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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Robert Frost : Chicken Farmer - Kindred Spirit

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

The great poet Robert Frost shared my love of nature, belief in wood faeries, and the intensity of living in the harsh, yet awe-inspiring Granite State. However, our ultimate bond strengthened when I learned that he too was once a chicken farmer. From the heart of one chicken farmer to another, I honor his words, which capture the unique essence of our quirky, feathered, friends.

When I was in the early phases of researching my historical novel, Etched in Granite, I took a historical journey through the world of New Hampshire writers and poets. I came across an unknown collection of Robert Frost’s writing when he was a chicken farmer. His work, Farm – Poultry Man, is a remarkable unearthing of eleven prose pieces contributed to two New England poultry journals approximately ten years prior to the writing of his first book. Two experts – Edward Lathem, and Lawrence Thompson – discovered this notable literary work. The full texts from the essays of magazines were not greatly exposed, making this a rare find.

Lathem and Thompson portray Frost as a captivating writer of spirited tales and humorous examples of a subject matter that readers of his poetry will recognize instantly as the background pieces such as “The Housekeeper,” “A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury,” and similar works.

Farm – Poultry Man, offers both scholars and critics the opportunity to study Robert Frost as a young poet, offering a greater perception of the art of producing dialect, cadences, and speech idioms of native Yankee traditions. In his later verse, these distinctive traditions are evident.

Through an extensive introduction and abundant notes, the editors provide a fresh glimpse through rare and insightful information pertaining to one of America’s finest and most beloved writers. Prior to the publication of this book, the significant personality of Robert Frost, the chicken farmer, was not well known.

The restoration and compiling of Frost’s contributions to Farm-Poultry and Eastern Poultryman Magazine during 1899-1906, when he was a breeder and fancier of hens, is invaluable to those who wish to have a meaningful, literary understanding of Robert Frost and his early foundations of thought. These accounts illuminate many facets of Robert Frost’s later, more prominent work.

Although a modest volume, it is monumental for those interested in previously unknown treasures in American Literature. To me, most importantly, Farm – Poultry Man verifies the full measure and high spiritedness of Robert Frost’s nature from his very core.

Prior to when he had become a highly acclaimed poet, Frost often referenced his early years. It was during this time he had tried various occupations. Under certain circumstances, he fondly recalled these experiences and expressed the diversity of his adventures through his writing.

It was not well known to the general public or reader that Robert Frost was in fact a serious and devoted chicken farmer. He did not often directly refer to the years in which he earnestly devoted his early life to the raising of laying hens.

Frost made more than one attempt to attend college. After one of these attempts, he experienced unusual pains in his lower chest. After seeking a diagnosis from several physicians with little or no luck, he finally discovered the possible reason behind his chest pains. One particular physician learned that Frost’s father had died of consumption at the age of thirty-four, and this information led to suspicion that it was likely that he too might be suffering from tuberculosis. As a result, the doctor urged him to find outside work, preferably on a farm.

Even though Robert Frost was city-born and bred, he did have some work experience on a farm. He knew enough about farm life to be concerned with the daily drudgery and tedious labor. Frost weighed the alternatives. During this process and transformation, he recalled some chicken farms that he had encountered during long walks in the countryside. This recollection provided the encouragement that he needed to follow his dream and ensure good health. He decided that it was possible and even likely that poultry farming might be a tolerable and pleasant way of following the doctor’s orders.

The farm became a serene retreat for Frost and evidently laid the groundwork for his later writing. It was a typical New England farm with the farmhouse, outbuildings, and connected barn. Orchards, gardens, pastures, woods, and hayfields surrounded the buildings. It seemed a perfect environment for the shaping of a great American writer. During these important youthful days, Robert Frost never seemed to forget about his literary aspirations

The lifestyle Frost writes about, relates to his upbringing in Lawrence Massachusetts and his lifelong encounters in the landscape and farms of New Hampshire. His poems skillfully illustrate the intimate details of his experiences as an authentic Yankee. He stood in his truth. Through his poetry, one is able to visualize the scene that inspired each work and the depth and intensity of his journey.

