January 29, 2010
Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet, who drew his images from the New England countryside and his language from New England speech. Although Frost’s images and voice often seem familiar and old, his observations have an edge of skepticism and irony that make his work, upon rereading, never as old-fashioned, easy, or carefree as it first appears. In being both traditional and skeptical, Frost’s poetry helped provide a link between the American poetry of the 19th century and that of the 20th century.
Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California, the son of William Prescott Frost, Jr., of New Hampshire and Isabelle Moodie of Scotland. He was named after Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate armies during the American Civil War (1861-1865). When Frost was 11 years old, his father died of tuberculosis. The Frost family then moved to Massachusetts, where William Frost wanted to be buried. Frost attended high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and began writing poetry. He attended Dartmouth College briefly but withdrew during his first year and went to work. In 1895 he married Elinor White. The couple eventually had six children, two of whom died young. From 1897 to 1899 Frost attended Harvard College, but he left before receiving a degree. In the early 1900s the family owned a small poultry farm in New Hampshire, and Frost taught at a small private school nearby.
Frost continued to write poetry, but he was unsuccessful at publishing his work. Seeking better literary opportunities, the Frosts sold their farm and moved to England in 1912. In England, Frost achieved his first literary success. His book of poems A Boy’s Will (1913) was printed by the first English publisher that Frost approached. The work established Frost as an author and was representative of his lifelong poetic style: sparse and technically precise, yet evocative in the use of simple and earthy imagery. His second collection, North of Boston, was published in 1914 and also won praise.
In England Frost met other American poets, including fellow New Englander Amy Lowell and the avant-garde writer Ezra Pound. But Frost’s work during this time was associated with that of the Georgian poets, a group of English writers whose lyric poetry celebrated the English countryside. The Georgian poets included Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Edward Thomas.
In 1915 Frost and his family returned to the United States, where his poetry had become popular. He continued to write for the rest of his life, while living on farms in Vermont and New Hampshire and teaching literature at Amherst College, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College. In 1961, at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, Frost became the first poet to read a poem—’The Gift Outright”—at a presidential inauguration.