Robert Frost and VQR
Over the course of nearly twenty years, Robert Frost published some of his most famous and enduring poetry in the pages of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Poems like “Acquainted with the Night,” “The Silken Tent,” “The Gift Outright,” and “Directive” are some of the most well-loved and repeatedly anthologized poems not only of the twentieth century, but in the English language. He considered VQR among his favorite publications and enjoyed a long-running relationship with both founding editor James Southall Wilson and the journal itself, visiting Charlottesville and the University of Virginia frequently. The eleven poems collected here are samples from four different volumes of poetry spanning three decades and showing Frost in, what Lambert Davis called, his “most pleasant variousness.”
- “Acquainted with the Night”
- “Iris by Night,” “The Figure in the Doorway,” and “In the Time of Cloudburst”
- “The Silken Tent”
- “Time Out,” “To a Moth Seen in Winter,” & “The Gift Outright”
- “Directive,” “The Middleness of the Road,” & “Astrometaphysical”
Acquainted with the Night
In June 1927, founding editor James Southall Wilson contacted Robert Frost for a submission. Wilson wrote, “It really would be a great joy to me to have published something of yours in the Virginia Quarterly. Our rate in general for poetry is based upon the somewhat illogical custom of fifty cents the line but it seems to me there are two or three poets in America who should fix their own rates.” Frost responded by sending “Acquainted with the Night” which later appeared in his fifth book West-Running Brook. Written in terza rima and perfect iambic pentameter, the poem describes a night walk through a cityscape from which the speaker’s emotional geography emerges. Frost uses simple language and careful syntax, capturing the sentence tones of everyday speech, to create a lyric tension, or as he called it, a “breathless swing” between the formal constraints of the poem and its talky-rhythms.
“Iris by Night,” “The Figure in the Doorway,” and “In Time of Cloudburst”
The next appearance Frost’s poems made in VQR hinged on a copyediting mistake, editorial miscommunication, and a string of questionable metaphors. In October of 1934, Managing Editor Lambert Davis placed an advertisement listing upcoming VQR contributors and, where he intended to write the poet Robert Francis, wrote Robert Frost’s name. Lambert Davis wrote a thorough apology to Frost with this twist: “Also, it seems to me that our only way out now is to publish a poem of yours in the next issue.” On November 14, from Amherst, Massachusetts, Frost replied:
You did get yourself in deep, didn’t you? But don’t let it bother you more than a moment. Your embarrassment is my gain. You put me in the strategic position of being asked for a poem, a position in which I dearly like to be put; and you can’t blame me after what I went through with editors when young. What should you say if I withheld the poem now to deliver it in person with pomp and circumstance on my way south in early December? Would that be rubbing it in? It would give me a chance to see several people I like much and often think of.
After Frost’s offer to visit Charlottesville in early December, Davis responded on December 4, “A thousand apologies! When your letter arrived, I showed it to Doctor Wilson and he wanted to write you—as he since has written you—to ask you to be his guest when you come through. At the time, however, I thought that he was writing, and he thought that I was writing, and it was not until this weekend that we discovered that neither of us had.” After this second incident, nothing was heard from Mr. Frost.
Almost a year later, Davis tried again: “You may have forgotten it, but it is still on my mind that you haven’t made an honest woman of the Quarterly by letting us have a poem. I thought we were near that consummation late last fall, when you almost stopped over at the University; but that fell through. I should like very much to see the Quarterly’s honor redeemed.” Frost must have enjoyed the comparison of VQR to a woman and her virtue. With dry humor he expanded the metaphor, writing, “You said lines from me could make you an honest woman. The sexes are so mixed that no new idea on the subject surprises me anymore. I wonder if it all doesn’t come from mixing figures. We have been warned against it in literature but not in physique. Well let’s not follow anything clear to its logical conclusion.”
