Robert Frost's Poetry
How to Win Four Pulitzer Prizes Without Really Trying
Robert Frost, probably the greatest American poet of the twentieth century, began his life not in the hills of New England where most of his life would be spent, but in the booming town of San Francisco. The date: March 24, 1874.
Robert Frost had a hard childhood, mainly because of the ways of his father, who was inclined to gambling, drinking, and chain smoking. The Frost family had to fight for every cent, but it was during this time of virtual poverty that little Rob learned lessons that proved invaluable to his later life.
When Rob was ten, his father died of tuberculosis. William Frost had been only 34 years old, and the entire family was grieved at his death.
At that time, May, 1885, the remainder of the family moved across the country to Lawrence, Massachusetts to live with Rob's father's parents. But the grandparents ruled the household with an iron hand and the transplanted Frosts could not stand it. So Mrs. Frost got a job teaching at a school in nearby Salem, New Hampshire, and she earned enough money there to buy a small lodging-house. Meanwhile, Rob and his sister Jeanie began attending their mother's school, the first time in their lives that they had. Both of them, but especially Rob, advanced at a phenomenal rate. Rob was able to make money for himself, too, as there were many odd jobs to be done in the rural community. In his spare time, he would often grab a book, and consume it with relish.
Only two and a half years after having entered his mother's school, Robert Frost was ready to enter Lawrence High School. Here, he was looked upon by his classmates not only as an intelligent person, but also as a wise advisor and settler of arguments. In his second year of school, he discovered that he was being considered for valedictorian when he graduated. At the rare times when Rob was not able to grasp a concept, his teachers would chide him by telling him that if he did not do better, a girl would be chosen valedictorian.
Rob decided to research the matter. He found from the editor of the school newspaper that his female rival was one Elinor White, a girl at which Rob had been casting more than an occasional glance during study period.
Soon he met Elinor, and by and by he began to find himself taking the long way home to accompany Elinor to her abode.
One day soon after, Rob was suddenly inspired to write a poem a heroic ballad which he called "Noche Triste". The school newspaper editor was quite pleased, and before long Rob was writing poems with some frequency.
The next year, the question of valedictorian rose to the top in importance. Rob's name was at the top of the list, but Elinor's was just below it and gaining ground. Rob's teachers expressed worry to Rob (who was now the school newspaper editor [he quit towards the end of the year]). Rob didn't want her as an enemy, so he said, "'Give it [the valedictory] to her now'."
As it happened, Rob couldn't have been happier he and Elinor tied for valedictorian. Each prepared a speech, Rob's entitled "A Monument to After-Thought Unveiled", Elinor's, "Conversation as a Force in Life". Both speeches were hailed by relatives and local newspapers as outstanding. But now something new was at hand, and the two had to part.
In the autumn of 1892, Rob entered Dartmouth, the choice of his grandparents. It took him only until November to develop a strong dislike for the school. In the three months there, he did two positive things:
1) made one friend Preston Shirley
2) found a magazine in the Dartmouth Library which published poets' work!
In November, he left. For the rest of the year, he helped his mother, still a teacher, handle some "roughs" who had enrolled in her school. Meanwhile, he found odd jobs and wrote poetry.
Summer came, and so did Elinor. Her first year at St. Lawrence College had been a real success, but she sympathized entirely with Rob's situation, and encouraged him to write poetry.
When she left again, the dejected Rob got a job fixing lights in a factory. During his stint, he got another "inspiration" whose end result was another fine poem, "My Butterfly". He was so proud, that he sent it to the Independent, and to his amazement, he received an acceptance notice. In a short time, he had made a good friend in Miss Susan Ward, one of the magazine's editors, who was always eager to offer criticism constructive or otherwise.
One day, while dreaming in the fields during lunch hour, Rob was suddenly shaken by the ringing of the bells closing the hour. He did not get to the gate in time. He would be docked. So he quit! He became a teacher in a local elementary school. He wrote more poetry, and sent it, along with letters of his woes, to Miss Ward.
That summer, Elinor came back, but she treated Rob with a strange coolness. She was in a hurry to get to Boston, and before Rob knew what was going on, she had left in a flurry.
