The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Robert Frost's depictions of rural life in the United States have become synonymous with the modern American poetic tradition. Some of Frost's most famous works, such as "Mending Wall" (1914), "The Oven Bird" (1916), and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923) are regarded as some of the greatest poetic testaments to life in the American countryside. While beautifully evocative of the landscape he loved dearly, many of Frost's poems are also marked with an element of somber, bitter, and haunting solemnity—sometimes intentional and sometimes not. However, it's this element of bitter realism that allows Frost's poems to transcend the simple categorization of "nature poetry" and become foundational reading in classes on American literature around the world.

1. Frost thought everyone misinterpreted "The Road Not Taken."

Frost always regretted the public's misunderstanding of one of his most famous poems, "The Road Not Taken." The poem, which reflects on the moral weight of taking the "road less traveled," is often read at graduations due to its representation of a moment of introspective choice. Frost, however, never meant for the poem to be interpreted in such an earnest light. He actually referred to the work as his "private jest" of his friend Edward Thomas's tendency to scold himself for not taking a different path when the two friends hiked together. Frost was taken aback that so many readers took the poem so seriously and said of the poem, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem―very tricky." On one occasion he lamented to Thomas that although he was "doing [his] best to make it obvious by [his] manner that [he] was fooling," his reading of the poem to a group of university students shortly after its publication in 1915 was taken far too seriously.

2. "The Road Not Taken" led to the death of one of Frost's best friends.

Although Frost didn't intend "The Road Not Taken" to be read as a somber work, the poem contributed to his dear friend's death. Frost and his friend Edward Thomas had known each other since childhood, and at the onset of World War I (1914–18) Thomas was burdened by the decision to join the fighting or stay home. "The Road Not Taken" was, in part, inspired by the walks that Thomas and Frost shared through the countryside, but upon seeing the poem Thomas was convinced that it related to his decision to join the war. Thomas grappled with the decision, felt mocked by Frost's poem, and finally declared that he would enlist, stating:

Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.

Sadly, this decision led to Thomas's death—he was killed in combat in 1917 in Arras, France. Devastated to learn the news, Frost said of his friend, "Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had."

3. One of Frost's poems inspired American novelist George R.R. Martin's famous A Song of Ice and Fire series.

George R.R. Martin's bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series, the catalyst for the popular television show Game of Thrones, owes its inception to Robert Frost. Frost's poem "Fire and Ice," which begins, "Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice," inspired Martin's title for the series, as well as the pivotal role of both elements in the fantasy realm of the books. In an interview Martin commented:

People say I was influenced by Robert Frost's poem, and of course I was, I mean ... Fire is love, fire is passion, fire is sexual ardor and all of these things. Ice is betrayal, ice is revenge, ice is ... you know, that kind of cold inhumanity and all that stuff is being played out in the books.

4. The stone wall that Frost mentions in "Mending Wall" stills stands.

Frost's 1914 poem "Mending Wall," which popularized the phrase Good fences make good neighbors, was written about a real stone wall. Frost and his family lived in a small farmhouse in Derry, New Hampshire, from 1900 until 1911. Frost often worked on a particular stone wall at the edge of his property with the assistance of his friend and neighbor Napoleon Guay, who allegedly reminded Frost that "good fences make good neighbors" with some frequency. The farmhouse—and the famous stone wall—were preserved.

5. Frost's poem "Birches" was a tribute to his favorite childhood pastime.

Frost's 1916 poem "Birches," which describes the beauty of birch trees in a pastoral landscape, cemented his reputation as one of America's most evocative nature poets. The poem is also a tribute to a boyhood pastime of his—climbing a birch tree, bending its trunk, and clinging for dear life as it whipped upward again. Frost once said of this somewhat dangerous activity:

It was almost sacrilegious climbing a birch tree till it bent, till it gave and swooped to the ground, but that's what boys did in those days.

6. Frost's personal life was full of grief, depression, and loss.

Before his literary success, Frost lived a rather sad, tortured life. He grew up in an impoverished family—his father died of tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection, when Frost was 11, and the family was left with $8. Later Frost's mother died of cancer and, to Frost's horror, his sister Jeanie had to be sent to a mental hospital in 1920. Haunted by the losses he experienced during his youth, Frost experienced bouts of serious depression throughout his life. He and his wife, Elinor, had six children, only two of whom outlived the poet. Critics note that Frost's sense of personal loss can be seen in his chilling poetic style.

7. Frost had a tumultuous friendship with American poet Ezra Pound.

The famous American poet and critic Ezra Pound helped popularize Frost's poetry, but the two had a rather strained friendship. Pound "championed" Frost's work in England, but Frost always believed that Pound wanted something in return for this kindness. The two would often parody each other in letters to other poets of the age and take the occasional stab at one another. Frost once wrote to his editor, Robert Bird Mosher, that:

You will be amused to hear that Pound has taken to bullying me on the strength of what he did for me by his review in Poetry ... If any but a great man had written it, I should have called it vulgar.

8. Robert Frost became the first poet laureate of Vermont—a position created for him.

Nowhere was Frost's poetry more popular than in the American Northeast—particularly New Hampshire, where Frost lived for years, and neighboring Vermont. In 1961, just two years before his death, Frost was named the first poet laureate of Vermont. Frost moved to Vermont in 1920, allegedly "to seek a better place to farm and especially grow apples." Frost remained the poet laureate until his death in 1963, after which the position remained vacant until 1989. Frost once joked about the state in his poem "New Hampshire," which he ended, "At present I am living in Vermont."

9. Frost's poem "Out, Out" was based on a tragic true story.

"Out, Out," published in 1916, is one of Frost's darkest poems, detailing the terrible mutilation of a young boy whose arm is caught in a buzz saw. The poem was inspired by an actual event, when the son of one of Frost's neighbors died in a similar accident in 1910. Frost, having just returned from England, had not been writing much, but he was so shocked and horrified by the news that he thought to immortalize the poor child in "Out, Out."

10. Lines from Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" were quoted at President John F. Kennedy's funeral.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, lines of Frost's 1922 poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" were recited at the presidential funeral. Kennedy had been a fan of Frost's poetry, and he had often quoted the same poem during his campaign speeches. Sid Davis, a White House correspondent under Kennedy, recited lines from the poem in a tearful speech. He later recalled:

I was broadcasting the arrival with my Westinghouse colleague Ann Corrick. I had covered Kennedy from his 1960 election through the debacle of his Bay of Pigs decision, his triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Dallas. Now he was gone. I chose, unwisely, to close the broadcast with a verse from Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"... In tears, I was unable to finish it.

More recently, in 2000 Justin Trudeau, who later went on to become prime minister of Canada, quoted the same poem at the funeral of his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

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