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Robert Frost | Biography

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Early Life

Robert Lee Frost, a quintessential New England poet, was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1874. He was the child of William Prescott Frost Jr., a brilliant, demanding, abusive, and alcoholic father, and Isabelle Moodie, a Scottish immigrant and teacher. When Frost was 11, his father died, leaving the family destitute. Frost, his mother, and his sister, Jeanie, moved to eastern Massachusetts to be near his paternal grandparents, native New Englanders who traced their origins from Devonshire, England, to New Hampshire in 1634.

The Education of the Poet

Early on, Frost's mother introduced her son to literature. As a young boy, he enjoyed memorizing poetry and reading works by British playwright William Shakespeare, English poet William Wordsworth, and American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In high school, his interests grew. Frost excelled in Greek and Latin, became interested in botany and astronomy, and published a poem in his high school Bulletin, of which he eventually became editor. Frost also played football, belonged to the debating society, and, in his senior year, fell in love. The object of his affections was his co-valedictorian, Elinor White, the brightest girl at Lawrence High School. She refused to marry him, however, until she finished college. Frost had nearly despaired of waiting when they married in 1895.

Frost spent a short time at Dartmouth College after high school. In 1896 the couple's son, Elliott, was born. In 1897 Frost enrolled at Harvard. He left Harvard in 1899, the year his daughter, Lesley, was born. With his grandfather's assistance, in 1900 Frost rented a poultry farm in Methuen, Massachusetts. Months later, Elliot died of cholera, and Elinor persuaded Grandfather Frost to buy a farm for the grieving family in Derry, New Hampshire. In 1900 Frost's mother died. Grandfather Frost died in 1901, leaving the farm to his grandson along with a yearly annuity. The family grew in the Derry years. The couple had four more children: Carol in 1902; Irma in 1903; Marjorie in 1905; and Elinor, who died within months of her birth in 1907.

Coping with depression, Frost worked on the farm during the day and wrote at night. Most of the poetry in his first two volumes was written there. In 1906 with four children under seven and the family pressed for funds, Frost took a teaching job at the Pinkerton Academy. He was a resourceful and successful teacher. He was lauded for revising the English curriculum and helping with student athletics, the school paper, and the debating team. Exhausted, he resigned after five years.

Early Life as a Poet

In 1912 Frost packed up his family and moved to England. Although his publication record in America was slight, in London the poet was able to arrange the publication of his first full volume of poetry, A Boy's Will, in 1913. He was 39. In 1914 North of Boston, a second volume, was published. His long-in-coming reputation was now established.

During his British sojourn, Frost made friends among a group of British poets. He also met the American poets Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, both of whom were experimenting with new forms of poetry. Called modernists, they were among a group of young American and British writers who wished to refresh the language of literature and to deal with common subjects in ordinary language. Those precepts are not far from that of their Romantic precursors, the renowned British poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But for these young poets, modernism meant a break from poems with formal structures and set rhyme schemes. The language of poetry was meant to be unornamented and the images visually distinct and clearly framed. For the Americans, modernism was seen as an opportunity for presenting the American voice, distinct from British English and British poetry.

Both Pound and Lowell were taken with Frost's work, which was related to the Imagism they advocated. Ezra Pound defined the image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." The Imagists insisted that the image have visual clarity. The image was, thus, to be distinct in impact from that of the symbol.

Pound and Lowell published reviews of Frost's poetry and spread the word about their new friend and colleague. Frost and his family remained in England until 1915, when the threat of World War I (1914–18) hastened their return to America. There Frost was recognized as a leader of a new poetry movement. He was in fact part of a revolution. The changes in poetry made in the early decades of the 20th century have impacted poetry in English right up to the present time. Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T.S Eliot, and Marianne Moore are known as the great innovators of American poetry in the early 20th century, transforming the way readers think about poetry. Their poetry and the essays they wrote about the concepts of modernism changed the way the world has come to value American poetry and gave readers a distinctive new American voice.

Years of Recognition

In the years that followed his sojourn in England, Robert Frost achieved recognition as a great American poet. He won four Pulitzer Prizes. He taught at Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Dartmouth, although his principal affiliation was at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He was sought after for public readings and celebrated for his informative and folksy style.

While Frost's public persona was that of the congenial and gentle poet, his public manner barely concealed the anger, guilt, and misery he carried as a result of his family's past and continuing misfortunes. In 1934 his daughter Marjorie died, and his beloved Elinor's death followed four years later. Compounding his grief, his son Carol committed suicide in 1940, and his daughter Irma was placed in a mental hospital in 1947.

Meanwhile, Frost's reputation as a poet continued to grow. In all, he was presented with 44 honorary degrees plus government tributes, such as birthday greetings from the U.S. Senate, a Congressional Gold Medal, and an appointment as an honorary consultant to the Library of Congress, a post now designated as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Death and Legacy

In 1961 Frost was invited to write a poem celebrating President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. When the time came for Frost, then age 86, to read his new poem from the podium at the inauguration ceremony, he was unable to see the words in the glaring sunlight of a brilliant January day. Instead, he abandoned his script, lifted his head, and recited from memory an older poem, "The Gift Outright" (1942). Frost died two years later on January 29, 1963. The breadth and humanity of his vision has traveled well over time.

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