Robert Frost was in his early 40s and becoming a famous poet when he told a Boston reporter, “I always go to farming when I can. I always make a failure of it, and then I have to go to teaching. I’m a good teacher, but it doesn’t allow me time to write.” He said this in 1916, a year after he and his family returned from living in England, where he had gone looking for success as a poet and found it.
Frost returned to America from England having published his first two collections of poetry. In 1916, he published his third book, Mountain Intervals, which included “A Girl’s Garden,” a poem that illuminates his “failure” as a farmer. The poem opens with a folksy speaker recalling a village neighbor who “Likes to tell how one spring / When she was a girl on the farm, she did / A childlike thing.” The girl asks her farmer father for a garden plot “to plant and tend and reap” herself. Her father obliges.
The poem’s speaker recounts the girl’s amateur approach to farming, which results in a “miscellany” of vegetables and fruit trees: “A little bit of everything, / A great deal of none.” The final lines of the poem bring us back to the present. We learn that the neighbor repeats her girlhood farming story later in life to remind folks that even though they may find themselves stretched beyond their comfort level, things tend to work out in the end.
When Frost was in his mid-twenties, married, and struggling to find a vocation to support his young family, his grandfather bought him a poultry farm in Derry, New Hampshire. His grandfather appointed a local man to be Frost’s live-in mentor and farm hand. Frost liked the idea of farming and of embracing his ancestral roots in New England. He had spent his formative years with his parents in San Francisco. He had gone to Dartmouth, then dropped out. He had tried Harvard, but dropped out again. He had taken teaching posts and various other jobs, but hadn’t lasted long at any of them.
Frost could not quit the farm as easily as he had quit other ventures. The terms were such that he could not sell the property until after his grandfather’s death. Even though he took up teaching again after the first few years of farming, he owned the farm for more than a decade. Although he lacked many years’ experience, he and his family enjoyed growing their food and immersing themselves in local life. Decades later, Frost again recounted the story of his farming days. His neighbors, he said, had disapproved of his getting to his chores at noon:
“They would talk among themselves about my lack of energy. I was a failure in their eyes from the start.” In reality, like the girl of his poem, Frost learned how to farm by doing it. Being a farmer, though, was a temporary stage on the way to becoming a poet. He was not lazy; he simply had other priorities.
Frost spent the morning hours on the farm writing the poems that gained him a reputation as the poet of rural New England. His later, self-deprecating stories were a way of honoring the wisdom of lifelong farmers and the challenges of hands-on education.
Carol Howard is dean of the faculty at Warren Wilson College.