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Life and Works

Robert Frost, the poet traditionally associated with New England, was born on the West coast, in San Francisco, on March 26, 1874. He was the second child of Scottish born Isabelle Moodie, a quiet, sensitive and mystically inclined woman, and William Prescott Frost Jr., a Phi Betta Kappa graduate from Harvard and editor of the San Francisco Daily Evening Post. His father earned his living as a newspaperman. He was energetic, ambitious and given to drinking, gambling and consumption. The future poet was named Robert Lee Frost in tribute to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, for whom William Frost had cherished a special devotion in his youth: while a teenager, and although originally from New Hampshire, he had tried to run away so as to join the Confederate army. His plan was frustrated because eventually he got caught in Pennsylvania and sent back home.

Frost spent the first 11 years of his childhood in San Francisco until 1885 when his father's death of tuberculosis caused his impoverished mother (her husband left the family only 8 dollars after funeral expenses) to move back east to Lawrence, Mass and seek financial help from paternal grandparents. After the death of her husband, Isabelle resumed her teaching career in the fall of 1885. Frost and his sister Jeannie went to Lawrence High School. There he befriended an older student Carl Burrell who introduced him to botany, astronomy and evolutionary theories. Frost studied Latin and Greek and was impressed by classical literature, Shakespeare, Romantic and Victorian poetry. In 1890, when he was sixteen, he published his first poem "La Noche Triste" inspired by an episode of Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico. The poem appeared in the high-school Bulletin. At school, he met Elinor White with whom he fell in love and whom he finally married in 1895 after a long courtship. Frost went to Dartmouth College instead of Harvard, because it was less expensive and because his grandparents considered it less a place of perdition than Harvard, which they held responsible for their son's debacle. Frost felt unhappy at Dartmouth and after one term returned home to live with his mother and sister. From 1893 to 1897 he took up various employments. He was hired in his mother's school to subdue unruly boys, he taught, he was gatekeeper at a mill, worked on an assembly line in a shoe factory and in a woolen mill trimming lamps, and as a reporter for local newspapers.

In 1897, at the age of 23, Frost went to Harvard as a special student. He took classes with George Santayana and philosophy with Hugo Münsterberg who taught a course on William James, a life-long influence on Frost. Health problems and dissatisfaction with academic life made him leave Harvard. With his grandfather's financial assistance he bought a poultry farm in Methuen and later in Derry, New Hampshire. Poetically these years were very creative; Frost wrote intensively and composed most of the poems that were to form the material of his future books of poems. During his Derry stay (1900-11) his short stories and articles appeared in local farming journals (The Eastern Poultryman and Farm-Poultry). In 1906, he complemented farming with teaching at the nearby Pinkerton Academy in Derry, and later at the Normal School in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

 

Frost developed late as a poet. It seemed that at best he was destined to become a teacher. He was 38 and he still did not have a published book, only a few poems had appeared in local magazines. He decided to sail to England in search of poetic recognition and fulfillment. This proved to be a crucial decision which was to firmly establish him as a writer. On September 2, 1912 the Frosts arrived in London and settled first in Beaconsfield and later on a Gloucestershire farmland. In less then two months after his arrival, Frost put together the manuscript of his first book of poems, A Boy's Will (1913) and arranged its publication with David Nutt. At the insistence of F. S. Flint, he met the young yet influential Ezra Pound who actively promoted poets whom he sensed were changing poetic language. Pound immediately secured a copy of Frost's book and wrote an enthusiastic review for Poetry, the avantgarde American monthly. Pound also introduced him to Yeats, H.D., Richard Aldington, and Ford Madox Ford. In London Frost frequented many literary circles: he attended the meetings of Yeats and T. E Hulme with whom he shared an interest in Bergson. He befriended the Georgian poets Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie and showed his affinity with their Georgian sensibility. He became good friends with Robert Bridges, Walter de la Mare, W. H. Davies, and Ralph Hodgson, and especially with the essayist and poet Edward Thomas, his bosom friend, who would die at the front in 1917.

In May 1914, Nutt published Frost's second book of verse, North of Boston. Hailed by Abercrombie, Ford Madox Ford, Pound and Thomas, Frost's literary reputation was strengthened. The American publisher Henry Holt of New York, with whom Frost was to publish all his later books, was eager to produce the American edition of his poems. Upon his return to the US in 1915, Frost was acclaimed as the leading modern voice of American poetry. His return was followed by a succession of celebrations: he was nominated Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts and Harvard; Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Dean Howells, Louis Untermeyer (who would become his intimate friend), Ellery Sedgwick, Amy Lowell were eager to meet him. The tide of literary fame had turned to Frost's advantage and would remain favorable until his death. From then on he was to make a living by publishing--Mountain Interval (1915) was to appear the following year--college teaching, and public readings. He gave lectures, received royalties, and sold manuscripts to collectors. Over the course of his life he was to have a succession of farms. He accepted a long-term teaching appointment at Amherst College, became poet in residence at the University of Michigan and was affiliated with Dartmouth College and Harvard. He received honorary degrees from Middlebury College and Yale. Among his other prizes and honors are the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard and in 1957 he was awarded various honorary doctorates by Oxford and Cambridge University. Frost won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for his book of poems New Hampshire. He was the only poet to receive it four times (in 1930, 1937, and 1942). Among his other books of poems are West-Running Brook (1928), A Further Range (1936), A Witness Tree (1942), A Masque of Reason (1945). After the Second World War, his most significant books of poems are A Masque of Mercy (1945) and Steeple Bush (1947). His Collected and Complete Poems consecrated him as master of poetic language.

