As a rather romantic young man in my early twenties, I longed for a retreat, a cabin by a lake where I could learn to understand nature and write reams of lapidary poetry. Of course this never came to pass, not least because I could no more build a habitable hut than I could fly, but the lure of the self-sustaining rural life remains strong. My dream might have been inspired by Henry Thoreau’s Walden, his account of his life in a hut by a pond which remains an icon of American literature. In fact it was a book by another, later American that really inspired me ‒ Robert Francis’s Travelling in Amherst (1986), a copy of which I discovered one day in Hay-on-Wye.
I knew, very vaguely, that Francis was a friend of the more famous Robert, Robert Frost. Very vaguely is how most people now know Robert Francis. Born in Pennsylvania in 1901, he graduated from Harvard in 1923 and, determined to live as a poet, built a tiny wooden house, Fort Juniper, outside Amherst, Massachusetts, and made ends meet by teaching the violin while trying to persuade magazines to accept his work. Frost was a near neighbour and mentored Francis, rather as he had Edward Thomas. As a result, Francis’s early collections of poetry, and especially his long domestic epic poem ‘Valhalla’, are all rather Frost-like in their depiction of New England nature and rural life. Later on he found his own voice – playful, relaxed, sly, concise – and earned some recognition, winning the Academy of American Poets’ award for distinguished lifetime achievement in 1984, three years before his death. I didn’t know any of this at the time though. I just knew he was a friend of Robert Frost, who at that point was the biggest star in my poetic sky.
Now I prefer Francis. Frost had tried farming in New Hampshire, but he soon found comfort in university departments and lecture tours where his garrulous public persona earned him a very decent living to support the writing of h
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