The best poems by Robert Frost selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Any list of the top ten best poems by such a major poet as Robert Frost (1874-1963) is bound to inspire disagreement or, at least, discussion; but we thought we’d throw our literary cap in the ring and offer our own selection of Robert Frost’s greatest poems, along with a little bit about each poem. Do you agree with our recommendations? What should/shouldn’t be on this list, in your view?
‘Mending Wall’. One of Frost’s most famous poems, ‘Mending Wall’ is about the human race’s primitive urge to ‘mark its territory’ and our fondness for setting clear boundaries for our houses and gardens. Whilst Frost believes that such markers are a throwback to an earlier stage in mankind’s development, his neighbour believes that ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. One of Frost’s best-loved poems if not the best-loved, ‘Stopping by Woods’ was inspired by a real event in Frost’s life: stopping by the woods on his way home, the poet despaired that he was poor and didn’t have enough money to provide for his family, but rather than give up he decided to soldier on and ‘choose life’ rather than the tempting escape offered by the woods. Everything else is silent around them, apart from the soft wind and the slight sound of snowfall. Frost concludes by telling us that, lovely, dark, and inviting as the woods are, he has prior commitments that he must honour, so he must leave this place of peace and tranquillity and continue on his journey before he can sleep for the night.
‘Birches’. ‘One could do worse than be a swinger of birches’: so concludes this wonderful blank-verse meditation on the fun of playing around with these fine trees, swinging from them – even dying by falling from them. That’s the way to go! Unfortunately, the birches Frost sees in this poem turn out to have been bent, not by a boy swinging from them, but from an ice-storm – but Frost prefers the more romanticised notion of play his imagination dreams up.
‘Tree at my Window’. Another tree poem, this. Many of Robert Frost’s greatest poems feature trees and woods, and many of his poems take as their starting-point a simple observation of nature that then prompts a deeper meditation. (We might compare his friend Edward Thomas here.) The final stanza earns this short poem its place on this list: it sees Frost identifying his ‘window tree’ as a kindred spirit, with the tree concerned with ‘outer’ and Frost with ‘inner, weather’.
‘Acquainted with the Night’. This sonnet begins and ends with the same line, which also provides the poem with its title: ‘I have been one acquainted with the night’. This is another poem about walking and despairing: the poet wanders the city at night, and finds little to comfort him among the dark streets. A fine poem about urban isolation, and one of Frost’s best (and most accessible) poems.
‘Fire and Ice’. This nine-line poem was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and lends a curiously apocalyptic meaning to Game of Thrones. Will the world end in fire or ice? These images suggest various things – fire suggests rage, war, passion; ice suggests cold indifference and passivity – and can be interpreted in a number of ways, which lends this classic short poem an ambiguity and deep symbolic quality.
‘Mowing’. Hard work, they say, is its own reward. This short poem, which contains fourteen lines but is not a sonnet, is a meditation on the act of mowing the grass with a scythe. What sound does the scythe make? What does it whisper? Frost concludes that it is ‘the sweetest dream that labor knows’ – the scythe ‘whispers’ as it performs its work.
‘Desert Places’. Using the rhyme scheme and quatrain form of the rubaiyat – most familiar to English readers in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám – ‘Desert Places’ takes a snowy nature scene as its setting, like ‘Stopping by Woods’, but muses upon the deeper isolation and desertion we feel as human beings.
‘Christmas Trees’. Trees again! This 1916 poem is about a country-dwelling man who realises the importance of the Christmas trees on his land when a city-dweller turns up and offers to buy them from him.
‘The Road Not Taken’. No list of Robert Frost’s finest poems would be complete without this, an oft-misunderstood poem. In summary, Frost’s speaker comes to a fork in the road and, lamenting the fact that he has to choose between them, takes ‘the one less traveled by’, and tells himself he’ll go back and take the other path another day, though he knows he probably never will have a chance to do so, since ‘way leads on to way’. Yet the two paths are, in fact, equally covered with leaves – one is not ‘less traveled by’ after all. What’s more, the poem is titled ‘The Road Not Taken’, making it clear to us that it is this road – not the apparently ‘less traveled’ one that the speaker chose – which is really on his mind. And so the famous final lines are less a proud assertion of individualism and more a bittersweet exploration of the way we always rewrite our own histories to justify the decisions we make. It remains a great poem, however – perhaps Robert Frost’s greatest of all.
For a good edition of Frost’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems. Discover more classic poetry with our pick of the best poetry anthologies, these classic poems about secrets, and these great nature poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Robert Frost in c. 1910, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.