Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963) was an intentionally American and traditionalist poet in an age of internationalized and experimental art. He used New England idioms, characters, and settings, recalling the roots of American culture, to get at universal experience.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874. His father came from prerevolutionary Maine and New Hampshire stock but hated New England because the Civil War it had supported had robbed his own father of employment in the cotton mill economy. When Frost's father graduated from Harvard in 1872, he left New England. He paused in Lewistown, Pa., to teach and married another teacher, Isabelle Moodie, a Scotswoman. They moved to San Francisco, where the elder Frost became an editor and politician. Their first child was named for the Southern hero Gen. Robert E. Lee.
When Frost's father died in 1884, his will stipulated burial in New England. His wife and two children, Robert and Jeanie, went east for the funeral. Lacking funds to return to California, they settled in Salem, Mass., where Mrs. Frost taught school.
Transplanted New Englander
Robert had been a city boy, a proud Californian, and no student. Transplanted, he grew sensitive to New England's speechways, taciturn characters, and customs. He also became a serious student and graduated from Lawrence High School as valedictorian and class poet in 1892. He enrolled at Dartmouth College but soon left. He had become engaged to Elinor White, classmate and fellow valedictorian, who was completing her college education. Frost moved from job to job, working in mills, at newspaper reporting, and at teaching, all the while writing poetry. In 1894 he sold his first poem, "My Butterfly," to the New York Independent. Overjoyed, he had two copies of a booklet of lyrics privately printed, one for his fiancée and one for himself. He delivered Elinor's copy in person but did not find her response adequate. Thinking he had lost her, he tore up his copy and wandered south as far as the Dismal Swamp (from Virginia to North Carolina), even contemplating suicide.
In 1895, however, Frost married Elinor and tried to make a career of teaching. He helped his mother run a small private school in Lawrence, Mass., where his first son was born. He spent 2 years at Harvard (1897-1899), but again undergraduate study proved uncongenial. With a newborn daughter as well as a son, he tried chicken farming at Methuen, Mass., and in 1900, when his nervousness was diagnosed as a forewarning of tuberculosis, he moved his poultry business to Derry, N.H. There his first son soon died. In 1906 Frost was stricken with pneumonia and almost died, and a year later his fourth daughter died. This grief and suffering, as well as lesser frustrations in personal life and business, turned Frost more and more to poetry. Once again he tried teaching, in Derry and then in Plymouth, N.H.
Creation of the Poet
In 1912, almost 40 and with only a few poems published, Frost sold his farm and used an annuity from his grandfather to go to England and gamble everything on poetry. The family settled on a farm in Buckinghamshire, and Frost began to write. Ezra Pound, the expatriate American poet, helped him get published in periodicals, but Frost resented Pound's excessive management.
Frost published A Boy's Will (1913), and it was well received. Though it contains some 19th-century diction, the words and rhythms are generally colloquial and subtly simple. Written in conventional rhymed stanzas and blank verse, the poems begin in delight and end in wisdom, as Frost later said poems should. They move through various subjective moods toward modest revelations. Such poems as "Into My Own," "Mowing," and "A Tuft of Flowers" convey an inclination toward nature, solitude, and meditation, toward the beauty of fact, and toward a New England individualism that acknowledges a need for love and community.
North of Boston (1914), also published in England, is more objective, made up mainly of blank verse monologues and dramatic narratives. "The Death of the Hired Man," soberly suspenseful and compassionate, with lyric moments of waiting, has more to do with the mutual understanding in a marriage than with death. "Mending Wall" is a bantering satire contrasting a tradition-bound farmer and his neighbor, a straight-faced tease. In "After Apple-picking" the picker asks quizzically whether he should settle for being plain tired or inflate his state by identifying it with the drowsiness of autumn. "Home Burial" and "A Servant of Servants" dramatize respectively a hysteria bred of loneliness and death, and the precarious sanity of a rural drudge.
