Frost, Robert (1874-1963)

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Frost, Robert (1874-1963)

The image of Robert Frost nurtured by most Americans is of a white-haired, rustic saint writing poems about the mellow glories of nature and the pastoral idylls of New England rural life. When not shining in this bucolic light, he glows with a patriotic aura as America's Poet Laureate reading his work at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, presaging through his presence the imminent wonders promised by the young president's election. But this idealistic image of Frost was more the product of marketing by the poet himself than a true reflection of any innate homespun charm. Frost was, indeed, a great poet, but he was also a bitter, egotistical writer who resented the late recognition of his genius. To understand how he came to be both the great poet and bitter man requires foraging in the woods of his life.

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1874, the son of William Prescott Frost and Isabelle Moodie. Frost's father was a journalist whose drinking habits led to an early death by tuberculosis at age 34 in 1885. After his death, Frost's mother moved the family to Massachusetts, where Frost graduated as one of two valedictorians in 1892 from Lawrence High School. His co-valedictorian was his future wife, Elinor Miriam White. After high school, Frost enrolled at Dartmouth College, while Elinor attended St. Lawrence. Frost left Dartmouth early, unable to contain his bouts of jealousy over Elinor's refusal to leave her studies and marry him. After Elinor graduated in 1895, she took a teaching position at the school Frost's mother had started and shortly afterwards married Frost. Frost at the time worked as a teacher and reporter, publishing what little poetry could get past the stodgily Victorian editors who ruled the world of American letters. The Frosts started bearing children shortly after their marriage, increasing the pressure on Frost to make good on his own evolving opinion of himself as a poet worth serious consideration. Financial strains were eased when Frost's grandfather let the entire family reside at Derry Farm in New Hampshire. (The farm was shortly afterwards bequeathed, with a small annuity, to the still growing family.)

By 1907, Frost had six children and still no steady form of income beyond the annuity. On October 23, 1912, Frost left America for England, fed up with the obtuseness of the American poetry establishment. In England, he discovered an entirely new and altogether exciting world of letters. There were the modernist giants—Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, William Butler Yeats—fashioning with great broad strokes a new poetic reality. Frost published his first book of poetry, A Boy's Will, in April 1913, which was favorably reviewed in Ezra Pound's Poetry within a month. Many of the poems featured in A Boy's Will had been written during Frost's years at Derry Farm, as were the poems in his next two works, North of Boston (1914) and Mountain Interval (1916). North of Boston offered some of Frost's best work, including "After Apple-Picking" and "The Wood-Pile," while Mountain Interval featured "The Road Not Taken" and "An Old Man's Winter Night."

Frost returned to the United States after the publication of North of Boston to resounding critical praise. He was named Phi Beta Kappa Poet by Tufts University and a few years later at Harvard as well. His election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and appointment as a professor at Amherst College assured the recognition he had always craved and the income he and his family had to do without for so long. In 1922, he received his first of four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry with his collection New Hampshire, which included "Fire and Ice," "Two Witches," and his most famous work, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Five years later West-Running Brook appeared, again to high praise, but featuring, as did New Hampshire, individual poems with a decidedly political cast. In 1930, he received his second Pulitzer Prize for Collected Poems of Robert Frost, while in 1936 a third was awarded for the much more openly political A Further Range. Yet despite the obvious compliment implied in winning a third Pulitzer, A Further Range drew fire from major literary critics such as Newton Arvin and R.P. Blackmur for Frost's conservative overtones, which ran contrary to the general political feeling during the Great Depression.

In 1942, Frost received his fourth and last Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The collection responsible was A Witness Tree, which included "Beech," "The Most of It," "November," and the poem he would read at Kennedy's inauguration 20 years later, "The Gift Outright." Afterwards, Frost was never quite the same as a poet, despite the occasional powerful lyric. Steeple Bush (1947), A Masque of Mercy (1947), A Masque of Reason (1948), and In the Clearing (1962) were themselves vitiated by a writer whose creative genius had run its course and whose destiny appeared for the final 20 years of his life to be one of putting out collections of his earlier poetry and racking up all of the remaining accolades except the one he desired most, the Nobel Prize for literature.

Frost's genius emanated in large part from his conscious decision during the modernist era not to follow the lead of his fellow poets and experiment with vers libre. Frost's poems were thematically and metrically unified by his belief in the idea—shared by other American modernists like Wallace Stevens—that the chaos of reality is given order by the extension of the perceiver's will. A cross between the stoic naturalism of Jack London and Frank Norris and the Americanized Nietzcheanism of William James and John Dewey, Frost's poetry illustrates the ways in which the decaying effects of nature are held at bay by the forms into which we mold our understanding of our environment. As a result, Frost integrates the formal rigidities of blank verse and sonnet with a distinctly regional coloration that depends heavily on the use of common speech, standard word order, and metaphors grounded in natural events. Although, like other contemporaries, Frost saw in free verse an opportunity to retreat from the high diction of earlier poetical traditions, the chaotic freedom of its metrical format could not accommodate a personal philosophy that saw the economy and rhythm of poetry as an instrument for taming the uncertainties of lived reality. Thus in a poem like "Nothing Gold Can Stay," it is the simple rhyme scheme that staves off the decay of nature. Or consider his "Once by the Pacific," which attempts to contain the dark irony of the inherent destructiveness of nature in a highly structured metrical format. Even "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" manages to restrain the suicidal intensity of the narrator's tone, rhythmically counterbalancing his response to the woods "lovely, dark and deep" with the "promises" left "to keep." Frost's dark vision may belie the idyllic sweetness that has grown up around the image of him, but in many ways they represent far more closely the anxieties he sought to capture of the American spirit seeking to understand the limits of freedom and the wisest use of it.

—Bennett Lovett-Graff

Further Reading:

Frost, Robert. Selected Letters of Robert Frost. Edited by Lawrance Thompson. New York, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1964.

Greiner, Donald J. Robert Frost: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago, American Library Association, 1974.

Lentricchia, Frank. Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Durham, Duke University Press, 1975.

Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Thomson, Lawrance. Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966.

——. Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1976.

——. Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.