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Robert Lee Frost

Robert Lee Frost

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963) was an intentionally American and traditionalist poet in an age of internationalized and experimental art. He used New England idioms, characters, and settings, recalling the roots of American culture, to get at universal experience.

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874. His father came from prerevolutionary Maine and New Hampshire stock but hated New England because the Civil War it had supported had robbed his own father of employment in the cotton mill economy. When Frost's father graduated from Harvard in 1872, he left New England. He paused in Lewistown, Pa., to teach and married another teacher, Isabelle Moodie, a Scotswoman. They moved to San Francisco, where the elder Frost became an editor and politician. Their first child was named for the Southern hero Gen. Robert E. Lee.

When Frost's father died in 1884, his will stipulated burial in New England. His wife and two children, Robert and Jeanie, went east for the funeral. Lacking funds to return to California, they settled in Salem, Mass., where Mrs. Frost taught school.

Transplanted New Englander

Robert had been a city boy, a proud Californian, and no student. Transplanted, he grew sensitive to New England's speechways, taciturn characters, and customs. He also became a serious student and graduated from Lawrence High School as valedictorian and class poet in 1892. He enrolled at Dartmouth College but soon left. He had become engaged to Elinor White, classmate and fellow valedictorian, who was completing her college education. Frost moved from job to job, working in mills, at newspaper reporting, and at teaching, all the while writing poetry. In 1894 he sold his first poem, "My Butterfly," to the New York Independent. Overjoyed, he had two copies of a booklet of lyrics privately printed, one for his fiancée and one for himself. He delivered Elinor's copy in person but did not find her response adequate. Thinking he had lost her, he tore up his copy and wandered south as far as the Dismal Swamp (from Virginia to North Carolina), even contemplating suicide.

In 1895, however, Frost married Elinor and tried to make a career of teaching. He helped his mother run a small private school in Lawrence, Mass., where his first son was born. He spent 2 years at Harvard (1897-1899), but again undergraduate study proved uncongenial. With a newborn daughter as well as a son, he tried chicken farming at Methuen, Mass., and in 1900, when his nervousness was diagnosed as a forewarning of tuberculosis, he moved his poultry business to Derry, N.H. There his first son soon died. In 1906 Frost was stricken with pneumonia and almost died, and a year later his fourth daughter died. This grief and suffering, as well as lesser frustrations in personal life and business, turned Frost more and more to poetry. Once again he tried teaching, in Derry and then in Plymouth, N.H.

Creation of the Poet

In 1912, almost 40 and with only a few poems published, Frost sold his farm and used an annuity from his grandfather to go to England and gamble everything on poetry. The family settled on a farm in Buckinghamshire, and Frost began to write. Ezra Pound, the expatriate American poet, helped him get published in periodicals, but Frost resented Pound's excessive management.

Frost published A Boy's Will (1913), and it was well received. Though it contains some 19th-century diction, the words and rhythms are generally colloquial and subtly simple. Written in conventional rhymed stanzas and blank verse, the poems begin in delight and end in wisdom, as Frost later said poems should. They move through various subjective moods toward modest revelations. Such poems as "Into My Own," "Mowing," and "A Tuft of Flowers" convey an inclination toward nature, solitude, and meditation, toward the beauty of fact, and toward a New England individualism that acknowledges a need for love and community.

North of Boston (1914), also published in England, is more objective, made up mainly of blank verse monologues and dramatic narratives. "The Death of the Hired Man," soberly suspenseful and compassionate, with lyric moments of waiting, has more to do with the mutual understanding in a marriage than with death. "Mending Wall" is a bantering satire contrasting a tradition-bound farmer and his neighbor, a straight-faced tease. In "After Apple-picking" the picker asks quizzically whether he should settle for being plain tired or inflate his state by identifying it with the drowsiness of autumn. "Home Burial" and "A Servant of Servants" dramatize respectively a hysteria bred of loneliness and death, and the precarious sanity of a rural drudge.

North of Boston compounded the success of A Boy's Will, and the two volumes announced the two modes of Frost's best poetry, the lyric and the narrative. Although immediately established as a nature poet, he did not idealize nature. He addressed not only its loveliness but also the isolation, harshness, and anxiety its New England intimates had to endure. The reticence of his poetry, however, is not simply that of a taciturn New Englander; it restrains tremendous psychic and sexual forces, a violent and suicidal bent, and deep emotional needs that occasionally flashed out in his poetry and personal life.

