 1920s. Robert and his wife Elinor trudged through the snow in March during a visit to the Frost ancestral home in Eliot, the “garrison” Joe called it. The couple was almost frozen when they arrived, he recalls, and had to put their feet in the oven in the kitchen to warm up.

 “From then on I knew Robert right up until the time of his death,” Joe said. “From time to time, I lived with him in various places. In fact, when I went to college in Boston, he wanted me to live with him in Cambridge, because he felt that Boston would probably corrupt me – and I hoped to hell it would.”  



Says Cousin Joe  

Joe_Frost_Courtesy_photoJoseph William Pepperrell Frost (1923 -2008) served as sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He was a businessman by trade, working in the textile and construction industries, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and in the York public school system. But he is best known locally as an avid, even fanatical collector of historic books and artifacts, many of which found a home at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, an organization he helped revive. A descendent of Sir William Pepperrell, hero of the siege at Louisbourg in 1745, Joe raised his family in the famous Pepperrell Mansion at Kittery Point. Days before he died following a tractor accident at age 85, one friend recalls, Joe was reciting lengthy passages from Longfellow’s poetry to young nurses gathered around his hospital bed.   

In 1961, at age 86, Robert Frost was the first poet invited to read at a presidential inauguration. He composed a special poem for John F. Kennedy, but in the glaring sun and subzero temperatures, he was unable to read the print typed on the page. So instead he read a poem he knew by heart. First Lady Jackie Kennedy framed the original Frost poem entitled “Dedication” and it was the first item hung on the White House office walls of the new president. It disappeared for decades into the hands of a private collector and didn’t turn up at the Kennedy Library until 2006.  

Those who heard Joe Frost speak might agree that he read his cousin’s poetry better than the poet himself. At the Atheaneum in 1997 he recited a number of poems including the classic lines from “Stopping by Woods on as Snowy Evening.”  That reading jogged his memory of Frost’s final days.  

“The last time I saw Robert,” Joe said, “was the day before he died. He asked his secretary to give me a call to come down there to the hospital in Boston to see him…He looked pretty healthy to me sitting up there in bed and we talked for an hour or so. That night they called me to say he died, so we never know how close we are.”

Joe attended Robert Frost’s funeral at Harvard, a private ceremony. President Kennedy was among those who sent moving tributes. The Associated Press said that Frost symbolized “the rough-hewn individuality of the American creative spirit more than any other man.” During their time together, Joe said, he met just about every famous poet of the era. During the memorial ceremony at Amherst that followed, Joe sat next to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. When Nehru died the following year, Joe told his audience at the Athenaeum, there was a handwritten message from Robert Frost under the glass on the prime minister’s desk that read “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” – a line from his best known poem.  



Any Last Questions?  

Joe_Frost_02After his lecture at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in 1997 Joe Frost took questions from the audience. “Have you ever written any poetry?” a listener asked.  

“Written any?” Joe replied. “God forbid! When I was a kid I used to submit them to the Portsmouth Herald and foolishly they published them. But they weren’t any good. Sounded too much like Whittier.” 

Robert had “considerable humor” Joe said, despite the poet’s gruff, often depressive and pessimistic nature. As evidence, Joe held up a copy of a book of verse entitled From Snow to Snow. On the title page Robert had inscribed the copy to Joe “From Frost to Frost.”  

But it was Joe who clearly had the richer sense of humor and a warm good-natured attitude toward life. Asked about the poet’s thick accent, and his own, Joe noted “I find other people have accents, but most of us don’t.” 

What did he think of the negative criticism of Robert Frost, particularly by biographer Lawrence Thompson?  

“I’ve read all those biographies, but I really don’t believe any of them,” Joe said. “Larry Thompson’s book was very rough on Frost,” Joe explained, but he didn’t really blame the biographer whom he had met many times and admired. “You couldn’t always depend on Robert telling the same story twice the same way,” Joe noted.  “Thompson usually picked the one that was most colorful.”  

Increasingly hard of hearing, Joe Frost leaned his hulking six-foot three-inch frame toward the audience at the Athenaeum. “What’s that?” he asked time after time. “I just don’t hear as good as I used to.” Then he muttered, half to himself, “Someday I want to find a friendly undertaker. They must have a drawer full of hearing aids.”  

Robert Frost remains one of America’s best known, best read poets. Besides his four Pulitzers, he earned 40 honorary college degrees, including ones from both Cambridge and Oxford University. His cousin Joe, a reader not a writer, is less well known. But he remains beloved among those who enjoyed his wit and admired his vast knowledge of history and literature. His donated collections continue to serve scholars at the Portsmouth Athenaeum where a bust of Joe Frost, crafted by his friend sculptor Sumner Weinbaum, still grins ever-so-slightly among the ancient books he loved to read. 

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online.


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