American Literature/20th Century/Robert Frost
Robert Lee Frost is the only poet to receive four Pulitzer Prizes for his work. He also received many honorary doctoral degrees, although he never actually earned a bachelor’s degree. An avid teacher and a gifted writer, he is one of America’s most admired poets of the Twentieth Century. He wrote in traditional poetic forms but with a twist—capturing the rhythms and vocabulary of ordinary speech. He was a great man and was very loyal too.
Frost was born March 26, 1874 in San Francisco, California. When his father died during his childhood, he moved with his mother and sister to Massachusetts. He attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1892 but dropped out after a short time, working as a teacher and a factory worker.
Frost sold his poem “My Butterfly: An Elegy” to The Independent of New York in 1894. The next year he married Elinor Miriam White, his high school friend. The two of them taught school until 1897 when Frost entered Harvard University. He studied there two years and then moved to a farm in New Hampshire that his grandfather bought for him. He went back to teaching to support the family.
In 1912 Frost and his family moved to England, where he met Ezra Pound, who was one of the first people to review Frost’s work, and other notable poets. He published a book of poetry entitled A Boy’s Will in 1913. He moved back to New Hampshire in 1915 and spent the remainder of his career as a professor in colleges in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont, including the prestigious Amherst College. During his years as a professor he continued to write poetry and plays.
Frost died January 29, 1963 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Frost’s work is noted for its conversational style and tone. In fact several of his poems are written as dialogues. In “The Death of the Hired Man,” for instance, a husband and wife are discussing a farm laborer who has returned, despite the husband’s begrudging attitude. In this excerpt The wife, Mary, reveals that the hired man considers their place his home:
- “Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
- You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”
- “Home,” he mocked gently.
- “Yes, what else but home?
- It all depends on what you mean by home.
- Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
- Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
- Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
- “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
- They have to take you in.”
- “I should have called it
- Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Although he generally used traditional meters and rhyme schemes—unlike many of his contemporaries, who used modernist techniques—Frost attempted to employ smoothly flowing language such as one might employ in everyday life, as he does in the last stanza of his well-known poem “The Road Not Taken”:
- I shall be telling this with a sigh
- Somewhere ages and ages hence:
- Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
- I took the one less traveled by,
- And that has made all the difference.
He avoided the stereotypical poetic language with its archaic and overly formal words, and used colloquial words and phrases, self-conscious narration, and the tone of a rural philosopher. For example, in “The Pasture” Frost’s narrator address the reader with an invitation, as noted in the first stanza:
- I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
- I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
- (And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
- I sha'n't be gone long. You come too.
Frost also balanced seriousness and humor, believing that humor was a perfect vehicle for conveying serious ideas. That humor can take a dark and subtle form, as in his poem about the end of the world, entitled “Fire and Ice,” in which Frost employs etreme understatement:
- Some say the world will end in fire;
- Some say in ice.
- From what I've tasted of desire
- I hold with those who favor fire.
- But if it had to perish twice,
- I think I know enough of hate
- To know that for destruction ice
- Is also great
- And would suffice.
The real theme of the poem, of course, is that both passion and hatred are destructive forces in the world, and the almost trivial tone of the narrator drives the idea home more strongly than a straightforward telling would do.
Frost’s works are generally set in rural places and contain details of the natural surroundings. Elements of rural life, such as rock walls (fences), birch trees, horses, and cows are prominent in his poetry and are often used metaphorically or symbollically. These lines from “After Apple-picking” are typical of his rural settings and props that he employed:
- My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
- Toward heaven still,
- And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
- Beside it, and there may be two or three
- Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough
- But I am done with apple-picking now.
The poem is about the way that a day of hard work sticks with us so much that even our unconscious mind replays it in our dreams.
Awards and Honors
- Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry for:
- New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes in 1924
- Collected Poems in 1931
- A Further Range in 1937 and
- A Witness Tree in 1943.
- He received honorary degrees from Berkeley, Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, among others.
- He was the Poet Laureate of the United States (Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) from 1958 to 1959 and was named Poet Laureate of Vermont in 1961.
- He read “The Gift Outright” at the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
He received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1963.
- Selected books of poetry
- A Boy's Will (David Nutt, 1913; Holt, 1915).
- North of Boston (David Nutt, 1914; Holt, 1914).
- Mountain Interval (Holt, 1916).
- New Hampshire (Holt, 1923; Grant Richards, 1924).
- A Further Range (Holt, 1936; Cape, 1937).
- Steeple Bush (Holt, 1947).
- You Come Too (Holt, 1959; Bodley Head, 1964)
- A Way Out: A One Act Play (Harbor Press, 1929).
- The Cow’s in the Corn: A One Act Irish Play in Rhyme (Slide Mountain Press, 1929).
- A Masque of Reason (Holt, 1945).
- A Masque of Mercy (Holt, 19477).
- Frost at Modern American Poetry contains a brief biography, critical discussions, and a beautiful phot exhibit.
- Frost at Poets.org contains a brief biography, texts, and an audio file of some poems.
- The Frost Collection at Bartleby.com contains four collections of Frost's poetry.
Associated Wikimedia for Robert Frost