The only criticism Frost received came from leftist critics who charged him of blindness towards socio-economic realities and their political implications. Yet their attack was not so much based on the evidence of Frost's poems, which in their characteristically symbolic and oblique fashion do address social and economic concerns, as it was triggered by their anger over Frost's contempt for political radicalism and his criticism of systematic political and social reforms enforced by Roosevelt's New Deal.

During the 1930s, despite his soaring fame, and the honorary degrees and government tributes, Frost's life was beset by devastating family tragedies. In 1934 his youngest and best-loved daughter, Marjorie, died after giving birth to her first child; three years later his wife Elinor underwent surgery for breast cancer and died in 1938 of a heart attack. His son Carol committed suicide in 1940. His daughter, Irma, was afflicted by mental disorders, separated from her husband and was institutionalized, thus repeating the life scenario of Frost's own sister.

In 1957, Frost campaigned for the release of Ezra Pound from his confinement in St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Until his death in 1963, Frost was one of the most widely read and admired poets of the nation. His poems were extremely popular. His poetry readings in which he engaged in casual reflections, conversations and comments on his own poems captivated his audiences. In 1954, his birthday was honored by resolution of the US Senate resolution. In 1960 the US Congress awarded Frost a gold medal in recognition of his work. John Kennedy invited him to read a poem at his inaugural presidential ceremony. On three occasions, the State Department asked Frost to travel on similar good-will missions: in 1954 to Brazil, in 1957 to Britain and in 1961 to Greece. In 1962, he participated in a US sponsored cultural exchange in the Soviet Union where he was personally received by Nikita Khrushchev. His comments stirred political controversy, and upon his arrival a diplomatic president refused to meet an undiplomatic poet.

Frost made his last public address in Boston on December 2, 1962 and was hospitalized soon afterwards. He died on 29 January 1963 from repeated pulmonary embolism. He had become a de facto poet laureate of the United States (In 1961, the Vermont legislature had named Frost "Poet Laureate of Vermont"). A private memorial was held at Harvard's Memorial Church. Over 700 people attended his public funeral at the Amherst College Chapel. His ashes were buried in the Frost family plot in Vermont.

 

Frost's reputation was scathed by the appearance in 1970 of Lawrance Thompson's second volume Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1937. Like Poe, before him, Frost designated a man who was unsympathetic towards him to write the authorized version of his biography, which proved to be marred by his deep-seated hostility. Thompson maligned Frost's memory as a megalomaniac cruel to his wife and children. It was not until 1972, that the publication of Frost's Family Letters brought evidence against Thompson's distorsions. The publication of Pritchard's unprejudiced Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (1984) refocused attention on the complexities and dissonances of his poetry. A series of studies--by critics such as Stanley Burnshaw, John Evangelist Walsh, Lesley Lee Francis, Jeffrey Meyers, Jay Parini--brought under renewed scrutiny the complex image of the poet and the meanings of his work.

 

Frost's poems encompass a broad spectrum of poetic experimentations with dramatic monologues, narrative dramas, elegies, meditative and pastoral lyrics.

Frost based his poetic idiom in spoken language, and participated in the main development of 20th century poetry to get rid of the ornate, the poetical conventional idiom. In quest for the unpurged images of actuality, he cultivated a sophisticated use of colloquial speech. Like Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads he argued that poetry must use spoken language, the language of conversation, of middle and lower social classes. He was committed to indigenous values and the vernacular voices speaking in worldly situations steeped in a shrewd understanding of psychological states and interplay of individuals. His lyricism is a lyricism of colloquial nativist New England tones thrust in defiance of highly poeticized romantic diction. He is the maker of a vocal collage made up of distinctly American sounds and rhythms of colloquial voices, tones, sounds and speech (Lentricchia).

After Milton and Browning, Frost became one of the greatest practitioners of blank verse. His way of "making it new" was more a working within the tradition, changing the strictness of traditional prosody and the pentameter line and creating stunning effects in "strict" and "loose" iambic lines. His emphasis lay on what he called "the sound of sense".

Frost created his public image of a Yankee farmer poet, an affable, plain spoken, humorous rural bard who reveled in the simplicities of country life. Yet although he had a succession of farms, on which he split wood, mended walls, mowed and did the apple-picking, just as his personae poetica do, he himself was never quite a farmer.

