New Hampshire home served as poet's muse

June 13, 1993|By Jane Wingle | Jane Wingle,Contributing Writer

DERRY, N.H. — Derry, N.H.

We followed Robert Frost's advice and took the road less traveled -- state Route 28, to be exact -- and found ourselves at the doorstop of the poet's Derry, N.H., home.

In fact, on our first try, we passed by the home, an unassuming white New England farmhouse with attached barn. While living here from 1900 to 1911, the 26-year-old teacher and aspiring poet hadn't fit in that well. He chose to follow his artistic whims and milked cows at noon and midnight, much to the dismay and wonderment of the locals -- and perhaps the animals as well.

Yet Frost credited the hard-working New England folk for helping him gain the feel of farm life, which would later provide the poetic rhythm for much of his work.

Strolling the 20 acres of this country homestead open to the public, we easily understood how the setting and rural experiences provided Frost with the material for his early poetry. The picturesque property belonged to Frost's grandfather, who gave his grandson a small, monthly stipend to run the farm, along with a promise that the property would become Frost's if he lived there 10 years.

The reason for Frost's move to Derry from Lawrence, Mass., was twofold. His doctor suspected he had tuberculosis, and recommended country. The move was also designed to help Frost, melancholy by nature, cope with the loss of a son who had recently died of cholera.

New Hampshire's Division of Parks and Recreation, which acquired the home and grounds in 1965, offers an excellent tour, which begins at the barn. A videotape of Frost's life at Derry is shown, and a tour of the house is provided. Under the direction of Frost's daughter, Lesley Frost Ballentine, the house has been appointed with original furnishings as well as pieces representative of those belonging to the family.

There is also a nature-poetry walk along the grounds that stops at the "Mending Wall," the orchard and Hyla Brook, all inspirations for Frost's poems.

The house, built in 1885, has an L-shaped construction that made it possible to go from the barn to the parlor without going outside. Other than the Royal Doulton china displayed in the large pantry, the few, undistinguished furnishings suggest the Spartan existence the Frosts had there.

Yet, it also suggests an orientation toward family. A place called the sick room was set aside, for example, for any of the five children who might become ill. The room contains the chair Elinore Frost used to rock her sick children. A daisy painting, done by Mrs. Frost's sister, adds a cheery note to the room.

The children were not assigned a bed or a bedtime. They were allowed to stay up as long as they could stay awake, and were not sent to school until they were 10 because of the distance from town. One can almost hear their laughter as they looked for the coins their father hid in the barn for them to find. And how exciting it must have been for them to get assigned their own star by their father, who was an amateur astronomer.

Frost and his wife were high-school sweethearts and co-valedictorians at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts, and both became teachers. Taught by their parents, the children learned to treasure books.

The bookcases at the Derry home are actually crates, which Frost used because he felt they would make for speedy packing if necessary. In his lifetime, Frost moved many times.

The house also has a large attic room, which served as a play area for the children and housed a family friend who helped with the farming chores.

In the parlor sits a replica of the leather Morris chair Frost bought while a student at Harvard. It was in this chair that he composed his poetry, between farm chores and teaching duties at the local Pinkerton Academy.

After a few years at Derry, Frost began to feel happier, and his work began to solidify. "Nearly all of the lyrics in his first book, 'A Boy's Will,' grew out of his experiences on his farm in Derry," wrote Lawrance Thompson, a Frost scholar. "All of the dramatic narrative-poems in his second book, 'North of Boston,' dealt with individuals he had met in New Hampshire."

And it was the Derry farm that inspired Frost's "Mending Wall," in which he wrote one of his most memorable and oft-repeated lines, "Good fences make good neighbors."

The sale of the Derry homestead in 1909 provided Frost and his family with the money to move for a few years to England, where Frost pur

sued his writing career and where his first book of poems was published.

The family returned to New Hampshire, to a farm in Franconia. Today, that house is privately owned, but parts of the house are open for tours. The Frost Place, as it is called, also sponsors a summer poets-in-residence program and related activities.

IF YOU GO . . .

Directions: The Robert Frost Farm State Historic Site is located in Derry, N.H., just across the Massachusetts border. Take Interstate 93 to the Derry exit (Route 102). Go two miles to Route 28. Go south one and a half miles to the farm.

Hours: From June 19 to Labor Day, daily from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Cost: $2.50, under age 18 free.

Information: (603) 432-3091; for information about the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., call (603) 823-5510.

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