Robert Frost Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111201213-Frost.jpg(Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.
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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

Summary

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.

Bibliography

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.

Robert Frost Biography

Introduction

Robert Frost probably has the most name recognition of any American poet ever. His best-known works include “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” both of which have become synonymous with the genre of nature poetry. Frost, though, was much more than just a nature poet. “Home Burial,” for example, deals with overwhelming grief after the death of a child. “Fire and Ice,” while somewhat tongue-in-cheek, considers the apocalyptic end of the world. And some of his poems, such as “The Oven Bird,” are a complex treatment of a difficult rhyme scheme, proving that Frost could technically match anyone in form. Furthermore, Frost helped form the conception of Americans as tough, self-sufficient individuals. This New England native, often called the “Icon of Yankee Values,” remains the quintessential American poet.

Essential Facts

  1. Robert Frost won the Pulitzer Prize four times, more than any other poet in history.
  2. The often-quoted line “good fences make good neighbors” comes from Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.”
  3. Frost resented being seen only as a “nature” poet, often remarking to people that he only wrote two poems in his entire life that were totally nature-based.
  4. At the age of 87, a frail Robert Frost delivered a poem to honor John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Although he had written a poem specifically for the occasion, bitter cold and his health caused him to stumble. He ended up reciting flawlessly from memory “The Gift Outright.”
  5. Robert Frost died in 1963 at the age of 89, and he had a sense of humor right to the end. His tombstone reads: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Robert Frost Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The poetry of Frost has accomplished a feat rare in the twentieth century: It has received both critical acclaim and widespread popular acceptance. His poetry expresses common emotional and sentient experiences so simply and directly that its authenticity affects readers without expertise in reading poetry; the subtlety of his thought and the sublimity of his art are appreciated by those who ponder his work. The rural character or meditative speaker in a Frost poem represents not merely a person the poet has met or a mood he has felt but humanity in the process of being itself or discovering itself.

Robert Frost Biography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 28)

Some famous writers, like Samuel Johnson, were fortunate in their choice of a sympathetic biographer, notably James Boswell, while others, such as Edgar Allan Poe, have had their reputations suffer as the result of a hostile biographer, in Poe’s case, Rufus Griswold. Frost’s choice of Lawrance Thompson, then a young Princeton English professor, as his “official biographer” had unfortunate repercussions after Frost’s death when Thompson produced a massive, three-volume biography that was suffused with clear malice and dislike. Thompson set out to demolish Frost’s public persona as a kindly, white-haired New England poet and offered instead a monster of selfishness and egotism who used friends and family to his own ends. More recently, Jeffrey Meyers presented an equally unflattering view of Frost’s later life in his 1996 biography. Unfortunately, these biographies debunking Frost have all too often been uncritically accepted as fact rather than as a version of a life much too complicated to be captured in any single biography.

In Robert Frost: A Life, Middlebury College professor Jay Parini offers a fairer and more balanced version of the poet’s life. Parini does not scant or ignore the unpleasant facts of Frost’s life, but he tries to place them in a broader context, recognizing that all biographies are versions or interpretations of a life and cannot possibly be definitive, no matter how exhaustive the research. His thesis is that Frost was “a major poet who struggled throughout his life with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion.” He depicts Frost as a poet of contradictions, deeply influenced both by his dreamy, visionary Scottish mother and by his impetuous, strong- willed New England father, who died of tuberculosis when Frost was only eleven. Often seen as the quintessential New England poet, Frost was actually born and raised in San Francisco, where his father had taken his bride to seek his political and journalistic fortunes.

Part of the complication of the Frost persona is that many of his poetic qualities that seem most innate were consciously chosen and cultivated. Though often considered a nature poet, Frost was a city boy who discovered the pleasures of country life, a westerner who assimilated New England mores as an adopted son. After her husband’s death in 1884, Belle Frost brought her two children back east to live with their grandparents in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a textile mill town north of Boston. Always short of money and uncomfortable with her in-laws, Belle earned a meager living as a grade school teacher, living in a series of shabby apartments and boardinghouses. Frost’s younger sister Jeanie showed early signs of mental instability, and Belle came increasingly to depend upon Rob for emotional and financial support from part-time and summer jobs. Yet Frost was also a talented and able student at Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife Elinor White were co-valedictorians.

