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The winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, Robert Frost holds a unique and almost isolated position in American letters. He stands at the crossroads of nineteenth-century American poetry and modernism, for in his verse may be found the culmination of many nineteenth-century tendencies and traditions as well as parallels to the works of his twentieth-century contemporaries. Taking his symbols from the public domain, Frost developed an original, modern idiom and sense of directness and economy that reflect the imagism of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. Frost favored New England idioms, characters, and settings in his poetry.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in San Francisco
Born Robert Lee Frost on March 26,1874, in San Francisco, California, he was the son of William Prescott Frost Jr. and his wife Isabelle (Moodie). His father was from New England, and worked variously as a teacher, editor, and politician, while his mother was a native of Scotland who also was employed as a teacher. Frost spent the first decade of his life in San Francisco, until his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1884.
Because William Frost wanted to be buried in New England, Robert, his mother, and younger sister Jeanie went east for the funeral. The family could not afford to return to California, and settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where Robert’s grandfather had offered them a home. Isabelle Frost eventually found a teaching job at a school to support her family.
Inspired by Literature
As a young boy, Frost greatly enjoyed hearing his mother read to him. She introduced him to a large variety of literature and inspired him to become an excellent reader. He soon decided that he wanted to be a poet as well. Though Frost lacked enthusiasm for school during his elementary years, he later became a serious student and was co-valedictorian of his class at Lawrence High School with Elinor White. Frost was also the class poet.
After graduating from high school in 1892, Frost entered Dartmouth College, but soon dropped out. He had become engaged to his high school classmate, White, who was still attending college. Frost then held a series of jobs, including mill worker, newspaper reporter, and teacher, and wrote poetry all the while.
Published First Poem
In 1894, Frost sold his first poem, ”My Butterfly,” to the New York Independent. Because his fiancee did not react enthusiastically to a specially printed copy he gave her, Frost suffered an emotional crisis and believed their engagement over. Frost wandered south to Virginia and North Carolina, and even contemplated suicide.
The crisis was smoothed over, and Frost married White in 1895. He then tried to make a career of teaching. Frost helped his mother run a small private school in Lawrence, where his first son was born. He also tried to continue his own education, by attending Harvard for two years. However, undergraduate study proved difficult while he was raising a family, and he became physically and mentally exhausted. Frost also continued to write poetry, and published thirteen poems between 1894 and 1902.
Frost and his wife added a daughter to their still-growing brood. Robert decided to try chicken farming on a Methuen, Massachusetts, farm purchased by his grandfather. In 1900, when Frost’s nervousness was diagnosed as a sign that he might possibly contract tuberculosis, he moved his expanding family and poultry business to Deny, New Hampshire.
There, Frost’s eldest child died, and, in 1906, Frost himself was stricken with pneumonia and almost died. A year later, his fourth daughter died. The accumulated grief and suffering, as well as lesser frustrations in his personal and business life, compelled Frost to turn to writing more poetry. Once again, Frost also tried teaching, first in Deny, then in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
Focus on Poetry in England
In 1912, Frost was nearly forty and had only published a few poems, but he nevertheless decided to focus exclusively on his art. He sold his farm and used an allowance from his grandfather to go to England and write. The family settled on a farm in Buckinghamshire, and Frost began writing prolifically as he attempted to perfect his distinct poetic voice. New acquaintances like American poet Ezra Pound helped Frost get published in magazines, though Frost later resented Pound’s excessive management. Frost also began meeting people in literature who inspired and expand his knowledge of poetry.
Frost soon published his first major volumes of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). Both of these volumes were well-received, featuring excellent examples of his lyric and narrative poems. These poems also immediately established his reputation as a nature poet of New England, for he addressed not only its loveliness but the isolation, harshness, and pain its residents must endure.
Frost and his family returned to the United States in 1915 primarily because of the outbreak of World War I. This conflict began in Europe in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Because of political tensions and entangling alliances, nearly the whole of Europe soon became involved in the conflict. The United States joined the war on the side of Great Britain and France in 1917 after Germany’s naval fleet began sinking American merchant ships in British waters. Ultimately, ten million soldiers died and 20 million were wounded during the course of the ”Great War.”
