It is somewhat ironic that this poet—the personification of the New England voice in poetry—was born in San Francisco, and spent his first eleven years in the West Coast urban environment. His mother, Isabelle Moodie, was a Scottish immigrant, raised with relations in Ohio. Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, was born in New Hampshire, but had left it at an early age, traveling south to fight under Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy; he was arrested in Philadelphia and sent home, but named his son, Robert Lee in honor of the Confederate soldier. The father worked in journalist and politics, dying suddenly in 1885, when Frost was eleven, of tuberculosis.
With no where to turn for financial help, Isabelle was forced to take her family East to live with her husband’s parents, and for the next decade Robert would grow up in poverty in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The very fact that he was an outsider to New England, experiencing the landscape for the first time at an impressionable age, accounts, perhaps, for his later immersion in the culture and landscape of the area.
Frost graduate high school as a co-valedictorian with Elinor White, whom he would marry three years later. Throughout high school he had been a highly competitive young man, and he had now been promised support to attend college at Dartmouth. But after only the first semester there, he dropped out, the desire to achieve—including his goal of becoming a famous author—seeming to have left him; for the rest of his life, he would work only enough to provide the bare necessities to his wife and family.
Frost began by teaching school and writing, sending out poems in large quantities, but it took him nearly 23 years before he had a few poems accepted. During that period he also accepted his grandfather’s support and attended Harvard to two years, from 1897-1899. During those years, Frost had been well-trained in the classics, science and philosophy, but he feared that he would be forced to teach and become a “professional.”
Again with his grandfather’s help, he acquired a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire in 1900, where, with his wife and four children, he attempted farming. However, since he often slept until noon and shirked his farming duties, he was unsuccessful. From 1900 to 1911 he taught at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, and then taught psychology for a year at the State Normal School in Plymouth.
With his wife’s insistence, they sold the farm in 1912, traveling to England and moving into a farmstead in the country. There he met several of the so-called Georgian poets of England, Wilfred W. Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Edward Thomas, and Rupert Brooke. In 1913 a small British publisher issued A Boy’s Will to some acclaim, and the following year he published North of Boston. Both books were published soon after in the United States.
Traveling to London, Frost met several of the influential modernist figures living there, including Ezra Pound (who had helped Frost’s first volume receive critical commentary), W. B. Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, and Robert Bridges. But it was Edward Thomas with whom he developed the closest friendship, one that was to last the rest of their lives.
Upon the publication of his books in the US, Frost is alleged to have said to his wife, “My book has gone home; we must go too.” In 1915 they again settled on a New Hampshire farm, this time near Franconia, where he wrote Mountain Interval in 1916.
The same year he became the poet in residence at Amherst College, and he would return there for a period during the winter for the next four years. During this same period he also lectured at Wesleyan, Michigan, Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard, and, in 1920, helped to found the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1923 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry, New Hampshire, and he won a second Pulitzer in 1930 for his Collected Poems. A Further Range of 1936 garnered the same award.
Despite the public appearances and success, however, Frost continued to retreat from social life, and, despite a deep love between him and his wife, he further insulated himself in his melancholic aloofness. He had blamed his failure to call a doctor for the death by typhoid fever of his first son, and when his wife grew ill in 1938, asked her to call for him as a sign of forgiveness. Despite his vigil outside her room, she never called, slipping into unconsciousness and death. When his son, Carol, committed suicide two years later, Frost became only more deeply isolated emotionally.
Throughout his last years, Frost achieved greater and greater public acclaim, writing verse plays in 1940s and publishing a new collection, In a Clearing, as late as a year before his death. By that time Frost was perceived as a sort of national treasure, with then-President Kennedy speaking of his work as among his favorites. But, despite his popularity, which continues even today, Frost never really assimilated the lessons of American modernism, preferring to write in the narrative tradition and in rhymed, metered lines, likening poetry written without these elements as being akin to playing tennis without a net.
BOOKS OF POETRY
A Boy’s Will (London: David Nutt, 1913/New York: Holt, 1915); North of Boston (London: David Nutt, 1914/New York: Holt, 1914); Mountain Interval (New York: Holt, 1916); Selected Poems (New York: Holt, 1923); New Hampshire (New York: Holt, 1923/London: Grant Richards, 1924); Several Short Poems (New York: Holt, 1924); Selected Poems (New York: Holt, 1928); West-Running Brook (New York: Holt, 1929); The Lovely Shall Be Choosers (New York: Random House, 1929); Collected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, 1930/London: Longmans, Green, 1930); The Lone Striker (New York: Knopf, 1933); Selected Poems: Third Edition (New York: Holt, 1934); Three Poems (Baker Library, 1935); The Gold Hesperidee (Bibliophile Press, 1935); From Snow to Snow (New York: Holt, 1936); A Further Range (New York: Holt, 1936/London: Cape, 1937); Collected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, 1939/London: Longmans, Green, 1939); A Witness Tree (New York: Holt, 1942/London: Cape, 1943); Steeple Bush (New York: Holt, 1947); Complete Poems of Robert Frost, 1949 (New York: Holt, 1949/London: Cape, 1951); Hard Not To Be King (House of Books, 1951); Aforesaid (New York: Holt, 1954); A Remembrance Collection of New Poems (New York: Holt, 1959); You Come TooY (New York: Holt, 1959/ London: Bodley Head, 1964); In the Clearing (New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1962); The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York, 1969)
When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
“Come out! Come out!”—
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,--
How drifts are piled,
Door yard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ‘tis in us to arise with day
and save ourselves unaided.