Frost's place in literary tradition had also begun to clarify. His work led back to aspects of Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Yankees Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier, and to characteristics of William Wordsworth, English 18th-century meditators on landscape, John Donne, and the Latin idylls and eclogues of Theocritus and Virgil. But Frost's irony and ambiguity, his concreteness and colloquial tone, his skepticism and honesty bespoke the modern.

A Public Figure

When the Frosts returned to America in 1915, North of Boston was a best seller. Sudden acclaim embarrassed Frost, who had always avoided crowds. He withdrew to a small farm in Franconia, N.H., but financial need soon compelled him to respond to demands for readings and lectures. In 1915 and 1916 he was respectively Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts College and at Harvard. He conquered his shyness, developing an epigrammatic, folksy platform manner that made him one of the most popular performers in America and abroad. His tall muscular body and rugged face with its pale watchful eyes became a familiar sight; as the hair whitened, the face grew craggy, and the body thickened, those eyes remained the same.

From Frost's talks, his few published essays, and his poems, the outline of a poetic theory emerged. He strove for the sound of sense, for the colloquial, for a tension between the natural rhythm of speech and the basic iambic meter of English verse. He felt that the emotion that began a poem should generate a form through likenesses and contraries and lead to a clarification of experience. This was the way to spontaneity and surprise.

Mountain Interval (1916) brought together lyrics and narratives. The five dramatic lyrics of "The Hill Wife" look at a marriage dying on a solitary farm. On the other hand, "Meeting and Passing" uses a few vivid images to infuse a courtship walk with the promise of joy. The hilarious slide in "Brown's Descent" and the youthful tree-swinging of "Birches" (although its exuberance is restrained from hyperbole by "matter of fact") are countered by the deadly accident of "Out, Out—."

In 1917 Frost became one of the first poets-in-residence on an American campus. He taught at Amherst from 1917 to 1920, in 1918 receiving a master of arts, the first of many academic honors. The following year he moved his farm base to South Saftsbury, Vt. In 1920 he cofounded the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College, serving there each summer as lecturer and consultant. From 1921 to 1923 he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan.

Frost's Selected Poems and a new volume, New Hampshire, appeared in 1923. For the latter Frost received the first of four Pulitzer Prizes. Though the title poem does not present Frost at his best, the volume also contains such lovely lyrics as "Fire and Ice," "Nothing Gold Can Stay," and "To Earthward." In "For Once, Then Something" Frost slyly joshes critics who ask for deep, deep insights; and in the dramatic narrative "The Witch of Coös" he turns a rustic comedy into a grotesque story of adultery and murder. "Two Look at Two" dramatizes a hushed encounter between human lovers and animal lovers.

Frost returned to Amherst for 2 years in 1923 and to the University of Michigan in 1925 and then settled at Amherst in 1926.

West Running Brook (1928) continued Frost's tonal variations and mingling of lyrics and narratives. The lyric "Tree at My Window" appeared along with "Acquainted with the Night," a narrative of a despairing nightwalker in a city where time is "neither right nor wrong." The title poem, recalling John Donne, is a little drama of married lovers and their thoughts upon a stream that goes "by contraries," a stream that itself contains a contrary, a wave thrown back against the current by a rock, a "backward motion toward the source" that emblems the lovers' own tendency.

Frost visited England and Paris in 1928 and published his Collected Poems in 1930. In 1934 he suffered another excruciating loss in the death of his daughter Marjorie. He returned to Harvard in 1936 and in the same year published A Further Range.

This volume contains considerable social comment, but in the context of a worldwide depression some of it seemed oversimplified and untimely. "Two Tramps at Mud Time," however, puts men's need, and therefore right, to work in dramatically personal terms. "The Drumlin Woodchuck" recommends a distrustful defensiveness in order to survive for love; and "Departmental," another fable, satirizes bureaucracy through the antics of ants. "Build Soil—A Political Pastoral" recalls Virgil's First Eclogue. Frost's character Depression Tityrus declares, "I'd let things take their course And then I'd take the credit." Among the shorter pieces, several speak of inadequacy, disillusion, or malevolence—"Desert Places," "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," "Provide, Provide," and "Design."

