War Thoughts at Home

A graduate student has discovered a previously unknown poem by Robert Frost. Scott McLemee takes a passing glimpse.

October 4, 2006

The new issue of Virginia Quarterly Review contains a recently discovered poem by Robert Frost, “War Thoughts at Home,” inscribed on the flyleaf of a book in 1918 and unearthed last year by Robert Stilling, a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia.

With hindsight, it appears that other researchers must have just missed noticing the poem. It was Stilling’s sharp eye, combined with some good luck, that added one more piece to the body of Frost’s work. He writes about the context of the poem -- as well as the circumstances of its discovery -- in a short essay accompanying the text.

I gave Stilling a call to find out more about this bit of sleuthing. But before discussing that, it makes sense to say something about the poem itself, particularly since it is not yet available online. Frost’s estate will permit quotation of only four lines of it without special permission. As it happens, each of the seven stanzas is five lines long -- so any excerpt will be that much more fragmentary.  

Poetry is what doesn't paraphrase, but here goes anyway.... The scene is late afternoon on a weatherbeaten farm. Storage sheds spot the landscape behind a house. A woman sewing inside hears a ruckus -- a conflict between blue jays and crows.

She gets up to look out the window. A few of the birds are talking among themselves in a tree. They discuss going AWOL -- flying off, one by one, even though their battle is no more finished than the one under way in France.

The woman’s mind turns to thoughts of an army camp there -- a place where men are turned into soldiers. That one of those men is a husband, or son, or brother, is not explicitly stated. (The voice narrating the poem is fairly taciturn.)

She pulls down the shade and lights a lamp. The window glows from its light. And the final lines of the poem (which we’ll quote per the quota) sketch the scene outside:


The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that have long lain
Dead on a side track.

The text is dated January 1918 – almost three and a half years into “the war that will end war,” as H.G. Wells had called it in one of his less prophetic moments. By then, the occasion for high rhetoric was over; the carnage seemed endless, pointless. The poem is not an editorial. But it seems very much of its moment – and the timing of its rediscovery now is remarkable.

“War Thoughts at Home” was inscribed on the flyleaf of a copy of Frost’s second collection of verse, North of Boston (1914), found in the library of his friend Frederic Melcher, an editor of Publisher’s Weekly. Following the poet’s death in 1963, Melcher mentioned the inscription in passing in an article. Evidently nobody followed up that lead, however, and the poem lay unnoticed until last year.

That was when Rob Stilling found it. Before calling him for an interview, I assumed this bit of detective work was something incidental to work on his dissertation. Actually, he says, he has another year and a half before making a proposal for one. Stilling was, rather, looking for a summer research project for 2005 when he asked Stephen Cushman, a professor at UVa., if he had any suggestions.

“He mentioned that the library had just acquired the Melcher materials that spring,” recalls Stilling. After just about an hour of looking through the still-uncataloged documents, Stilling noticed some interesting references to an unpublished Frost poem in Melcher’s correspondence. He tracked down the volume, then determined that the inscription was not simply a draft of something Frost eventually published under another title.

“I spent a semester with Cushman,” he says, “learning more about Frost, about his other war poems, and also about Melcher.” The editor was among Frost’s earliest champions, but has not, Stilling says, received much attention from scholars.

Somewhat better known -– at least among Frost enthusiasts -– is another friend of the poet’s named Edward Thomas, a British man of letters who volunteered for battle and was killed on the Monday following Easter of 1917. A volume chronicling their friendship appeared two years ago, and Stilling’s essay in VQR helps to situate “War Thoughts at Home” as part of Frost’s process of coming to terms with Thomas’s death, and with the war itself.

But as Stilling mentioned, there has been a tendency in some reports of his discovery to read the poem in strictly biographical terms. “People will say that it is dedicated to Thomas,” he notes, “which it isn’t. Although Frost did later publish a poem called ‘To E.T.,’ they are very different. Or you might read that the woman in the poem is Helen Thomas, his widow.” That isn’t an impossible reading, of course, but the identity of the woman is not made explicit.

The impulse to make a given poem over into a recognizable scene from the author’s life story is a strong one. The situation is probably compounded by the familiar notion of Frost that has taken its place in our repertoire of cultural imagery. He is remembered as a folksy poet who wrote in traditional forms, unlike all those experimentalists running amok at the time.

The rustic setting and ballad-like stanzas of “War Thoughts at Home” would seem to confirm that impression. But it is by no means the full story.

In an essay appearing in The New Republic a few weeks after the poet’s death in 1963, Irving Howe wrote that Frost had “remained faithful to what Yeats called ‘the modern mind in search of its own meanings’.... As he contemplates the thinning landscape of his world and repeatedly finds himself before closures of outlook and experience, he ends, almost against his will, in the company of the moderns. With their temperament and technique he has little in common; he shares with them only a vision of disturbance.”

That is, in fact, a pretty good description of “War Thoughts at Home.” In his essay, Stilling shows how unsettled Frost was about the war -– uncertain of his own place in the world as events unfolded, and ambivalent, perhaps, about the heroism that led to the sacrifice of his friend’s life. “I understand the poem,” he told me, “almost as Frost’s comment on a sense of dissatisfaction with where he found himself.”

The problem being, of course, that the reader tends to focus on the allegorical imagery of birds at war. And then there’s the sentimental touch of that lamp, glowing in the window. But by the final stanza, Frost shifts gears wildly -- conjuring up a scene of disorder, abandonment, futility:

The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that have long lain
Dead on a side track.

It is, as Howe put it, “a vision of disturbance.” (At the end of this particular railroad line, you reach “The Wasteland.”)

It is not clear why Frost left “War Thoughts at Home” tucked away in an inscription. If not among his best poems, it’s also far from his worst.

Perhaps, as Stilling suggests, the ending lines unnerved the author. “This is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend,” he writes. Its “troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.” Which now, in fact, seems like the best thing about it.


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