To an extraordinary degree, Frost shaped and directed his career through what he called his “inflexible ambition” or will to become a poet. Yet Parini demonstrates that he was not, as Thompson charged, selfish or neglectful of his wife or children. On the contrary, Frost was quite dedicated to Elinor and his family. Not only did Frost hold himself together during his difficult adolescent years, but he discovered in writing poetry a means of self-affirmation, of holding the forces of depression, self-doubt, and mental chaos at bay. Dissatisfied with college, which he tried briefly at Dartmouth (1892) and later at Harvard (1897-1899), Frost found his essential creative resources in marriage, family, and the Derry farm.

The Derry years (1900-1911) were central to Frost’s gradual development as a poet. Through the assistance of his grandfather, Frost was able to purchase the Magoon place, an attractive thirty-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, about eleven miles north of Lawrence. The farm became a “strategic retreat,” where, supported by his grandfather’s generous five-hundred-dollar yearly annuity and his modest efforts at poultry and fruit farming, Frost had the time and leisure to write. All of his children were born on the Derry farm, and Frost and his family later recalled this decade as the happiest period in their lives. Frost’s notebooks were filled with the rough drafts of poems written during the time and later revised or expanded for publication. Frost was able to draw upon the memories and experiences of this period for the rest of his career.

By the rural standards of their time, the Frosts lived a somewhat unconventional or even bohemian life, with no fixed mealtimes or domestic schedule. Yet Robert and Elinor were devoted parents who home-schooled their children using progressive methods of education. The direct experience of nature was an essential part of the Frost children’s education, with long walks, picnics, gardening, and pets. Frost himself kept irregular hours, writing late at night after the children were asleep. As Lesley Frost recalls in her memoir of these years, the Frosts were close-knit and resourceful, making the best of their limited means.

In 1906, Frost found a teaching position at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, which supplemented the family’s meager income and gave Frost an opportunity to apply his progressive methods of education. Invitations to read his poetry and occasional magazine publications built Frost’s confidence in his poetic abilities. Had it not been for the death of their infant daughter Elinor in 1907, the Frosts might have remained at the Derry farm longer, but the ache of grief was too much for them, and they moved into town that fall to be closer to Pinkerton. However, the crucial decade of Frost’s poetic development, from his mid-twenties to mid- thirties, was spent at Derry, and by the time they left he had accumulated a stock of poems and experiences that would last a lifetime. His crucial values and attitudes as a poet—his pastoralism, his interest in farming and country life, his aesthetic concern for colloquial speech and the “sound of sense”—were all shaped by the Derry years. His poetic development away from academe gave him a distinctiveness and originality of voice unique among modern American poets.

Beginning in 1907, Frost returned to teaching, first at Pinkerton and later at the New Hampshire State Normal School (a teachers’ college) in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and entered into an uneasy alliance with academe that would last for the rest of his life. In 1912, after his grandfather’s death and the sale of the Derry farm, the Frosts made another daring move, to England, in the hope of finding a British publisher for his poems. The Frosts debated briefly over whether to choose England or Vancouver, but Frost acquiesced to Elinor’s desire to “live under thatch,” and they chose England. It is difficult to overestimate the risks of this move by a thirty-eight- year-old, relatively unknown poet with a wife and four children to support on limited means. Yet these three years, from 1912 to 1915, paid off in the publication of his first two poetry volumes, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), two of his most significant works. Frost had a gift for friendship, and his new circle of English literary friends and acquaintances wrote favorable reviews that helped to expand his growing literary reputation. Frost met the young American expatriate poet Ezra Pound in London and for a while accepted Pound’s patronizing advice and encouragement, though he recognized how different his poetics were from Pound’s or T. S. Eliot’s literary high modernism. Frost was always a poet of the ear rather than the eye, and he did not choose to make his poems deliberately inaccessible to the ordinary reader. His complexity was subtle and syntactical, not created by ponderous textual notes and references or quotations. Though Frost later distanced himself from Pound and Eliot, he benefited from Pound’s favorable reviews and encouragement. By the time the family returned to America in early 1917, Frost was recognized as a major American poet.

