Last reviewed: June 2017
New England poet who popularized plain-language poetry
March 26, 1874
San Francisco, California
January 29, 1963
There is more than passing significance in the anomaly that this decidedly New England poet was born in San Francisco. Robert Lee Frost frequently admitted that when he settled in New England at the age of eleven, he so prided himself on being a California city dweller that he felt a decided hostility toward the region “north of Boston” and toward Yankee taciturnity. Perhaps it was the shock of newness that sharpened his response to so much that he later came not only to admire but also to capture with such accurate precision in his poems.
Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, was a native of New Hampshire who had bitterly rejected New England following the Civil War because of his Copperhead political sympathies. After graduating with honors from Harvard College in 1872, he had served one year (1872-1873) as headmaster of Lewistown Academy in Pennsylvania, where he had met, courted, and in 1873 married Isabelle Moody, an immigrant Scottish schoolteacher. William Prescott Frost had taken his bride to San Francisco, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor from 1873 until his untimely death at the age of thirty-five, from tuberculosis, in 1885. His strongly democratic political sympathies were reflected in his decision to name his firstborn child after the distinguished Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Despite his aversion for New England, William Prescott Frost shortly before his death requested that he be buried in the area he still considered home. Robert Frost
Thus it happened that his widow took their two children (the younger child, Jeanie Florence Frost, had been born in 1876) across the continent with the casket for the interment in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where William Prescott Frost’s parents then lived. Because the family could not afford the cost of the return trip to California, they settled in New England. For several years, Robert Frost’s mother earned a living by teaching in various schools, starting in Salem, New Hampshire. Undoubtedly she had a profound effect on her son’s development. Her Scottish loyalties, particularly her intense religious preoccupations (which caused her to relinquish her inherited Calvinistic Presbyterianism in favor of an ardent Swedenborgian belief) may account in part for the tantalizing blend of practicality and mysticism in Robert Frost’s poetry.
In 1892 Robert Frost graduated from Lawrence High School as class poet and as co-valedictorian with a sensitive, brilliant girl named Elinor Miriam White, whom he married three years later. Already before his graduation from high school, he had decided to dedicate himself to the life of a poet, and he found no comparable attraction in any other possible profession. His paternal grandfather was, however, eager to make a lawyer of the gifted young man and persuaded him to enter Dartmouth College in the fall of 1892. Characteristically, Frost left Dartmouth before he had completed his first semester there. During the next few years his quietly dedicated aim was concealed beneath apparent aimlessness: He earned his living in a variety of ways, intermittently teaching school, working as a bobbin boy in a Lawrence wool mill, trying his hand at newspaper reporting, and doing odd jobs. Throughout these years he wrote poems, which he continued to send to newspaper and magazine editors. When the New York Independent sent him his first check, for a poem titled “My Butterfly,” in November, 1894, he celebrated the event by having six of his poems printed in book form under the title Twilight and in a limited edition of only two copies, one for his fiancé, Elinor White, and one for himself.
After his marriage, at the age of twenty-one, Frost spent two years helping his mother run a small private school in Lawrence. Then, deciding to prepare himself for more advanced teaching by concentrating on Latin literature, he entered Harvard University as a special student. After two years there (1897-1899) he again grew impatient with formal study and abandoned it with his prospects unimproved but with unimpaired determination to become distinguished as a poet.
An important turning point occurred about this time, when a doctor warned him that his chronically precarious physical condition suggested the threat of tuberculosis and that country life might be beneficial. He thereupon became a farmer. His paternal grandfather, somewhat baffled but solicitous, bought him a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where between 1900 and 1905 Frost raised poultry and came to be known as “the egg man.” Still more a poet than a farmer, he found in the New Hampshire countryside and its people an appealing kind of raw material for his lyrics and dramatic narratives. By 1905 he had written most of the poems that later constituted his first two published volumes. However, neither farming nor poetry provided adequate support for his growing family of three daughters and one son. Therefore from 1905 to 1911 he taught various subjects at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry. His success as a provocative teacher brought him the invitation to join the faculty of the New Hampshire Normal School at Plymouth, and in 1911 he moved his family there.
