Mountain Intervals; or, an Episode in the Annals of American Philology
The following unusual, and previously unpublished, letter from Robert Frost to his friend George Browne requires some explanation. Browne, the co-founder of the Browne and Nichols school in Cambridge (now the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School), was an early supporter of Frost, after the poet returned to the United States from England in 1914, and invited him to give readings and talks to students in Boston and vicinity. Browne had questioned Frost's use of interval, so spelled, in the title Mountain Interval, Frost's third collection of poems. Browne supposed the word should be spelled "intervale."
Frost's letter to Browne, transcribed at the end of this piece, indicates the efforts Frost made to justify his use of the term: Frost contacted another friend, Cornelius Weygandt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who in turn sought the advice of Professor Francis James Child of Harvard. Child himself went to one of the best known philologists of the day, Charles Payson Gurley Scott (1853-1936), the author of, among other works, The Devil And His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition (American Philological Association, 1895). Scott composed a detailed discussion of the topic, which he sent directly to Frost in a letter dated August 7, 1916. Scott's letter begins:
My friend Dr. Child has askt me to send you a statement of my opinion concerning the phrase A MOUNTAIN INTERVAL as a title for a new book of poems. I understand that your publisher [sic] prefers A MOUNTAIN INTERVALE. I take pleasure in sending you this reply, thru Dr. Child, who, being at intervals an inhabitant of the intervales, and a leaper of fences, and a reader of the signs of the times, black and blue, is of course interested in all sides of the subject.
After a three-page, typed investigation of the term, Scott concludes:
If you adopt the title A MOUNTAIN INTERVAL, what will the reader understand by the title, before he sees the book or reads an explanation? The phrase could bear four meanings:
- An interval of land that is, or consists of, mountain.
- An interval of land that is on or by a mountain.
- An interval of low and level land on a mountain or among mountains (=A Mountain Intervale).
- An interval of time spent in traveling or living on a mountain or among mountains.
I think that only a few readers would at first think of the third meaning.
But what of that? It is the mark of a poet to choose titles and words that are distinctive, or that make his own special thought distinct and rememberable tomorrow. The moment he chooses, or avoids, the unusual because it is unusual, or chooses the trite because that happens to be in fashion, he chooses the road of Safety first--and Oblivion soon after. Even Wordsworth, who was a great Pedestrian, used some words that were not of the common or garden kind; and I, for one, never thought the less of a poet who adds Notes.
My notes, as above written, at Intervals, are calculated for the region 'North of Boston,' and likewise West and Northwest and in the face of the East wind. If they help to confirm you or Dr. Child, in any opinion already fixt, so; if not, why, then, kill the next Percy yourself.
Don't mind what the publisher says. A publisher is a man who succeeds in literature by keeping steadily in the narrow path that separates Knowledge from ignorance, Thought from vacuity and Taste from popularity; on good terms with both sides, but a slave to neither.
Charles P.G. Scott
On the first sheet of this letter, Frost adds a few comments, in ink: "Child was called in by Cornelius Weygandt of the University of Pennsylvania, author of White Hills." The reference to The White Hills: Mountain New Hampshire, Winnepesaukee to Washington dates the annotation to no earlier than 1934, the year the book was brought out by Holt (Frost's publisher). And to this annotation Frost has added still another, though it is not clear for whose eyes it was intended:
My old friend George Brown of the Brown and Nichols School started all this by disputing my right to use the word Interval in the title of my book. He said the word was a vulgarism of the 'natives.' I wanted it for its double meaning. I believe Emerson and Thoreau wrote no other. My neighbors spoke no other. R.F. The dedication of Mountain Interval is but part of the controversy.
The dedication to Mountain Interval (addressed to the poet's wife Elinor) reads: "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 was the old farm, our brook interval, so called by the man we had it from in sale."
George Browne, it should be noted, himself lived in a New Hampshire "interval"--on the Webster Farm, below Bridgewater Mountain; to which address the letter transcribed below was directed. Frost wrote the letter to Browne on a sheet bearing a typed paragraph the poet himself selected from C.P.G. Scott's letter, in which Scott gives an etymological account of the word "interval." "Intervale, with its present pronounciation and meaning"-according to Scott, in the paragraph Frost passed along to his friend Browne-"arose from a mistake":
It was not formed from inter+vale; nor would that mode of formation have been used, I think, at the time and place at which the word arose. Though some formations of this apparent kind, with inter-, as it were, an adjective, equivalent to intervening, are of older date (for example, INTERSPACE) they were not really of this kind. The explanation, which is a little subtle, involves the inherent ambiguity or two-sidedness of inter, between, and similar terms. The original word was INTERVAL. This word was spelled, in the 17th century, interval, intervall, and rarely intervale; also enterval, entervall, and rarely entervale, the spelling enter- probably representing a Scottish pronunciation between short i and short e. Apart from this point, all these spellings represented the same pronunciation, namely in-ter-val, the last syllable being pronounced like Val for Valentine. Certain it is, that the word spelled in the 17th century interval, intervall, or intervale, would have become, and did become, interval in the 19th century. Its distinctive application to a low level tract of land (originally, to one of a series of such tracts, found at intervals by travelers or surveyors) arose in a natural way, and there was no need to vary its pronunciation. It is my guess, indeed, that the pronunciation now given to intervale arose as a literary pronunciation, among persons who saw the word spelled intervale, meaning interval, in maps and deeds. So far as the word is in the inherited speech of the oldest inhabitants, it must be pronounced in-ter-val, and not in-ter-vale.
This paragraph was copied out in type--perhaps by Frost's daughter Lesley, who occasionally assisted him in such matters at the time--from Scott's little treatise. And on that document he penned this letter:
You might suppose this to be my own statement of my own position. It is the way Charles P. G. Scott puts the case for interval. My purpose in sending it is not to disqualify you as an authority, or to persuade you of anything, but to teach you not to assume too lightly that nobody but yourself has a reason for what he does. While you are about it, you might profit from looking to see if you can't find interval (so-spelled) in Emerson's Monadnoc.
All this is not to say that intervale is not a good word, though an accident, a sophistication, and a mistake; only that interval is another good word. Nearly everyone would know who Charles P.G. Scott is. So cheer up, and don't make a long-face to everyone about how hard you have tried to educate me in the New English language and nothing to show for your pains. I heartily wish you were a well man.
The letter to Browne is held now at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire; the letter from Scott to Frost, bearing the poet's annotations, is held now at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. Grateful acknowledgment is due to the Estate of Robert Lee Frost, to the Department of Special Collections at Plymouth State University, N.H., and to the Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts, for permission to print these materials.