Article abstract: Frost helped renew popular interest in American poetry by refusing to write in the academic modernist style that was popular at the time. Instead, he wrote about nature and rural life in a traditional yet complex style that appealed to a wide audience.
Robert Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California, not the New England with which he was later so closely associated. His father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a native of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Harvard College. However, he was something of an adventurer and wandered to the West Coast in search of a more lively environment and a career in journalism or law. Frost spent most of his early days in San Francisco and returned for good to New England and Lawrence only when his father died in 1886.
Frost’s mother taught school in Salem, New Hampshire, in order to support her family. She was not a very good teacher, and Frost was embarrassed that his mother taught in a nearby school. He did well at school and became attracted to a young girl in his class named Elinor White. She was very bright and came from a wealthier family than Frost’s. They graduated from Lawrence High School as covaledictorians. Their relationship in both the early and the later years was troubled. When Elinor went to college and Frost stayed in Lawrence, he thought she had fallen in love with another young man. He demanded she leave college, but she refused. Frost was in deep despair and went to the Great Dismal Swamp to kill himself but fortunately failed in his attempt. Elinor finally agreed to quit college, and they were married after some opposition from her family.
Frost did not have many prospects. He attended Harvard for a short time but did not get a degree. He also taught school, although his teaching primarily consisted of keeping discipline. He published a few poems in the local newspaper but could not support himself and his growing family with his poetry. His grandfather was wealthy and helped Frost and his family, but he was wary of Frost’s inability to find a vocation. He established Frost and his family on a farm, where Frost raised poultry and sold eggs, but this was a failure. When the grandfather died, he left Frost a legacy and a farm. However, the legacy was held in trust: He received five hundred dollars per year, and eight hundred dollars were held for future disbursement. After living on a farm with limited success, Frost took the family to England in 1912 and settled in the rural village of Beaconsfield, where he hoped to devote his time to poetry.
Frost brought together some of his old poems while he was in England and went unannounced to David Nutt, an English publisher. Nutt liked the poems and agreed to publish Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will (1913). The title, from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, suggests the dreamy days of youth. However, while the book does stress the experience of a young man, it includes a number of poems that are directly connected to classical literature. The most significant poem in this group is “The Trial by Existence,” in which Frost borrowed the myth of the recycling of souls from Vergil’s Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) and made it into a poem about humans heroically struggling with their ignorance about their origins and nature. “A Tuft of Flowers,” one of the best poems in the book, is taken from a group of rural poems and is about the daily labor of the rural world. The speaker first feels his isolation from others, but when he sees the “tuft of flowers” spared by a mower, he recognizes that “Men work together/ Whether they work together or alone.” The book received both positive and negative reviews in England. However, the most important one was written by poet Ezra Pound in Poetry magazine; Pound helped establish Frost’s reputation, and he tried to make Frost into a disciple. Frost, however, was not interested in Pound’s style and wanted to create and manage his own reputation.
While Frost was still in England, he published his second book of poems, North of Boston (1914). This was a much better book, and it included such important poems as “The Death of the Hired Man” and “After Apple Picking.” The book was especially well received in New England, since the dramatic monologues were by distinctly New England speakers. During this period Frost became very close to the English poet Edward Thomas. They lived near each other and shared some poetic concepts and styles. Thomas later died in action during World War I.
After publishing two books of poetry, Frost knew it was time to return to the United States and try to make his living through poetry. The news of his success had preceded him, and he was seen as an important young American poet who had been recognized by the British critics. Frost settled with his family on a farm near Franconia, New Hampshire, and immediately set about establishing his reputation as a poet. He made an ally of poet and critic Louis Untermeyer, who became a lifelong supporter and interpreter of Frost. He also began reading his poems at colleges in New England, such as Tufts College and Harvard University, and then in other parts of the country. This provided Frost with the income that was necessary to support his family and made his name more widely known. At first he was very shy and trembled when he read his poems, but he eventually became an extremely effective, if unusual, reader.
Frost still had to make a living, and he could not make it from poetry alone or from farming, so he began to take one- or two-year appointments at universities in order to support his family. He had a long, if troubled, relationship with Amherst and a more lucrative one with the University of Michigan. These appointments, reading fees, and increasing royalties from his books enabled Frost to live as he wished on a New England farm thinking about and writing poetry.