Later Work and Personal Tragedy

Honors, forebodings, and tragedies continued to crowd in on Frost. Because of his weak lungs, his doctor ordered him south in 1936, and thereafter he spent his winters in Florida. Frost served on the Harvard faculty during 1936-1937 and received an honorary doctorate. After his wife died of a heart attack in 1938, Frost resigned from the Amherst faculty and sold his house. That same year he was elected to the Board of Overseers of Harvard College. In 1939 his second Collected Poems appeared, and he began a 3-year stay at Harvard. In 1940 his only surviving son committed suicide.

A Witness Tree (1942) included the lyric "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length" and "Come In," in which the speaker prefers the guiding light of stars to the romantic dark of the woods and the song of an unseen bird. Steeple Bush (1947) contained the beautiful elegy of decay "Directive." The monologist visits an abandoned village where he used to live and, through allusions to the Holy Grail, converts the visit into a journey back toward a source, a stream beside which he administers communion to himself: "Drink and be whole again against confusion."

In 1945 Frost essayed something new in A Masque of Reason, a verse drama, too chatty for the stage. A modernization of the biblical story of Job, it is theistic and sets forth good-humoredly the Puritanic conviction that man, with his finite mind, must remain separate from God. A Masque of Mercy (1947), a companion verse drama based on the story of Jonah, has a heretical or individualistic air about it but still comes out essentially orthodox, suggesting that man with his limited knowledge must try to act justly and mercifully, for action is his salvation if it complies with God's will. "Nothing can make injustice just but mercy."

Frost's Complete Poems appeared in 1949, and in 1950 the U.S. Senate felicitated him on his seventy-fifth birthday. In 1957 he returned to England to receive doctoral degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. On his eighty-fifth birthday the Senate again felicitated him. In 1961, at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Frost recited "The Gift Outright," the first time a poet had honored a presidential inauguration. A final volume, In the Clearing, appeared in 1962.

On Jan. 29, 1963, Frost died in Boston of complications following an operation. He was buried in the family plot in Old Bennington, Vt. His "lover's quarrel with the world" was over.

Further Reading

Lawrence R. Thompson has completed the first two volumes of an official Frost biography, Robert Frost, vol. 1: The Early Years, 1874-1915 (1966), and vol. 2: Years of Triumph (1970). A useful critical biography is Philip L. Gerber, Robert Frost (1967). Margaret Bartlett Anderson provides an informal view in Robert Frost and John Bartlett: The Record of a Friendship (1963). An interesting biography by a friend is Louis Mertins, Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking (1965). An account of Frost's trip to the Soviet Union is Franklin D. Reeve, Robert Frost in Russia (1964).

Two sound introductions are Lawrence R. Thompson, Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost (1942), and Sidney Cox, A Swinger of Birches (1957). The poet Amy Lowell includes a discussion of Frost in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917). Reuben A. Brower concentrates on poetic criticism in The Poetry of Robert Frost (1963). More specialized studies are John F. Lynen, The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost (1960); James M. Cox, ed., Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962), which contains varied critical assessments of Frost; and James R. Squires, The Major Themes of Robert Frost (1963). □

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Frost, Robert

Robert Frost

Born: March 26, 1874
San Francisco, California
Died: January 29, 1963
Boston, Massachusetts

American poet

Robert Frost was a traditional American poet in an age of experimental art. He used New England expressions, characters, and settings, recalling the roots of American culture, to get at the common experience of all.

The early years

Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1874. His father, William, came from Maine and New Hampshire ancestry and had graduated from Harvard in 1872. He left New England and went to Lewistown, Pennsylvania, to teach. He married another teacher, Isabelle Moodie, a Scotswoman, and they moved to San Francisco, where the elder Frost became an editor and politician. Robert, their first child, was named for the Southern hero General Robert E. Lee (18071870).

When Frost's father died in 1884, his will requested that he be buried in New England. His wife and two children, Robert and Jeanie, went east for the funeral. Lacking funds to return to California, they settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where his grandfather had offered them a home. Eventually Mrs. Frost found a job teaching at a school.

