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Robert Frost Country by Betsy and Tom Melvin

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 30, 2014

Two kinds of books I am particularly glad to find in a library: especially good books, which I might not otherwise know of or be able to afford; and especially bad books, which I might otherwise innocently purchase.

This book, sadly, falls in the latter category.

Robert Frost Country - Cover

Robert Frost Country by Betsy and Tom Melvin is a pictorial featuring the authors’ photographs of New England paired with–dare I say it–snippets of Robert Frost’s poems. A sad fate for any poem, to be cut into bite-sized pieces and regurgitated, devoid of meaning, to sell what amounts to a collection of postcards. In an introductory note, Betsy Melvin writes:

When I first came upon the lines that have become so familiar to me, I realized that Robert Frost had said in his beautiful poetry what I had felt in my heart when I made many of the photographs, through my medium of creative expression. It is significant that only three of all these pictures were made especially for this volume.

I agree with her words, though I doubt that she would agree with my meaning. She intends, of course, to say that both she and Frost were trying to capture the beauty of New England, and so by happy coincidence his poems and her photographs are well-suited to one another. It seems rather to me that, having a collection of photographs, she sought fragments of the famous poet’s work to make them more suitable for publication. It is significant that she did not worry enough about the words and text complimenting one another to bother taking more than three new pictures, when compiling this volume.

My words are harsh, I know. But what else am I to think? Consider the following image:

Robert Frost Country - Death of the Hired Man

This is paired with a fragment of “The Death of the Hired Man”:

Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.

The ‘poor old man’ in question, Silas, is, first, probably already dead when these lines are uttered, and, second, explicitly not smoking–to emphasize his poor condition, Mary says: “…I dragged him to the house, / And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke. / I tried to make him talk about his travels. / Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.”

These mere factual issues are of secondary importance, however. More importantly, this is perhaps the most superficial possible treatment to give Frost’s poem about a man’s concerns about how rightly to live and to die, and the relationships and obligations between people. For all the content of the poem mattered, the accompanying text might as well have been:

“I will answer the second question first,” he said, “—but bless me! this is a splendid place for smoke rings!”

At least the bulk of the fragments chosen merely ignore subtext in favor of imagery, and so are less offensive to my sensibilities. Enough, though: the text and images are poorly matched.

The only other thing to consider, I suppose, is the quality of the illustrations. I am no expert on judging photography, so I will not say much. There are certainly some nice scenes presented: nature can be beautiful.

Robert Frost Country - The Tuft of Flowers

On the other hand, many of the photographs are less to my taste. Consider this image: a mundane subject with uninteresting composition; I can look out my window and see a more inspiring scene.

The authors have published one other book, Robert Frost’s New England, also pairing their photographs with Frost’s poetry.

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