Rob was baffled, but he soon received a heartwarming letter from Miss Ward inviting Rob to visit the publishing company in Boston. Here was a chance to kill two birds with one stone.
But both "birds" lived. Elinor was "too busy" to see him, and he could not get an appointment with Miss Ward. At the end of the summer, he returned home. He visited Elinor, who was back to prepare for college, but she wouldn't let him in the president of her college was visiting.
Rob finally arranged to have five of his poems "My Butterfly", "Twilight", "Summering", "The Falls", and "An Unhistoric Spot" printed at his own expense in a volume called Twilight. He printed exactly two copies. He rushed to Elinor's college to give one of them to her. She agreed to show them to her English professors. They thought the poems were ridiculous. Poor Rob tore the volume to pieces, and wandered off.
His aimless gait took him to New York City, and he sailed from there to Virginia, where he worked on the docks and in a grocery store. In late November, his mother located him and brought him back home. Rob jumped in shocked as he beheld what he beheld when he walked in the November 8, 1894 issue of the Independent, with "My Butterfly" on the front page! After writing a hasty but ecstatic letter to Miss Ward, Rob marched off to Elinor's house (she was home for Christmas) and stuck the magazine under her nose. This was proof of his ability as a poet.
To his delight, Elinor wa convinced. By the time he left her house on that fateful day, the two were engaged. Elinor decided to graduate at the end of the ensuing term (which she could because of her high grades), and the couple would wed some time thereafter. When Rob went back to teaching, and Elinor to school, each had something to look forward to.
In the fall, Rob's mother opened a private school, and employed her son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law as the other teachers in the triumvirate faculty (also, Jeanie was given the position of Mrs. Frost's assistant). The school was a success, and Rob had plenty of time to write, and so produced six poems "The Flower Boat", "Now Close the Windows", "WaitingAfield at Dusk", "Hannibal", "The Trial by Existence", and "Revelation" by the time the wedding day rolled around in December (1895).
For several months after Rob and Elinor married, Rob was in a lull as far as poetry was concerned. Finally, the following July, he wrote two, and sent them with the melodramatic comment that ". . . he was anxious to publish one more poem before he died." One was accepted for publication, earning for Rob a little of that precious money that was so hard to come by.
In September, Elinor gave birth to a son, Eliot, and so was forced to quit teaching. In January, another poem, "Caesar's Lost Transport Ships", was printed in the Independent.
When summer came, Rob and Elinor trekked to Salisbury Point. There Rob decided to go back to college to Harvard and get a degree. In September, another poem, "Warning", was published to increase his chances of getting in.
Rob got in with no trouble, and studied Greek, Latin, Philosophy, and Freshman English. He liked the first three, but his instructor in the last, who was a cousin of T.S. Eliot, didn't like the idea of one of his students having published poetry. In spite of it all, he passed with flying colors, and received a ". . . 'big scholarship' . . ." for his sophomore year. However, in that year he fell ill in fact, his doctor feared for his life and he was forced to resign.
On April 28, 1899, Rob's and Elinor's first daughter, Lesley, was born. Immediately, Rob and Elinor moved to a farm owned by relatives. But as Rob recovered, his mother was struck with cancer and quit her post. Rob visited her often, and so could not work on poetry.
On the way back from one visit, the couple spotted an attractive little farm with a "For Sale" sign in Derry. While saving up money in an effort to buy the place, their son, Eliot, died suddenly. Relatives buzzed around them relentlessly, bothering them until Elinor approached Rob's grandfather about money. The old man admitted that Rob was "making good", and so trusted them to "'settle down'" once and for all.
In October, 1900, the couple moved. Rob, whose sentiments and love for Elinor were re-awakened by the new privacy and freedom, turned out poems with great rapidity. His life was briefly saddened by the death of his mother in November, but he recovered with little trouble.
Disappointingly, few of his poems were published at first, but Elinor always encouraged him, and inspired him to write a poem, "A Dream Pang", for her, which many regard as one of his most touching.
