Robert Frost Additional 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.


(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...

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(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.


(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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)


(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.)


(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...

(The entire section is 921 words.)


(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.)