Public Domain Day advent calendar #31: New Hampshire by Robert Frost

…for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

So ends “Fire and Ice”, one of the more than forty poems included in Robert Frost‘s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection New Hampshire.  Frost’s short poem uses ice as a metaphor for hate, though I’ve frequently used ice– or, more precisely, freezing– to describe the stasis in the public domain in the US over the last twenty years, from my first Public Domain Day post in 2008 to more recent Public Domain Day posts like 2016’s “Freezes and Thaws”.

That freeze in the public domain has come with destruction as well.  Sometimes that’s been literal, as film stock, magnetic tapes, and brittle pages deteriorate, or as old publications not kept elsewhere are discarded.  Sometimes that destruction has been of memories and personal connections, as authors and those who knew them or read their newly published works die or fall silent.  Sometimes the destruction has been of creative opportunity, as those who wanted to build on existing works have been stymied by copyright restrictions even long after the authors of those works have passed on.

Not that New Hampshire in itself has been in any danger of disappearing. The famous poems in it, like “Fire and Ice”, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” will be remembered and recited for a long time to come.  But if those are the short hit singles, the collection as a whole is a fascinating double-album or more worth of poetry, with lots of longer, deeper cuts. From the opening title track, an eccentric ode to an eccentric state, to the final poem where birds cheerily occupy a burnt-out and abandoned farmstead, certain patterns recur among his rhythms: the stark landscape of northern New England, the cycles of nature and of human activity, and death, which stalks through many of the poems in both metaphorical and literal forms.

Even as New Hampshire, and collections that include it, stay in print, as a whole the collection hasn’t had the cultural impact that it could have.  Not only are websites prevented from posting many of its poems online (unlike those from his earlier books), but adaptations of its works have also been limited.  In an article on the upcoming arrivals to the US public domain in the January 2019 issue of Smithsonian, Glenn Fleishman notes how Frost’s estate kept Eric Whitacre from releasing a choral adaptation of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  There have been some authorized musical settings of Frost’s poems, but not many. I’ve enjoyed singing Randall Thompson’s 1959 setting of  “Stopping by Woods…” as part of his Frostiana suite, but I’d love to hear what Whitacre and other 21st-century composers could do with it.  Starting tomorrow, they’ll have their chance.

(A couple of copyright-nerd asides: It’s arguable that “Stopping by Woods…” is already in the public domain.  It was published in the March 7, 1923 issue of The New Republic before it appeared in New Hampshire, there’s no renewal for that magazine issue or that specific contribution, and the renewal for New Hampshire was filed in September 1951, at a time of 28-year copyright terms that were not rounded up to the end of the year. Given that, the book’s renewal may have been too late to cover the poem’s magazine publication.  But I can understand a composer not wanting to get into a long legal battle over this issue.  Also, note that the “January 2019” issue of Smithsonian was published in 2018, requiring Fleishman to remain circumspect about quoting from New Hampshire in his article.  Similarly, many periodical issues with cover dates in early 1924 were actually published in 1923, will end their copyright terms tomorrow with other 1923 publications, and will be eligible for posting online then.)

Twenty years ago, I was moderating a mailing list of people posting texts online who were eagerly awaiting each new year’s worth of books they could post.  The first year of the list included a discussion of copyrights on Frost’s books, misdirected (and later retracted) takedown notices from his rightsholders, and the prospects for posting New Hampshire in 1999.  There were people who had been able to meet Frost in person, and hear him read his poems, while he was still alive.

Many of the people in that conversation are gone now from the Net, or from the world.  Eric Eldred, who challenged 1998’s 20-year copyright extension all the way to the Supreme Court, moved overseas, and eventually his site, where he wanted to post New Hampshire and other works that had been due to enter the public domain, dropped off the Net.  (A mostly-functional snapshot of his site is preserved at Ibiblio.)  David Reed, one of the people who prepared Frost’s early books, and many others, for Project Gutenberg, died in 2009. Michael Hart, who founded Project Gutenberg, and who after the 1998 copyright extensions passed told me he wanted to post Winnie-the-Pooh and Gone With the Wind someday when they reached the public domain, died in 2011.  Before he died, though, he inspired enough interested volunteers to keep Project Gutenberg going and posting new texts. Tomorrow, those volunteers will have full access to the promised land of 1923 that Michael Hart didn’t get to reach.

And God willing, when tomorrow begins, Mary and I will greet the year 2019, and continue work we and others have been doing for more than 20 years, bringing the public domain to light through online publishing and cataloging, shedding light on the hidden public domain of unrenewed materials, and doing our best to ensure that new works keep joining the public domain here not just tomorrow, but every year after that, for many years to come.  And I’ll be thinking of the words Robert Frost published in 1923:

…I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

See you in the new year.


2019 update: Link to full text of New Hampshire, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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