Robert Frost’s poem “Desert Places” in many ways exemplifies the dark, brooding, somewhat gloomy side of Frost’s poetic character – an aspect of his work that is evident in many poems. And Frost, of course, had many personal reasons to feel such gloom. Frost’s father had been an alcoholic and gambler, and these facts had led to tensions between him and Frost’s mother. The elder Frost was also often a harsh parent, and partly for this reason young Frost had to drop out of school because of severe stomach aches. His father eventually died of tuberculosis, leaving his family in genteel poverty.
Financial pressures prevented Frost from receiving the kind of collegiate education he might have wished for, and for years he worked as a chicken farmer to keep his small family fed. His first-born son died in his fourth year, and Frost’s wife, Elinor, became depressed as a result. Frost’s own physical and mental health were not good at this time, and even after he received a small inheritance from his grandfather, he had to work hard at farming, finding time to write poetry only at night. During this period, his financial circumstances were strained and his family responsibilities were numerous.
Even after Frost began to attract widespread attention and admiration as a poet, his life was hardly problem-free. As I put it in an article on Frost in the Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers,
Frost’s own health and the health of some of his children were often poor; tensions with his wife were increasing; his adult children were beginning to encounter problems of their own; and [his wife] Elinor was more and more depressed.
In his biography of Frost, Jay Parini describes events in the poet’s life at around the time “Desert Places” was composed. These events included widespread family sickness at Christmas in 1932; more bad health for Frost himself in May 1933; the possibility, at that time, that he might have contracted tuberculosis; persistent depression on Frost’s part; repeated confinement of the poet to bed; and another of his annual attacks of hay fever (283-86).
Little wonder, then, given the poet’s earlier life-history as well as the events unfolding when “Desert Places” was composed, that the tone of the poem is so dark and stark. Little wonder, either, that the poem is such a brooding reflection on existential loneliness.
Evans, Robert C. “Robert Frost.” Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers. Ed. Patricia Gannt et al. 5 vols (New York: Facts on File, 2010), 4: 184-212.
Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.