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Passions in PoetryRobert Frost
1874 - 1963

by Ron

Robert Frost, four time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was arguably America's most widely read and constantly anthologized poet of the Twentieth Century. Although his poetry was often associated with rural New England, earning Frost a label as a pastoral poet, his work was not merely regional but was philosophically universal. Four decades after his death, Robert Frost remains one of America's leading 20th-Century poets.

Frost's earliest years are often glossed over in biographies, a pity since his childhood very much shaped his life. Indeed, the Frost roots date back to 1634, when Nicholas Frost arrived in New England to farm. Samuel Abbott Frost, son of Nicholas, was also a farmer in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as was his son and grandfather to Robert, William Prescott Frost. The farming tradition was broken, however, by Robert Frost's father.

Robert's father, William Prescott, Jr., was a nonconformist who left his New England home in search of a more adventurous life in San Francisco. A former teacher turned journalist, William was a hard drinker, a gambler, and a largely frustrated politician. The newspaper William edited was Democratic, and his son's full name was Robert E. Lee Frost, two fairly telling clues as to William's political leanings. He was a Copperhead, a Northern sympathizer with the South during the Civil War.

Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874, just two years before his father was initially diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. Robert started kindergarten in 1879, but complained of nervous stomach pains and did not return to school after his first day. He lasted a little longer in the first grade, 1880, but soon dropped out again. In 1881, Frost was baptized in his mother's church and entered second grade, but finally dropped out yet again in 1882 to ultimately be educated at home. This continued for three years, until 1885, when Robert's father died on May 5. Robert was eleven years old.

The Frost family (his sister, Jeanie Florence, was born in 1876), left nearly destitute with only $8, moved back to Massachusetts in 1885. After testing, Robert entered the third grade, though his younger sister was admitted to the fourth grade. This was short-lived, though, as the family again moved in 1886, this time to New Hampshire, where Frost's mother took a job teaching the fifth to eighth grades, and both Robert and Jeanie entered the fifth grade.

In 1888, Robert Frost entered high school, finishing 1889 at the head of his class. In 1890, Frost's first published poem appeared in the high school newspaper, quickly followed by a second, and in 1891 Robert was elected chief editor. That same year, he met and fell in love with another student, Elinor Miriam White, and they were engaged in 1892. Although he passed the entrance exams for Harvard, Robert instead entered Dartmouth College in 1892, partly because it was cheaper, but largely because his grandfather blamed Harvard for the bad habits of Robert's father. It doesn't matter much, because in December, Robert left Dartmouth.

Robert Frost turned to teaching grade school like his mother, first in Methuen and later in Salem. Unlike Robert, his betrothed, Elinor, returned to college in spite of Robert's attempt to convince her to marry him. In March, 1894, he learns The Independent will publish his poem "My Butterfly: An Elegy" for $15. Excited, he engaged a printer to make two leather-bound, gold-stamped copies of a collection of his poetry, called "Twilight," and again tried to convince Elinor to marry him at once. He took the train to Canton, knocked at her door, and handed her one of the books. But Elinor's cool reception and continued refusal to marry him incited Frost to destroy the remaining copy.

Over 18 months later, on December 19, 1895, Robert and Elinor were finally married in a ceremony conducted by a Swedenborgian pastor. Their first child, Elliot, was born on September 25, 1896, and the following year, 1897, Robert Frost borrowed money from his grandfather and entered Harvard as a freshman. His education lasted only two years, however, and Frost withdrew from Harvard in 1899, only a month before his daughter, Lesley, was born on April 28.

The next few years are hard ones for the Frost family. On July 8, 1990. Robert's three-year-old son died of cholera. Elinor suffered severe depression and Robert, blaming himself for not calling a doctor sooner, was little better. But they still had 14-month-old Lesley to care for, and when their landlord ordered them to leave, Elinor persuaded Grandfather Frost to buy and rent them a 30 acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire.

In November, Robert's mother died of cancer after a brief stay in a Penacook, NH, sanatorium. In July of the following year, 1901, grandfather William Prescott Frost also died. Frost was left an annuity of $500 and the Derry Farm in his grandfather's will, but there was a significant catch - he must keep the farm for ten years, after which the annuity would increase to $800 and he would own the farm free-and-clear.

The Derry Years, from 1900 to 1911, were among Robert Frost's most creative. He worked the farm by day, learning about the countryside and its people, and wrote at night. In 1906, with four children under seven and short of money, Frost took a teaching position with the nearby Pinkerton Academy, which he held with great success for five years.

In 1912, at the age of 38, Robert Frost sold the Derry farm and used the money to take his family to England, where he hoped to devote himself entirely to writing. It was at this point that the literary career of Frost was to have its true beginning.

Almost immediately after their arrival in England, "A Boy's Will" was accepted by a London publisher and brought out in 1913, followed a year later by "North of Boston." Both books were comprised almost entirely of poems written during the Derry Years, and both were reviewed very favorably on both sides of the Atlantic.

As part of his efforts on his own behalf, Frost called on numerous literary figures while in England, including the famous Ezra Pound, who later wrote the first American review of Frost's poetry. William Butler Yeats, after meeting Frost, told Pound that A Boy's Will was "the best poetry written in America for a long time." Frost also met Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, and T. E. Hulme, the Georgian poets whose rural themes were more in keeping with Frost's own. He became especially close to Edward Thomas, whom he urged to turn from prose to poetry, resulting in Thomas's only volume of verse, which was dedicated to Frost.

In early 1915, the Frost family returned to America, landing in New York City just two days after the release of "North of Boston" by Henry Holt and Company, Frost's principal American publisher. In April, "A Boy's Will" was also published, and Frost bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire. The following year, 1916, was to set the pattern for much of Robert Frost's life. He gave talks and readings throughout New England, was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letter, saw the publication of yet another book, "Mountain Interval," and accepted an offer from Amerhert College to teach a single semester for $2,000. His lecture sphere would eventually extend far beyond his home states, he would see many, many more honors and nearly as many books published, and he eventually would hold positions, both real and honorary at colleges and universities across the country.

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