For the rest of his career, Frost felt torn between teaching and farming as a means of earning a living. He was drawn to farming but realized that it would not provide a sufficient income or leisure for writing. Through a fortuitous invitation from President Alexander Meiklejohn of Amherst in 1917, he loosely affiliated himself within the academe as virtually the first American poet-in- residence, gradually shaping the position to his own purposes. Frost was an iconoclastic and unconventional teacher who never fit well into a formal academic setting, but teaching did provide a guaranteed income and some free time (though never enough) for poetry writing. He cultivated a reputation as a “progressive” teacher, with unstructured classes and a conversational approach to instruction. Frost would often adopt a tone of self-deprecating irony in describing his “laziness,” but in fact he was merely protecting the privacy and energy needed for creative work.

Frost increasingly became a public lecturer and performer, much in demand for poetry readings, or “barding about,” which took him throughout the country and increased his celebrity status. During the next thirty years, he would move back and forth between Amherst and the University of Michigan, and he would buy a series of farms in New Hampshire and Vermont, perhaps seeking but never quite recapturing the idyllic years at the Derry farm. These restless moves, motivated in part by academic feuds and by Frost’s dissatisfaction with academe, grew increasingly difficult for Elinor and the children, who longed for the stability of a permanent home. It is ironic how thoroughly Frost, the academic rebel, became a part of the academic establishment, with appointments at Amherst, Michigan, Harvard, and Dartmouth. It was not until after Elinor’s death in 1938 that Frost settled into a semi-permanent arrangement, with an apartment in Boston and a summer cottage at Bread Loaf, Vermont, near Ted and Kay Morrison, a young Harvard couple who looked after him.

There has been much speculation about the exact nature of Frost’s relationship with Kay Morrison after Elinor’s death, which plunged him into deep grief and depression. Jeffrey Meyers claimed, on the basis of interviews with Kay’s daughter, that she became his mistress. Parini, while acknowledging Frost’s deep dependence upon Kay and some fantasizing on his part, believes that Kay was attracted to him primarily as a father figure and managed to avoid any intimacies that would have damaged her marriage. Some of Frost’s most compelling love poems, such as “The Silken Tent,” were written after Elinor’s death, and critics disagree over the source of Frost’s inspiration—the memory of Elinor or infatuation with Kay Morrison.

One of the most interesting sections of Parini’s biography is his “Afterword,” in which he evaluates and compares the various Frost biographies, indicating their critical strengths and weaknesses. He cautions against reading Frost’s life too closely into his work and committing the biographical fallacy. Parini identifies what he calls “three waves” of Frost biography: the early appreciative or hagiographic works; the biographies debunking Frost, most notably Thompson’s three- volume biography and Meyers’s 1996 life of Frost; and the revisionist biographies, starting with William Pritchard’s Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (1984), John Walsh’s Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, 1912-1915 (1988), and including Parini’s new biography of Frost. The continued biographic interest in Frost testifies to his continuing prominence as a major American poet.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 790.

Insight on the News 15 (May 24, 1999): 36.

Library Journal 124 (February 15, 1999): 150.

National Review 51 (May 3, 1999): 52.

The New York Review of Books 46 (October 21, 1999): 17.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 25, 1999): 13.

Publishers Weekly 246 (February 15, 1999): 93.

Time 153 (April 5, 1999): 69.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1999, p. 29.

The Yale Review 87 (October, 1999): 118.

Robert Frost Biography (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robert Frost was not fortunate in his posthumous biographical treatment. A series of debunking biographies by Lawrance Thompson and Jeffrey Meyer called into question his character and integrity, presenting him as a monster of selfishness and egotism. Now Robert Frost: A Life, a revisionist biography by Middlebury College professor Jay Parini, attempts to set the record straight.

