|(Photo courtesy of Plymouth State University online archives)|
It is almost as required as brick walls, ivy and Vineyard Vines stickers on everything for a New England school to declare kinship with the poet Robert Frost. Dartmouth College claims him as a student, although Frost did not graduate and in fact left after two months in a something between a panic attack and poetic flight of fancy. Harvard, Middlebury, Amherst, Plymouth State College, and Pinkerton Academy all have viable academic connections to the man, and St. Lawrence has a pretty good claim of a personal one.[i] Several towns in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and California all list Robert Frost as a native son or long-time resident. It’s a little like everyone saying “Washington Slept Here:” everyone wants to be a piece of the revolution, everyone wants to be part of the landscape and people that Frost evoked. Which is understandable on all fronts.
Through some (mostly reputable) family friends and accumulated Frost lore, I have learned that BBN has its own, particular and long-winded, connection to Frost. On winter in 1890s, a farmer outside of Ashland, NH slipped on some ice and fell careening down a hill. Likely, in the hilly farm country of NH, this happened frequently, but this instance was notable as the farmer held onto his lantern the whole way down and anyone looking up the slope could see a bouncing light coming through the winter dark.
In a time before light pollution, that would have been something to see. It’d be like the mirrors at noon from Monadnock at Biv, but the light was entirely unplanned, bouncing down the mountain at night, and too far away to ask “ooo goes zerr?” People noticed. This being a small town in a slow news season, the Ashland paper even wrote up a bit about the incident, and presumably the event was the sort of “back in my day we walked barefoot in the snow uphill both ways in the heat of July and we were grateful for the rags on our backs” cranky-Yankee story that gets told and re-told.
In the summer of 1915, Frost (who had tried and mostly failed at farming and teaching) was visiting some friends in Bridgewater, just west of Ashland and the site of the so-called “Slide for Life,” which was evidently told to the visiting poet.
Inspired by the story, Frost wrote a good-natured poem celebrating the stoic practicality of New Englanders, and named the descending farmer Brown, after his friend and host in Bridgewater: George Browne. Browne, when not entertaining poets and summering in the NH hills, was busy at the school he had founded in Cambridge …
Click here to read Brown’s Descent, by Robert Frost!
[i] Elinor Miriam White was Frost’s high school girl friend from their growing up in Lawrence, MA and she attended St. Lawrence. She had stated she would not marry him unless he could prove that his poetry could keep them fed, sheltered, and solvent, which seem like totally reasonable terms of endearment. After publishing his first poems, Frost took a train from Lawrence, MA to Canton, NY, and strolled over to Elinor’s dorm to ask her to marry him. Apparently unwilling to get kicked out of school for having a boy visiting her all-girls dorm in 1894, Elinor told him to go away, which Frost took as a rejection outright and slumped off to the train station to pass a miserable night waiting to go away from the woman who had broken his heart. As Elinor married Frost in 1895, it seems likely that she wasn’t intending to break his heart, but only wanted to finish her education, and entirely probable that the young poet in love had blown things out of proportion. As a graduate of St. Lawrence, I find it particularly funny that the old train station was turned into a bar where many overwrought and vaguely poetic souls have also cried over the troubles of love.