When the Frosts returned to the United States in 1915, after the outbreak of World War I, North of Boston was a best seller and Frost was famous. Sudden fame embarrassed Frost, who had always avoided crowds. He withdrew to a small farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, but financial need saw him responding to demands for readings and lectures. In 1915 and 1916, for example, he was a Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts College and Harvard University. Frost soon conquered his shyness, and developed a brief and simple speaking manner that made him one of the most popular performers in America and abroad.
Built on Fame
In 1916, Frost published another lauded collection, Mountain Interval. The following year, Frost became one of the first poets-in-residence on an American college campus: He taught at Amherst from 1917 to 1920. In 1919, Frost moved his farming to South Saftsbury, Vermont. The following year, he co-founded the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, serving there each summer as a lecturer and consultant. From 1921 to 1923, Frost served as a poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan.
Near the end of his stay in Michigan, Frost published a new volume of poetry, New Hampshire (1923). Frost received the first of four Pulitzer Prizes in 1924 for the collection. After moving back and forth between Amherst and the University of Michigan in the mid-1920s and before taking a longer-term job at Amherst in 1926, Frost published West Running Brook (1928), which continued his experiments in tonal variations and the mingling of lyrics and narratives.
Continued Success Amid Tragedy
In the 1930s, Frost suffered the painful death of another daughter, but returned to Harvard in 1936 and published another collection, A Further Range, that year. At the same time, the United States was facing an economic crisis. In 1929, the American stock market crashed, which launched the Great Depression. The failure of the stock market caused the economy—first in the United States then around the world—to fall into a dramatic and sustained depression that lasted through the 1930s.
Because of Frost’s weak lungs, his doctors ordered him south in 1936, and thereafter he spent his winters in Florida. Frost was a member of Harvard’s staff for two years. After his wife died of a heart attack in 1938, Frost resigned his post at Amherst and sold his house. That same year, Frost was elected to the Board of Overseers at Harvard, and he began a three-year stay there in 1939.
Controversial Later Works
As World War II began, Frost continued to produce challenging poetry. World War II began in Europe when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and overran the country. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving 55 million people dead.
After two more collections of lyric poetry, A Witness Tree (1942) and Steeple Bush (1945), Frost’s style became more experimental. In 1945, he wrote A Masque of Reason, an updated version of the biblical story of Job. A Masque of Mercy (1947) was a companion verse-drama based on the biblical story of the prophet Jonah. In 1949, Frost put out his Complete Poems.
Late Honors and Last Collection
While Frost published a few original works in the 1950s and early 1960s, he also received many awards and honors. In addition to being twice honored by the U.S. Senate, he also received honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge. In 1961, Frost read a poem, ”The Gift Outright,” at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Frost published his last collection of original poetry, In the Clearing, in 1962. He died on January 29, 1963, in Boston, Massachusetts, of complications following an operation. By the time of his death, Frost was considered the unofficial poet laureate of the United States.
Works in Literary Context
In his poetry, Frost described natural scenes with vivid imagery, celebrated ordinary rural activities, and mused upon the mysteries of existence. In doing so, he subtly developed dramatic tension he frequently left unresolved, ambiguous, and open to interpretation. He strove for the sense of sound, for the colloquial, for a tension between the natural rhythm of speech and the basic iambic meter of English verse. Frost felt that the emotion that began a poem should generate a form through likenesses and dissimilarities and lead to a clarification of experience. For Frost, this was a way to spontaneity and surprise. His work led back to aspects of Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Frost’s poems also recall William Wordsworth, eighteenth-century landscape poets, 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, all ensure his poetry is also unmistakably modern.
Frost often favored nature imagery in his poems, both to make moral observations and explore deeper emotions. What he finds in nature is sensuous pleasure. In his work Frost is also sensitive to the earth’s fertility and to man’s relationship to the soil. Yet he is aware of the distinction, the ultimate separateness, of nature and man. In addition, Frost’s poetry illustrates the ways in which the decaying effects of nature are held at bay by the forms into which readers mold their understanding of their environment. Frost’s complex use of nature imagery plays out in various ways in his poetry. In A Boy’s Will, the poem ”Storm Fear” presents a man awed and subdued by sublime natural forces. The same collection also features ”Into My Own,” the speaker yearns to enter a dark forest, which metaphorically represents the mysteries of self and life.