While not breaking any new ground, Parini’s biography of Frost offers a fair and balanced treatment of the poet’s life. In particular, Parini shows what tremendous courage and resourcefulness Frost showed in redeeming a life of hardships through his commitment to poetry. His art may well have saved him from madness. Parini emphasizes Frost’s devotion to his wife Elinor and their four children, especially during the decade they spent on the Derry farm in New Hampshire, while he was learning his trade as a poet. Equally impressive was their courage in taking their family to England from 1912-1915 so that Frost could find a publisher for his work.

The judicious skill and insights of Robert Frost: A Life demonstrates that biography is a fine art that does not depend on accumulation of facts alone, but on the biographer’s skill as storyteller and interpreter of life. Parini does not avoid the hard facts of poverty, ill health, mental instability, and suicide that run through Frost’s family history, but he manages to show how Frost raised his own and his family’s life above mere sordidness through a strong-willed and high-minded dedication to poetry.

Robert Frost: A Life is an admittedly partisan biography, but Parini does a great service to all admirers of Frost by reaffirming the value of his life and work.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 790.

Insight on the News 15 (May 24, 1999): 36.

Library Journal 124 (February 15, 1999): 150.

National Review 51 (May 3, 1999): 52.

The New York Review of Books 46 (October 21, 1999): 17.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 25, 1999): 13.

Publishers Weekly 246 (February 15, 1999): 93.

Time 153 (April 5, 1999): 69.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1999, p. 29.

The Yale Review 87 (October, 1999): 118.

Robert Frost Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

A native of New Hampshire and a graduate of Harvard University, Robert Lee Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, moved to San Francisco in 1873 to escape post-Civil War bitterness against the South. Shortly before his untimely death at thirty-five, William Prescott requested that he be buried in New England. Fulfilling this request, Robert, his sister Jeanie Florence, and their mother accompanied the casket across the country to Massachusetts. Because they could not afford the return trip, the Frosts settled in Salem, New Hampshire, when Robert was eleven years old. In 1892, Robert Frost graduated as co-valedictorian from Lawrence High School and entered Dartmouth College to study law. He dropped out, however, before completing his first semester, spending the following two years working at odd jobs and writing poetry. In 1894, he published his first poem, “My Butterfly,” and became engaged to Elinor White, with whom he had shared the valedictorian honor. After his marriage in 1895, Frost helped his mother run a small private school, studied for two years at Harvard, then moved to Derry, New Hampshire, for a life of farming. Between 1900 and 1905, Frost raised poultry and wrote most of the poems that would constitute his first two volumes; after 1905, he taught school in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and in 1912, he sailed for England with Elinor and his two children, where he collected and published A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. By the time the Frosts returned to New York in 1915, North of Boston had become an enormous critical and popular success, and Frost spent the next year, and indeed most of his life, in the limelight giving readings and lectures.

Because Frost is so strongly identified as a New England poet whose poems are inextricably rooted in the land of New Hampshire and Vermont, readers expect a high correlation between the events of his life and the resultant poetry. Although Frost certainly invested most of his life in New England, there is a surprising dichotomy between his biography and his poetic themes. His family life was tragic because premature death beset many of its members. His father died of tuberculosis, his mother of cancer. He lost his sister, two of his children died in infancy, his married daughter died in childbirth, and his son committed suicide. While being operated on for cancer, his wife died of a heart attack. In spite of his long wait for recognition and the private disasters that befell him, however, Frost’s poetry is free from bitterness and from any direct personal references. Instead of writing about his own experiences, as so many modern American poets have done, Frost wrote about the process of discovery and the relationship between people and their surroundings.

Frost’s particular world was New England, but his landscapes are metaphorical, not specific; his speech universal, not regional; and his themes archetypal, not autobiographical. His official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, unveiled many shocking characteristics of Frost’s personality—including jealousy and vindictiveness—but, much to Frost’s credit, his art rises above these frailties and speaks not of pettiness but of deep matters of the heart.