With this letter the relations between VQR and Frost warmed. Frost sent the poems “Iris by Night,” “The Figure in the Doorway,” and “In Time of Cloudburst.” Davis replied “This is a delightful way of being made an honest woman—or whatever the sex. I didn’t take time off, in my haste over the poems, to tell you how much I like them. And the three I have selected, I think, show you in your most pleasant variousness. We are all really very happy in our new-found honor, and propose to maintain it.” The three poems appeared in the Spring 1936 issue of VQR and in Frost’s sixth book A Further Range.
“The Silken Tent”
In 1938, Frost was again solicited to submit to VQR by incoming editor Lawrence Lee. Within a month he sent “The Silken Tent.” Lee responded with a long, flattering letter thanking Frost for the poem and excitedly looking forward to his upcoming visit to Charlottesville “as to a great spiritual moment.” “The Silken Tent” is a beautiful, one-sentence extended metaphor now canonized as one of the finest sonnets of the 20th century. In his introduction to American Sonnets: An Anthology published by the Library of America as part of the American Poets Project, David Bromwich discusses “The Silken Tent” for nearly three pages and then calls Frost “the author of the best sonnets in English by anyone who was not Shakespeare.” “The Silken Tent” appeared in the Winter 1939 issue of VQR and was republished in Frost’s collection A Witness Tree.
“Time Out,” “To a Moth Seen in Winter,” and “The Gift Outright”
In 1942, with the World War II draft looming over the male editorial staff, VQR was in transition. Archibald B. Shepperson lasted only a year as editor, but wrote Frost three times. Frost responded with an assurance that “The Virginia Quarterly is a favorite place of publication with me.” In the following excerpt from his letter to Shepperson he introduces his submissions “On a Moth Seen in Winter,” “Time Out,” and “The Gift Outright”:
You may of course put them in any order you please. At Williamsburg I read first the one about my right to Time Out for considering; then the one about considering humanitarianism, On a Moth Seen in Winter, and last the one meditating my country, The Gift Outright. It may mean something to you (it does to me) that the line in the Gift Outright “In Massachusetts, in Virginia” was not an introduction or afterthought for the purposes of a Virginia occasion. The poem exactly as submitted to you has been in the possession of the Jones Library at Amherst for six or seven years. I take pride in having thought of a thing before I had to think of it under fire.
All three of these poems, published in the Spring 1942 issue, rank among his most famous, and when read together, seem to move through each other, as Frost notes in a second letter to Shepperson: “Is it just my notion that they make a set? There surely is the right to time out for considering the possibility that international humanitarianism may be more connected than a well-bounded patriotism. But I musn’t insist too much.”
When VQR received the manuscript of “The Gift Outright,” Frost had written a short comment at the bottom of the page, saying “My history of the Revolutionary War which was the beginning of the end of colonialism.” Twenty years later, the elderly Frost recited the poem at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 presidential inauguration. He had changed the last line of the VQR version, “Such as she was, such as she might become” to “Such as she was, such as she would become” (the change initially appeared in Frost’s A Witness Tree, first published in 1942). The substitution of “would” for “might” makes the poem more optimistic, more assured of America’s future glory. The version published in VQR seems to reflect a deep and perhaps healthy uncertainty about the nation’s future trajectory.
“Directive,” “The Middleness of the Road,” and “Astrometaphysical”
Frost’s final contributions to VQR came in the winter of 1946. James Southall Wilson had written Frost to introduce Managing Editor Charlotte Kohler, the de facto Editor when Shepperson was called to service. Miss Kohler, initially chosen for the editorial job because she was both draft-proof and a former student of Wilson’s, went on to lead VQR for three decades. In the Winter 1946 issue of VQR she published Frost’s celebrated “Directive,” as well as “The Middleness of the Road,” and “Astrometaphysical.” “Directive” particularly illuminates Frost’s poetic vision. He begins the poem in nostalgic territory and then offers a slippery hand to the reader saying “The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost, / May seem as if it should have been a quarry—.” The poem then meanders lazily around Panther Mountain until we reach a brook. The speaker finds a hidden goblet and says, “Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Frost’s famous description of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion” from his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” echoes beautifully in these last two lines. All three of the poems appeared the following year in his eighth collection Steeple Bush.