Robert Frost in England
Frontispiece from the American edition of North of Boston. New York: Henry Holt, . BL Shelfmark YA.1986.a.3199
In 1912, frustrated both by the demands made on him by teaching and the lack of response from American publishers, Robert Frost determined to leave the United States. He initially favoured Vancouver, while his wife preferred England. Apparently, a coin was tossed and within a short time, together with their four children, they were crossing the Atlantic. It proved to be the perfect gamble.
The following year his first volume of poetry, A Boy’s Will (London, 1913; BL shelfmark C.194.a.26) was published by David Nutt and today – 15 May 2014 – marks the 100th anniversary of his second, North of Boston (London, 1914; BL shelfmark W.56/6735). Including what would become two of his best loved poems, ‘After Apple-Picking’ and ‘Mending Wall’ – in which the narrator questions his neighbour’s dogged acceptance that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ – critic and poet Edward Thomas declared North of Boston to be ‘one of the most revolutionary books of modern times’, while Ford Madox Ford described it as ‘an achievement much finer than Whitman’s’.
Such critical acclaim, together with the family’s difficult financial position and the continuing war in Europe, hastened their return to the States. Famously, within hours of their arrival in New York in February 1915, Frost was thumbing through a newsstand copy of the The New Republic (BL shelfmark MFM.MA57) when he inadvertently came across poet Amy Lowell’s pronouncement that North of Boston was ‘the most American volume of poetry which has appeared for some time’. Six months later the Atlantic (BL shelfmark P.P.6256) – which had rejected Frost’s work for years – published not only three of his poems but an essay predicting he was ‘destined to take a permanent place in American literature’. And in September, Harper’s (BL shelfmark P.P.6383.a) editor and ‘Dean of American Letters’, William Dean Howells, concurred that Frost’s volumes merited ‘the favor they have won’.
Responding to these reviews and the almost unprecedented demand they created, American publisher Henry Holt – who had tentatively bought 150 copies of North of Boston from David Nutt – hastily printed 1,300 copies of his own. A year and four printings later nearly 20,000 copies had been sold and Frost’s reputation – and his future as a poet – were finally secure.