Robert Frost Biography

Educator, Poet(1874–1963)
A four-time Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, American Robert Frost depicted realistic New England life through language and situations familiar to the common man.

Synopsis

Born on March 26, 1874, Robert Frost spent his first 40 years as an unknown. He exploded on the scene after returning from England at the beginning of WWI. Winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and a special guest at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Frost became a poetic force and the unofficial "poet laureate" of the United States. He died of complications from prostate surgery on January 29, 1963.

Early Years

Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874, in San Francisco, California. He spent the first 11 years of his life there, until his journalist father, William Prescott Frost Jr., died of tuberculosis. Following his father's passing, Frost moved with his mother and sister, Jeanie, to the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. They moved in with his grandparents, and Frost attended Lawrence High School, where he met his future love and wife, Elinor White, who was his co-valedictorian when they graduated in 1892.

After high school, Frost attended Dartmouth College for several months, returning home to work a slew of unfulfilling jobs. In 1894, he had his first poem, "My Butterfly: an Elegy," published in The Independent, a weekly literary journal based in New York City. With this success, Frost proposed to Elinor, who was attending St. Lawrence University, but she turned him down because she first wanted to finish school. Frost then decided to leave on a trip to Virginia, and when he returned, he proposed again. By then, Elinor had graduated from college, and she accepted. They married on December 19, 1895, and had their first child, Elliot, in 1896.

Beginning in 1897, Frost attended Harvard University but had to drop out after two years due to health concerns. He returned to Lawrence to join his wife, who was now pregnant with their second child, daughter Lesley (1899). In 1900, Frost moved with his wife and children to a farm in New Hampshire—property that Frost's grandfather had purchased for them—and they attempted to make a life on it for the next 12 years. Though it was a fruitful time for Frost's writing, it was a difficult period in his personal life.

The Frost's firstborn son, Elliot, died of cholera in 1900. After his death, Elinor gave birth to four more children: son Carol (1902), who would commit suicide in 1940; Irma (1903), who later developed mental illness; Marjorie (1905), who died in her late 20s after giving birth; and Elinor (1907), who died just weeks after she was born. Additionally, during that time, Frost and Elinor attempted several endeavors, including poultry farming, all of which were fairly unsuccessful.

Despite such challenges, it was during this time that Frost acclimated himself to rural life. In fact, he grew to depict it quite well, and began setting many of his poems in the countryside. But while two of these, "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," would be published in 1906, he could not find any publishers who were willing to underwrite his other poems.

Public Recognition for Poetry

In 1912, Frost and Elinor decided to sell the farm in New Hampshire and move the family to England, where they hoped there would be more publishers willing to take a chance on new poets. Within just a few months, Frost, now 38, found a publisher who would print his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, followed by North of Boston a year later. It was at this time that Frost met fellow poets Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two men who would affect his life in significant ways.

Pound and Thomas were the first to review his work in a favorable light, as well as provide significant encouragement. Frost credited Thomas's long walks over the English landscape as the inspiration for one of his most famous poems, "The Road Not Taken." Apparently, Thomas's indecision and regret regarding what paths to take inspired Frost's work. The time Frost spent in England was one of the most significant periods in his life, but it was short-lived. Shortly after World War I broke out in August 1914, Frost and Elinor were forced to return to America.

When Frost arrived back home, his reputation had preceded him, and he was well-received by the literary world. His new publisher, Henry Holt, who would remain with him for the rest of his life, had purchased all of the copies of North of Boston, and in 1916, he published Frost's Mountain Interval, a collection of other works that he created while in England, including a tribute to Thomas. Journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, who had turned Frost down when he submitted work earlier, now came calling. Frost famously sent the Atlantic the same poems that they had rejected before his stay in England.

In 1915, Frost and Elinor settled down on a farm that they purchased in Franconia, New Hampshire. There, Frost began a long career as a teacher at several colleges, reciting poetry to eager crowds and writing all the while. He taught at Dartmouth and the University of Michigan at various times, but his most significant association was with Amherst College, where he taught steadily during the period from 1916 to 1938, and where the main library is now named in his honor. For a period of more than 40 years beginning in 1921, Frost also spent almost every summer and fall at Middlebury College, teaching English on its campus in Ripton, Vermont.

During his lifetime, Frost would receive more than 40 honorary degrees, and in 1924, he was awarded his first of four Pulitzer Prizes, for his book New Hampshire. He would subsequently win Pulitzers for Collected Poems (1931), A Further Range (1937) and A Witness Tree (1943).

Amidst these successes, Frost's family was dealt another tragic blow when Elinor died in 1938. Diagnosed with cancer in 1937 and having undergone surgery, she also had had a long history of heart trouble, to which she ultimately succumbed. The same year as his wife's death, Frost left his teaching position at Amherst College.

Literary Legacy

In the late 1950s, Frost, along with Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot, championed the release of his old acquaintance Ezra Pound, who was being held in a federal mental hospital for treason due to his involvement with fascists in Italy during World War II. Pound was released in 1958, after the indictments were dropped.  

In 1960, Congress awarded Frost the Congressional Gold Medal. A year later, at the age of 86, Frost was honored when asked to write and recite a poem for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. His sight now failing, he was not able to see the words in the sunlight and substituted the reading of one of his poems, "The Gift Outright," which he had committed to memory. 

In 1962, Frost visited the Soviet Union on a goodwill tour. However, when he accidentally misrepresented a statement made by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev following their meeting, he unwittingly undid much of the good intended by his visit.

On January 29, 1963, Frost died from complications related to prostate surgery. He was survived by two of his daughters, Lesley and Irma, and his ashes are interred in a family plot in Bennington, Vermont.

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