April 2nd – November 7th

"The Birches," 1940, Luigi Lucioni, collection of Lyman Orton and the Vermont Country Store
“The Birches,” 1940, Luigi Lucioni, collection of Lyman Orton and the Vermont Country Store

April 28, 2021

As Robert Frost was preparing to move with his family to South Shaftsbury, Vermont, 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 in South Shaftsbury, and his daughter Marjorie attended high school in North Bennington.

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 this poem concludes 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 won Frost the first of the three Pulitzer Prizes he received during his time in South Shaftsbury (1920-1938).

“Robert Frost: At Present in Vermont” is the title of the Bennington Museum’s new exhibit on Robert Frost’s Bennington County years (extending to the present: Frost is buried a hundred yards up the hill from the Museum).

The exhibit, curated by Museum Curator Jamie Franklin, runs till November 7. Visitors should expect a close encounter with the poet, beginning with the 9-foot-high image of Frost, arms and legs folded, sitting in a straight-back chair in front of the trunk of a maple tree by his house in 1921 and looking more like a farmer than a poet. He had just turned 47. His shock of hair is still brown; the jaw is firm but the eyes are in shadow. It’s the perfect introduction to poems that often combine form and emotion, the plain and the mysterious. 

A black and white photo of Robert Frost sitting in a chair under a tree at his home in South Shaftsbury, Vermont.
Robert Frost at his home in South Shaftsbury by Paul Waitt. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Special Collections.

Many volumes of Frost’s poetry, often with inscriptions to local friends and artists, are on view, along with many 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.

For still closer acquaintance, Frost’s walking stick, Morris chair, and writing board are there, on loan from Middlebury College. Frost used the stick when setting out on the newly created Long Trail along the spine of the Green Mountains with members of his family in 1922.

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. “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 view, 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.

"Apple Tree and Grindstone," 1923, J.J. Lankes (Dartmouth College Special Collections)
“Apple Tree and Grindstone,” 1923, J.J. Lankes. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Special Collections.

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 backyard 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.

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. A old snapshot shows Monroe among his hives.

The exhibit abounds in stories, including that of 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 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 beautifully printed 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 young accomplice, Chuck Downing, is alive and well at 90 and lives in Bennington. 

This is a special exhibit about one of the area’s most fascinating residents. The Frost family grave behind the 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 in all weathers, but check the website for opening times at the latter.

A bronze statue of Robert Frost at his former home in South Shaftsbury, Vermont.
A statue of Robert Frost at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum

Bennington Museum is currently open 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Friday through Monday. Other new exhibits are also now on view, including the enticing “Love, Marriage, and Divorce,” which offers a look at related images and objects from Vermont from the 18th century to the present. 

Phil Holland, of Pownal, has written on Robert Frost and other subjects of local interest.