Robert Frost (1874-1963)
About the Poet
Robert Lee Frost, New England's cherished poet, has been called America's purest classical lyricist and one of the outstanding poets of the twentieth century. Although he is forever linked to the stone-pocked hills and woods of New England, he was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1874. His parents, school headmaster William Prescott Frost and teacher Margaret Isabelle Moodie, had left New England because of post-Civil War politics. After his father's death from alcohol abuse and tuberculosis in May 1885, Isabelle, accompanied by her son and newborn daughter, Jeanie, returned the body to his New England home in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and remained in the East because she lacked the money to return to San Francisco.
Educated at Lawrence High School, Frost thrived in English and Latin classes and discovered a common thread in Virgil's poetry and the romantic balladry of his Scottish ancestors. His grandfather enticed him to enter pre-law at Dartmouth in 1892, but Frost ended any hope of a legal career in the first months. His first published work, "My Butterfly: An Elegy" (1894), earned him a check from the New York Independent and precipitated a self-published collection, Twilight (1894). He married Elinor Miriam White, his high school sweetheart, in 1895, and dedicated himself to poetry.
Frost sought further education in Harvard's classics department and, in 1898, joined his mother as a teacher at her private school. When symptoms of consumption necessitated a move to the country, he situated his family on a poultry farm in Derry, New Hampshire, purchased by his grandfather. Frost did little during a six-month depression that resulted from his son Elliott's death from cholera and his mother's hospitalization with cancer. At the farm he kept hens, a cow, and a horse, and established a garden and orchard; ultimately, the farm rejuvenated him. But Frost never profited from his labor and suffered annually from hay fever.
From 1900 to 1905, while scrimping along on a $500 annuity from his grandfather's will, Frost produced bucolic verse that enlarged on his experiences with Yankee gentry. Simultaneously, he worked at cobbling shoes, farming, and editing the Lawrence Sentinel. A failure at farming, for the next six years he supported his family by teaching at the nearby Pinkerton Academy before moving to Plymouth, New Hampshire, to teach education and psychology at the State Normal School.
To achieve his original goal of writing serious poetry, Frost, at his wife's suggestion, gambled on a break with the past. In 1912, he sold the farm and used the money to move to England. During a three-year self-imposed exile in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, he scraped for cash. He came under the influence of poet Rupert Brooke and published A Boy's Will (1913), followed by the solidly successful North of Boston (1914), which contains "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "Home Burial," and "After Apple-Picking."
Frost returned to the United States on borrowed funds at the beginning of World War I. He settled in Franconia, New Hampshire, where he soaked up New England culture. Seated in his Morris chair with his lapboard in place, the farmer-poet looked out on the New England landscape as he wrote Mountain Interval (1916) and the beginnings of New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes (1923), which contains "Fire and Ice" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," an American masterwork. Because he was newly popular on the commercial market, Frost violated his seclusion in New England to serve as his own agent and fan club to keep himself financially afloat.
A distinguished new literary voice and member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Frost found himself in demand and began giving readings across the United States. He served the University of Michigan as poet in residence and was honored with the title Fellow in Letters at both Harvard and Dartmouth. In addition to one drama, A Way Out (1929), he steadily contributed to the New England poetic canon with West-Running Brook (1928), A Further Range (1936), A Witness Tree (1942), A Masque of Reason (1945), Steeple Bush (1947), A Masque of Mercy (1947), How Not to Be King (1951), and And All We Call American (1958).
Frost's works found favor with readers worldwide. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1924 and again in 1931, 1937, and 1943, a sad series of years that saw the deaths of his sister Jeanie in a mental institution, his favorite daughter Marjorie of puerperal fever, his wife Elinor from heart disease, and his son Carol, who committed suicide with a deer rifle. In addition to receiving a gold medal and membership from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the United States Senate accorded Frost a citation of honor in 1950, and Vermont named a mountain for him. In his declining years, he wintered in Florida. In 1948, he returned to Amherst, where he lived until his death from a pulmonary embolism on January 29, 1963. He was eulogized at Amherst's Johnson Chapel, where his ashes were buried in the family plot in June of 1963.
"The Pasture," published in 1913, displays Frost's first-person amiability as well as his delight in a homeowner's country chores. In familiar farm surroundings, he speaks from the farmer's point of view in an easy iambic pentameter. His diction, containing seven contractions in eight lines, is the simple wording of an ordinary, earth-centered fellow. The pattern of masculine end-sounds, rhyming abbc deec, is characteristic of Frost, who ties the relaxed, confident quatrains together with a disarmingly uncomplicated repetition and rhyme.