The following summer, his grandfather died. Rob was really on his own now what money he would get he would have to earn.
In the winter, he wrote another outstanding poem, "Storm Fear".
The following spring, Elinor bore a son, Carol. In 1903, she gave birth to Irma, a daughter, and Marjorie, another daughter, was born in 1905.
Soon bills caught up with the Frosts, and Rob, who was working on some fine poetry ("The Black Cottage", "The Housekeeper", and "The Death of the Hired Man"), was forced to "go to work"! Fortunately, a reading of a recent poem of his, "The Tuft of Flowers", was well accepted by the minister of the local Pinkerton Academy, and Rob was accepted as an English teacher.
His methods were certainly radical to the old school. He urged his students to write what they wanted to write. He introduced Hawthorne, Stevenson, and, worst of all, Mark Twain to the students.
Rob became apprehensive, then, when the faculty began to avoid him. Had he gone too far with his new methods? Finally, he got an answer. He had failed to give Pinkerton credit for a recent poem published in the Independent!
Relieved, he became even more ambitious. Soon he had students acting in plays for a paying audience.
Meanwhile, Rob did manage to keep his own children on the right educational track. He refused to send them off to school early, but figured that they'd learn more staying home.
In the summer of 1907, a daughter, Elinor, was born, but she lived only four days. To console the older Elinor, he wrote a touching poem, "Home Burial".
Often Rob would use poetry in teaching his children. Once he even wrote a poem, "Locked Out", to dispel their fear of the dark. One incident, in which the children showed fright at a vagabond who came for water, prompted a later poem, "Two Tramps in Mud Time".
That summer, the family traveled to New Hampshire (largely because of Rob's hay fever). Here, Rob wrote one poem, "'Out, Out '", which gave an account of a boy's fingers being sawed off by a buzz saw that was so gruesome, he never read it in public his whole life.
At Christmas, he showed his love for his children by not only giving them gifts including copy books in which to write their sentiments, but also he whittled each a wood figure, a talent of his that surprised everyone.
The next fall, Rob was hired as a psychology and education teacher at the State Normal School in Plymouth. His methods were considered strange at first, but they adjusted to him soon. There Robert met another instructor, Sidney Cox, who was to be a lifelong friend and a respected colleague.
He had a lot of fun there. Once, he ". . . 'actually turned a recitation in the History of Education into a recitation of irrelevant verse'". But his "serious" writing continued, too, including one poem, "Design", "later recognized as a masterpiece".
Soon, Rob got tired of Plymouth. Suddenly he was struck with the idea of moving to England. Elinor thought it a wonderful idea, and off they went.
Soon the family found a home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire (near London). Here Robert Frost assembled a number of poems which he had never sent to be published, discarded some, and found a sense of continuity in the remaining that might justify their association in a book. This he did, and sent the volume, which he called A Boy's Will, to David Nutt Publishers, and soon he received a letter of acceptance, but no publication date. During his eager wait for publication, he met Ezra Pound, a critic whom Rob did not like. However, Pound did go to the trouble of visiting David Nutt Publishers to get a copy of Rob's book to review it, and he liked it. Maybe the man wasn't so bad after all. But he and his followers the "Imagistes" wrote in free verse. Too easy, thought Rob. (Another "enemyship" made at this time was with William Butler Yeats.)
In April, A Boy's Will was published. It was first reviewed by Edward Thomas, a fine poet, and friend of Rob's who had on numerous occasions stood up to snide remarks from Pound and Co., who, incidentally, in the review of the book, left out words from the poems. In spite of it all, in numerous other reviews, the book was hailed as a real masterpiece, and the name of Robert Frost made its first steps towards fame.
Rob published more and better poems, such as "Reluctance", "The Fear", "A Hundred Collars", "The Housekeeper", and "The Code" in the ensuing time. Soon he had another idea for a book. He would call it North of Boston, and again he went to David Nutt Publishers.
During this time, he and those who shared his ideas, namely Wilfrid Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, and Edward Thomas, established a group of their own (which published its own magazine, New Numbers). The Frosts moved to Dymock to be with the Dymock Circle. Rob was at his best there with his friends and colleagues. When North of Boston was published, he once again received laudatory praise.
