Robert Frost — even the sound of his name is folksy, rural: simple, New England, white farmhouse, red barn, stone walls. And that’s our vision of him, thin white hair blowing at JFK’s inauguration, reciting his poem “The Gift Outright.” (The weather was too blustery and frigid for him to read “Dedication,” which he had written specifically for the event, so he simply performed the only poem he had memorized. It was oddly fitting.) As usual, there’s some truth in the myth — and a lot of back story that makes Frost much more interesting — more poet, less icon Americana.
Did You Know?:
- Frost was actually born in San Francisco.
- He lived in California till he was 11 and then moved East — he grew up in cities in Massachusetts.
- Far from a hardscrabble farming apprenticeship, Frost attended Dartmouth and then Harvard. His grandfather bought him a farm when he was in his early 20s.
- When his attempt at chicken farming failed, he served a stint teaching at a private school and then he and his family moved to England.
- It was while he was in Europe that he was discovered by the US expat and Impresario of Modernism, Ezra Pound, who published him in Poetry.
Frost’s Early Years:
Robert Lee Frost was born March 26, 1874 in San Francisco to Isabelle Moodie and William Prescott Frost, Jr. The Civil War had ended nine years previously, Walt Whitman
was 55. Frost had deep US roots: his father was a descendant of a Devonshire Frost who sailed to New Hampshire in 1634. William Frost had been a teacher and then a journalist, was known as a drinker, a gambler and a harsh disciplinarian. He also dabbled in politics, for as long as his health allowed. He died of tuberculosis in 1885, when his son was 11.
Youth and College Years:
After the death of his father, Robert, his mother and sister moved from California to eastern Massachusetts near his paternal grandparents. His mother joined the Swedenborgian church and had him baptized in it, but Frost left it as an adult. He grew up as a city boy and attended Dartmouth College in 1892, for just less than a semester. He went back home to teach and work at various jobs including factory work and newspaper delivery.
First Publication and Marriage:
In 1894 Frost sold his first poem, “My Butterfly,” to The New York Independent for $15. It begins: “Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too, / And the daft sun-assaulter, he / That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead.” On the strength of this accomplishment, he asked Elinor Miriam White, his high school co-valedictorian, to marry him: she refused. She wanted to finish school before they married. Frost was sure that there was another man and made an excursion to the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. He came back later that year and asked Elinor again; this time she accepted. They married in December 1895.
The newlyweds taught school together until 1897, when Frost entered Harvard for two years. He did well, but left school to return home when his wife was expecting a second child. He never returned to college, never earned a degree. His grandfather bought a farm for the family in Derry, New Hampshire (you can still visit this farm). Frost spent nine years there, farming and writing — the poultry farming was not successful but the writing drove him on, and back to teaching for a couple more years. In 1912, the Frost gave up the farm, sailed to Glasgow, and later settled in Beaconsfield, outside London.
Success in England:
Frost’s efforts to establish himself in England were immediately successful. In 1913 he published his first book, A Boy’s Will, followed a year later by North of Boston. It was in England that he met such poets as Rupert Brooke, T.E. Hulme and Robert Graves, and established his lifelong friendship with Ezra Pound, who helped to promote and publish his work. Pound was the first American to write a (favorable) review of Frost’s work. In England Frost also met Edward Thomas, a member of the group known as the Dymock poets; it was walks with Thomas that led to Frost’s beloved but “tricky” poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
The Most Celebrated Poet in North America:
Frost returned to the US in 1915, and by the 1920s, he was the most celebrated poet in North America, winning four Pulitzer Prizes (still a record). He lived on a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, and from there carried on a long career writing, teaching and lecturing. From 1916 to 1938, he taught at Amherst College, and from 1921 to 1963 he spent his summers teaching at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College, which he helped found. Middlebury still owns and maintains his farm as a National Historic site: it is now a museum and poetry conference center.
Upon his death in Boston on January 29, 1963, Robert Frost was buried in the Old Bennington Cemetery, in Bennington, Vermont. He said, “I don’t go to church, but I look in the window.” It does say something about one’s beliefs to be buried behind a church, although the gravestone faces in the opposite direction. Frost was a man famous for contradictions, known as a cranky and egocentric personality – he once lit a wastebasket on fire on stage when the poet before him went on too long. His gravestone of Barre granite with hand-carved laurel leaves is inscribed, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
Frost in the Poetry Sphere:
Even though he was first discovered in England and extolled by the archmodernist Ezra Pound, Robert Frost’s reputation as a poet has been that of the most conservative, traditional, formal verse-maker. This may be changing: Paul Muldoon claims Frost as “the greatest American poet of the 20th century,” and the New York Times
has tried to resuscitate him as a proto-experimentalist: “Frost on the Edge
,” by David Orr, February 4, 2007 in the Sunday Book Review.
No matter. Frost is secure as our farmer/philosopher poet.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in....”
--“The Death of the Hired Man”
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall....”
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice....
--“Fire and Ice”