One Sunday in the fall, I drove north to New Hampshire, with no plan in mind. On a map at a rest area, I saw the Robert Frost Farm. This seemed like a good place to clear my head, so I drove to the town of Derry. The farm was home to the Frost family from 1900 to 1911, and now is kept as a state park. There is a white clapboard house, a barn, and about eighty acres of woods and fields.
Frost was a young man when he lived at the farm, from his late-twenties into his thirties. Still unknown to the literary world, he composed most of the poems in his first two collections there — A Boy’s Will and North of Boston — published in 1913 and 1914. Together with his wife Elinor, Frost raised chickens and farmed. Two of their six children died there: a seven-year old son and a three-day infant girl.
The house had closed for the season. I walked into the woods, mostly an oak and pine forest. It was damp and grey. An hour of walking ensued, uneventful, yet still interesting to think that Frost had roamed these same paths, maybe even leaned against the same giant pine tree. I imagined him out with a dog, after a morning over the typewriter. I sat on a stone wall and tried to remember lines from “Mending Wall.” I could only recall the opening, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
I walked on, and at the end of a trail, when I was ready to turn back, I found the following:
Frost may have known about elephant graveyards, but this — a telephone graveyard in his own woods — would have startled him. The phones lay scattered in decay and disarray, like vandalized catacombs of ancient Rome. For a moment, I heard faint mingled sounds of dial tones, bells, and busy signals. Two crows flew past, their wings clacking like rotary dials. Late-afternoon light fades so suddenly in the woods. The scene was eerie.
I’ve read a lot of Frost’s work, and driving back to Boston I tried to remember anything about telephones. I had no success. It occurred to me, though, that a telephone graveyard would be fitting at a farm owned by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s sensibility is suited to any grave, but a phone booth coffin in particular is a powerful synthesis of his tales of entombment and the famous poem on tintinnabulation.
Poe would invite us to stand in the phone booth coffin, shut the door, and (I paraphrase) “the bells, bells, bells, bells shall cease ringing. . . . Nevermore!” Alas, while there are several Robert Frost properties throughout north New England, Edgar Allen Poe never owned a farm.
A few days later, I learned that Robert Frost in fact did write about a telephone, in a single poem entitled, aptly, “The Telephone.” Perhaps, I thought, this poem would bring new meaning to my discovery in Derry. My enthusiasm lasted only until I read “The Telephone:”
When I was just as far as I could walk
From here today
There was an hour. . .
When leaning with my head against a flower
I heard you talk. . .
To my disappointment, “The Telephone” is a flimsy, sentimental piece. I read and re-read, experimenting with pace and intonation, yet could wring nothing from its nineteen lines. It paints a nostalgic scene worthy of the Hummel figurines: A love-struck lad roaming the fields sits beside a flower. Having “driven a bee away,” he bends his ear to the flower, and:
I listened and I thought I caught the word–
What was it? Did you call me by my name?
The boy rushes to his sweetheart’s home. And there, as no one in five generations of readers has ever been surprised to learn, his darling is waiting, pining for his return.
Frost published “The Telephone” in 1915, four years after selling the property in Derry. One could posit that the disheveled forest sepulcher represents spectral retribution for Frost’s saccharine sin of “The Telephone.” Walking among those graves and reading aloud “The Telephone,” one feels a visceral conviction that some such connection should exist. Yet these speculations appeared to have no answer.
The problem of “The Telephone” and the telephone graveyard led me to delve further into Frost’s early work. “The Telephone” appeared in his third collection, Mountain Interval, published in 1915. The book contained twenty-seven poems, including the famous “Birches,” “‘Out, Out–‘,” and “The Road Not Taken,” perhaps the most familiar piece in all of American verse.
It also includes a chilling poem I had never seen before, “The Vanishing Red,” on the murder of an Indian by a miller. John, the “Red Man” admires the workings of a “great big thumping shuffling mill-stone.” The miller watches the Indian, seething with race-hate and disgusted by “one who had no right to be heard from.” He invites the Indian to watch the wheel pit, the rushing, watery gear-box connecting the water wheel and mill stone. The miller throws the Indian into the thrashing gears, slams the trap door above him, and he is mangled to death. “Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel pit all right.”
“The Vanishing Red” is one of those unusual pieces that makes the reader shudder. The murdered Indian would be justified in haunting the mill works, yet this still had no bearing on telephones. And then I turned the page. Literally, the next page in Mountain Interval contains “The Line-gang,” copied here in full:
Here come the line-gang pioneering by.
They throw a forest down less cut than broken.
They plant dead trees for living, and the dead
They string together with a living thread.
They string an instrument against the sky
Wherein words whether beaten out or spoken
Will run as hushed as when they were a thought.
But in no hush they string it: they go past
With shouts afar to pull the cable taut,
To hold in hard until they make it fast,
To ease away–they have it. With a laugh,
An oath of towns that set the wild at naught
They bring the telephone and telegraph.
Here was Frost detailing the arrival of modernity at his New England farm: a noisy itinerant work gang who “plant dead trees” and leave the forest thrown down, “less cut than broken.” Their black wires scarify the sky. Their project, the telephone and telegraph, was “an oath” — a blasphemy! — “that set the wild at naught.” The phone lines running through Robert Frost’s woods! At last, I made the connection to those old abandoned telephones.
The rusted phone booths I found were only a junk heap, not a graveyard. They were not haunted, merely rotting. Yet there is some strange connection between those huddled old phones and Frost’s apprehensive poem.
There is a blunt geographic connection: one-hundred years following Frost’s misgivings, this telephonic garbage is still ruining his woods. There is a literal demonstration of the poem’s message: a “cut” forest would have long-since healed, but this “broken” forest cannot mend the scar of industrial debris. And there is Frost’s notion of a line-gang and a technology that “shouts afar.” The loud voices of machines and workmen carried across the woods; their lines carried conversation across continents. Yet Frost too “shouts afar.” His voice carries across a century. He leads people like me out of the city and into the woods. When we are weary with “the oath of towns,” he offers respite. His work remains “a living thread” from him to us, reaching us, and warming us, still.