Robert Frost's "To E. T."

Updated on October 9, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost - Library of Congress
Robert Frost - Library of Congress | Source

Introduction and Text of "To E. T."

The initials are those of Edward Thomas, with whom Robert Frost had formed a close friendship while Frost resided in England. Thomas is likely responsible in no small part for assisting in the launching of Frost illustrious career as a poet. In 1914, Frost published in first collection of poems, North of Boston, and Thomas wrote a glowing review of the book, after which the American audience began to pay serious attention to the works of Frost.

Robert Frost’s poem, "To E. T.," plays out in five quatrains, each with rime scheme ABCB. In this poem, the speaker's main focus is on the nature of consciousness after war, especially after experiencing the death of friend who died serving in a war. Frost had encouraged his friend, Thomas, to relocate to New England, but Thomas chose to serve in World War I, in which he died. That death left Frost with his curious musing about the nature of war consciousness.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

To E.T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

Reading of "E.T."


The speaker in Robert Frost poem, "To E. T.," expresses his musings about his friendship with a fellow poet, who died serving as a soldier in World War I.

First Quatrain: Prompting a Dream

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

The speaker opens his musing by revealing that he had attempted to prompt a dream of his friend by spreading the friend's poems over his chest as he dropped off to sleep. The poems were spread over the speaker's chest and resembled the wings of a dove that one sees on tombs. Because the dear friend of the speaker has died, the image works marvelously.

The speaker had revealed that he has only "half-read" through the poems before he dropped them across his body, and he admits that he has spread the poem there with the specific intention of provoking a dream of the friend.

Second Quatrain: What Remains Unspoken

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

The speaker apparently would like to have told his friend that he considered the man both a poet and a soldier. The speaker places those two positions in the odd context of lineage. He said he would tell to the friend's face that he was indeed first a soldier, and then a poet. But then he adds "both," as if to choose one over the other might somehow insult either the friend or either of the two positions.

The speaker then claims that the friend "died a soldier-poet of your race." So he ends where he begins, in a sense, by placing soldier first in the phrase. By race, the speaker surely means nation. The friend about whom this poem was written is, of course, Edward Thomas, who died serving his country, England, in WWI. Frost likely used the term "race" so loosely, in order to effect the rime with "face." (This use of rime is always unseemly, and it happens too often, allowing meaning to take a back seat to rime.)

Third Quatrain: An Unfortunate Omission

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

In the third quatrain, the speaker reveals that his relationship with the deceased was a close one. They both had intended that nothing between them would ever remain "unsaid." He calls his friend "brother" to demonstrate the closeness of their friendship. However, the speaker is sorry that he did not have the chance to say to his friend that he considered him a soldier-poet.

In addition to that unfortunate omission, the speaker realizes that they had not had the opportunity to say exactly what each would have considered "Victory." The speaker remains somewhat vague about his notion of victory over what, as he just says, "Victory for what is lost and gained."

The speaker senses that his friend felt that by serving in war, the friend had gained a victory, but the speaker likely wishes he could have discussed that with the friend in order to understand it better. The speaker knows what he has lost; he has lost his friend, but now he is having difficulty in accepting that loss as a positive instead of negative event in his life, and also in the lives of both men.

Fourth Quatrain: Death and Questions

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

It was at the Battle of Vimy Ridge that the Canadian Corps demonstrated it ability to fight successfully. Despite great losses, the Canadians came out victorious with the other Allied troops. In this battle, Edward Thomas died, and the speaker in this poem recognizes the fact.

The speaker dramatizes his friends death by metaphorically likening it to meeting an embrace, but this embrace is of "fire" from the shell that took the life of Thomas. When the speaker's friend "fell that day," the war was over for his friend, and the speaker says that at the time, it seemed to him that it over more for the dead friend than for himself.

But now it seems the opposite for the speaker. Now it seems that the war is over more the speaker then the friend, likely because the friend will now forever continue to be a casualty of war, which keeps him tied to that event.

Fifth Quatrain: Nature of the Consciousness of War

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

The speaker continues musing on for whom the war is more over, and he poses a question, rhetorical in nature, wondering how the war can in fact be over more for either of them unless he is able to express that fact in words to his friend.

The speaker inserts into his question the fact that the Battle of Vimy (and the larger Battle of Arras) had sent the Germans packing "beyond the Rhine." But the speaker remains in a state of quandary from not knowing how the friend would feel about the war effort and also continuing to wonder if the friend would be "pleased once more with words of mine."

The speaker is obviously referring to the fellow poet-friend's being pleased with the speaker's poem. But the speaker also continues to wonder about the friend's consciousness and how, if he were still living, he would reckon his values with the nature of war and how that reckoning would influence his poetry.

Edward Thomas


Life Sketch of Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas was born in London on March 3, 1878, to Welch parents, Philip Henry Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Edward was the oldest of the couple's six sons. He attended Battersea Grammar and Saint Paul's Schools in London, and after he graduated, he took the civil service examination at his father's behest. However, Thomas discovered his intense interest in writing, and instead of seeking a civil service position, he began writing essays about his many hikes. In 1896, through the influence and encouragement of James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist, Thomas published his first book of essays titled The Woodland Life . Thomas had also enjoyed many holidays in Wales. With his literary friend, Richard Jefferies, Thomas had spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring the landscape in Wales, where he accumulated material for his nature writings.

In 1899, Thomas married Helen Noble, daughter of James Ashcroft Noble. Soon after the marriage, Thomas was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College in Oxford, from where he graduated with a history degree. Thomas became a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, where he wrote reviews of nature books, literary criticism, and current poetry. His earnings were meager and the family relocated five time in the span of ten years. Luckily for Thomas' writing, the family's move to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep Village provided positive influence on his writing about landscapes. The move to Steep Village also had a healthful influence on Thomas, who had suffered melancholy breakdowns because of his inability to engage in his favorite creative writing interests.

In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began. Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, “I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship.”

In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."

Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's new England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In 1915, he signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became as instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.

Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of a larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost


Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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