The Ache Of Memory

DERRY, N.H. – As a literature professor and English teacher for most of my working life, and a lover of books since I could read, I have always been interested in writers and where they lived. What is the relationship between place and art?

So through the years, I’ve visited a number of my favorite authors’ homes, including the Robert Frost farm in Derry, N.H., where the young poet lived at the beginning of his career – from 1900-11. Frost himself has said his first three books of poetry were inspired by this place.

I arrived in late spring to find dark and rainy weather shifting back and forth to brilliant sun and sharp shadows. Over the next days, my friend Patty Singer Doyle and I took in the farm, the fields. We took the official tours. Sometimes we wandered the gardens and yard by ourselves. The fine gothic gables of barn and house mingled in fog and New England want of color, a dolor no doubt as familiar to Frost and New Englanders than the sun.

The farmhouse itself is a simple dwelling with a large barn attached in New England fashion. It’s a classic board and batten with small rooms and dark halls. There’s something fey about it, in the shadowy corners, on the landing at the bottom of the stairs and within the sinewy glass of the windows seen from the fields and gardens outside.

The barn towers above the house, and from the rear – a view we know the poet took in daily, as he himself says in his journals and records in his poems – the sturdy three gables of house and barn sit solemn on the land. It is a spot that inspires a great sense of peace, while the house – modest enough seen from the road with its narrow width and white picket fence – sprawls out lovely and long when viewed from the north side and even powerful as it rises in view from the rear fields.

It is a house just far enough from town that any visitor might find it charming in daylight and eerie at night. From the upstairs windows looking out, for example, a visitor might feel the despair of Frost’s “hill wife,” (“it was too lonely for her there, and too wild”) or know the night quiet of Mary and her farmer husband in “The Death of the Hired Man.” In the famous poem, the farm couple sit “on the wooden steps” of the porch and discuss old Silas, who “has come home to die.” The farm couple’s tender argument and definition of what home is has become familiar to many of us: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

The gardens and fields about the farm clearly inspired many poems, such as “Rose Pegonias” and “Hyla Brook,” among others. Visitors to the farm can walk the rear fields to the stream that inspired Frost. Two of the poet’s most well known poems were unarguably the product of Frost’s life at the Derry farm- “After Apple Picking” and “Mending Wall.”

Many reliable sources, such as the brochure distributed by the state of New Hampshire, state that the poet walked the property line at least once a year between his own and his neighbor’s property, setting aright again any stones fallen or broken off from the bordering stone wall. The neighbor’s name was Napoleon Guay, and Frost apparently enjoyed his company yet recognized simplicity in Guay’s reasoning that kept him from thinking beyond what he has heard from his father.

‘Mending Wall’

“And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again

He is all pine, and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

– 1914, by Robert Frost

All that remains of Frost’s cherished apple orchard is a lone tree here and there in the north field behind the barn, but one can imagine the young husband, teacher and poet perched on a ladder “sticking through a tree, toward heaven still” as he reaches for another harvest apple. This poem – melancholy and ironic as it is, rich with metaphor and symbol – grants us insight into the young writer’s mind. The speaker is “weary of that same harvest that I myself desired.” He says, “But I am done with apple-picking now” and by that he means something important is now concluded, not just picking apples.

After Apple Picking, Frost Farm

Ultimately, Frost tired of teaching and struggling to make ends meet, so he sold the farm and moved to England on a self-imposed exile from America. Years later, by then a poet of some repute, he returned to find the old farm in disrepair. He wrote these lines in “On the Sale of My Farm” about that visit:

“Only be it understood,

It shall be no trespassing,

If I come again some spring,

In the gray disguise of years,

Seeking ache of memory here.”

The word “ache” offers readers a view into the kind of homesickness we have all felt at one time or another about a place that was once home. This farm put a spell on Frost and served as his early muse. Who knows? Perhaps without it, he would never have become as great a poet or a poet at all.

I’m nostalgic about this place, it’s true, and always seeking its secrets. I think we are all haunted by the past and seek the ache of memory there.