Robert Frost (1874-1963), four-time Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, teacher and lecturer wrote many popular and oft-quoted poems including “After Apple-Picking”, “The Road Not Taken”, “Home Burial” and “Mending Wall”;
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
At times bittersweet, sometimes ironic, or simply marveling at his surroundings, one can also see autobiographical details in Frost’s works; he suffered devastating losses in his life including the untimely deaths of his sister, two of his children and his wife. He knew the soul’s depths of psychic despair but was also capable of delighting in birch trees ‘loaded with ice a sunny winter morning’. While memorialising the rural landscape, vernacular, culture and people of New England in his traditional verse style, his poems also transcend the boundaries of time and place with metaphysical significance and modern exploration of human nature in all her beauty and contradictions. Though not without his critics, millions of readers the world over have found comfort and profound meaning in his poetry and he has influenced numerous other authors, poets, musicians, and playwrights into the 21st Century.
Robert Lee Frost (named after Southern General Robert E. Lee) was born on 26 March 1874 in San Francisco, California to Isabelle Moodie (1844-1900) teacher, and William Prescott Frost Jr. (1850-1885), teacher and journalist. San Francisco was a lively city full of citizens of Pioneering spirit, including Will who had ventured there from New Hampshire to seek his fortune as a journalist. He also started gambling and drinking, habits which left his family in dire financial straits when he died in 1885 after contracting tuberculosis. Honouring his last wishes to be buried in Lawrence, Massachusetts where he was born, Isabelle, Robert and his sister Jeanie Florence (1876-1929) made the long train journey across the country to the New England town. Isabelle took up teaching again to support her children.
With both parents as teachers, young Robert was early on exposed to the world of books and reading, studying such works as those by William Shakespeare and poets Robert Burns and William Wordsworth. He also formed a life-long love of nature, the great outdoors and rural countryside. After enrolling in Lawrence High School he was soon writing his own poems including “La Noche Triste” (1890) which was published in the school’s paper. He excelled in many subjects including history, botany, Latin and Greek, and played football, graduating at the head of his class. In 1892 he entered Dartmouth, the Ivy League College in Hanover, New Hampshire, but soon became disenchanted with the atmosphere of campus life. He then took on a series of jobs including teaching and working in a mill, all the while continuing to write poetry.
Frost got his first break as a poet in 1894 when the New York magazine Independent published “My Butterfly: An Elegy” for a stipend of $15. A year later a wish he had had for some time came true; on 19 December 1895 he married Elinor Miriam White (1872-1938), his co-valedictorian and sweetheart from school. They had gone separate ways upon graduation to attend college, and while Frost had left early, Elinor wanted to wait until she was finished before getting married. They would have six children together; sons Elliott (b.1896-1900) and Carol (1902-1940) and daughters Lesley (b.1899), Irma (b.1903), Marjorie (b.1905-1934), and Elinor Bettina (1907-1907).
The newlyweds continued to teach, which Frost always enjoyed, but the demanding schedule interfered with his writing. In 1897 he entered Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, though illness caused him to leave in 1899 before finishing his degree. Despite that, it was one of many institutions that would award him an honorary degree later on. The next ten years, the ‘Derry years’, were trying times for Frost with a growing family to support. In 1900 they moved to a farm bought by his paternal grandfather in Derry, New Hampshire to try poultry farming. The same year his son Elliot died of cholera. Frost suffered greatly from grief and guilt, and compounding this was the loss of his mother to cancer the same year. In 1907 Elinor Bettina died just one day after birth. But the farm was a peaceful and secluded setting and Frost enjoyed farming, tending to his orchard trees, chickens and various other chores. This period inspired such poems as “The Mending Wall” (written in England in 1913) and “Hyla Brook” (1906). The house built in the typical New England clapboard style is now a restored State Historical Landmark.
But it was soon time for a change. In 1911 he sold the farm and the Frosts set sail for England. Elinor was enthusiastic about traveling, even with four children, and they moved into a cottage in Beaconsfield, just outside of London. Then finally it happened; after writing poetry and trying to get noticed by publishers for over twenty years, Frost’s first collection of poetry A Boy’s Will was published in England in 1913 by a small London printer, David Nutt. American publisher Henry Holt printed it in 1915. Frost’s work was well-received and fellow poets Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound became friends, supporters, and helped promote his work. North of Boston (1914) followed. When World War I started the Frosts were back in New Hampshire, settling at their newly bought farm in Franconia in 1915. A year later Robert began teaching English at Amherst College. Mountain Interval was published in 1916 which contained many poems written at Franconia. He was also starting lecture tours for his ever-growing audience of avid readers.
In 1920, Frost bought ‘Stone House’ (now a museum) in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. There he wrote many of the poems contained in his fourth collection of poetry New Hampshire (1923) which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. It includes “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”;
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
While he also farmed on the idyllic property with its breathtaking views of mountains and valleys, another project Frost undertook was the founding of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont. After his son Carol married Lillian LaBatt (1905-1995) and his grandson Prescott arrived, he gave them Stone House to live in where Carol planted his thousand apple trees. Frost bought a second farm in Shaftsbury, “The Gulley”. At the height of his career, his next collection of poems West-running Brook (1928) was published just one year before another great loss of a loved one hit him; his sister Jeanie died.
By now Frost was a popular speaker and had a demanding schedule of which Elinor, acting as his secretary, organised for him, so he spent a fair bit of time traveling, though still maintaining an impressive output of poetry. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry a second time in 1931 for his Collected Poems (1930), and also in 1937 for A Further Range (1936), and yet again in 1943 for his collection A Witness Tree (1942). All his children were married and he spent much time with them and his grandchildren, though it was not long before the heavy blows of loss struck again; his beloved daughter Marjorie died in 1934 after the birth of her first child, and in 1938 Elinor died of a heart attack. In 1940 Carol committed suicide.
Leaving the Stone House and The Gulley behind, in 1939 Frost bought the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, Vermont for his summer residence, located near the Bread Loaf School. He occupied the cabin on the property ‘Than smoke and mist who better could appraise, The kindred spirit of an inner haze?’ (“A Cabin in the Clearing”) while his friends and colleagues the Morrisons stayed in the main house. Collected Poems (1939) was followed by A Masque of Reason (play, 1945), Steeple Bush (1947), A Masque of Mercy (play, 1947), Complete Poems (1949), and In the Clearing (1962). At the Inauguration of American President John F. Kennedy on 20 January 1961, Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright” (1942).
Robert Frost died on the 29th of January 1963 in Boston, Massachusetts. ‘Safe!, Now let the night be dark for all of me. Let the night be too dark for me to see, Into the future. Let what will be, be.’ (“Acceptance”) He lies buried in the family plot in the Old Bennington Cemetery behind the Old First Congregational Church near Shaftsbury, Vermont. His gravestone reads ‘I Had A Lover’s Quarrel With The World’.
Just nine months after Frost’s death, Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College, singing Frosts’ praises and speaking on the importance of the Arts in America. Later he said;
“The death of Robert Frost leaves a vacancy in the American spirit....His death impoverishes us all; but he has bequeathed his Nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding.”
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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