Robert Frost Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201213-Frost.jpgRobert Frost. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

There is more than passing significance in the anomaly that this decidedly New England poet was born in San Francisco. Robert Lee Frost frequently admitted that when he settled in New England at the age of eleven, he so prided himself on being a California city dweller that he felt a decided hostility toward the region “north of Boston” and toward Yankee taciturnity. Perhaps it was the shock of newness that sharpened his response to so much that he later came not only to admire but also to capture with such accurate precision in his poems.

Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, was a native of New Hampshire who had bitterly rejected New England following the Civil War because of his Copperhead political sympathies. After graduating with honors from Harvard College in 1872, he had served one year (1872-1873) as headmaster of Lewistown Academy in Pennsylvania, where he had met, courted, and in 1873 married Isabelle Moody, an immigrant Scottish schoolteacher. William Prescott Frost had taken his bride to San Francisco, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor from 1873 until his untimely death at the age of thirty-five, from tuberculosis, in 1885. His strongly democratic political sympathies were reflected in his decision to name his firstborn child after the distinguished Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Despite his aversion for New England, William Prescott Frost shortly before his death requested that he be buried in the area he still considered home.

Thus it happened that his widow took their two children (the younger child, Jeanie Florence Frost, had been born in 1876) across the continent with the casket for the interment in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where William Prescott Frost’s parents then lived. Because the family could not afford the cost of the return trip to California, they settled in New England. For several years, Robert Frost’s mother earned a living by teaching in various schools, starting in Salem, New Hampshire. Undoubtedly she had a profound effect on her son’s development. Her Scottish loyalties, particularly her intense religious preoccupations (which caused her to relinquish her inherited Calvinistic Presbyterianism in favor of an ardent Swedenborgian belief) may account in part for the tantalizing blend of practicality and mysticism in Robert Frost’s poetry.

In 1892 Robert Frost graduated from Lawrence High School as class poet and as co-valedictorian with a sensitive, brilliant girl named Elinor Miriam White, whom he married three years later. Already before his graduation from high school, he had decided to dedicate himself to the life of a poet, and he found no comparable attraction in any other possible profession. His paternal grandfather was, however, eager to make a lawyer of the gifted young man and persuaded him to enter Dartmouth College in the fall of 1892. Characteristically, Frost left Dartmouth before he had completed his first semester there. During the next few years his quietly dedicated aim was concealed beneath apparent aimlessness: He earned his living in a variety of ways, intermittently teaching school, working as a bobbin boy in a Lawrence wool mill, trying his hand at newspaper reporting, and doing odd jobs. Throughout these years he wrote poems, which he continued to send to newspaper and magazine editors. When the New York Independent sent him his first check, for a poem titled “My Butterfly,” in November, 1894, he celebrated the event by having six of his poems printed in book form under the title Twilight and in a limited edition of only two copies, one for his fiancé, Elinor White, and one for himself.

After his marriage, at the age of twenty-one, Frost spent two years helping his mother run a small private school in Lawrence. Then, deciding to prepare himself for more advanced teaching by concentrating on Latin literature, he entered Harvard University as a special student. After two years there (1897-1899) he again grew impatient with formal study and abandoned it with his prospects unimproved but with unimpaired determination to become distinguished as a poet.

An important turning point occurred about this time, when a doctor warned him that his chronically precarious physical condition suggested the threat of tuberculosis and that country life might be beneficial. He thereupon became a farmer. His paternal grandfather, somewhat baffled but solicitous, bought him a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where between 1900 and 1905 Frost raised poultry and came to be known as “the egg man.” Still more a poet than a farmer, he found in the New Hampshire countryside and its people an appealing kind of raw material for his lyrics and dramatic narratives. By 1905 he had written most of the poems that later constituted his first two published volumes. However, neither farming nor poetry provided adequate support for his growing family of three daughters and one son. Therefore from 1905 to 1911 he taught various subjects at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry. His success as a provocative teacher brought him the invitation to join the faculty of the New Hampshire Normal School at Plymouth, and in 1911 he moved his family there.

