By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of the most important, and popular, American poets of the twentieth century. Over a long career, he wrote poems about everything from the natural world to the founding of America, from his own childhood and youth to the landscape of New England.
Frost’s life spanned almost a century: born just nine years after the end of the American Civil War, he lived long enough to see John F. Kennedy as US President (of which more in a moment). But what are the most curious facts about Robert Frost’s life and work?
Here are ten key facts from his remarkable life and career.
1. Although he’s closely associated with New England, Robert Frost was actually born in California.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, and only moved to New England in 1885, following his father’s death, when his family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Frost’s grandparents lived. And it was New England that shaped him and the poetry he wrote: he worked as a farmer in New Hampshire for around ten years.
2. Frost’s ancestor had left (old) England back in the 1630s, and become one of the earliest European settlers in the New World.
His father was a descendent of Nicholas Frost of Tiverton, Devon, England, who had sailed to New Hampshire in 1634 on the ship the Wolfrana. Frost’s mother, too, was of British descent: a Scottish immigrant.
3. He was educated at Dartmouth and Harvard, although on both occasions he left without a degree.
Frost studied at Dartmouth for one semester in 1892, and then he studied at Harvard between 1897 and 1899, but he withdrew without taking a degree, owing to illness.
4. For a few years, he lived in England, where he encouraged – and was encouraged by – another poet to write.
We may know Frost as a poet of New England, but between 1912 and 1915, he lived in old England, and it was while he was living in England that Frost published his first book, A Boy’s Will, in 1913.
While living in England, Frost became friends with the modernist poet Ezra Pound – who was also born in the US – and the British poet Edward Thomas. Frost encouraged Thomas, who was then a hack writer of literary criticism, to write poetry, and Thomas became a well-known poet in his own right (although sadly he died in battle in 1917 and never lived to enjoy his success).
5. Indeed, one of the most beloved poems in the English language was written while its author was on his way to visit Frost.
Edward Thomas’s best-known poem, ‘Adlestrop’, is about a train journey through the Cotswolds in southern England, during the course of which the train makes an unscheduled stop at the titular railway station. This poem, with its evocation of the English countryside, is widely anthologised.
And the person Thomas was on his way to visit? None other than his friend Robert Frost.
6. Robert Frost gave a reading at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration – but read the wrong poem.
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.
7. Many readers misread the ending to one of his most famous poems.
In ‘The Road Not Taken’ (1915), Frost describes arriving at a fork in the road while walking through the woods. He cannot really distinguish between the two paths ahead, so he chooses the one that appears ‘less travelled by’.
Many people interpret this gesture as a symbol of independence, a desire to take ‘the road less travelled’ and not follow where everyone else leads. But as the context of this stanza within the broader poem reveals, the poem is as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our decisions – even if they’re largely fabrications – as it is about self-determination and being unconventional.
8. And the recurring line in another of Frost’s well-known poems is also often misinterpreted.
In his poem ‘Mending Wall’, Frost describes the annual act of rebuilding the stone wall between his house and his neighbour’s. The poem contains the recurring line ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
Some readers interpret this line as Frost’s own view. But the poem is subtler than this, as we explore in a separate post. Frost is 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.’
9. He described free verse as ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Despite being a contemporary of modernists like William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost had a few sharp words to say about free verse, which he likened to ‘playing tennis with the net down’, implying that there were no rules in free verse.
10. He won no fewer than four Pulitzer Prizes.
Frost became perhaps the best-known – and bestselling – American poet of the twentieth century, but he also attracted critical acclaim. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943.
Frost attracted other honours. In July 1961, two years before his death, Frost was named the poet laureate of Vermont, and he even visited Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, during the Cold War.