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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Robert Frost

Throughout his career, Robert Frost skillfully assumed the persona of a New England farmer-poet. Actually, however, Frost was born in San Francisco; he did not move East with his widowed mother until he was eleven, and he spent most of his adolescence in Lawrence, an industrialized Massachusetts mill town. Between 1892 and 1900 he married Elinor Miriam White and began raising his family while he worked in mills, taught school, and attended Dartmouth College and Harvard University. In 1900 he moved to a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, which was purchased for him by his grandfather. He taught English at a private school, the Pinkerton Academy, from 1906 to 1911, and he taught English and psychology at a teacher’s college in Plymouth, New Hampshire, for a year in 1911–12. He sold the Derry farm in 1911 and moved with his family to England the following year where he met the English Georgian poets Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Edward Thomas and began writing poetry full-time. Although Frost had adopted rural New England life as his special subject matter, his first two books, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), were published in London before they appeared in the United States.

After returning to America in 1915, Frost became popular, particularly with English teachers and academic audiences. He taught or was a “Poet in Residence” at Amherst, the University of Michigan, and other colleges, and he spent many summers at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943. The United States Senate extended its felicitations to him on his birthday in 1950; a mountain in Vermont was named after him in 1955; the State Department sent him to South America, England, and Russia on “good-will missions” in 1954, 1957, and 1962; and in 1961 he was invited to read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremonies. Frost’s admirers were upset by Lawrance Thompson’s definitive, three-volume biography, published between 1966 and 1976, which revealed that the poet had been a vain, vindictive, inordinately ambitious, and frequently cruel man in his private life who had caused great suffering to his family and friends. Thompson also emphasized that Frost’s public and poetic stoicism had sometimes masked acute depression, self-doubt, and guilt and that he had suffered many personal miseries and tragedies—the insanity of his sister Jeanie, the deaths of his daughter Marjorie and his wife in 1934 and 1938, and the suicide of his only son in 1940.

The time Frost spent in back-country New England gave him the opportunity to encounter farmers. For these New Englanders, like the old farmer in “Mending Wall,” isolation could have certain advantages, and it is significant that in “The Line-Gang” Frost describes the arrival of the telephone—that very modern means of communication—in a distinctly ambivalent manner. In North of Boston, Mountain Interval (1916), and New Hampshire (1923) he was able to communicate both the limitations and the virtues of this rural, isolated, older America to the urban and academic Americans who read his poems and attended his readings.

Poetically, Frost can be considered a link between an older era and modern culture, and his relationship to literary modernism was equivocal. His early poems are similar to those of nineteenth-century American fireside poets such as Longfellow and English Georgians such as Thomas and Gibson. And many of his mature poems have more in common with the works of William Wordsworth or Robert Browning than they do with those of his contemporaries T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or William Carlos Williams. Frost eschewed free verse and wrote his poems in traditional rhymes and metrical forms like blank verse. Moreover, like his popular New England contemporary, Edward Arlington Robinson, Frost wrote many poems which are dramatic narratives and can be appreciated, like prose fiction, for their characterizations and plot development.

Intellectually, Frost was the heir of the nineteenth-century romantic individualism exemplified by Emerson and Thoreau. He assumed the lone individual could question and work out his or her own relationships to God and existence—preferably in a natural setting and with a few discrete references to Christianity and Transcendentalism. Unlike Thoreau, however, Frost was never daring enough to challenge the social order boldly in his writings—though he was capable of the conservative cynicism of “Provide, Provide.” Nor was he able to express the romantic affirmations that characterize many of Emerson’s works. The poet, to Emerson, was a seer whose poems should contain truths analogous to religious revelations. Frost’s view of the poet was more modest. In his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” which he published as a preface to his Collected Poems, he emphasized that a poem “begins in delight and ends in runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

James Guimond
Rider College

In the Heath Anthology
The Pasture (1913)
Mending Wall (1914)
"Out, Out--" (1916)
An Old Man's Winter Night (1916)
The Line-Gang (1916)
The Oven Bird (1916)
The Road Not Taken (1916)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923)
The Ax-Helve (1923)
Once by the Pacific (1928)
Desert Places (1936)
Design (1936)
Provide, Provide (1936)
Directive (1947)

Other Works
Complete Poems of Robert Frost (1949)
In the Clearing (1962)

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Modern American Poetry
A biography, bibliography, and criticism on practically every Frost poem.

Robert Frost and Helen Thomas: Five Revealing Letters
By William R. Evans, for the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin, and Lesley Lee Francis.

The Academy of American Poets
A biography, some poems, and multimedia links.

The Robert Frost Web Page
Biography and links to interviews.

Secondary Sources

Harold Bloom, ed., Robert Frost: Modern Critical Views, 1986

Edwin Cady, Louis Budd, eds., On Robert Frost: The Best from American Literature, 1991

James M. Cox, ed., Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962

Philip Gerber, ed., Critical Essays on Robert Frost, 1982

Frank Lentricchia, Robert Frost and the Landscapes of Self, 1975

Judith Oster, Toward Robert Frost, 1990

Richard Poirier, Robert Frost, 1977

Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, 1990

James L. Potter, Robert Frost Handbook, 1980

Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years. 1874-1915, 1966

Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938, 1970

Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963, 1976