Transplanted New Englander

As a young boy, Robert loved his mother reading to him. Her influence introduced him to a large variety of literature, and from this he was inspired to become an excellent reader. He lacked enthusiasm for school in his elementary years, but became a serious student and graduated from Lawrence High School as valedictorian (top in his class) and class poet in 1892. He enrolled at Dartmouth College but soon left. He had become engaged to Elinor White, classmate and fellow valedictorian, who was completing her college education. Frost moved from job to job, working in mills, at newspaper reporting, and at teaching, all the while writing poetry. In 1894 he sold his first poem, "My Butterfly," to the New York Independent. Overjoyed, he had two copies of a booklet of lyrics privately printed, one for his fiancée and one for himself. He delivered Elinor's copy in person but did not find her response to be enthusiastic. Thinking he had lost her, he tore up his copy and wandered south as far as the Dismal Swamp (from Virginia to North Carolina), even contemplating killing himself.

In 1895, however, Frost married Elinor and tried to make a career of teaching. He helped his mother run a small private school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his first son was born. He spent two years at Harvard, but undergraduate study proved difficult while raising a family. With a newborn daughter as well as a son to now raise, he decided to try chicken farming at Methuen, Massachusetts, on a farm purchased by his grandfather. In 1900, when his nervousness was diagnosed as a sign that he may possibly contract tuberculosis (a disease caused by bacteria that usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other organs in the body), he moved his poultry business to Derry, New Hampshire. There his first son soon died. In 1906 Frost was stricken with pneumonia (a disease that causes inflammation of the lungs) and almost died. A year later his fourth daughter died. This grief and suffering, as well as lesser frustrations in his personal and business life, turned Frost more and more to poetry. Once again he tried teaching, in Derry and then in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Creation of the poet

In 1912, almost forty and with only a few poems published, Frost sold his farm and used an allowance from his grandfather to go to England and gamble everything on poetry. The family settled on a farm in Buckinghamshire, and Frost began to write. Ezra Pound (18851972), another American poet, helped him get published in magazines, and he met many people in literature that helped to inspire and further expand his knowledge of poetry.

Frost published A Boy's Will (1913), and it was well received. Though it contains some nineteenth-century expressions, the words and rhythms are generally informal and subtly simple.

North of Boston (1914) is more objective, made up mainly of blank verse (poetry without rhyme) monologues (long speeches, plays, or entertainment given by a single person) and dramatic narratives (stories or descriptions of events). North of Boston added to the success of A Boy's Will, and the two volumes announced the two modes of Frost's best poetry, the lyric (a poem telling of love or other emotions) and the narrative. Although immediately established as a nature poet, he did not glorify nature. He addressed not only its loveliness but also the isolation, harshness, and pain its New England inhabitants had to endure.

A public figure

When the Frosts returned to the United States in 1915, North of Boston was a bestseller. Sudden fame embarrassed Frost, who had always avoided crowds. He withdrew to a small farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, but financial need soon saw him responding to demands for readings and lectures. In 1915 and 1916 he was a Phi Beta Kappa (an organization made up of college students and graduates who have achieved a high level of academic excellence in studies of liberal arts and sciences) poet at Tufts College and at Harvard University. He conquered his shyness, developing a brief and simple speaking manner that made him one of the most popular performers in America and abroad.

In 1916 Frost published Mountain Interval, which brought together lyrics and narratives in his poetry. In 1917 Frost became one of the first poets-in-residence on an American campus. He taught at Amherst from 1917 to 1920, in 1918 receiving a master of arts, the first of many academic honors. The following year he moved his farm base to South Saftsbury, Vermont. In 1920 he cofounded the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College, serving there each summer as lecturer and consultant. From 1921 to 1923 he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan.

Frost's Selected Poems and a new volume, New Hampshire, appeared in 1923. Frost received the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for the latter in 1924. Though the title poem does not present Frost at his best, the volume also contains such lyrics as "Fire and Ice," "Nothing Gold Can Stay," and "To Earthward."