Of course, the family was not forgotten. Lesley and Carol wrote poetry, and Irma drew pictures, for a publication for the children of the area. Rob, meanwhile, dedicated all of his work to Elinor. The dedication in North of Boston reads, "To E.M.F., This Book of People".
In 1914, the war broke out. The Frosts were treated strangely and suspiciously by the local folk, and so decided to return to the States. Before they left, Rob paid a visit to Mrs. Nutt (who had taken over Nutt Publishing Company when her husband died), and found out from her that Henry Holt and Company was publishing North of Boston in America.
In February, 1915, Frost and his family returned. In the States, Frost's work had been hailed beyond belief. Rob's name had become practically a household word. Rob even became a regular attendant at the cut-glass dinners held for the members of the big poetry circles in the East.
After paying a visit to his old high school town, Lawrence, the Frosts settled in Franconia, New Hampshire, a place which inspired such works as "Evening in a Sugar Orchard" and "A Hillside Thaw".
At a Phi Beta Kappa meeting soon afterwards (he met Louis Untermeyer there) Rob read three of the poems he considered best: "Birches", "The Road Not Taken", and "The Sound of Trees". He received thundering applause and an invitation from an influential publisher, Sedgwick (who had avoided Rob's work in the past), to have the poems published. To this Rob consented, and slipped in a highly complimentary essay on the poet by the British critic Edward Garnett. Rob was crafty.
Sales of North of Boston ballooned until it was a bestseller. Rob became a familiar face as a speaker at various college, school, and club functions. Yet he had his sights set on another volume. He labored in preparation. After much ado, Mountain Interval rolled off the presses in November, 1916. The book received "instant critical acclaim". President Alexander Meiklejohn of Amherst University invited Rob to read some of his poems at Amherst. Rob read the poems, and was afterwards offered a professorship there. Rob accepted.
Once again, Rob's ultra-liberal teaching methods caused quite a stir, yet he developed personal relationships with his students and sympathy with their joys and woes probably unique among the faculty. He made few friends among the faculty, but the ones he had were close.
In April, 1917, tragedy struck. Edward Thomas, who Rob had said later was, over all, his closest friend ever, was killed in action in the war. This tore Rob to pieces, as he was already upset about other matters; namely: his sister, Jeanie, who had been a faculty member at Michigan University, had become fanatically opposed to the war to a degree to which she was apparently going insane, and, last but not least, his own President Meiklejohn was proving to be a power-hungry dictator of Amherst.
Rob was thinking of leaving the university, but decided to try to let things work themselves out. The war was getting into everything even Rob's daughter Lesley got a job at a propeller factory but Rob kept his wits. (Once, his entire final exam for one course was the proclamation on the blackboard: "Do something.") In 1919, the Amherst Masquers produced a play of his, "A Way Out".
In May, 1919, the war ended. But Jeanie was too far gone. She died on April 12, 1920. Rob decided to leave Amherst, go back to Franconia, and write poetry. After only a short time in Franconia, Rob decided to move to a house in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, which he and Elinor had eyed in times past.
There they moved, and the poetry came in gushes: "A Star in a Stone Boat", "The Census-Taker", "The Star-Splitter", "The Pauper Witch of Grafton", "The Witch of Coös". In 1921, Rob got an offer from the President of the University of Michigan to be a Fellow in the Creative Arts. Rob toyed with the idea for a while, and finally decided to accept. He was not required to teach, only to do what he felt obliged to do. So Rob gave occasional lectures, read his poems at banquets, and wrote poetry. He called himself "Michigan's Idle Fellow".
One day, in a sudden burst of inspiration, Frost produced two masterpieces, "New Hampshire" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". He thought himself about ready to publish his fourth volume.
After his second year of Fellowship, Michigan gave him an honorary M.A. and let him go.
That summer, Rob and his entire family (except Elinor and Irma, who "bowed out"), made a 200-mile mountain-climbing tour in Vermont. Marjorie brought along her roommate, Lillian LaBatt, an occurrence in which Carol showed a good deal of interest.
