by Anthony Domestico
Robert Frost (1874-1963), a New England poet whose verse went far beyond the regional, is one of America’s most popular and well-regarded twentieth-century writers. He was a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and many of his poems such as “Mending Wall” and “The Road Not Taken” have become touchstones of America’s poetic tradition. He is noted for his faithful depiction of colloquial speech, his muscular, oftentimes ambiguous imagery, and his command of a pervasive and terrifying irony that belies any characterization of him as merely a genial purveyor of rural wisdom.
Frost was born on March 26, 1874 in San Francisco, California. After the death of his journalist and teacher father, Frost and his family moved to Massachusetts, where the poet would spend the rest of his childhood. Frost briefly attended Dartmouth College, but he quickly became disillusioned and took on a series of odd jobs throughout the 1890s, working as a teacher, a factory worker, a mill worker, and a newspaper deliveryman.
In 1894, Frost published his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” in the New York magazine Independent. The next year, he married Elinor Miriam White, a classmate from high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and they moved to a family farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where they lived for the next nine years. Frost and White would have six children together, two of whom died young. These tragedies darkened Frost’s verse, helping prepare for the loneliness of “Desert Places” and the terror of “Design.”
Frost sold the farm and moved to England to focus on his writing in 1912. This same year, he published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will. He soon found himself enmeshed in the European literary scene: he met Ezra Pound, who helped champion Frost’s early career, and was much influenced by the Georgian poets T.E. Hulme, Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, and Edward Thomas. Pound, who was eleven years Frost’s junior, introduced him to William Butler Yeats, whom he had long admired, but Pound mistook Frost’s traditional forms and unobtrusive irony for simplicity, and Frost chafed at Pound’s critical strictures. “I’d as soon write free verse,” he once said, “as play tennis with the net down.” Frost valued his independence and rebuffed Pound’s advances. When war came, he returned to the United States.
North of Boston (1915) was Frost’s first book of verse to be published in the U.S. This book, written while he was living in England and reviewed favorably by Pound, illustrates Frost’s intimate if fraught relationship with international modernism. The volume contains many of Frost’s most famous lyrics, including “Mending Wall” and “Birches,” and the poems showcase his absorption of the blank verse form as well as his abiding interest in the use of the American vernacular.
After the success of North of Boston, Frost was able to purchase a farm in Franconia, NH. Here he wrote most of the poems for Mountain Interval (1916). In 1920, Frost purchased Stone House, a farm in Vermont; this same year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his fourth collection of poems, New Hampshire (1920). As Frost’s poetic reputation grew – he won the Pulitzer in 1931 for Collected Poems and began lecturing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College – his personal life was again touched by tragedy: his daughter Marjorie died in childbirth in 1934; his wife died in 1938; and his daughter Carol committed suicide in 1940.
Frost continued to write poetry and collect honors until his death in Boston in 1963; he read at President Kennedy’s inaugural in 1961. His poetic legacy, while secured, is rife with contradictions. He was a popular poet whose greatest poems approached nihilism in their bleak irony; he was a master of traditional verse forms who was championed by Ezra Pound; he was an American regionalist whose most well-known book was written while abroad. Frost remains to this day one of the most iconic figures of American poetry.