Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight
and ends in wisdom. … It begins in delight, it
inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with
the first line laid down, it 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. It has denouement.”
– Robert Frost
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Key Facts about Frost
Although he is considered the quintessential New England farmer-poet, Frost was born in
San Francisco in 1874 and lived there until the age of eleven. His father had moved his
family west to accept a job with the San Francisco Bulletin.
After his father died, Frost’s mother moved the family back east. Frost went to high
school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he met his future wife Elinor White.
Frost attended Dartmouth College and later Harvard University, but he did not graduate
from either institution. He took various odd jobs (newspaper work, farming, factory
In 1900, Frost’s grandfather gave him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire. For the next
dozen years, Frost raised chickens and grew apples, wrote poetry, and taught at Pinkerton
Academy from 1906-1910.
In 1912, in an effort to develop his literary career, Frost sold the farm and moved his
family to England.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Key Facts about Frost
In England, Frost’s career blossomed. He met several emerging poets like W. B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot,
and Ezra Pound. Pound helped him secure a publisher for his first two volumes.
Frost returned to America in 1915 and saw his first two volumes published in his native country: A
Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914).
With the publication of Mountain Interval in 1916 (which included “The Road Not Taken” and “’Out,
Out—’”), Frost’s fame grew.
Frost was a very effective speaker and teacher. He lectured regularly at several colleges and
Amherst College created the position of poet-in-residence for him, a post he would periodically
assume at Amherst and other colleges.
Like Whitman before him, Frost cultivated his image. He too longed to be America’s most popular
poet. He used the media to his advantage, presenting himself as a folksy, congenial, and modest
sage who recited his poems in an avuncular voice. In actuality, he could be a bitter and nasty
competitor towards those he considered poetic rivals. Frost managed his career, including his
image, carefully and strategically. He indeed became America’s most famous poet.
Despite his image, Frost’s poems are not as simple or as cheerful as sometimes expected. His
poems often express self-doubt, loneliness, and alienation.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Key Facts about Frost
Frost was honored with over forty honorary degrees during his lifetime
and many literary awards. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times (1924,
1931, 1937, 1943). Frost, however, was embittered that he never won
the Nobel Prize for Literature.
• As a result of his fame and public image, Frost was appointed goodwill
emissary to South America and the Soviet Union.
In January 1961 at the presidential inauguration of
John F. Kennedy, Frost read “The Gift Outright.” At
the time he was the only poet honored with an
invitation to read at a presidential inauguration.
• Frost’s personal life was filled with tragedy. His wife Elinor died in 1938
and three of his children died before him – a son committed suicide. He
also saw his sister and one of his daughters institutionalized for mental
illness. Frost himself suffered from bouts of depression.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Key Facts about Frost: Poetics
Sometimes Frost’s popularity and image marred his stature with critics who argued that
he simplified his poetry to reach the largest possible audience.
But Frost’s fame can be attributable to not only his image, but also his subject matter
and accessibility. Frost wrote about familiar subjects, recognizable people, and daily
Drawing from the American plain style, Frost used an everyday vocabulary and
directness – which is sometimes mistaken for simplicity of thought. His poems, despite
their fixed form, assume a conversational tone and informal quality.
Frost’s poems often move from description, observation, and inquiry to a more general
philosophical statement about life, death, or nature.
• Frost often worked in fixed forms, like the sonnet, and insisted on established meter. He
once said that writing in free verse is like playing tennis without a net.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“There are two kinds of language: the spoken language
and the written language – our everyday speech which
we call the vernacular; and a more literary,
sophisticated, artificial, elegant language that belongs
to books. … I, myself, could get along very well without
this bookish language altogether. … all our literature
has got to come down, sooner or later, to the talk of
everyday life. … the hard everyday word of the street,
business, trades, work in summer … but there is some
sort of obligation laid on us … to give the words a
poetic touch.”
– Robert Frost
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Traditional and Modern:
Frost and the Sonnet
Frost is both a traditional and modern poet. His attachment to fixed forms, established
meter, and rhyme is traditional, while his existential sensibility and his conversational
rhythms are modernist.
Frost wrote many sonnets, both Shakespearean or English (“The Silken Tent”) and
Petrarchan or Italian (“Design”).