In the fall, Rob received another invitation from Michigan, but it was too late in the year to do anything about it. He stayed home and wrote poetry. In 1923, he published Selected Poems, a profound collection dedicated to Edward Thomas. At the end of that year, Rob was invited back to Amherst Meiklejohn was being dismissed.
Rob accepted and took the positions of Professors of English and of Socratic Thinking.
Soon after he accepted, he published his fourth volume. It was called simply New Hampshire. New Hampshire ". . . was universally hailed by the critics for the art, the variety and uniform excellence of its poems. Here the dramatist and songster in Robert Frost combined to give this book a wider appeal than any so far."
At approximately the same time, the first marriage among Frost's progeny took place. Carol Frost wed his girlfriend from the mountain hike, Lillian LaBatt, in the winter of 1923. Meanwhile, his daughters Lesley and Marjorie opened a bookshop in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
In June, 1924, Robert Frost received probably his greatest honor so far for New Hampshire he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
In fall, 1924, Rob went back to Amherst. At that time, Lillian bore a son, William Prescott Frost.
The following year, Rob was back at Michigan, but returned to Amherst after that. In the meantime, his daughter Irma married one John P. Cone, and Lesley had married Dwight Francis, given birth to two daughters (Lesley Lee and Elinor), and divorced.
In 1928, Rob published another volume, West-Running Brook, which was highly praised, but in 1930, his Collected Poems outdid this with Rob's second Pulitzer Prize. In 1936, Rob won his third Pulitzer Prize for A Further Range.
Rob continued his writing, and on opportune occasions, his pranks. At one banquet at which he and T.S. Eliot were being honored, Rob insulted the sophisticated Eliot by reading a poem called "The Hippopotamus" and also pretending to make up on the spot a fine poem, "A Record Stride", which he had actually already written and memorized.
Soon tragedy struck again. Both Lillian and Marjorie were stricken with tuberculosis, and both recovered. The latter then married Willard Fraser, an archaeology student, and soon gave birth to a girl, Robin Fraser. But the mother developed septicemia after childbirth, and after a long battle with fever reaching 110º at the Mayo Clinic, Marjorie died. Rob and Elinor had her poetry printed as a monument.
After teaching at Amherst in 1934, Rob spent the winter in Key West. Here, he wrote one of his wittier poems "Departmental" (or "The End of My Ant Jerry") which satirized the Amherst administration.
In 1936, Rob was commissioned to return to Harvard (the school he had left ill so many years before) to write a poem for its 300th birthday celebration. As occupant of the Charles E. Norton Chair, he gave six lectures: "The Old Way to be New", "Vocal Imagination the Merger of Form and Content", "Does Wisdom Signify?", "Poetry as Prowess (Feats of Words)", "Before the Beginning of a Poem", and "After the End of a Poem". After A Further Range won him a Pulitzer Prize, he was awarded a Doctorate of Letters from Harvard. In the spring of 1938, he was elected Overseer at Harvard.
That summer, in Gainesville, Florida, the darkest tragedy of all struck his life. Rob was recovering from the bothersome flu when his wife, Elinor, ". . . even as she tended him. . . ", suffered a heart attack and died immediately. Rob fell ill in shock and took months to recover.
As Rob gradually recovered from the blow, he resigned his Harvard post and got a secretary and a dog, Gillie. He spent the year writing, and in the fall of 1939, he went back to Harvard.
In the fall of 1940, yet another blow came. Rob's daughter-in-law, Lillian, went to the hospital for a minor operation. But her husband, Carol, was unexplainedly terrified at something. Rob came to comfort Carol. Two days after he returned, Carol's son called: Carol had committed suicide. Rob compared his own life to Job's.
But Robert Frost as a poet was not finished. Rob bought a large farm in Ripton, Vermont. In 1942, he turned out another volume of poetry, A Witness Tree. In 1945, A Masque of Reason was published, and 1947 brought Steeple Bush and A Masque of Mercy. His touching work bemoaning the death of his beloved Elinor, A Witness Tree, won the Pulitzer Prize, Rob's fourth (a record). In 1949, his Complete Poems was published. This includes his only poem with religious overtones, "Directive". In 1950, he was cited by a U.S. Senate resolution. In 1958, he was appointed Consultant in Poetry of the Library of Congress, and in 1959, Consultant in the Humanities.
