By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, whose work remains popular. Poems such as ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘The Road Not Taken’ are widely quoted, taught, studied, and loved. These poems have also given us some well-known quotations.
But what are Robert Frost’s most famous, and best, quotations? The following list has been compiled from his poetry and his prose writings. As is our usual practice here at Interesting Literature, we’ve included only those quotations which can be clearly traced to Frost’s written works.
‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
This is one of the most famous lines in Frost’s poetry, from his poem ‘Mending Wall’, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. Is Frost himself endorsing this idea – that in order to maintain good relations with our neighbours, we need to enforce clear boundaries between us and them?
The sentiment did not originate with Frost. In 1640, an E. Rogers wrote a letter containing the following piece of wisdom: ‘A good fence helpeth to keepe peace between neighbours; but let vs take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keepe vs from meeting.’ But it was Robert Frost’s use of this piece of homespun wisdom – which is critiqued and even undermined as ‘Mending Wall’ develops – which really cemented the sentiment in the popular consciousness.
‘Nothing gold can stay’.
This is the title and closing line of one of Frost’s greatest short poems. The poem was published in 1923 in the Yale Review before being collected, later the same year, in Frost’s poetry collection New Hampshire.
The meaning of the line is that nothing beautiful, rare, or precious lasts for long. But Frost’s choice of the auxiliary verb ‘can’ suggests that this is the way it’s meant to be: nature is not meant to be static.
‘Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.’
These lines are from another of Frost’s best-known short poems, ‘Fire and Ice’. Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’ in 1920, and it was published in Harper’s Magazine in December of that year.
Frost tells us that he has heard some people say that the world will end in fire, while others reckon it will end in ice. In other words, the world will either burn up or freeze up.
‘And miles to go before I sleep.’
These are the famous closing words of another classic Robert Frost poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. In the poem, Frost tells us that, 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.
‘I have been one acquainted with the night.’
Here’s another memorable line from a famous Frost poem, ‘Acquainted with the Night’ (1928), a lyric poem in which the speaker tells us that he has walked outside, and home again, in the rain at night. He has walked far, out to the farthest edges of the city, where the city lights stop and he is plunged into a deeper darkness.
‘Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.’
This is the title of a 1942 poem by Frost, and reminds us that, whilst true happiness may be short-lived, it is an intense feeling of joy which we should treasure when it makes a rare appearance in our lives.
‘A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.’
This is often quoted in relation to Frost’s attitudes on the purpose of poetry. It comes from a letter to Louis Untermeyer written on 1 January 1916.
His use of the word ‘homesickness’ is especially intriguing, since it reminds us that poetry is often about the loss of something, and about trying to recover that lost thing. Indeed, the word ‘nostalgia’ means literally ‘the pain of returning home’, and nostalgia is an important theme in Frost’s poetry, some of which is about childhood memories.
‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.’
Many of Frost’s best prose utterances are on the subject of poetry and the emotional power of poetry. Here, in his 1939 essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, Frost underlines the importance of the poet being moved by what they write, if they hope to move their readers, too.
‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.’
Frost made this now-famous pronouncement in an address at Milton Academy in Massachusetts on 17 May 1935. Frost’s work is formally more traditional than the work of the modernists, who had come to prominence around the time of the First World War. Frost favoured the sonnet, blank verse, rhyming couplets, and other established verse forms rather than vers libre, which he saw as lacking any rules.
Writing free verse, then, is like playing a game of tennis with no net: the artist, and the sportsperson, need some kind of limit against which they can structure their ‘art’.
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less travelled by’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best Robert Frost quotations with one of his most famous of all, from the final stanza of his poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. The sentiment of these lines is often misunderstood: many readers interpret them as a rejection of a conformist approach to life.
But in fact, there’s an air of regret in Frost’s words too – he didn’t take the other road, and may be left wondering where that would have taken him – and also a suggestion of retrospectively engineering a particular narrative, a ‘story’ which justifies his decision to opt for one road over another. Frost’s quotation is, in other words, far deeper and more ambiguous (and ambivalent) than it is usually taken to be.