Frost’s third book of poetry, Mountain Interval, was published in 1916. It was well received and contained some of Frost’s best and most typical poems, including “The Road Not Taken” and “Oven Bird.” His poems were beginning to develop a subtlety in structure that the early poems did not have. Frost especially liked to set his speakers between opposites or alternatives, as he did in “The Road Not Taken.”
Frost settled his family on a farm in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, and had fewer financial worries during this period. His royalties had increased, and he continued to make money from poetry readings and teaching. He established what was to become a lifelong connection with the Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton, Vermont. Frost served as a teacher and a source for inspiration for those who came during the summer. In 1923, Frost published another book of poems, New Hampshire. It contained some of his best poems, including “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” “To Earthward,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The book received the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Frost brought together another book of poems, West-Running Brook, in 1927. His Collected Poems appeared in 1930 and won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Frost’s reputation was at its height; he was the best known and most respected American poet of the time. However, his honors for his poetry were undercut by his family troubles. His daughter, Irma, was in and out of mental institutions; his son, Carol, committed suicide; and his wife, Elinor, died in 1938. Their marriage was troubled, and they had been estranged for years, but her death was devastating. Despite these difficulties, Frost continued to receive honors and recognition for his poetry. In 1936, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The book of poems he published that year, A Further Range, received a number of negative reviews but earned the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. With the A Witness Tree, published in 1942, Frost received his fourth and final Pulitzer Prize.
Frost’s domestic situation was unusual. He felt dislocated by the death of his wife and the troubles of his children. Katherine Morrison, the wife of Harvard professor Theodore Morrison, became his private secretary and established him in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The relationship was so close that Frost proposed that she leave her husband and marry him. She deftly refused this very inappropriate suggestion and continued as his secretary.
Frost published A Masque of Reason in 1945 and A Masque of Mercy in 1947; these collections were somewhat of a departure for Frost, since they deserted lyric poetry for theological speculation and since the speakers were biblical figures rather than rural ones. Editorials (1946) and Steeple Bush (1947) showed a definite decline in Frost’s poetry. The poems were “editorials” or statements that had lost the subtlety and voice of the earlier poems. However, his Complete Poems (1949) were published to great acclaim and did more truly represent the poet’s achievement. Frost continued to be honored as America’s greatest and most beloved poet in his last years. He spent a term as consulting poet at the Library of Congress and published his last book of poems, In the Clearing, in 1962. In that same year, he read his “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. He died at his home in Boston on January 29, 1963.
Robert Frost was important to American poetry during the first half of the twentieth century because he maintained traditional meter, structure, and themes during a time when modernism was the dominant poetic mode. He was a popular poet, but he never sacrificed his art for that popularity. His style was plain, but his poetic structures were complex.
Frost devoted a great deal of time and effort to presenting himself to his audience as a simple and rural poet and seldom revealed the complexity and darkness within. A famous controversy occurred at Frost’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration when Lionel Trilling spoke of Frost as a “terrifying” poet. This, of course, was only one side of Frost, but it was a side that many of his admirers had neglected. He often referred to and used Emersonian ideas, but he never had the cheerful views that Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused. Poems such as “The Most of It” and “Desert Places” spoke of nature as an unknowable or threatening element. There was always a double or contrary vision in the simplest of Frost’s lyrics that made it very difficult to come to terms with his poetry.
Boroff, Marie. Language and the Poet: Verbal Artistry in Frost, Stevens, and Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Boroff is one of the few critics to study the stylistics of Frost’s poems. His book is technical but illuminating.
Brower, Rueben. The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. A very close New Critical reading of Frost’s poems. Brower is very good on Frost’s complex poetic structures.
Lentricchia, Frank. Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscape of the Self. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973. Lentricchia sees Frost as a modernist poet. While he is very good on seeing the difficulties in reading the poems, he seems to exaggerate the modernist dimension.
Lyman, John F. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. At times Lyman overemphasizes the pastoral element and oversimplifies some poems. Nevertheless, the book does call attention to an important element in Frost’s poetry.
Porier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. One of the best general discussions of Frost’s poetry. Porier is especially good in linking Frost to Emerson and other nineteenth century American writers.
Thompson, Lawrance, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981. Thompson may overestimate Frost’s dark and devious side in this excellent biography, but it is a necessary corrective to the sentimental view of Frost. It remains the standard biography of the poet.