North of Boston compounded the success of A Boy's Will, and the two volumes announced the two modes of Frost's best poetry, the lyric and the narrative. Although immediately established as a nature poet, he did not idealize nature. He addressed not only its loveliness but also the isolation, harshness, and anxiety its New England intimates had to endure. The reticence of his poetry, however, is not simply that of a taciturn New Englander; it restrains tremendous psychic and sexual forces, a violent and suicidal bent, and deep emotional needs that occasionally flashed out in his poetry and personal life.
Frost's place in literary tradition had also begun to clarify. His work led back to aspects of Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Yankees Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier, and to characteristics of William Wordsworth, English 18th-century meditators on landscape, John Donne, and the Latin idylls and eclogues of Theocritus and Virgil. But Frost's irony and ambiguity, his concreteness and colloquial tone, his skepticism and honesty bespoke the modern.
A Public Figure
When the Frosts returned to America in 1915, North of Boston was a best seller. Sudden acclaim embarrassed Frost, who had always avoided crowds. He withdrew to a small farm in Franconia, N.H., but financial need soon compelled him to respond to demands for readings and lectures. In 1915 and 1916 he was respectively Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts College and at Harvard. He conquered his shyness, developing an epigrammatic, folksy platform manner that made him one of the most popular performers in America and abroad. His tall muscular body and rugged face with its pale watchful eyes became a familiar sight; as the hair whitened, the face grew craggy, and the body thickened, those eyes remained the same.
From Frost's talks, his few published essays, and his poems, the outline of a poetic theory emerged. He strove for the sound of sense, for the colloquial, for a tension between the natural rhythm of speech and the basic iambic meter of English verse. He felt that the emotion that began a poem should generate a form through likenesses and contraries and lead to a clarification of experience. This was the way to spontaneity and surprise.
Mountain Interval (1916) brought together lyrics and narratives. The five dramatic lyrics of "The Hill Wife" look at a marriage dying on a solitary farm. On the other hand, "Meeting and Passing" uses a few vivid images to infuse a courtship walk with the promise of joy. The hilarious slide in "Brown's Descent" and the youthful tree-swinging of "Birches" (although its exuberance is restrained from hyperbole by "matter of fact") are countered by the deadly accident of "Out, Out—."
In 1917 Frost became one of the first poets-in-residence on an American campus. He taught at Amherst from 1917 to 1920, in 1918 receiving a master of arts, the first of many academic honors. The following year he moved his farm base to South Saftsbury, Vt. In 1920 he cofounded the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College, serving there each summer as lecturer and consultant. From 1921 to 1923 he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan.
Frost's Selected Poems and a new volume, New Hampshire, appeared in 1923. For the latter Frost received the first of four Pulitzer Prizes. Though the title poem does not present Frost at his best, the volume also contains such lovely lyrics as "Fire and Ice," "Nothing Gold Can Stay," and "To Earthward." In "For Once, Then Something" Frost slyly joshes critics who ask for deep, deep insights; and in the dramatic narrative "The Witch of Coös" he turns a rustic comedy into a grotesque story of adultery and murder. "Two Look at Two" dramatizes a hushed encounter between human lovers and animal lovers.
Frost returned to Amherst for 2 years in 1923 and to the University of Michigan in 1925 and then settled at Amherst in 1926.
West Running Brook (1928) continued Frost's tonal variations and mingling of lyrics and narratives. The lyric "Tree at My Window" appeared along with "Acquainted with the Night," a narrative of a despairing nightwalker in a city where time is "neither right nor wrong." The title poem, recalling John Donne, is a little drama of married lovers and their thoughts upon a stream that goes "by contraries," a stream that itself contains a contrary, a wave thrown back against the current by a rock, a "backward motion toward the source" that emblems the lovers' own tendency.
Frost visited England and Paris in 1928 and published his Collected Poems in 1930. In 1934 he suffered another excruciating loss in the death of his daughter Marjorie. He returned to Harvard in 1936 and in the same year published A Further Range.
