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“Education By Poetry” – Becoming Enlightened on Robert Frost by His Granddaughter

by Martha Steger

Growing up on an Eastern Shore of Virginia farm, I encountered “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when I was in the sixth grade – not as part of my curriculum but thanks to a father who paid me a dime apiece for specific poems I would memorize and recite. To my 12-year-old mind, Frost might never have been more than a Yankee farmer with a peculiar penchant for poetry had my father not prodded me with discussion questions and then pushed me further -- to Frost’s great narrative poem, “The Death of the Hired Man.”


More than a half-century later, I listened, spellbound, to Robert Lee Frost’s granddaughter, Lesley Lee Francis, speak on the subject, “Education by Poetry,” at the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Conference in Williamsburg in May. Ms. Francis, a scholar of her grandfather’s work, is author of “The Frost Family's Adventure in Poetry,” from which I realized my father shared some of the parenting attributes of Robert Lee Frost (who was, I learned, named for Virginia’s famous general, Robert E. Lee).  Ms. Francis emphasized “metaphor as fundamental to understanding -- the most important thing in literature.” She quoted her grandfather in saying that not only is poetry made of metaphor, “so also is philosophy – and science, too, for that matter.”


Fellow VPW and PSV member, Louisa Preston, and I sat thoroughly engaged through Francis’s stories and poems by “R.F.,” as she and the rest of his family called him. Home-schooled, the Frost children were encouraged to “awaken the imaginative world” within; they, together with their parents, produced a monthly magazine that was a collection of short stories taken from their journals along with their original paintings and poems.  (The University of Virginia’s Frost Collection houses six of the 14 surviving copies.)


People remarked on the resourcefulness of the Frost children, Ms. Francis said; but their ‘resourcefulness’ was their imaginative response to their surroundings, which the poet and his wife, Elinor, had cultivated. The Frost family’s move to England in 1912 allowed Robert Frost to connect with other poets for the first time, free of the isolation he had experienced on his Derry, New Hampshire, farm.  By the time he returned to the U. S. in 1915, with two books of poetry to his credit (“A Boy’s Will” and “North of Boston”), he was a celebrated literary figure. 


The Frost philosophy provides a model to organizations such as VPW and PSV, which champion creativity in members’ writing as well as our encouragement of one another’s work.