But his sonnets often diverge from traditional forms. “Mowing,” for example, while
composed according to the Petrarchan form, contains an unusual rhyme scheme.
Frost often inverts natural speech patterns for rhyme, meter, and meaning. See, for
instance, the opening line to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Often through sonnets, Frost reveals his complex views of nature and human experience.
“Acquainted with the Night” expresses the speaker’s dark, alienated existence.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“Acquainted with the Night”
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right
I have been acquainted with the night
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“Acquainted with the Night” – Discussion
Note the plainness of the sonnet’s language and imagery.
The sonnet does not follow English or Italian conventions. It is written in terza rima with interlocking
rhymes linking the stanzas (aba bcb cdc ded ee) – a form Dante used in the Divine Comedy.
Robert Pack suggests that in “Acquainted with the Night” Frost’s indebtedness to Dante extends beyond
Frost is in his own circle of hell locked into an obsessive “I” of self-consciousness. The poem
returns at the end to the line with which it begins, for there seems to be
no way out of this circle.
The “city light,” and later the moon, the “luminary clock,”
paradoxically illuminate only this
essential darkness, this absence of meaningful self
(“Frost’s Enigmatical Reserve” in Modern Critical Views: Robert Frost)
The initial repetition in lines 1-5 produces an effect of certainty and authority, reflective of a speaker who
believes that he knows something about his own condition and life. The night represents the bitter
emotional states that the speaker has experienced – depression, loneliness, and isolation. “The luminary
clock,” most likely the moon, suggests that the laws of the universe are disinterested in the speaker or
individual problems.
Although the poem is decidedly bleak, the speaker reveals at least some self pride in his acquired
knowledge and in his ability to survive. He does not whine or complain.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Frost and Nature
Frost’s depiction of nature is complex. Frost certainly celebrates the beauty in nature and realizes that it
can be a source of inspiration, comfort, and healing. But, more often than not, nature in Frost can be
threatening, cruel, and indifferent – and its inspiration can be dark.
In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the speaker stops to observe the snowfall. Yet he finds no
pleasure or comfort in the picturesque scene. He is uneasy and self-conscious, unable to relax and enjoy
the beauty. The snow and the woods are alluring and tempt the speaker to rest. Many critics believe the
speaker has a death wish. Although no less content than at the beginning of the poem, he decides to
reassume his life responsibilities.
Frost treats nature and work in “After Apple-Picking.” The speaker is “overtired.” It is the end of the
harvest and it does not seem to have gone well – note the reference to the empty barrel. There is neither
jubilation, fulfillment, nor relief in the poem. The speaker begins the day with strange visions as he lifts
the ice from the water trough. Is he just physically exhausted?
Consider the references to winter and sleep. What do you think the speaker means in line 38 when he says
“whatever sleep it is”?
Is this poem a description of apple-picking or the speaker’s meditation on life? At what point does the
poem seem to become more meditative rather than descriptive? What is the significance of After in the
Read “Design” on the following slide. Consider how Frost uses the sonnet to consider nature’s complexity
and ambiguity.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had the flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
That steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“Design” – Discussion
The opening octave of the sonnet describes a scene in nature: a white spider on a white
flower holds a white moth. In the sestet, the speaker asks who created the design. Who
gave these elements their colors? Who brought them all together?
The speaker seems to be suggesting that the design proves the existence of God.
However, the concluding two lines posit choices: either a force of evil brought those elements
together (“design of darkness”) or maybe just chance (“If design …”). Another possibility,
“design of darkness to appall” could refer to the Creator and His mysterious ways, which
are sometimes frightful. Ultimately, the speaker seems to wonders if there is any design to
the world.
“Design” raises questions concerning the existence of evil. How does this nursery-rhyme
iambic rhythm serve as a counterpoint to the scene the speaker describes? Does it produce a
more chilling effect?
Consider the use of whiteness and darkness in the poem. Is white a symbol of purity?
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
The Tragic Frost
Read “‘Out, Out –’” in the text.
The poem is based on an actual incident that occurred to a sixteen-year-old boy in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.
It tells the story of the tragic death of a boy at the end of the workday as he cuts his hand off with a buzz saw.
