Local writer reflects on Robert Frost and his work

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BENNINGTON — Tourists are the type of people who learn to appreciate destination attractions. However, local residents may drive by a tourist attraction and never actually visit it.

Something Bennington County residents can fathom is the past presence of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost, who lived in Shaftsbury for 18 years. Frost moved to Vermont in the summer of 1920 with his family to farm and plant apple trees.

His work associated the life and landscape of New England, but disregarded traditional verse forms and metrics, according to the Academy of American Poets. One particular poem, "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening" was written on a summer morning in June and ironically depicted a dark and wintry, mysterious night.

Phil Holland, English professor at the Community College of Vermont, self-published a 16-page booklet titled "Robert Frost in Bennington County," with notes on his gravestone by the Old First Church and a guide to "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," with visitors and locals in mind.

"Returning home gave me a little perspective about the county," Holland said. "I taught Robert Frost in Greece as a part of the English curriculum and taught 'Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.' I wanted to tell this story for those who come and visit the county because it's one of the greatest stories of the area."

Holland became appreciative of Bennington County after teaching in Greece for 20 years and moving back last year.

"For some of us, it takes a visitor to enable us, and to see the beauties of our own town," he said. "We all should be tourists in our own town. The Bennington Museum would be the first place I'd go if visiting, but locally, it'd be the last place."

About 100 yards from the backside of the Old First Church (1 Monument Circle) sits Frost's gravestone in the Old Bennington Cemetery. Alongside his plot remains 70 soldiers who fought in 1777 at the Battle of Bennington.

Holland had always liked Frost's work and wishes to bring them to the attention of more people. After extensive research and receiving the right to publish the particular poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Holland printed the booklet in late October, missing the hot window of summer tourists. Nonetheless, fall visitors were still able to obtain the work.

Holland explained that Frost's poem is like a dream if you can't experience the snowy woods, and that is what the poet did by generating a piece in June that concerned a conflicting season.

"The further you are from the natural setting, the more visionary it becomes," he explained. "It's visionary for residents because they can see what he saw."

Holland writes: "When it finally starts snowing and darkness falls even earlier, rural New Englanders may find the first line of a poem drifting into their heads: "Whose woods these are I think I know ..."

Local residents may know that this line and the 15 that follow it were written by Robert Frost at his home in South Shaftsbury, now site of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. Many are surprised to learn, however, that Frost wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" one fine morning in the month of June.

The year was 1922, two years after the poet had relocated to Shaftsbury from Franconia, New Hampshire. With his family asleep upstairs, Frost had stayed up all night writing a long poem about the state he had recently left, ending with the tart "At present I am living in Vermont." His draft completed, the poet stepped outside to get some air, and an entirely different poem, about a traveler stopping to watch woods fill up with snow on "the darkest evening of the year," came to him, he said, "like a hallucination." Frost went back inside and immediately wrote it down, still feeling his way among the words. The last stanza began with the hypnotic and enticing "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Then the voice of obligation spoke: "But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep." Frost needed one more line to complete the stanza, but the poem had already reached a logical conclusion, and he found himself at an impasse. The solution arose as mysteriously as the rest of the poem. He would repeat the last line: "And miles to go before I sleep." It has haunted readers ever since.

Frost lived in Shaftsbury until 1938. His years here were marked by literary triumph and family tragedies. When [his wife] Elinor died in 1938, he sought to honor her request that her ashes be scattered at the site of their first New Hampshire farm in Derry. When the new owners demurred, Frost decided to buy a family plot in the Old Bennington cemetery behind the Old First Church. Frost lived to the age of 88, long enough to read at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and he is buried with his wife and other family members under a stone of Barre granite with the epitaph "I had a lover's quarrel with the world." Thousands of admirers from around the world visit his gravesite every year.

Holland wrote the booklet targeting visitors and tourists, but hopes that local residents will also want to learn more about a former neighbor who was also a famous poet.

"I want to invite the reader back into the poem and the moment of its creation," he said. "It's odd because it [the poem] took place in June. They [readers] have to have a little taste for drama literary creation."

Find "Robert Frost in Bennington County" for $3.50 at the Berkshire Museum, Northshire Bookstore, Bennington Bookshop and Evans News. It will be available at the Bennington Monument, Old First Church and the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury.

Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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