His writing highlights the rigorous, daily routine of the hard working farmer, landowner of his time, and the challenges facing each season. There is a sense of melancholy in his work as he expresses the harshness of winter, yet embraces the solitude that one must encounter in the depth of a chilling winter evening.

Frost’s poems are brilliantly woven facets of the beauty and sharply contrasting bleakness of barren winter. However, the feeling of redemption is overwhelming in his warm and enlightening expressions surrounding the beauty of flowers, streams, woods, and ice glittering on birch trees.

I have imprinted the contrasting and conflicting emotions that surround real New Hampshire life in the bitter cold depths of winter, when the days are short and the nights are long. Frost articulates the promise of spring and warmth from the sun and the reassurance of the twinkling stars that sparkle at night with hope and beauty.

His ability to capture his nature-based fantasies is an example of emotional survival, a necessity for true New Englanders faced with long winters, hardships on the farm, and daily drudgery. Clearly, his creativity born from nature, was a vital mechanism and healthy alternative to manic depression; this I know too well.

When thinking of Robert Frost, one does not usually conjure up an image of a chicken fancier and farmer with an in-depth knowledge of the science behind successful chicken farming. Each breed has distinctive characteristics either desired or dreaded by the seasoned chicken farmer. Reading Frost’s chicken accounts based on my own experience as a chicken farmer was amusing and provided a certain kinship to him that I had not previously known.

In his early writing, Frost’s literary genius shined through as it made its way boldly through the pages of something as simple as a poultry journal. He had a way of adding colorful detail, character, and whimsy to what may have otherwise been a monotonous, tedious account. This collection is the foundation for his later poetic work and is quite evident as is demonstrated in the following passage:

“Welch usually had his chickens out early, and the showing season seldom found him unprepared. But one year his first hatches were so exceptionally fine that the gods fell in love with them, and they died young” (61).

Other passages from his book indicate a poet in the making:

“The bird has made some stir already, then; that’s what they call the fatal gift of beauty, isn’t it” (100).

“But even if she hadn’t feathered legs, and the other hadn’t a bad comb, and both of them were all that they ought to be, they wouldn’t be any more alike than the animals in a happy family at the circus” (86).

In Robert Frost: Selected Poems, the significant tone of his poetry greatly reflects the emotion, struggling, courageous, and rugged character of a New England farmer. Not only does Frost’s work seize the core of the Yankee spirit, but he also does so from the perspective of a spectator, observing the nature of his surroundings and of his fellows.

His work – indicative of his existence – spans across generations, ringing true to life as we know it in New England. He writes of his wife's struggles with the everyday tireless tasks of the farmer’s wife. It is evident that Frost worked through his conflicts through his writing. He captures the quintessence of the poverty-stricken poor farm worker, the daily chores, and he writes about the loneliness of a pauper's death. Once again, we unite.

A Servant to Servants focuses on those who are less fortunate than Frost, and he expresses the injustice he feels through his own eyes, and with his pen he writes:

“My father’s brother wasn’t right. They kept him

Locked up for years back there at the old farm.

I’ve been away once – yes, I’ve been away.

The State Asylum. I was prejudiced;

I wouldn’t have sent anyone of mine there;

You know the old idea – the only asylum

Was the poorhouse, and those who could afford,

Rather than send their folks to such a place,

Kept them at home; and it does seem more human” (121).

I share with this fellow chicken farmer, naturalist, and writer, feelings of concern regarding the poor farm (social welfare system) and its function in society. When reflecting on the 298 buried anonymously in the ‘Pauper’s Cemetery’, I say a simple prayer. In God’s eyes, we are the same, not one better than the other.

Frost, Robert. Farm – Poultry Man. Eds. Edward Lathem, and Lawrence Thompson.

Hanover, NH: Dartmouth Publications, 1963.

Gramercy Books. Robert Frost : Selected Poems.

Avenel, New Jersey: Outlet Book Company, Inc., 1992.


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