Never wavering from his secret goal, and increasingly impatient with various diversions and hindrances, Frost taught at the New Hampshire Normal School only one year before deciding to take one last gamble on a literary life. In the autumn of 1912 he sailed for England with his family, a venture made possible by the cash sale of his Derry farm and by a small annual income from the estate of his deceased paternal grandfather. The Frosts rented an inexpensive cottage on the edge of fields and woods in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and more or less “camped it,” while the poet went seriously to work. Within three months after his arrival in England he had sorted out his previously written poems into an arrangement for two volumes of poems, had submitted to a London publisher the manuscript of A Boy’s Will, and had signed a contract. The British reviews of his first book were little more than lukewarm, but the critical response to his dramatic narratives, published a year later in North of Boston, enthusiastically hailed a new poetic voice. Thus at the age of forty, after twenty years of patient devotion to his art, Frost won recognition in England and thereby attracted the attention of critics and editors in his native land.

Publication of his first two volumes also facilitated literary acquaintances and friendships in England, including those with such writers as Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas, F. S. Flint, T. E. Hulme, and Lascelles Abercrombie. With the encouragement of Abercrombie, the Frost family in the spring of 1914 moved from Beaconsfield to the idyllic Gloucestershire countryside near the Malvern Hills. Only the outbreak of war caused the Frosts to make plans for returning to the United States. By the time they reached New York in February, 1915, both A Boy’s Will and North of Boston had been published in American editions, and the latter quickly became a best-seller.

Frost returned to New Hampshire and bought a small farm in the White Mountain region, near Franconia, but his growing literary reputation brought almost immediate demands for public readings and lectures. In less than a year after his return from England, he had given readings in most of the New England states as well as in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York. He became one of the first American poets to make arrangements with various universities to join a faculty as a creative writer, without submitting to the treadmill of regular teaching. From 1916 to 1920 he was a professor of English at Amherst College, and from 1921 to 1923 he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. After returning to Amherst for two years, he went back to spend one more year at the University of Michigan as a fellow-in-letters. From 1926 to 1938 he again taught at Amherst on a part-time basis, from 1939 to 1943 he was Ralph Waldo Emerson Fellow of Poetry at Harvard, from 1943 to 1949 he was Ticknor Fellow at Dartmouth, and in 1949 he was appointed Simpson Lecturer at Amherst.

Frost received many honors and awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943; he was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1916, and to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930. On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution extending him felicitations. In 1955 Vermont named a mountain after him in the town of his legal residence, Ripton. More than thirty colleges and universities gave him honorary degrees, and in the spring of 1957 he returned to Great Britain to receive honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and the National University of Ireland.

Frost’s seemingly simple poetic idiom is actually complicated, subtle, and elusive. At first glance many of his lyric, descriptive, and narrative poems may seem to deserve particular merit solely because they precisely observe little-noticed details of natural objects and rural characters. The poet’s obvious pleasure in faithfully recording cherished images actually provides the foundation for a subtle poetic superstructure. Even in his brief lyrics Frost manages to include a strong dramatic element, primarily through a sensitive capturing of voice tones, so that the so-called “sound of sense” adds a significant dimension of meaningfulness to all his poems. Beyond that, his imagery is developed in such a way as to endow even the most prosaically represented object with implied symbolic extensions of meaning. Finally, through the blend of matter and manner, the poems frequently transcend the immediate relationships of the individual to self, to others, to nature, and to the universe as they probe the mysteries around which religious faith is built. While the totality of his separate poetic moods may explore many possible attitudes toward human experience, his poems repeatedly return to an implied attitude of devout reverence and belief, which constitute the infallible core of his work.

Robert Frost Biography (Poetry for Students)

Born in San Francisco, Frost was eleven-years-old when his father died, and his family relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Robert Frost Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Famed as a New England poet, Robert Lee Frost was actually born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, and named for a great Confederate general. His father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a footloose journalist who, as a teenager, had tried to run away from his Lawrence, Massachusetts, home and join the Confederate Army. After he died in 1885, his wife, Isabelle Moodie Frost, brought their young son, Rob, and daughter, Jeanie, back to Lawrence, where her late husband’s parents still lived.

