Robert Lee Frost (1874–1963) published his first book of poems, A Boy's Will, in England in 1913. At this time he was virtually unknown in the United States. Ezra Pound wrote that "it is a sinister thing that so American...a talent...should have to be exported before it can find due encouragement and recognition." Time, of course, made Frost the most visible and admired American poets of his day. He eventually received over twenty honorary degrees and four Pulitzer Prizes. Although there was no officially recognized national poet until the 1980s (when the annual poet laureateships were established), he came as close as possible to being America's official poet when he read "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. His collected poetic works continue to earn him that recognition.
Although he presented himself as the quintessential New Englander in person and in his poetry, he was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874. His father had moved the family west so that he could take a job with the San Francisco Bulletin. When his father died in 1885, Frost's mother brought the family back to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Frost attended high school, studied classics, and began writing poetry. He graduated in 1892 as co-valedictorian with Elinor White, whom he married in 1895. After high school he attended Dartmouth College for seven weeks and then turned to newspaper work and teaching school. He continued to write poetry, little of which was published. Two years after his marriage, he began attending classes at Harvard (1897-1899), but left without a degree.
In 1900, Frost's grandfather gave him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, and for the next twelve years he farmed, wrote poetry, and taught English at Pinkerton Academy. His life was hard and his poetry was mostly ignored. In 1912 he sold the farm to devote himself to writing. He moved to England, where he met a number of emerging and established poets, including Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. His first two books of poetry were published in England and received favorable reviews. These books, A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), were published in the United States in 1915, and Frost then began to receive recognition at home.
That same year Frost returned to the United States and took up residence on a farm near Franconia, New Hampshire. More books of poetry and greater acclaim followed quickly. In 1916, he published Mountain Interval a book containing "The Road Not Taken," "Birches," and "Out, Out-." He also became poet-in-residence at Amherst College, a relationship that would continue sporadically for much of his life.
More books of poetry and more recognition followed throughout Frost's life. In 1923 he published
Selected Poems and New Hampshire. The latter book, for which he won a Pulitzer prize,
contains some of his best known work: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Fire and Ice," and
"Nothing Gold Can Stay." These were followed by West-Running Brook (1928), Collected Poems (1930),
A Further Range (1936), A Witness Tree (1942), Steeple Bush (1947), Complete Poems (1949),
Aforesaid (1954), and In The Clearing (1962).
Early in his career and throughout his long public experience as a speaker and a lecturer, Frost cultivated his persona as a philosophical, wry, and wise country poet. This is the friendly, almost avuncular voice we usually hear, the one that expresses knowledge and concern for the land, history, and human nature. Even with this point of view, however, there are complicated undertones of wit and irony. There is also what Randall Jarrell called "The Other Frost," the often agonized and troubled spirit whose voice is heard in poems like "Acquainted with the Night" and "Fire and Ice."
Regardless of the voice we hear, Frost's poetic style is consistent. His diction is informal, plain and conversational, and his phrases are simple and direct. More often then not, he uses and defines the natural speech pattern and rhythms of New England, polishing the language that people actually speak, and fashioning it into a compact and terse poetic texture.
Structurally, Frost's poems typically move in a smooth, uninterrupted flow from an event or an object, through a metaphor, to an idea. Within this pattern, he usually describes a complete event rather than a single vision. The heart of the process is the image or metaphor. Frost's metaphors are sparse and careful; they are brought sharply into focus and skillfully interwoven within each poem. Frost himself saw metaphors as the beginning of the process. In Education By Poetry (1931) he wrote that "poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, 'grace' metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another."
Frost preferred traditional poetic forms and rhythms, and he was so disapproving of free verse that he
once asserted that writing it was like playing tennis without a net.We therefore find conventional
rhyme schemes and clear meters (with traditional metrical substitutions) in much of his work, together
with closed forms such as couplets, sonnets (with interesting varying rhyme patterns), terza rima
(see p. 813), quatrains, stanzas, and blank verse.
Frost's subjects are usually based on everyday life and rural settings. Poems are occasioned by flowers, stone fences, woodcutting, picking apples, sleigh riding, falling leaves, rain, snow, birch trees, insects, birds, hired men, and children, to name just a few of the topics. However, the Frostian poetic structure always moves from such subjects toward philosophical generalizations about life and death, survival and responsibility, and nature and humanity.
One of Frost's major appeals is that his poems are easily accessible. They are by no means simplistic,
however, but run deep, as seen, for example, in "The Road Not Taken" and "Misgiving." They may be also complex
and ambiguous. In "Mending Wall," for example, the philosophies of the speaker and his fence-repairing
neighbor are well presented and contrasted. Readers often conclude that the speaker's wish to remove barriers
is the major idea, but the neighbor's argument for maintaining them is equally strong. In "Desert Places"
we are presented with a chilling view of the infinite desert within the human mind. In "Acquainted with
the Night," Frost's sophisticated urban speaker tells us of the night of the city and also presents hints
about the dark night of the soul.
The new standard edition of Frost's work is by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson, eds., Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (New York: Library of America, 1996). During his later years, Frost was much in demand as a speaker, and he was the first American poet to appear frequently before the television camera. Twelve of his lectures are published in Reginald Cook, Robert Frost, A Living Voice (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1974). The standard biography is by Lawrance S. Thompson, in three volumes: Robert Frost: The Early Years; The Years of Triumph; and The Laster Years (New York: Holt Rinehart, 1966-1977). The last volume was completed after Thompson's death by Roy H. Winnixck. Useful criticism includes George Nitchie, Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost (Durham: Duke UP, 1960); Reuben Brower, The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (New York: Oxford UP, 1963); Philip L. Gerber, Robert Frost (Boston: Twayne, 1966); Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (New York: Oxford UP, 1977); John Kemp, Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979); Richard Wakefield, Robert Frost and the Opposing Lights of the Hour (New York: Lang, 1985); James Potter, A Robert Frost Handbook (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1980); Harold Bloom, ed., Robert Frost (New York, Chelsea House, 1986), a collection of critical essays; George Monteiro, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance (Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1988); Judith Oster, Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991); George F. Bagby, Frost and the Book of Nature (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1993); and Katherine Kearns, Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite (New York) (New York: Cambridge UP, 1994). One of the hour-long programs in the PBS Voices and Visions series (1987) features his work.