NEWS- Eureka!: Grad student hits literary gold

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. 

—Robert Frost, from "The Road Not Taken"

One Frost poem certainly took the road less traveled. In the newest edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Frost's poem "War Thoughts at Home" makes its way into print after almost 90 years in obscurity.

The poem, composed in 1918 on the inside of a copy of Frost's book North of Boston, was discovered by UVA English grad student Rob Stilling as he was searching through a new collection of Frost books and letters in UVA's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

"These books and papers once belonged to Frederic Melcher, about whom I knew next to nothing," writes Stilling in the Fall 2006 VQR, in which the "new" Frost poem has been published for the first time. "After just an hour or so sifting through some not-yet-catalogued binders, I found a few letters that set off little scholarly alarm bells." 

The letters indicated that Frost had inscribed one of his books with a poem, and as it happened, the book was in the Special Collections Library. "There, inscribed by Frost, was a poem that began with a 'flurry of bird war' and ended with a train of sheds laying [sic] 'dead on a side track'," Stilling writes.

Apparently the poem was written shortly after Frost's friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas was killed in WWI, and tells the story of a woman discovering that her husband has been killed in combat. 

In 1999, UVA English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove waxed action hero about an earlier discovery of two lost Frost poems in the UVA Special Collections Library. "Imagine crawling on your belly through a tunnel deep in the Egyptian desert, only to stumble into a burial chamber stacked high with a Pharaoh's final treasures," said Dove in a UVA press release. "That's how exciting the discovery of two new Frost poems is to the literary world."

One can only imagine what Raiders of the Lost Ark imagery Dove would have to summon to express her excitement at the most recent discovery!

Coincidently, it was award-winning VQR editor Ted Genoways who discovered the Frost poems that made Dove croon in 1999. An MFA grad student at the time, Genoways, like Stilling, happened to be sifting through material in the Special Collections library. 

"We routinely go through Special Collections looking for unusual pieces," said Genoways in a press release at the time, talking about his role as editor of the UVA student literary magazine Meridian," but I never expected anything of this caliber from the Frost collection."

What are the odds? Two editorships, three lost Frost poems. One wonders what the literary prospector will dig up next?

"I think Rob Stilling's discovery is even more exciting than the one I made in 1999," says Genoways. "For one thing, the poem I found was incomplete. What was there was excellent but ultimately frustrating because the manuscript was torn. What Rob found is a complete poem. And, most important of all, it's unmistakably, quintessentially Frost."

And Genoways was kind enough to pass along the second stanza via e-mail to prove his point:

It is late in an afternoon

More grey with snow to fall

Than white with fallen snow

When it is blue jay and crow

Or no bird at all. 

– Robert Frost, from "War Thoughts at Home"

In 1918, the 44-year-old Frost penned a war poem inspired by the loss of a friend and colleague during WWI. Almost 90 years later, the poem is still chillingly contemporary.
Portrait of Robert Frost, 1910—1920 #