Oct. 5, 2006 -- With the discovery of a previously unpublished poem by Robert Frost, U.Va. scored a literary triple play: the poem was unearthed by U.Va. graduate student Robert Stilling in an archive recently acquired by U.Va.’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and published for the first time in the current issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the award-winning journal headquartered on the West Range.
In the days leading up to the Oct. 2 publication of the poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education and others prepared stories on Stilling’s find. Along with VQR editor Ted Genoways, Stilling was interviewed for a segment on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, and on the day the issue landed on newsstands, Stilling appeared on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s national morning show.
The story of a graduate student who goes into the library’s archives and comes out with a lost work by one of the biggest names in American poetry spurred much of the media interest. But also driving the coverage was the content of the poem: lines Frost penned with World War I heavy on his mind, coming to light in another time of conflict.
“Frost was trying to get inside … or portray those left at home, and it draws attention that the war doesn’t just exist over in France,” Stilling told CBS Evening News. “For us now, those absences resonate.”
While news of the poem set off a flurry of media coverage, the discovery and its publication highlighted what can happen when forces around the University come together — in this case, a graduate English department ranked among the best in the nation, a library with an acclaimed archive that specializes in American history and culture, and a literary magazine that had published 11 Frost poems between 1928 and 1946 and has drawn critical raves in recent years.
On the lookout for a summer research project, Stilling was pointed to the recently acquired Frederic Melcher Collection of Robert Frost by English professor Stephen Cushman. The collection includes correspondence between Frost and Melcher, a noted bookseller, editor and publisher, along with other correspondence relating to Frost.
It didn’t take long for Stilling to find a 1947 letter from Melcher to an editor in which Melcher mentioned an unpublished Frost poem penned in his copy of “North of Boston,” an early collection of Frost’s poetry. Within an hour, Stilling had located the poem, but it took months to confirm that it had remained unpublished, and unknown, until now.
“There are discoveries made all of the time in our collections,” said Christian Dupont, director of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. “That’s what we exist for.”
The discovery may have been a “bolt from the blue,” as Genoways described it to the Washington Post, but U.Va. was a logical place for that bolt to strike.
“The Frost collection here is recognized as one of the most substantial in the world,” said Michael Plunkett, emeritus director of Special Collections Library. Frost himself attended the 1960 dedication of the reading room that housed the University’s Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature — a collection that has continued to grow in the years since U.Va. alumnus
Barrett transferred his 250,000-item library to the University.
“We are actively looking for material,” Dupont said of the library’s efforts to add to its collections. “We are always asking, ‘what should we be collecting,’ because if we don’t do our jobs well, history is lost.”
The library’s work in keeping history — and poetry — from being lost hasn’t gone unnoticed. As a recent editorial in the Roanoke Times stated, “Virginians should take pride that one of their universities had the foresight to invest in a collection that has yielded such treasure.”
The public can get a firsthand look at the newfound Frost treasure in an exhibit organized by the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library that includes the manuscript of “War Thoughts at Home,” along with correspondence and rare books from the Melcher Collection. At 4 p.m. on Oct. 20, the library and VQR will host a free, public lecture by Stilling and Glyn Maxwell, poetry editor of the New Republic, to discuss the poem’s place in Frost’s larger body of work.