In identical meter but without rhyme, "Mending Wall," written in 1914 after Frost's visit to the Scottish highlands, ventures beyond mundane observation to muse over the effects of stone boundaries on relationships. In neighborly fashion, the speaker joins a next-door landowner (identified as Frost's French-Canadian neighbor, Napoleon Guy) at an appointed time to "walk the line," a seasonal chore that calls for repairing the damage to the land by rabbit hunters and winter heaving — the alternate freezing and thawing above the frost line. The reference to the inevitability of destruction alludes to Matthew 24:2 ("There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down"), Christ's prophecy that Herod's temple in Jerusalem will eventually fall.
In an offhand parable, the speaker mischievously challenges a prevailing attitude toward neat divisions, expressed in the homespun revelation that "Good fences make good neighbors." To the speaker's way of thinking, an orchard poses no hazard to a pine woodlot, but the neighbor persists in the tradition of replenishing fallen stones. The forceful action suggests that tradition is an adversary not easily overthrown.
"Home Burial," written in 1914, presents an engrossing, intensely empathetic scenario. The title suggests both a home graveyard and a household buried in unrequited grief. In the action, a perplexed husband asks his wife to "let me into your grief," perhaps a reference to Elinor Frost's devastation at the death of son Elliott. In the poem's fictional setting, the husband responds to his mournful wife's inability to cope with the death of their child by putting up a false cover of business as usual. Departing the confines of blank verse through extensive enjambment, the carry-over lines and double caesuras ["-how could you?-"] press the poem's two main characters into a halting, real-life confrontation. Added to this personal drama is the couple's view through the upstairs window of a fresh burial plot that stands out among older gravestones. The husband, who resents his wife's refusal to share her suffering with him, defuses a confrontation by sitting at the top of the stairs while his wife frowns her disapproval.
To buoy his 116-line poem, Frost elaborates on the husband's and wife's motivations for their behavior. At the heart of the domestic confrontation is the indelicate word "rot," which the husband, carelessly utters after digging an infant-sized grave. The wife, named "Amy" (from the Latin word for love), uses her emotions about her child's death as a weapon against her husband — and, ironically, against herself. Given to stiff-necked silence and withdrawal, she threatens to abandon him in order to escape their separate emotional difficulties in dealing with death. The pacing refuses to drop to a mutually satisfying resolution as the husband, whose muscular hand dug the hole and mounded the gravel, resorts to force if need be to keep his marriage from disintegration and public shame. The realism of harsh words hanging in the air suggests a situation that Frost had witnessed or been party to — perhaps his own troubled marriage to a tight-lipped woman or an anticipation of the marital difficulties of his daughters.
"The Death of the Hired Man," also written in 1914, pits wife and husband in a confrontation over infirmity and self-esteem. As Mary and Warren tiptoe around a touchy subject — old Silas' return to the farm on the pretense of performing short-term labor — they debate indirectly the same question of values that fuels "Home Burial." Mary, who shelters tender feelings, wants Warren to lower his voice to spare Silas the insult of Warren's disdain for him. As for the question of having Silas ditch the meadow, an unnecessary task, Mary assures Warren that the ruse is a "humble way to save [Silas'] self-respect."
The couple's low-key debate featuring the dynamics of feminine mode versus masculine mode resurrects the confrontation between actively doing and passively existing. Like the husband in "Home Burial," Warren is a doer. His physicality clashes on prickly occasions when he can't see the logic in merely being a friend to Silas. The opposite of Warren is Mary, who recognizes that Silas feels outclassed by Harold Wilson, the self-important collegian, whose academic accomplishments outrank Silas' skill in bunching hay into "big birds' nests." At the crux of the confrontation, Mary speaks Frost's most beloved aphorism: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in."
The homely, almost stumbling cadence conceals the altruism of Mary's gift of grace. Lest the reader doubt Frost's poetic thrust, he ends with three linked images — "the moon, the little silver cloud, and she" — a metaphorical preface to Warren's squeeze on the hand and somber announcement that Silas has died.
Another of Frost's contemplative literary moments illumines "The Road Not Taken," a teasing conundrum written in 1916, when the poet was trying to succeed at farming and publishing. This somewhat stoic poem, characterizing a momentous, life-altering resolution, profits from the poet's blend of delight and wisdom. The speaker recalls once choosing one of two forks in a road through the woods. Settling for the less-worn fork, the traveler notes, with some regret, that normal momentum would cause him to press ahead, thus negating a return trip to try the other path.
The poem stops shy of dramatizing the speaker's choice of which road to take. Frost deliberately hedges on the speaker's emotion by whittling down differences in the two roads with "just as fair," "perhaps," and "about the same." Anticipating nostalgia over missed chances, the speaker acknowledges that the morning's decision "has made all the difference" but leaves the reader with no tangible clue to an interpretation, good or bad.
