This month’s poem, “Meeting and Passing”, is by one of the great American poets and one of my favourite poets of any nationality. It was first published in 1916, in Robert Frost’s third book, Mountain Interval, which is dedicated: “To You, who least need reminding that before this interval of the South Branch under black mountains, there was another interval, the Upper at Plymouth, where we walked in spring beyond the covered bridge; but that the first interval of all was the old farm, our brook interval, so called by the man we had it from in sale.”
The intervals referred to here all relate to various homes and farmsteads that the Frosts owned in New Hampshire in the 1900s and 1910s (Robert had an idea of being a gentleman farmer-cum-poet). Yet several of the poems in this book — not least one of the best-known pieces he ever wrote, “The Road Not Taken” — were actually produced during the time the Frosts spent in Gloucestershire in 1913 and 1914. It’s sometimes forgotten that Frost — in some respects the quintessentially American poet — forged his poetic reputation in Britain. His first two books, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, were published by David Nutt in London, in 1913 and 1915 respectively. Mountain Interval was the first of his books to be published in his native country.
The “You” of the book’s dedication is, of course, Elinor White, whom Robert married in 1896. This poem, albeit in somewhat fictionalised form, looks back to the first meeting between the pair some time in the 1890s. He, like his great friend Edward Thomas, was an inveterate walker, so it seems appropriate that he should record his first memory of Elinor on a walk, presumably in Massachusetts, where he was then living.
It’s a really beautiful little minuet of a poem — the way the rhymed endings dance around each other in their irregularity is the perfect formal realisation of the poem’s description of the two mingling their footprints in the dust: circling round one another, neither making a direct move, but somehow knowing where this meeting is going to lead. That future — in which the two become one — is formally projected in the final couplet, with its unapologetic use of an identical rhyme. It takes a poet of considerable confidence to attempt and get away with such a brazen trick. And, of course, this is a sonnet, albeit of a slightly unusual kind, which is the traditional vehicle for a love poem.
Frost, as I say, became something of an American icon (though his reputation as some sort of exemplar of homespun Yankee wisdom does him a grave injustice). It seemed appropriate, then, when I came to choose a font to set this poem in, that I should go for something also quintessentially American. By a happy coincidence, Goudy Old Style was designed, by Frederic W Goudy, in 1915, just a year before Mountain Interval came out. It become an instant classic in American printing and is still widely used by, among others, Harper’s Magazine.
The printing, I will confess, is far from perfect: I’ve had considerable problems adjusting the press to print properly from photopolymer plates instead of metal type, but, well, it’s a work in progress. And given that North of Boston and Mountain Interval were published in a time of war, when paper scarcities meant books were printed on whatever printers could get hold of, and had something of a rough-and-ready appearance, I’d like to believe that Frost might smile indulgently at my feeble efforts.