Yet the old man, in his eighties, was still writing. He gave a reading at President Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. On March 26, 1962, Frost's 88th birthday, he published another volume of poetry, In the Clearing. This work was an insight into the wisdom he had acquired since Elinor's death. The volume was considered as good as and as youthful as any of his previous ones.
In fall, 1962, Robert Frost kept a lecture schedule that would do many younger men shame.
In December of that year, Frost entered a hospital for major surgery. During his convalescence period, Robert Frost, age eighty-eight, suffered a relapse, and died in his sleep on January 29, 1963.
A fitting description of the man's greatness is given by Sidney Cox, summarizing Rob's philosophy in the chapter titles of his book A Swinger of Birches.
"Robert Frost has never been the fashion: he's too original. 'Originality . . . was of the Devil.' He jarred our similes. He swings birches. Up there, high enough, he could love the things he loves for what they are. Yet he had fears, too. He takes his risks 'assertively', because it's a funny world. The mischief in him is often gay. In teaching he would protect the students from the institution, but keep the generalizations broad and loose, and get students to start performing with the freedom of their materials, tempting them to be daringly good, and trying to see how close to books he could bring them. So, he made form, like a moment of total living but lasting. The saint and the artist, unlike the craftsman, wait for the high moment when they are good because grace is added to their best. He has, then, the freedom of his materials. 'Enthusiasm taken through the prism of intellect' is his power. He excites with sight and insight, yet he is homely and parochial. His aim is 'in singing not to sing', keeping tangent always to common sense, putting a straightedge on a curve. It is a matter of corresponding, and that requires separateness that is tough. But tough separateness is none the less social, though not like a reformer. His friendship gains by being selective, and love by accepting ambiguities. Even in marriage we enjoy oppositions. And his country, too, he quizzically cherishes. It's too bad, but bearable, that nations waste so much in war. We're after ultimates, but we have to content ourselves with individual composings in the main."
"Choose Something Like a Star"
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
What I Think of Robert Frost and His Poetry
There is no question that Robert Frost was skilled. A testimony to this is the fact that he wrote almost without fail in the "classic" meters. Much of his work, I have noticed, is written in blank verse, which utilizes iambic pentameter (i.e., each line is a set of five iambic feet [an iambic foot is a two-syllable grouping, the first syllable of which is unaccented, the second accented]). An unobservant reader could probably read through many a poem of his without noticing the strict accent patterns. In one poem, he used hendecasyllabic lines: that is, lines having eleven syllables each! It is interesting to note that numerous other poets, particularly his friendly rival Amy Lowell, tried to convert Rob to free verse, but he chose the more challenging route of the strict meter.
I am quite impressed with Frost's command of syllables, yet it is the starkness and reality of his poems that makes them beautiful. When Frost wrote of love, for instance, he more likely wrote of the dialogue between a man and a woman than make an obscure analogy to a creeping jasmine and a honeysuckle whose vines were intertwined. Frost's aim was to deal with people as they are, and, in fact, professed to be insulted by those who called his work "nature poetry"; he preferred to call it "people poetry".
In spite of the earthy subject matter and the lack of rhyme in many of his poems, Frost somehow avoids having his poetry sound like prose. There is a flow in his poems beyond that created by the meter, a flow which gives it a swing unique to Frost. Only Frost could make everyday reality so touching. "I had a lovers' quarrel with the world," he said in one poem, "A Lesson for Today". Time has proved that there were two winners in that battle.
Gould, Jean. Robert Frost: The Aim Was Song. Dodd, Mead, and Company. 1964.
New England Pocket Anthology of Robert Frost's Poems. Washington Square Press. 1946, 1964. With an introduction and commentary by Louis Untermeyer.
Cox, Sidney. A Swinger of Birches. New York University Press. 1957.