In "Birches," a fanciful monologue, the poem's speaker expresses a Twain-like nostalgia for carefree boyhood and tree-climbing. The 59-line poem triggers a memory — bent trees jog the poet's recall of a boy's mischievous but normal pastime. Indulging in digression, the speaker notes that ice storms have the same effect on birches and that the glass-like shards falling on the ground below suggest the shattering of heaven's crystal dome, a symbol of divine perfection. Restored to the original train of thought after "Truth broke in / With all her matter of fact," the speaker returns to reliving boyhood in the country, where a skilled birch-bender could subdue trees with the same care as a hand requires to fill a cup to the brim without spilling.
The philosophical gist of "Birches" begins in line 41, where the speaker identifies himself as a rural lad given to birch-bending. Now burdened with frustration characterized as a walk in a "pathless wood," a cobweb tickling the face, and a tearing eye that has met the lash of a limb, the speaker remains in the land of metaphor by envisioning an escape. To avoid an adulthood "weary of considerations," he pictures a respite — a swing outward from reality. Accentuating his point is the italicized word "Toward," which reminds the reader that the speaker isn't ready for heaven. Earth is his true home. Even with everyday miseries, being earthbound in "the right place for love" suits human nature.
In 1923, at the height of his appeal, Frost composed "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," one of America's most memorized poetic treasures. He wrote it about an early period of personal frustration and considered it his "best bid for remembrance." The rhyme scheme — aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd, like that in "The Pasture" — couples a flow of action and thought over four stanzas, ending in a gently repetitive refrain. Restful and placid, the action of watching woods being covered with snow is elusively simple. This simplicity is reinforced by the graceful yoking of tactile, auditory, and visual imagery with euphonious, drowsy -eep sounds in sweep, deep, keep, and sleep, and alliterated l sounds in lovely, sleep, and miles.
Dramatically, the poem builds to a climax and then makes its way down to resolution. At its heart, line 8 implies a tension: Is this the "darkest evening of the year" because it is December 22, the winter solstice, or because of some emotional turmoil in the viewer's spirit? Is the poem a veiled death wish? Whatever the reader's interpretation, the speaker reassures that a stock-still moment of contemplation of the "dark and deep" is normal and uplifting, for the figure decides to continue toward a preset goal or destination.
Note that the title contains the pun "evening," which means both post-sunset hours and a balancing or leveling. December 22, the shortest day of the year, is a traditional folk holiday that celebrates the equalizing of day and night. Beginning on December 23, winter begins its annual decline and days get longer as the seasons shift toward spring. After the speaker's pause, the morbid lure of snow-decked woods returns to an emotional balance as melancholy gives place to jangling harness bells and mental demands of "miles to go," which could refer to physical miles or unfinished tasks or responsibilities to family or job. The end of the ambiguous couplet, "before I sleep," could preface a night's rest or an eternal sleep — death — that concludes a satisfyingly challenged life.
"Departmental: The End of My Ant Jerry" is a verse animal fable. Composed by Frost when he was 62 years old, the poem takes its title from Rudyard Kipling's "Departmental Ditties" and demonstrates a blend of tweakish humor and mock-heroic form. The comic eulogy lauds the "selfless forager" in intentionally inept rhyme and a truncated rhythm that limps along in mockery of staid Homeric epic style. The elevation of Jerry, a victim of bureaucratic bumblers, visualizes him lying in state — embalmed in ichor and enshrouded in a petal — in the state's ennobling gesture to his role as citizen. Rigidly formal in style and protocol, the poem establishes the city's soullessness as the twiddly funeral director completes the ceremony in a semblance of decorum.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Apply Frost's vision of childhood in "Birches" to the realistic details of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree." Then determine how retrospect clouds the speaker's memory of the loneliness of a country boy living too far from town to play baseball, but how, in his isolation, he made a one-person game of swinging on trees.
2. Analyze the complex shift from strict pentameter in Frost's "Fire and Ice." Contrast the compression of lines, rhymes, and enjambment with the more leisurely vernacular of the verse dramas "The Death of the Hired Man" and "Home Burial."
3. Determine why the patriotism and dynamics of "The Gift Outright" suited the stirring public occasion of John F. Kennedy's January 1961 presidential inauguration. Select other appropriate works of Frost's canon that would ennoble a formal state occasion.
4. Contrast the quirky logic of Frost's "Departmental: The End of My Ant Jerry" with the straightforward contemplation of death in "Out, Out-" and "Fire and Ice." Compare Frost's style of humor with that of Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Cornelia Otis Skinner, or Edward Lear.
5. Discuss the husband and wife's relationship in "Home Burial." Is one character more at fault than the other for the couple's inability to communicate meaningfully?