The Frost canon is a catalogue of vignettes rooted in domestic situations and the topically familiar. Unlike Eliot and Pound's poems, Frost's have easily identifiable protagonists, setting, action and plot. His hero is the ordinary man, everyman, with whom any reader can easily identify. His metaphors enact symbolic meaning by means of naturalistically rendered scenes or actions.

 

This seeming simplicity is also one of the reasons why Frost has not been taken as seriously as Stevens, Eliot or Pound, although his poems share the same philosophical concerns. Under the façade of the homely and circumstantially familiar, Frost's poems address, in his obliquely humorous and casual way, philosophical, metaphysical, religious and political issues with unassuming subtlety. His oeuvre thematizes a wide range of concerns of natural sciences ranging from physics, botany and astronomy to theories of evolution and religious metaphysical and theological theories.

Frost seduces readers with the homely and its promises of clarity, order, and simplicity. However, he subverts these notions by recurrent moods of skepticism. The interplay of ambiguity, contradictions and ironies poses a challenge to the reader.

Frost's seductively limpid words and worlds prove elusive, slippery and deceiving. In fact, he creates the illusion of simplicity. The feigned plainness and straightforwardness of his speech founder in a vortex of irreconcilable symbolic meanings. His poems lack the final pronouncements of Eliot and with him meaning is veiled by layers of ambiguity and irony. He simultaneously reveals and conceals, reaches out while holding back. The religious and metaphysical universe of his poetic thought remains caught in unresolved tensions between naturalistic limitations, desire for order and the powerful sense of the ultimate unknowability of life. Frost rarely provides firm conclusions, instead his equivocations are open-ended "overwhelming questions" meant as he affirmed in his letters "to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless" (SL 344).

On closer analysis, his symbolic expression of the circumstantially and the topically familiar only subverts our expectations of sincerity and simplicity under the multiple foils and nuances of regionalism. Irony and ambiguity, wit and humor are vehicles of indirections and the very strategies of his own Prufrockian masks. Like Eliot, Frost also subscribes to the modernist concept of 'impersonality". His authorial voice disappears in the dramatic voices and stances of his poems. His exercise in Keatsian "negative capability" leads him to a concrete embodiment of a terrifying otherness that endows his poetic universe with an intellectual sophistication and subtlety more difficult to decipher than Eliot or Pound's.

Pound and Eliot were poets of overt discontinuities and fragments. Frost's surfaces are apparently neat and continuous. The modernist collage born of a sense of fragmentation and discontinuity seems absent in Frost at surface level. However fragmentation exists on a semantic level, where the hiatuses, existential or epistemological, the dissonances and interstices of Frost's multiple symbolic figurations shape a dynamic collage of irreconcilable meanings. Formally, as Lentricchia observes, Frost's collage is one of sounds, the sounds of common speech, with their multiple nuances and inflections. His subtle psychological and regional experiments and repertory of strategies make him a virtuoso of vocal tonalities.

Frost conceived poetry as "a temporary stay against confusion". His poetic universe oscillates between two poles: the dissolving forces of chaos and the equally powerful need for order, measure and form. Frost's poems respond to a deep-seated need for psychological survival a through meaning which, albeit only "temporary", provides a respite against the impending threats of nothingness and confusion.

As early as 1947, Randall Jarrell drew attention to the deceiving surfaces in Frost's poems, pointing to "the other Frost" and the depths of darkness, fear and mystery latent under his bucolic façades. Frost did not indulge in romantic platitudes or homely philosophies, but revealed the recalcitrance and hardness of nature and the inexorability of fate. He wrote as Irving Howe, aptly remarks, one of the "darkest lyrics" of American poetry.

Frost's most striking contribution to modern poetry is the renewal of the pastoral mode. Pastoral literature starts with Virgil and Horace, and Frost's depiction of nature is informed by the mythology of the pastoral tradition and its oblique mode questioning political and social hierarquies, simulating simplicity yet disguising complexity.

Frost refashioned the classical and biblical tradition of pastoral literature, the congenially romantic conventions of nature. He scrutinized the American pastoral imagination from Emerson to Thoreau, exploring the assumptions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance of the rural ideal, and undermined the Rousseauian implications of the myth of the Noble Savage. Frost projected irony and ambiguity into the concept of American wilderness and into the utopian quest for a new Eden which constitutes the main obsession of American imagination. He called into question the premises of national identity.

 

Based on:

Brower, Reuben. The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Jarrell, Randall. No Other Book: Selected Essays. Edited by Brad Leithauser. New York: Farrar, Strauss &Giroux, 1999.

Lentricchia, Frank. Robert Frost: The Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of the Self. Durham: Duke University Press, 1975.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Tharpe, Jac, ed. Frost: Centennial Essays, Vols. I &II. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976.