Never wavering from his secret goal, and increasingly impatient with various diversions and hindrances, Frost taught at the New Hampshire Normal School only one year before deciding to take one last gamble on a literary life. In the autumn of 1912 he sailed for England with his family, a venture made possible by the cash sale of his Derry farm and by a small annual income from the estate of his deceased paternal grandfather. The Frosts rented an inexpensive cottage on the edge of fields and woods in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and more or less “camped it,” while the poet went seriously to work. Within three months after his arrival in England he had sorted out his previously written poems into an arrangement for two volumes of poems, had submitted to a London publisher the manuscript of A Boy’s Will, and had signed a contract. The British reviews of his first book were little more than lukewarm, but the critical response to his dramatic narratives, published a year later in North of Boston, enthusiastically hailed a new poetic voice. Thus at the age of forty, after twenty years of patient devotion to his art, Frost won recognition in England and thereby attracted the attention of critics and editors in his native land.
Publication of his first two volumes also facilitated literary acquaintances and friendships in England, including those with such writers as Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas, F. S. Flint, T. E. Hulme, and Lascelles Abercrombie. With the encouragement of Abercrombie, the Frost family in the spring of 1914 moved from Beaconsfield to the idyllic Gloucestershire countryside near the Malvern Hills. Only the outbreak of war caused the Frosts to make plans for returning to the United States. By the time they reached New York in February, 1915, both A Boy’s Will and North of Boston had been published in American editions, and the latter quickly became a best-seller.
Frost returned to New Hampshire and bought a small farm in the White Mountain region, near Franconia, but his growing literary reputation brought almost immediate demands for public readings and lectures. In less than a year after his return from England, he had given readings in most of the New England states as well as in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York. He became one of the first American poets to make arrangements with various universities to join a faculty as a creative writer, without submitting to the treadmill of regular teaching. From 1916 to 1920 he was a professor of English at Amherst College, and from 1921 to 1923 he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. After returning to Amherst for two years, he went back to spend one more year at the University of Michigan as a fellow-in-letters. From 1926 to 1938 he again taught at Amherst on a part-time basis, from 1939 to 1943 he was Ralph Waldo Emerson Fellow of Poetry at Harvard, from 1943 to 1949 he was Ticknor Fellow at Dartmouth, and in 1949 he was appointed Simpson Lecturer at Amherst.
Frost received many honors and awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943; he was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1916, and to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930. On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution extending him felicitations. In 1955 Vermont named a mountain after him in the town of his legal residence, Ripton. More than forty colleges and universities gave him honorary degrees, and in the spring of 1957 he returned to Great Britain to receive honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and the National University of Ireland. From 1958 to 1959 Frost served as named poet laureate of the United States, and in 1960 he received the Congressional Gold Medal. The following year he recited his poem "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Frost's health began failing in 1962, however, and he died in January 1963 in Boston.
Frost’s seemingly simple poetic idiom is actually complicated, subtle, and elusive. At first glance many of his lyric, descriptive, and narrative poems may seem to deserve particular merit solely because they precisely observe little-noticed details of natural objects and rural characters. The poet’s obvious pleasure in faithfully recording cherished images actually provides the foundation for a subtle poetic superstructure. Even in his brief lyrics Frost manages to include a strong dramatic element, primarily through a sensitive capturing of voice tones, so that the so-called “sound of sense” adds a significant dimension of meaning to all his poems. Beyond that, his imagery is developed in such a way as to endow even the most prosaically represented object with implied symbolic extensions of meaning. Finally, through the blend of matter and manner, the poems frequently transcend the immediate relationships of the individual to self, to others, to nature, and to the universe as they probe the mysteries around which religious faith is built. While the totality of his separate poetic moods may explore many possible attitudes toward human experience, his poems repeatedly return to an implied attitude of devout reverence and belief, which constitute the infallible core of his work.