Frost’s poem “Once by the Pacific” demonstrates that the West Coast did help shape the poet’s imagination, but he grew to maturity in Lawrence, where he graduated second in his high school class, behind Elinor Miriam White, in 1892. Shortly thereafter the two became engaged.

After briefly attending Dartmouth College, Frost took a series of odd jobs, which included newspaper reporting and teaching in a school run by his mother. In 1894, he published his first poem, “My Butterfly,” in a periodical called The Independent. He gathered this poem, along with four others he had composed, into a little book called Twilight, which he presented to Elinor White as a preview of what he hoped would be substantial success as a poet. He married Elinor in 1895 and was already a father when he entered Harvard College as a special student in 1897. Although he again failed to graduate and, in fact, later boasted of walking away from two colleges, Frost was a good student in his two years at Harvard, and what he learned of classical poetry certainly furthered his poetic development.

The Frosts’ early married years were difficult ones. Their first son died in 1900, but four other children were born between 1899 and 1905. While continuing to write poetry, Frost supported his family by farming in West Derry, New Hampshire, teaching at nearby Pinkerton Academy and accepting financial assistance from his paternal grandfather, who left him a generous annuity when he died in 1901.

After more than a decade of this modest and obscure life, Frost made a momentous decision in 1912. He decided to move his family to England, where, benefiting from the promotional efforts of his fellow American expatriate Ezra Pound, Frost published A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). He also developed friendships with other writers, particularly the English poet Edward Thomas. When the Frosts returned to the United States in 1915, he was finally gaining recognition as a poet.

Frost still hoped to combine farming and poetry and lived for several years after his return in Franconia, New Hampshire, and in South Shaftesbury, Vermont, but increasingly he played the role of a gentleman farmer. His 1923 volume, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, made much of “the need of being versed in country things.”

Having gained access to the literary and academic worlds, however, he undertook at this point three years as a poet-in-residence at Amherst College and two more at the University of Michigan. He later taught at both Amherst and Harvard, one of the colleges from which he had failed to graduate. His favorite activity became the performing of his own poems before chiefly academic audiences. Developing a chatty, informal style of discussing his poems that proved highly popular, he gained the reputation as he grew older, of a cheerful, homespun philosopher—a pose that is belied, however, both by his poetry and by the conflicts of his personal life.

A number of poems in his 1928 book West-Running Brook, among them “Bereft,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and “Tree at My Window,” reflect a troubled spirit. Frost sensed in himself a precarious mental balance and feared a breakdown such as the one that led to the institutionalization of his sister, Jeanie. Later his son Carol committed suicide, and his daughter Irma had to be confined for a mental disorder. There were other tragedies—the deaths of his daughter Marjorie of puerperal fever in 1934 and of his wife in 1938, which devastated him.

His career, however, continued in high gear. His Collected Poems (1930) earned for him another Pulitzer Prize, as did A Further Range (1936), though critics disputed whether Frost’s title could justly be regarded as an allusion to the extension of his poetic range or simply to another range of New England mountains. In the 1930’s, when arguments raged over whether a poet ought to articulate a social commitment, Frost continued to write about solitary and rural figures, but “Departmental” wryly examines the subject of bureaucracy, and “Provide, Provide” twits those who would depend on the social legislation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration for their security.

In the 1940’s Frost published two new books of poems, A Witness Tree (1942) and Steeple Bush (1947), as well as two masques—short dramatic works—on “reason” and “mercy,” respectively. By the time of Steeple Bush, Frost was seventy-three; his output slowed to a trickle, but honors flowed in. Both the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge made him a doctor of letters in 1957; he was named American poet laureate in 1958, and he read a poem at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

The last year of his long life proved to be a capstone. He brought out a final book of poems, In the Clearing (1962), and in late summer of that year he visited the Soviet Union as a goodwill ambassador. The trip proved an ordeal for the eighty-eight-year-old poet, however, and soon afterward his health declined rapidly. In December, he entered Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston; he died on January 29, 1963.

Robert Frost Biography (Poetry for Students)

Robert Frost is universally identified with New England, his home for many years and the setting for much of his poetry. However, he was born...

(The entire section is 394 words.)