Frost’s use of nature imagery also evolved and matured over the course of his career. The poem ”Birches” from Mountain Interval features a speaker who wonders whether a bent birch branch was caused by a child at play or by natural elements and metaphorically links tree-climbing with aspirations toward heaven. Midcareer poems like ”Spring Pools” and ”Tree at My Window” show this theme maturing. The latter features a speaker who links his emotional fluctuations with the varying kinds of weather endured by a tree outside the speaker’s room. Frost continued to explore the nature imagery and themes even into his last collection. In ”In Winter in the Woods,” Frost’s final poem In the Clearing, the speaker is once again contemplating a relationship between nature and self.
Speech Patterns and New England Vernacular
Frost enriched his style by setting traditional meters against the natural rhythms of speech. Drawing his language primarily from the vernacular, he avoided artificial poetic diction by employing the accent of a soft-spoken New Englander. Frost did not merely imitate the New England farmer idiom, but achieved something more complex in his poetry. He felt that the poet’s ear must be sensitive to the voice in order to capture with the written word the significance of sound in the spoken word in something he called ”sentence sounds” or ”the sounds of sense.” ”The Death of the Hired Man,” for example, consists almost entirely of a dialogue between Mary and Warren, her farmer husband. In the poem, Frost takes the prosaic patterns of their speech and makes them lyrical. Other poems in North of Boston—including ”Mending Wall,” ”Home Burial,” and ”The Housekeeper”—are intensely psychological word portraits in the everyday rural dialect of his New England characters.
Works in Critical Context
Warmly embraced by critics from his first collection of poems, Frost’s critical reputation waned during the latter part of his career. Most critics acknowledge that Frost’s poetry in the 1940s and 1950s grew more and more abstract, cryptic, and even sententious. His political conservatism and religious faith, hitherto informed by skepticism and local color, became more and more the guiding principles of his work. His final three collections received less enthusiastic reviews yet contain several pieces later acknowledged as among his greatest achievements, including ”The Gift Outright.” Although Frost is still generally recognized as a major American poet, many critics express reservations about his artistry. These commentators usually cite such shortcomings as simplistic philosophy, expression of stock sentiments, failure to delve deeply into thematic concerns, and inability to universalize distinct concerns of rural New England.
A Boy’s Will
Frost’s first major collection, A Boy’s Will, captured the critical imagination of even leading American poets. Reviewing the British edition of the book, Pound writes in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse that the collection ”has the tang of the New Hampshire woods, and it has just this utter sincerity. . . . This man has the good sense to speak naturally and to paint the thing, the thing as he sees it.” Other critics also praised the poems in A Boy’s Will, with The Dials William Morton Payne, finding part of ”Flower-Gathering” laudable by noting, ”The desire for the solitary soul for companionship has rarely found such beautiful expression. . . . Payne concludes, ”In their simple phrasing and patent sincerity, his songs give us the sort of pleasure that we have in those of Shropshire Lad of Mr. [A. E.] Housman.”
A Witness Tree
Like many of his later collections, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Witness Tree received mixed reviews from critics. Reviewing the collection in Books, Wilbert Snow notes a few poems ”which have a right to stand with the best things he has written.” For Snow, these poems include ”Come In, ”The Silken Tent, and ”Carpe Diem,” especially. Yet Snow went on: ”Some of the poems here are little more than rhymed fancies; others lack the bullet-like unity of structure to be found in North of Boston.” On the other hand, Stephen Vincent Benet in the Saturday Review of Literature writes that Frost had ”never written any better poems than some of those in this book.” Benet concludes that ”This is a beautiful book, serene, observing, and passionate.
- Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996.
- Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Henry Holt,1999.
- Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
- Benet, Stephen Vincent. Review of A Witness Tree. Saturday Review of Literature (April 25, 1942).
- Payne, William Morton. Review of A Boy’s Will. The Dial (September 16, 1913): 211-12.
- Pound, Ezra. Review of A Boy’s Will. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (May 1913): 72-74.
- Snow, Wilbert. Review of A Witness Tree. Books (May 10, 1942).
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