August 1, 1915: On this day in 1915, two of Robert Frost’s most famous poems, “The Road Not Taken” and “Birches,” were first published in The Atlantic. Frost had recently returned to the U.S. after a two-and-a-half year stay in England. The Atlantic had earlier rejected some of Frost’s poems, but now that he had two collections gaining attention back home — these first published and praised in England — the magazine had found new enthusiasm. When Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgwick asked him to drop by, bringing some new work, Frost savored the moment:
Pretending to be taken aback, Frost asked Sedgwick if he were sure he wanted to publish Frost’s poems. “Yes,” said Sedgwick. “Sight unseen?” asked Frost. “Sight unseen,” said Sedgwick. Pulling from his pocket the three poems he had read at Tufts only the night before, Frost waved them under Sedgwick’s nose, while, according to Frost, Sedgwick made little grabs for them. “Are you sure that you want to buy these poems?” Frost inquired. Sedgwick said of course he was. “Then,” Frost said, releasing the papers to Sedgwick, “They are yours.” Or so the story is told by the Atlantic; the moment is dressed up or down in all the Frost biographies. Some accounts go as far as turning the first publication of “The Road Not Taken” into the legend-making, life-defining moment of the poet’s career. When he returned to America in 1915 Frost planned to be a poet-farmer, and become famous: “There’s room for only one person at the top of the steeple, and I always meant that person to be me.” His elbowing self-promotion and “barding about” took him away from the farm and, his wife kept saying, his best self. The apparent toll on the family — only one of his six children had anything approaching a full, stable life — left Frost with regret for a life he would describe as “outrageously self-indulgent”:
All this sickness and scatteration of the family is our fault and not our misfortune or I wouldn’t admit it. It’s a result and a judgement on us. We ought to have gone back farming years ago, or we ought to have stayed farming when we knew we were well off.
Many of Frost’s biographers tell his life with a sigh of road-not-taken regret or wonder. Some point to his 1912 letter describing “two lonely crossroads” in “practically unbroken condition” and neither “much traveled.” Frost, walking one path, is surprised by a man who “looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other”; he expresses wonderment at “this other self,” and at some meaning, “if we could but have made it out.”