(from A Boy’s Will, 1913)
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
(from A Boy’s Will, 1913)
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hungers is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To lease the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
to each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We ear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’[s saying,
And he likes having through of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
(from North of Boston, 1914)
The Death of the Hired Man
Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. "Silas is back."
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. "Be kind," she said.
She took the market things from Warren's arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.
"When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I'll not have the fellow back," he said."
I told him so last haying, didn't I?
'If he left then,' I said, 'that ended it.'
What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there's no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.'
He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won't have to beg and be beholden.'
'All right,' I say, 'I can't afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.'
'Someone else can.' 'Then someone else will have to.'
I shouldn't mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there's someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,—
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I'm done."
"Sh! not so loud: he'll hear you," Mary said.
"I want him to: he'll have to soon or late."
"He's worn out. He's asleep beside the stove.
When I came up from Rowe's I found him here,
Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,
A miserable sight, and frightening, too—
You needn't smile—I didn't recognize him—
I wasn't looking for him—and he's changed.
Wait till you see."
["Where did you say he'd been?"
"He didn't say. I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off."
"What did he say? Did he say anything?"
["Anything? Mary, confess
He said he'd come to ditch the meadow for me."
["But did he? I just want to know."
"Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn't grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too.
That sounds like something you have heard before?
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times—he made me feel so queer—
To see if he was talking in his sleep.
He ran on Harold Wilson—you remember—
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He's finished school, and teaching in his college.
Silas declares you'll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education—you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on."
"Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot."
"Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn't think they would. How some things linger!
Harold's young college boy's assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathize. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.
Harold's associated in his mind with Latin.
He asked me what I thought of Harold's saying
He studied Latin like the violin
Because he liked it—that an argument!
He said he couldn't make the boy believe
He could find water with a hazel prong—
Which showed how much good school had ever done him.
He wanted to go over that. But most of all
He thinks if he could have another chance
To teach him how to build a load of hay—"
"I know, that's Silas' one accomplishment.
He bundles every forkful in its place,
And tags and numbers it for future reference,
So he can find and easily dislodge it
In the unloading. Silas does that well.
He takes it out in bunches like big birds' nests.
You never see him standing on the hay
He's trying to lift, straining to lift himself."
"He thinks if he could teach him that, he'd be
Some good perhaps to someone in the world.
He hates to see a boy the fool of books.
Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different."
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,T
aut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."
"Home," he mocked gently.
["Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
["I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."
Warren leaned out and took a step or two,
Picked up a little stick, and brought it back
And broke it in his hand and tossed it by.
"Silas has better claim on us you think
Than on his brother? Thirteen little miles
As the road winds would bring him to his door.
Silas has walked that far no doubt today.
Why didn't he go there? His brother's rich,
A somebody—director in the bank."
"He never told us that."
["We know it though."
"I think his brother ought to help, of course.
I'll see to that if there is need. He ought of right
To take him in, and might be willing to—
He may be better than appearances.
But have some pity on Silas. Do you think
If he'd had any pride in claiming kin
Or anything he looked for from his brother,
He'd keep so still about him all this time?"
"I wonder what's between them."
["I can tell you.
Silas is what he is—we wouldn't mind him—
But just the kind that kinsfolk can't abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don't know why he isn't quite as good
As anyone. He won't be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is."
"I can't think Si ever hurt anyone."
"No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged chair-back.
He wouldn't let me put him on the lounge.
You must go in and see what you can do.
I made the bed up for him there to-night.
You'll be surprised at him—how much he's broken.
His working days are done; I'm sure of it."
"I'd not be in a hurry to say that."
"I haven't been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He's come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn't laugh at him.
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I'll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon."
[It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.
Warren returned--too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.
"Warren," she questioned.
["Dead," was all he answered.
(from North of Boston, 1914)
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep
(From North of Boston, 1914)
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I.I
took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(from Mountain Interval, 1916)
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
(from Mountain Interval, 1916)
The Cow in Apple Time
Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup. Having tasted fruit,
She scores a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
(from Mountain Interval, 1916)