There’s nothing quite like a swamp, especially a dismal one, when you’re darkly, romantically heartsick.
That was the state that young Robert Frost found himself in when his high school sweetheart, Elinor White, rebuffed his advances and responded coolly when presented with a slim volume of his poems. No wonder, the poems are filled with self-doubt: “Why am I first in thy so sad regard…”
Not only would Elinor not leave college to marry him, but she hinted there might be others seeking to win her heart.
Frost, moody by nature already, was distraught. Here he was, poor, jobless, unpublished, a college dropout and now rejected. Black thoughts turned to a place that Longfellow and several others had identified as the heart of darkness if ever there was one: our own Great Dismal Swamp.
On Nov. 6, 1894, after ripping up his own copy of the book, Frost boarded a train in Lawrence, Mass., his hometown, and traveled to New York. There he embarked on a merchant steamer bound for that rough-and-tumble seaport, Norfolk. Then, mostly walking, he covered the seven or eight miles over back roads to Deep Creek, near the swamp’s edge.
The 20-year-old poet had had plenty of time to think about his misery and was still resolute enough to keep going. It was an early November night and he, wearing little more than a light overcoat and city shoes, plunged into the boggy, dark, briar-barbed swamp.
It isn’t clear if this was to be suicide, but biographers have suggested that Frost preferred oblivion to living day by day without Elinor, knowing that she was with someone else. He stumbled along a path beside the Dismal Swamp Canal, light from the moon guiding him past treacherous sink holes.
The further he went, the darker it got. About 10 miles into the swamp, surely cold and miserable, he came upon a rowdy group of duck hunters who warmly greeted this strange intruder.
As he wrote in a poem many years later,
Getting too befriended,
As so often, ended
That I might have sung.
I fell in among
Some kind of committee
From Elizabeth City,
Each and every one
Loaded with a gun
Or a demijohn.
(Need a body ask
If it was a flask?)
Out to kill a duck
Or perhaps a swan
The hunters, apparently drunk as skunks, never bagged a feathered creature but proved to be both gentle and sentimental, “One drank to his mother/While another wept.” Eventually, they bundled up their new friend and took him back to Elizabeth City by boat. From there he went to the Outer Banks and eventually, after wiring his mother for money, made it back home.
Unbeknownst to him, near to the day he wandered into the swamp, a newspaper, The Independent, agreed to publish – for $15 – “My Butterfly,” the first Robert Frost poem to see the light of day. And not long after, Elinor relented and agreed to marry him.
Although unsuccessful at ending his life, Frost was deeply influenced by his brush with death, and his poetry is laced with woodsy brooding. As this one, “Into My Own,” begins,
One of my wishes is that these dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
Frost became one of the greatest American poets, winning four Pulitzer Prizes and the adoration of millions of readers. He wrote lyrically of birches, apples and blueberries, of grindstones, woodpiles and axes.
And of course, as we all know, of those woods: lovely, dark and deep.
hoto: Yankee poet Robert Lee Frost was named after the southern general by his father who was originally from the South. WPclipart.com.