Robert Francis 1901-1987
American poet, essayist, and novelist.
Francis may be thought of as a poet's poet: he has been much celebrated by fellow poets, but little acknowledged by literary critics and the reading public. His poetry is frequently compared to that of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and his lifestyle and sensibilities to those of Henry David Thoreau. Francis's work is characterized by short poems, simple and elegant in form, written in plain, colloquial speech, and filled with concise, vivid descriptions of concrete objects from nature.
Robert Churchhill Francis was born on August 12, 1901, in Upland, Pennsylvania to Ebenezer and Ida May Allen Francis. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in 1923 and a master's degree in education in 1926. Shortly thereafter he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught high school for a year before devoting himself full-time to writing poetry. Throughout most of his adult life Francis lived very simply on the meager income from his poetry, in a home he built himself and named Fort Juniper, in the woods on the outskirts of Amherst. Francis's self-imposed isolation and simplicity has often been compared to that of Thoreau, who wrote Walden based on his experiences living in a small cabin in the wilderness of Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. As a young poet Francis met Frost, who became his mentor and a major influence on his writing. In addition to writing poetry, Francis occasionally taught at summer writers' workshops and conferences, and lectured at various universities around the country, including Harvard and Tufts, as well as the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. From 1957 to 1958 Francis lived in Rome, on the Prix de Rome fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974 the University of Massachusetts Press established the Juniper Prize in his honor, and he received a fellowship award from the Academy of American Poets in 1984. Francis died on July 13, 1987, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Francis's first volume of poetry, Stand With Me Here (1936), was well received as a promising work of lyrical beauty. Valhalla and Other Poems (1938) features “Valhalla,” a long narrative poem about a family who moves to Vermont, seeking a better life through proximity to nature. The Sound I Listened For (1944) speaks of the New England countryside. The Face against the Glass (1950), The Orb Weaver (1960),Come Out into the Sun (1965), and Like Ghosts of Eagles (1974), continue Francis's concern with the simple beauty of nature, as captured through concise, concrete description, and the musical qualities of plain, everyday language. In addition to volumes of poetry, Francis wrote a novel, We Fly Away (1948), a collection of essays, The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (1968), and an autobiography, The Trouble with Francis (1971).
Francis was much admired by his peers. Robert Frost considered him America's “best neglected poet,” and Donald Hall called him “a modern American classic.” Such supporters have often lamented that Francis has not received greater attention from critics, and that his poems are often excluded from major anthologies of American poetry. Those who have reviewed his work, however, have been almost uniformly enthusiastic about it. As a New England nature poet, Francis has often been compared to Frost, Dickinson, and Thoreau. Like Frost, Jack Lindeman has observed, Francis “is a type of bucolic philosopher … who translates the wisdom of nature into a means for achieving human contentment.” His poems have been admired for their use of colloquial language and concrete images which display an apparent simplicity that, upon closer examination, reveal a hidden depth and profundity. Critics have frequently praised Francis's craftsmanship, pointing to the formal elegance of his poetry; they add, however, that his finest pieces transcend mere craft, and possess a magical quality not explicable through formal analyses. As David Young has observed, “When one has pointed out the technical mastery of a Francis poem, one has only partly accounted for its effectiveness. There's a mysterious something beyond technique in his best poems.”