Few poets become household names. Unlike fiction and nonfiction, poetry is an art form consumed (or at least purchased) by a nearly infinitesimal percentage of readers. Consider this: A Poet Laureate of the U.S. may sell a few thousand books in a year, whereas an NFL quarterback may sell half a million copies of his surely ghostwritten autobiography. This should come as no surprise, but it reflects a sobering reality—poets have it rough when it comes to making a name (not to mention a living) for themselves. Occasionally, though, a poet breaks through the niche, transcends the confining markets of literature students and poetry aficionados, and so captivates the minds and hearts of the general public that he or she becomes a crucial thread in our national, artistic tapestry.
Robert Frost was, and still is, such a poet.
Born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, Frost grew up in an America besieged by rapid social and scientific change. The Second Industrial Revolution began in 1870 and brought with it advancements in manufacturing and technology that resulted in an America that was ever more urbanized, mechanized, and modernized. These societal changes were surely not lost on Frost, who grew up in the city, but when it came time for him to explore these complexities through his writing, he focused not on factories or steel yards but on the subjects and settings for which we know him best: Northeastern rural life, birch trees, and snow-covered woods. To celebrate Frost’s 142nd birthday, let’s look at some interesting facts about the Bard of New England, one of America’s most towering literary figures.
1. Fame Across the Pond
Frost wrote diligently for years without success. Upon leaving Harvard University in 1899 due to health concerns, he moved with his wife, Elinor, to Derry, New Hampshire, where the couple set up shop at a farm purchased by Robert’s grandfather. For nine years, Frost wrote in the early mornings before heading out to toil on the farm. Some of this work would later be published, but at the time his writing proved unproductive, as did his farming. After a stint in teaching, the Frost family moved across the pond to Beaconsfield, a small town outside of London, in 1912. This jaunt must have been the antidote to Frost’s sluggish writing career —within a year his first book, A Boy’s Will, was published in London, and he was soon rubbing elbows with other poetic titans like Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas. In 1914, just a year before he moved back to America, Frost published North of Boston, and his writing career was officially on the upswing.
2. Demons Beneath the Surface
Frost’s poems display a sense of rustic tranquility, but close inspection reveals a grim bleakness beneath their pastoral veneer. Novice readers may imagine Frost as a genial daydreamer wandering about in the New England countryside. In reality, though, Frost had a tumultuous life that infused his poetry with tension and musings on death, isolation, and the indifference of the universe.
Life was rough from the start, as Frost was born to an alcoholic father and a depressed mother. His father died of tuberculosis, his mother died of cancer, and in 1920 he committed his sister Jeanie to a mental hospital, where she later died. Robert, his wife, and their daughter Irma (committed to a mental hospital in 1947) suffered from bouts of mental illness throughout life. Only two of Robert’s six children—Irma and Lesley—outlived their father, while the others met unfortunate, premature fates: Eliot died of cholera, Carol committed suicide, Marjorie died of puerperal fever, and Elinor Bettina died three days after her birth. In 1937, Frost’s wife Elinor developed breast cancer and died of heart failure a year later. To Frost, the world could be a capricious and merciless place, and this reckoning with cosmic cruelty seeps into much of his work. (“Once by the Pacific” is a potent example.)
3. Cold War Diplomacy
It’s not often that poets are sent to ease the animosity of two warring superpowers. But in 1962, the 88-year-old Frost (who now had four Pulitzer Prizes) embarked on a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union. Frost imagined “the Russian and the American democracies drawing together,” and he desperately hoped to liaise with then Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. The possibility of this meeting was nebulous, but Frost went ahead with his tour of the USSR, giving poetry readings and lectures to enraptured audiences at each stop. Near the end of the trip, Khrushchev agreed to a meeting, but Frost, who was so excited that he developed stomach cramps and fell ill. Nevertheless, Khrushchev came to the guesthouse where Frost was resting. Over an hour and a half, the two men discussed the future of capitalism and socialism, the possibility of reuniting East and West Berlin (Khrushchev said no), and poetry’s relation to national strength. The Cold War continued to simmer, but this rendezvous testifies to the reconciliatory power of literature.
4. A Political Poet
In 1961, John F. Kennedy inherited the Oval Office, and Robert Frost became the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration. This was no accident, for Frost had been vocal in his support for Kennedy, having given his endorsement of the junior senator from Massachusetts before Kennedy had even declared his candidacy. Even before this, however, Frost was well known in Washington, D.C.—he had worked with the Attorney General to secure the release of Ezra Pound (who was under indictment for treason), had read and hobnobbed at the White House, had secured the Consultant in Poetry position by the Library of Congress, had received a Congressional Gold Medal, and had even been named “America’s great poet-philosopher” by the Senate. When Frost died in 1963, it was only natural that JFK and many other government officials paid tribute to a poet who self-admittedly wore his politics on his sleeve.
5. The Road Not Taken . . . or Understood?
It’s been argued that “The Road Not Taken” is the most recognizable poem of all time. First published in 1916, the narrative poem eventually infiltrated nearly every English classroom and literature anthology. Most readers, even if they are unaware of the source, likely have some recollection of its famous closing lines:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But recognition doesn’t equal comprehension, according to scholars and even Frost, who viewed his “very tricky” creation as deeply misunderstood. The most common interpretation is that the poem’s narrator—a woodland hiker confronted with a fork in the road—overcomes his instinct to take the common way out of the woods and is satisfied after embracing the challenge of the less-traveled road. Many scholars, however, assert that this interpretation is wrong and at odds with the text itself. In the previous stanza, the reader learns that both roads “equally lay / in leaves no step had trodden black” — that is, they are identical, and it is only “ages and ages hence” when the narrator will sigh and claim he took the road less traveled. Is the poem, then, not an ode to individualism and self-reliance? Is it instead a more complex comment on memory and how we distort and rationalize our choices? You be the judge.