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Robert Frost

The poet and playwright Robert Lee Frost, held in high esteem for his portrayal of rural American life and the mastery of colloquialism with which he examined the complexity of social and philosophical constructs within rural New England, was largely unrecognised as a writer for almost the first forty years of his life, though he wrote consistently throughout. 

Born on March 26th 1874 in San Francisco, California, to the journalist William Prescott Frost, Jr., and Isabelle Moodie, he was of Scottish and English descent. His father, descendent of Nicholas Frost of Tiverton in Devon, England, had sailed to New Hampshire in 1634 where he met Isabelle. As a teacher and later editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin (which would merge with the San Francisco Examiner), William Prescott Frost, Jr. found providing for his family constantly challenging, never achieving more income than was necessary to merely subsist. The family lived in San Francisco for twelve years, until William’s death from tuberculosis on 5th May, 1885, leaving them with only $8, caused them to move across the country Lawrence, Massachusetts, under the patronage of Robert’s grandfather William Frost, Sr., whose position as overseer at a New England mill afforded him the income to provide such support. 

On arriving in Lawrence and moving in with Robert’s grandparents, Isabelle joined the Swedenborgian church there and had Robert baptised, though he left it some years later as an adult. Despite being best known for his continued topical focus on rural life, he grew up in the city. While at Lawrence High School he met and fell in love with Elinor Miriam White who would later become his wife, and had his first poem published in the school magazine. After graduating from Lawrence High School there followed two months of attention at Dartmouth College which were sufficient for acceptance into the Theta Delta Chi fraternity. Despite this experience of college education, however, he returned home shortly thereafter, taking various jobs to support his mother which included helping her teach a class of attention-deficient students, delivering newspapers and working in a factory, changing carbon filaments in lightbulbs. The drudgery of these jobs and the poor money he made doing them encouraged him to pursue his poetry as a career. 

Frost sold his first poem, ‘My Butterfly, an elegy’ in 1894 for $15 ($400 today) and it was published in the 8th November edition of the New York Independent. Rightfully proud of this achievement, Frost proposed to Elinor, though she demurred on the grounds that she was still at St. Lawrence University and wished to complete her education before making such a decision. Frost dutifully waited, spending the time on an excursion to the Great Dismal Swamp area of Virginia, and on his return White accepted his second proposal, having now graduated. They were married at Lawrence, Massachusetts on December 19th, 1895, and they had their first child, Elliot, in 1896. 

Frost attempted college for a second time, attending Harvard University for two years from 1897-99, though he left voluntarily due to illness and to be with his wife who was pregnant with their first daughter, born in 1899. Meanwhile, Robert’s grandfather had fallen ill and was approaching death, though not before purchasing a farm for Robert and Elinor, which Robert then worked for nine years. His routine involved early mornings of writing and labouring, and though his writing then was largely unpublished (only two poems, ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ and ‘The Trial by Existence’ saw publication), many of these poems would eventually see publication and make him famous. His grandfather was not the only loss he experienced now, for in 1900 his mother died of cancer, while Elliot died of cholera in 1904. Though he enjoyed his time farming and it proved a huge source of inspiration for his writing, it was not financially viable and so, after six years of attending solely to the farm, he took a job in 1906 as an English teacher at the Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire and then at the New Hampshire Normal School, Now Plymouth State University, at which he worked until 1911, alongside the farm. A son, Carol, was born in 1902, and a second daughter Irma followed in 1903. A third daughter, Marjorie, was born in 1905, though there was further grief as the couple’s fourth daughter Elinor Bettina was born in 1907, only to die three days thereafter. 

Quitting both the farm and the teaching position, Frost and the family sailed to Great Britain in 1912 and settled first in Beaconsfield, a small town just outside of London to the West, believing England to be more willing to support poets and commission work. The following year he published his first book of poetry under David Nutt, A Boy’s Will, to critical acclaim, at the age of 38. In it were many of the poems he had written while on the farm, and W.B. Yeats said he considered A Boy’s Will “the best book of poetry written in America in a long time”. While he was in England, Frost made the acquaintance of several important literary figures, including Edward Thomas, T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound. His second book of poetry, North of Boston, followed in 1914, and its success led the publishers Henry Holt and Company to republish A Boy’s Will in 1915. The New York Times review said “in republishing his first book after his second, Mr. Robert Frost has undertaken the difficult task of competing with himself”. Frost accredited various walks through the countryside with Thomas discussing his indecision and regret regarding his choice of direction in life as the inspiration for one of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’. 

The onset of World War I saw Frost return to America, his reputation now preceding him, and he purchased a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire and launched a career of writing, teaching and lecturing. Henry Holt, who had published his work while in England, remained a close ally and published Mountain Interval in 1916, a collection of various works he had written while in England, including ‘The Road Not Taken’. Furthermore, following his recent success in England and his now established reputation as a respected poet, he was approached by various publishers such as the Atlantic Monthly, who had turned Frost down before his time in England and the start of his public literary career. Now he was an established name, Frost audaciously, somewhat indignantly and famously sent them the very same poems he had sent them prior to his fame and which they had previously rejected. 

The New Hampshire homestead would act as the Frosts’ summer home until 1938. During many of the intervening years, Frost taught English at Amherst College in Massachusetts, encouraging his students to examine sounds and intonation in the English language, calling his colloquial approach to language “the sound of sense”. Alongside this continued position at Amherst College, Frost spent almost every summer for the forty-two years between 1921 and 1963 teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College, whose campus sits atop a mountain at Ripton, Vermont. His time there afforded him a credit as one of the major influences upon the school’s development and its writing programmes. Meanwhile in 1921 Frost accepted a fellowship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he would reside for 7 years before returning to Amherst. While at Michigan he received a lifetime appointment as a Fellow in Letters, and in 1924 he received the first of four Pulitzer Prizes, for his book New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. 

He spent most of the rest of his life splitting his time equally between writing, teaching and lecturing, and in 1931 he received his second Pulitzer Prize, for Collected Poems. The death of Marjorie in 1934 from her puerperal fever at childbirth was a further cause of grief, though his mourning was not at the expense of his career. In 1937 he was awarded a third Pulitzer Prize for A Further Range, though at the time of its publication and his presentation with the award, his wife was beginning to show symptoms of breast cancer, and she died the following year owing to heart failure as a result of the cancer. He purchased a new five acre farm in South Miami, Florida, and named it ‘Pencil Pines’, and he would spend his winters there for the remainder of his life. Sadly though, there was further death, as his son Carol committed suicide the same year. Again, and despite the constant grief he was subjected to, he continued to teach and write, and was awarded his fourth and final Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for A Witness Tree. 

There then followed a period of comparative quietude during which he was not awarded any major prizes, though he continued to work and was presented with over 40 honourary degrees at establishments such as Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge, despite his never having completed college. Then, at the age of 86, he read his well-known poem ‘The Gift Outright’ at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on 20th January, 1961. This was to be his last major poetic engagement with the world, for he died two years later in Boston on 29th January, 1963, of complications arising from prostate surgery. He is buried at the Old Bennington Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont, and his epitaph quotes the last line from his 1942 poem ‘The Lesson for Today’, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”. Though his life was plagued with grief and loss, his poetry maintains a vivid and urgent sense of life, both rural and personal, and he is widely regarded by many highly lauded critics and poets as one of the finest American writers. Randall Jarell, a poet and critic, wrote “no other living poet has written so well about the actions of ordinary men”; indeed, for a man who lived so well, so spectacularly and so ordinarily, he was perhaps best-placed among the writers of his generation to chronicle the lifestyles