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?
1. ‘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 (as we have discussed here) ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
The poem is frequently misinterpreted, as Frost himself observed in 1962, shortly before his death. ‘People are frequently misunderstanding it or misinterpreting it.’ But he went on to remark, ‘The secret of what it means I keep.’ We can analyse ‘Mending Wall’ as a poem contrasting two approaches to life and human relationships: the approach embodied by Frost himself in the poem (or by the speaker of his poem, at least), and the approach represented by his neighbour. It is Frost’s neighbour, rather than Frost himself (or Frost’s speaker), who insists: ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
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. Observe the highly unusual and controlled rhyme scheme that Frost uses: he doesn’t just employ a rhyme scheme, but instead he links each stanza to the next through repeating the same rhymes at different points in the succeeding stanza.
There’s also Frost’s use of regular iambic tetrameter throughout the poem, and his choice to end-stop each line: there’s no enjambment, there are no run-on lines, and this lends the poem an air of being a series of simple, pithy statements or observations, rather than a more profound meditation. There’s something inevitable about it: it’s less a Wordsworthian ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ than a more modern acknowledgment that most of us, as W. H. Davies put it in another poem from around this time, ‘have no time to stand and stare’ at nature.
‘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.
‘Birches’ draws on Robert Frost’s childhood memories of swinging on birch trees as a boy. In summary, the poem is a meditation on these trees, which are supple (i.e. easily bent) but strong (not easily broken). Contrasting the birches with ‘straighter darker trees’ which surround them, Frost says he likes to think they are bent because a boy has been swinging on them. When Frost says that he would like to ‘come back to [nature] and begin over’, there’s a sense of wistfulness that extends far greater than birch-swinging, hinting at the adult’s vain yearning to return to childhood and live his life over again.
We have analysed this poem here.
4. ‘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.)
Frost begins by addressing the tree in tautological terms which almost recall a child’s song: ‘Tree at my window, window tree’. The last two lines add nothing to the meaning of the first four, but they set the blithe, relaxed tone that dominates the whole poem. The poet tells this ‘window tree’ that he lowers his sash window when night comes, closing it, but he doesn’t like to draw the curtain across the window to block out the tree.
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’.
This one is slightly unusual in Robert Frost’s oeuvre in focusing on the urban rather than rural world of many of his other famous poems. But one of the problems in interpreting the meaning of this poem is that Frost’s speaker refuses to tell us how he feels about his solitary wandering through the night: he is, to borrow a phrase from the poem, ‘unwilling to explain’.
This sonnet-like poem (for more on this, click on our analysis below) 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.
We have analysed this poem here.
6. ‘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.
The elements of fire and ice mentioned in the poem, and foregrounded in its title, are two of the four Aristotelian or classical elements, along with earth and air (although ‘ice’ is usually just described as water, Frost – whose very surname here summons the icy conditions of one half of the poem – is purposely summoning these classical elements). Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’ in 1920. This is just two years after the end of the First World War, and a time when revolution, apocalypse, and social and political chaos were on many people’s minds.
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.
8. ‘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.
9. ‘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 poem is written in the blank verse which Frost used in many of his finest poems, to create a conversational, down-to-earth tone.
10. ‘The Road Not Taken’.
No list of Robert Frost’s finest poems would be complete without this, an oft-misunderstood poem. It appeared in his first collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916; indeed, ‘The Road Not Taken’ opens the volume. For this reason, it’s natural and understandable that many readers take the poem to be Frost’s statement of individualism as a poet: he will take ‘the road less travelled’.
But is this really what this poem means? 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.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
Robert Frost was invited to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. However, as he prepared to read the poem he had written specially for the occasion, ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’, Frost found he was unable to read the words of his poem on the paper, so bright was the glare of the sun. So instead, he began to recite one of his earlier poems, from memory: ‘The Gift Outright’. Most critics agree that ‘The Gift Outright’ is a superior poem to the inauguration poem Frost had written, and ‘The Gift Outright’ is now more or less synonymous with Kennedy’s inauguration.
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.