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The Bennington Museum mounts ‘Robert Frost: At Present in Vermont’

Visitors should expect a close encounter with the poet, beginning with a 9-foot-high image of the 47-year-old Frost, looking more like a farmer than a man of letters.

As Robert Frost was preparing to move with his family to a 1769 stone farmhouse in South Shaftsbury, a few miles north of Bennington, in 1920, he explained his thinking to his friend Louis Untermeyer: “The object in life is hard to keep in mind . . . In this instance it is apples bees fishing poetry high school and nine or ten rooms. Nothing else matters.” To another friend he wrote, “If I have any money left after repairing the roof in the spring I mean to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety.”

Frost did grow apples, keep bees, and write poetry at what he called the Stone House, and his daughter Marjorie attended high school in North Bennington. One night, in June of 1922, he wrote a long poem—he worked till dawn—about New Hampshire, the state he’d left behind. The final line of that poem observes ironically, “At present I am living in Vermont.” But Frost had not finished writing. He stepped outside, and in the early morning light a new poem came to him “as if I’d had a hallucination.” It was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The volume of poems that included it, “New Hampshire,” won Frost the first of the three Pulitzer Prizes he received during his time in South Shaftsbury (1920–1938).

Robert Frost in front of his home in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, 1921. Photo: Paul Waitt, courtesy Dartmouth College Special Collections

“Robert Frost: At Present in Vermont” is the Bennington Museum’s new special exhibit on Frost’s years in Bennington County—which extend to the present; Frost is buried a hundred yards up the hill. The exhibit, the work of Curator Jamie Franklin, runs through November 7. Visitors should expect a close encounter with the poet, beginning with a 9-foot-high image of the 47-year-old Frost, arms and legs folded, sitting in a straight-back chair in front of the trunk of a maple tree in his front yard in 1921 and looking more like a farmer than a man of letters.

Many volumes of Frost’s poetry, often with inscriptions to local friends and artists, are on view, along with manuscript versions (most in high-resolution facsimiles) of poems both well known and perhaps unfamiliar; QR codes permit the visitor equipped with a smartphone to listen to Frost reciting some of them. Frost’s walking stick, Morris chair, and writing board are also there, on loan from Middlebury College. Other objects, photographs, and works of art complete an exhibition that provides an original look at the period of Frost’s life that biographer Lawrance Thompson called “The Years of Triumph.”

“Apple Tree and Grindstone,” 1923, by J.J. Lankes. Courtesy Dartmouth College Special Collections

Frost wrote that “Men work together . . . / Whether they work together or apart.” The exhibit presents not only Frost, but the cultural and personal networks that made southwestern Vermont a place of resort for many creative artists in the ’20s and ’30s, especially in the visual arts. Arlington author Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who had recruited Frost to the area, also made it possible for the painter Rockwell Kent to set up a studio on Arlington’s Red Mountain. His “Puritan Church,” on view, seems to echo the spiritually fraught atmosphere of some of Frost’s poems. The superb woodcuts of J.J. Lankes, of which there are many on display, are more direct interpretations of Frost’s themes and settings. Visitors will readily see why Frost chose Lankes to illustrate some of his poems for books and magazines. A signature quilt stitched by the self-styled Lady Gosford of Shaftsbury provides a Who’s Who of the artists and writers living in the neighborhood. Others were just passing through, like painter Charles Burchfield, who noted in his journal that he, Frost, and other friends played quoits in the back yard of the Stone House while discussing “spiritualism and modern civilization” one evening. Franklin dug that one up while doing research on Lankes, and it’s among several vivid descriptions of the poet at home that are brought together here.

The poet’s 1769 South Shaftsbury farmhouse is now the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. Photo: Phil Holland

Not all Frost’s friends were artists in the conventional sense. Charles Monroe was a Shaftsbury postal clerk, as well as a well-versed local historian, beekeeper, and orchardist with whom Frost became close. It was Monroe, Frost said, who initiated him into how to be a Vermonter and set up a see-through hive in one of the windows of the Frost dwelling.

The exhibit abounds in brief narratives, including one that details Frost’s consulting role in the development of Bennington College. Frost drew on earlier experiences for much of his work during his Bennington County years, but at least one poem is based on a local incident. Two youths (ages 10 and 6) cut down a spruce on Frost’s property for use as a Christmas tree. Frost’s caretaker caught up with them as they dragged it home through the snow. Frost issued “To a Young Wretch” as his Christmas card in 1937 (with a color woodcut by Lankes), in which he playfully explores the conflict between his feelings as an aggrieved landowner and as a wishful believer in the Christmas spirit. The wretch’s younger accomplice, incidentally, is alive and well in Bennington at age 90.

The exhibit’s printed labels can be a little hard to read. Fortunately, they are accompanied by QR-code-enabled audio. Full disclosure: the voice is my own, recorded in my capacity as a Museum volunteer.

The poet and members of his family are buried behind the Old First Church in Old Bennington. Photo: Phil Holland

The Frost family gravesite, behind the beautiful Old First Church in Old Bennington, and the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, in South Shaftsbury, now operated by Bennington College, are also worth a visit; the former is open to visitors at all times in all weathers, the latter Friday – Monday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. The Bennington Museum is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday – Monday through the end of June, and at the same hours every day except Wednesday July – October. Other exhibits on view at the Museum this summer include “Love, Marriage, and Divorce,” which offers a look at related images and objects from the Museum’s collections from the 18th century to the present, and 26 sculptures as part of the annual North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show.

Lastly, in case you haven’t heard, Vermont, with its more than 80% vaccination rate, has now lifted all COVID-19 restrictions.

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