Learning Robert Frost Through Letters and Keepsakes

Nothing Gold Can StayMy search for collected documents from Robert Frost’s past to display for his Literary Birthday Celebration at the Library of Congress began in the Manuscript Division. Most of the pieces chosen for the display came from the large collection gifted to the Library by the Louis Untermeyer family. With reverence, I looked through boxes and delicate newsprint items celebrating Frost and his contribution to literature. Delving into the Untermeyer-Frost Collection I found handsome photos of a young Frost, a middle-aged Frost playing with a black Labrador, and an older Frost with Louis Untermeyer sitting and chatting on the lawn at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Louis Untermeyer and Robert Frost had a long friendship. I peeped into the many correspondences between the two dating from their first introductions, moving toward a congenial poking fun at one another, to their frequent promotion of each other and their scholarly works. In an inscribed version to L. Untermeyer of “The Cow’s in the Corn: A One Act Irish Play in Rhyme” from 1929 Frost writes, “To Louis Untermeyer who can be safely trusted to discover for himself everything of beauty in this book except the fact that the paper used for it was made in Spain in the year 1720—Robert Frost.” I found this to be quite amusing!

Dr. Alice Birney, literary specialist in the Manuscript Division, guided me through the Frost collections, and even pointed out to me some of the Library’s prized Walt Whitman artifacts. She was very instructive and enthusiastic about all the resources the Library has to share. She taught me how to handle the delicate pieces and provided some insights on how the Manuscript Division collects and archives pieces.

In the Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection I found my favorite piece. From 1924, two versions of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” are placed side by side in a laminate. We are familiar with this phrase in our daily vernacular, and the poem is often memorized by school children and read aloud (as did Dana Gioia in a deeply rich performative voice). But how many of us know that that final line had the opportunity to something so slightly different? Nothing golden stays, the alternative version reads. And nothing gold did stay.

On display during the Birthday Celebration, we highlighted a typescript of “Dedication” with Frost’s holograph script corrections and Stewart Udall’s holograph printed clarifications on what was supposed to be the poem delivered at the President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration on January 20, 1961. Due to glare upon the snow which hindered Frost’s reading off this typescript, he instead recited from memory “The Gift Outright.”

Dana Gioia and Eric Pankey were the speakers for the celebration. And in attendance was Lesley Lee Francis, granddaughter of Robert Frost. Both poets spoke Robert Frost’s influence on their poetry as intuitive. Neither recalling the exact moment Frost dug claws into their inspiration, but Frost as an always hovering force with poems they often refer back to. Eric Pankey pondered the “meditative mode” of Frost’s poems, especially those describing a walk or journey with no set destination. The learning comes from the going in the unknown without expectations of what you might find. And this is how I felt when beginning my journey with the Frost Collections. I began not really knowing how to direct myself through the tiny pieces of history, but when I just let myself peruse the artifacts and think about all these affects that created a tremendous poet and man, the adventure became all that much more enjoyable.

%d bloggers like this: