It’s not too often that a bona fide celebrity comes to town, and even rarer that one shows up to kill himself. In 1894, however, Robert Frost—yes, that Robert Frost, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate who penned “The Road Not Taken”—arrived in Norfolk with the intention of walking into the Great Dismal Swamp and never coming out.
Frost’s attempt at self-destruction resulted from unrequited love. The twenty-year-old feared that his sweetheart, Elinor White, was drifting from his affection while she was away at college. In an attempt to secure White for himself alone, Frost made the overnight journey from his home in Massachusetts to her college in New York, carrying a book of his verse that he had created for her, and bearing the good news that finally one of his poems, “My Butterfly,” would be published.
Much to Frost’s chagrin, White refused to see him. She was observing the rules of the college—namely that male callers were only to be entertained during specific hours. White commanded Frost to return home and told him they would talk face-to-face when she returned to Massachusetts.
Frost was heartbroken and wanted some way to get back at White. What better way to show White the pain she had caused him than to disappear, never to be seen or heard from again? It’s not clear why or how Frost chose the Great Dismal Swamp, but if ever he was looking for a place to match the gloomy feelings that had enveloped his heart, he was certainly headed to the right place.
The dense foliage of the Great Dismal Swamp
The Dismal Swamp is a long way from the morass it once was, having been drained with ditches and criss-crossed with 150 miles of primitive logging roads. Hardwoods have replaced the cypress trees that loggers prized. The swamp is still a forbidding place, however, one where most folks wouldn’t want to have to spend the night alone. Runaway slaves fled there because they knew that slave catchers wouldn’t come in after them.
Today 49,100 of those acres are the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. A buddy and I recently put in kayaks at the Feeder Ditch which moves water from Lake Drummond (one of only two natural lakes in Virginia) to the Dismal Swamp Canal that makes up the refuge’s eastern edge.
Top: Dismal Swamp ditches
Bottom: What was a bird of prey
The water is stained a deep, chocolate brown. The edge of the ditch is mostly a tangle of vines such as wild grape. There are mosquitoes the size of shoeboxes. At a dam on the Feeder Ditch, we saw where some predator had made quick work of some large bird of prey. Ten minutes into the paddle, my friend spooked a black bear out of a tree. The day before someone nearby had been bitten by a venomous canebrake rattlesnake.
So while it may be hard to tease out exactly how serious Frost was about offing himself, his choice of venue gives the try an air of legitimacy. There are many things in the swamp that could make for a very bad day. For what it’s worth, Frost later claimed his suicide attempt was legitimate. “I was trying to throw my life away,” he told a biographer.
Tannic water in the Dismal Swamp…it stains the leaves brown
At any rate, shortly after White rebuffed the young Frost, he left his Massachusetts home and the following morning disembarked from the Merchants and Mariners Line in Norfolk. Frost’s inquiries to locals as to the direction of the swamp must have made a peculiar sight. He was not a hunter or logger, and dressed in ordinary clothes as he was, not in a condition to tackle the terrain. But Frost was determined, though, and he walked the eight miles from Norfolk to the village of Deep Creek (now in Chesapeake).
Night had already fallen, but still Frost pressed on. The path he walked was a dirt road that ran parallel to one of the swamp’s many canals used by workmen to float logs out of the impenetrable interior. For all the potential dangers that awaited him in the swamp, though, Frost encountered relatively few. In some places, the road was covered with water and he had to negotiate planks of wood that served to span these washouts. At one point, the satchel he carried became too heavy and he jettisoned some clothes and books.
In all, though, Frost’s journey through the Great Dismal Swamp was uneventful and certainly not life-threatening. About ten miles after he entered the swamp, Frost came to one of the canals’ locks and in it, a boat en route to Elizabeth City to take a group of duck hunters to the Outer Banks. By that point, hungry and tired (having walked nearly twenty miles), Frost paid the crew a dollar to take him aboard and out of the swamp. He stayed on the boat, sleeping mostly, all the way to Nags Head. Upon his return to Elizabeth City, Frost made a series of connections (including a short stint as a boxcar hobo), that eventually landed him back in Massachusetts, ending his macabre visit to the Great Dismal Swamp where his plans to end his life didn’t pan out.
Left: An old building along the Dismal Swamp Canal
Right: The confluence of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Feeder Ditch
–This post was a tweaked version of a column that originally appeared in Hampton Roads Magazine.