Frost returned to Amherst for two years in 1923 and to the University of Michigan in 1925 and then settled at Amherst in 1926. In 1928 Frost published West Running Brook, in which he continued his use of tonal variations (changes in sound and rhythm) and a mixture of lyrics and narratives.

Frost visited England and Paris in 1928 and published his Collected Poems in 1930. In 1934 he suffered another painful loss with the death of his daughter Marjorie. He returned to Harvard in 1936 and in the same year published A Further Range.

Later work and personal tragedies

Because of Frost's weak lungs, his doctor ordered him south in 1936, and thereafter he spent his winters in Florida. Frost served on the Harvard staff from 1936 to 1937 and received an honorary doctorate. After his wife died of a heart attack in 1938, Frost resigned from the Amherst staff and sold his house. That same year he was elected to the Board of Overseers of Harvard College. In 1939 his second Collected Poems appeared, and he began a three-year stay at Harvard. In 1940 his only surviving son took his own life.

In 1945 Frost composed something new in A Masque of Reason, an updated version of the biblical story of Job. A Masque of Mercy (1947), was a companion verse drama (a dramatic poem) based on the biblical story of the prophet Jonah.

Frost's Complete Poems appeared in 1949, and in 1950 the U.S. Senate honored him on his seventy-fifth birthday. In 1957 he returned to England to receive doctoral degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. On his eighty-fifth birthday the Senate again honored him. In 1961, at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy (19171963), Frost recited "The Gift Outright," the first time a poet had honored a presidential inauguration. A final volume, In the Clearing, appeared in 1962.

On January 29, 1963, Frost died in Boston, Massachusetts, of complications following an operation. He was buried in the family plot in Old Bennington, Vermont.

For More Information

Brodsky, Joseph, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott. Homage to Robert Frost. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

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Frost, Robert

Robert Frost, 1874–1963, American poet, b. San Francisco. Perhaps the most popular and beloved of 20th-century American poets, Frost wrote of the character, people, and landscape of New England in a spare, solidly American language, but his lyrical yet frequently bleak, dramatic, and often deeply symbolic verse goes far beyond regional poetry.

He was taken to Lawrence, Mass., his family's home for generations, at the age of 10. After studying briefly at Dartmouth, he worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, a cobbler, a schoolteacher, and a journalist; he later entered Harvard but left after two years to try farming. In 1912 he went to England, where he received his first acclaim as a poet. After the publication of A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), he returned to the United States, settling on a farm near Franconia, N.H. Frost taught and lectured at several universities, including Amherst, Harvard, and the Univ. of Michigan. In later life he was accorded many honors; he made several goodwill trips for the U.S. State Dept., and in 1961 he recited his poem "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

Among Frost's volumes of poetry are New Hampshire (1923), West-running Brook (1928), Collected Poems (1930), A Further Range (1936), A Witness Tree (1942), Steeple Bush (1947), and In the Clearing (1962). A Masque of Reason (1945) and A Masque of Mercy (1947) were blank verse plays. Although his work is rooted in the New England landscape, Frost was no mere regional poet. The careful local observations and homely details of his poems often have deep symbolic, even metaphysical, significance. His poems are concerned with human tragedies and fears, his reaction to the complexities of life, and his ultimate acceptance of his burdens. Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943. Frost's critical reputation has recently rebounded after a period when his poetry was often criticized for being old-fashioned.

See his complete poems (1967) and collected poems, prose, and plays (1995, ed. by R. Poirier and M. Richardson); his letters, ed. by A. Grade (1972) and ed. by D. Sheehy et al. (vol. 1, 2014); biographies by M. L. Mertens (1965), L. R. Thompson (3 vol., 1966–76, vol. III with R. H. Winnick), W. H. Pritchard (1985), S. Burnshaw (1986), J. Meyers (1996), and J. Parini (1999); studies by R. A. Brower (1963), F. Lentricchia (1975), R. Poirier (1977), and T. Kendall (2012).

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Frost, Robert Lee

Frost, Robert Lee (1874–1963) US poet. His work was shaped by the landscape of his native New England and by the fusion of colloquial idioms and traditional rhythms. His first two volumes of lyric poems, A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), established his reputation. His best-known poems include: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “The Road Not Taken”, and “Mending Wall”. He received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1924, 1931, 1937, 1943).

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