Visit to Elizabeth City altered Frost's course

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By Majorie Berry
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The year was 1894. America’s future greatest poet was a 20-year-old Dartmouth dropout. He was unpublished and unemployed. His girlfriend had just rejected his marriage proposal (probably for the reasons aforementioned.) He was down and out and wanted to end his life. The setting he chose to do the deed? The Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia.

After an arduous trip from his native Massachusetts, Frost found himself in the murky depths of the massive swamp. A lone figure in a suit, carrying a satchel, he must have presented an unusual sight to the local wildlife. Ten miles into the swamp, he was tired, hungry, and questioning the decision to end his young life.

At this juncture he came upon a group of duck hunters in a boat on the canal. They hailed from a place in North Carolina called Elizabeth City. The duck hunters invited Frost aboard and treated him to a night of revelry like he’d never seen! They consumed copious amounts of alcohol, and, as the evening progressed, began shooting off their guns into the night sky. As the bullets flew willy-nilly through the air, Frost began to fear for the life that he had so recently wanted to end!

The next day the hunters took their new friend to Elizabeth City, and a few days later traveled to Kitty Hawk. Frost contacted his parents, who sent him the train fare to get back home from Elizabeth City. The episode ended with Frost alive, well, and with his young horizons broadened considerably.

Robert Frost never forgot this experience of his youth. He wrote of it in his last collection of poetry, The Clearing, when he was in his 80s. The poem is called “Kitty Hawk,” and it contains these lines:

I fell in among

Some kind of committee

From Elizabeth City

Each and every one

Loaded with a gun

Or a demijohn

(Need a body ask

If it was a flask)

Out to kill a duck

Or perhaps a swan

Over Currituck.

The story had a happy ending; Frost got the girl. Elinor White married him the following year and Frost went on to become one of America’s greatest poets.

Marjorie Berry is a Public Information Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.