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Lost and found
Robert Frost was a young professor at Amherst when he inscribed a new poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” inside
a book to a friend. Long lost to history,
the handwritten note is now public. Last year, a graduate student at the University of Virginia discovered it while doing library research, and this fall the Virginia Quarterly Review printed it, finally bringing the poem into the light.
Set in the winter during World War I, the 35-line verse tells the story of a woman whose thoughts turn to battle as she watches a flurry of birds outside her window. In one stanza, quoted with permission of the Estate of Robert Lee Frost, the poet writes:
Than the war is in France!
She thinks of a winter camp
Where soldiers for France are made.
She draws down the window shade
And it glows with an early lamp.
To Frost scholar Lesley Francis, who is also the poet’s granddaughter, “War Thoughts at Home” serves to deepen society’s understanding of the poet and his verse. Frost composed the poem sometime after a close friend died in World War I. “What he writes in that poem,” Francis says, “is important, even if it’s not the most finished or polished.”
Frost inscribed the poem in the winter of 1918 in North of Boston, his second collection. The book belonged to a friend, the editor and publisher Frederic Melcher.
The find is not unique. Just last year, in fact, John Lancaster, retired curator of special collections at Amherst, was sifting through yet-to-be catalogued books in the Amherst library when he came across two poems inscribed in separate Frost volumes. Intrigued, Lancaster searched the all-inclusive Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays, published by the Library of America and edited by Richard Poirier ’49 and Mark Richardson. The poems were nowhere to be found. As Frost scholars would later confirm, the poems had never been published.
“The Inscription in the Desert” is one of the two that Lancaster unearthed. He found it hand-written in a first printing of the 1928 West-Running Brook. Frost inscribed the six-line work to Dwight Whitney Morrow Jr. ’33 in 1930, after a discussion about Morrow’s participation in an archaeological dig. Morrow later donated the book to the college’s library.
“The other poem we know really nothing about,” Lancaster says. Titled “Gone Astray,” it is inscribed to “my friend the poet Frank Revell” in a first printing of the 1923 New Hampshire. The book was the gift of Martin Howes ’26. No scholar has been able to identify Revell. In the final stanza of the 16-line poem, quoted with the estate’s permission, Frost, in his distinctive penmanship, writes:
And little as I saw
I saw I should have kept
A place where more of me
Than body could have slept.
The Friends of the Library at Amherst published the pair of poems last spring as a slim pamphlet that included an essay by Richardson.
Frost, like other writers, withheld many poems from his canon. “He was a very harsh editor of his own poetry,” Francis explains. Among the uncollected poems, she says, some have a particularly wonderful line or point of view; others show the evolution of a young poet who hadn’t yet perfected the form. Any newly discovered poem allows the reader to re-discover Frost, to take, more than 40 years after his death, a new pleasure and inspiration in his work. What poet could ask for more?
Photo: Samuel Masinter '04