This volume contains considerable social comment, but in the context of a worldwide depression some of it seemed oversimplified and untimely. "Two Tramps at Mud Time," however, puts men's need, and therefore right, to work in dramatically personal terms. "The Drumlin Woodchuck" recommends a distrustful defensiveness in order to survive for love; and "Departmental," another fable, satirizes bureaucracy through the antics of ants. "Build Soil—A Political Pastoral" recalls Virgil's First Eclogue. Frost's character Depression Tityrus declares, "I'd let things take their course And then I'd take the credit." Among the shorter pieces, several speak of inadequacy, disillusion, or malevolence—"Desert Places," "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," "Provide, Provide," and "Design."
Later Work and Personal Tragedy
Honors, forebodings, and tragedies continued to crowd in on Frost. Because of his weak lungs, his doctor ordered him south in 1936, and thereafter he spent his winters in Florida. Frost served on the Harvard faculty during 1936-1937 and received an honorary doctorate. After his wife died of a heart attack in 1938, Frost resigned from the Amherst faculty and sold his house. That same year he was elected to the Board of Overseers of Harvard College. In 1939 his second Collected Poems appeared, and he began a 3-year stay at Harvard. In 1940 his only surviving son committed suicide.
A Witness Tree (1942) included the lyric "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length" and "Come In," in which the speaker prefers the guiding light of stars to the romantic dark of the woods and the song of an unseen bird. Steeple Bush (1947) contained the beautiful elegy of decay "Directive." The monologist visits an abandoned village where he used to live and, through allusions to the Holy Grail, converts the visit into a journey back toward a source, a stream beside which he administers communion to himself: "Drink and be whole again against confusion."
In 1945 Frost essayed something new in A Masque of Reason, a verse drama, too chatty for the stage. A modernization of the biblical story of Job, it is theistic and sets forth good-humoredly the Puritanic conviction that man, with his finite mind, must remain separate from God. A Masque of Mercy (1947), a companion verse drama based on the story of Jonah, has a heretical or individualistic air about it but still comes out essentially orthodox, suggesting that man with his limited knowledge must try to act justly and mercifully, for action is his salvation if it complies with God's will. "Nothing can make injustice just but mercy."
Frost's Complete Poems appeared in 1949, and in 1950 the U.S. Senate felicitated him on his seventy-fifth birthday. In 1957 he returned to England to receive doctoral degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. On his eighty-fifth birthday the Senate again felicitated him. In 1961, at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Frost recited "The Gift Outright," the first time a poet had honored a presidential inauguration. A final volume, In the Clearing, appeared in 1962.
On Jan. 29, 1963, Frost died in Boston of complications following an operation. He was buried in the family plot in Old Bennington, Vt. His "lover's quarrel with the world" was over.
Further Reading on Robert Lee Frost
Lawrence R. Thompson has completed the first two volumes of an official Frost biography, Robert Frost, vol. 1: The Early Years, 1874-1915 (1966), and vol. 2: Years of Triumph (1970). A useful critical biography is Philip L. Gerber, Robert Frost (1967). Margaret Bartlett Anderson provides an informal view in Robert Frost and John Bartlett: The Record of a Friendship (1963). An interesting biography by a friend is Louis Mertins, Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking (1965). An account of Frost's trip to the Soviet Union is Franklin D. Reeve, Robert Frost in Russia (1964).
Two sound introductions are Lawrence R. Thompson, Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost (1942), and Sidney Cox, A Swinger of Birches (1957). The poet Amy Lowell includes a discussion of Frost in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917). Reuben A. Brower concentrates on poetic criticism in The Poetry of Robert Frost (1963). More specialized studies are John F. Lynen, The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost (1960); James M. Cox, ed., Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962), which contains varied critical assessments of Frost; and James R. Squires, The Major Themes of Robert Frost (1963).