The poem evokes Shakespeare in its blank verse and allusion to Macbeth (Act V, scene 5), which immediately
establishes a tone of inexorable doom:
… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Reflective of the passage from Shakespeare, the poem unfolds with directness, economy, and speed. (Note how
the buzz saw suggests Shakespeare’s “sound and fury.”) Consider how Frost develops the tragedy by
establishing the boy’s innocence and youth.
The poem is set in Vermont during a beautiful sunset. How does the setting contribute to the tragic tone? Does
the contrast make the tragedy all the more forceful?
Consider the last line: Why do the doctor and sister turn to their own affairs so quickly? Are they cold hearted
or merciless? Is that their way of coping with the sudden tragedy?
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“Mending Wall” – Frost’s Characters
Reviewing North of Boston (which includes “Mending Wall”), Amy
Lowell wrote, "Not only is his work New England in subject, it is so in
technique. … Mr. Frost has reproduced both people and scenery with a
vividness which is extraordinary."
In “Mending Wall,” two neighbors meet to repair the wall. The
speaker tries to engage his terse neighbor in conversation. But his
neighbor only replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The wall
represents barriers in human interaction.
Consider Lowell’s statement above. Focus on both speaker and
neighbor. Is the speaker teasing his neighbor? Is he mischievous and
having a joke at his expense? Or does he want to have a joke, but is
too timid to bring it off? (Consider in this context what he would like
to say but does not.) Is the speaker smug? Self righteous? Or, is he
playful and hopeful that one of these springs his neighbor will open
up? Does his neighbor with his succinct expression and somber nature
represent the stereotypical New England farmer?
“Mending Wall” has been interpreted as a poem about loneliness and
reaching out through poetry to master the depression that comes with
the realization of aloneness. Is this consistent with the speaker’s
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“The Road Not Taken” – The Playful Frost
“The Road Not Taken” is both one of Frost’s most famous and misinterpreted poems. It
is often heard at high school commencement exercises exhorting students to be true to
themselves and to choose their own path in life. One path will be interpreted as
representative of the conventional way of life and the other as representative of the nonconformist lifestyle. In this reading, the poem’s speaker – often interpreted as Frost –
chooses the life of a poet, the non-conformist path, and the poem becomes a celebration
of independence and individualism. However, a closer reading of the poem fails to
sustain this very optimistic interpretation.
• The final stanza invites us to read the poem on more than a literal level. After all, why
else would the speaker tell us, “with a sigh,” about a walk which he expects to talk
about for “ages and ages hence”? Clearly, the “two roads” are meant to be
representative. But of what?
Line 6 states that both paths are equally “fair.” One was only slightly less traveled, and
after the speaker walked on the path, they were “worn about the same.” Significantly,
the speaker has not shunned the other path; he saves it for another day.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
“The Road Not Taken” continued …
“The Road Not Taken” is about choices and their
consequences: “way leads on to way.” The choices in the
poem are not between conformity and non-conformity.
Instead, the choices are very similar, but lead the speaker
down different roads, each establishing a different chain of
events and decisions. Although the speaker would like to
walk both paths, he can only travel one. The poem is about
life’s limitations.
In Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, biographer Lawrance
Thompson states that the poem is about Welsh poet and
Frost’s friend Edward Thomas. The poem captures the
“excruciations hrough which this dour Welshman went each
time he was required to make a choice.” Frost once told
Thomas, “No matter which road you take, you’ll always
sigh, and wish you’d taken another.” For a laugh, Frost sent
the poem to Thomas. But Thomas missed the joke, not
realizing the poem was about him. Frost, writes Thompson,
“could never bear to tell the truth about the failure of this
lyric to perform as he intended it.”
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
Quotable Frost
• “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought
and the thought has found words.”
• “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
• “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
• “In three words I can sum up everything I've
learned about life — It goes on."
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28
For Further Consideration
1. Consider Frost’s use of animals or insects in his poems. You may discuss the
horse in “Stopping by Woods,” the animals in “Mending Wall,” the spider in
“Design,” and other poems not in the text, like the deer in “Two Look at Two,”
the butterfly in “The Tuft of Flowers,” and the bird in “The Oven Bird,” among
many others.
2. Consider how, in several poems, Frost treats the theme of human alienation, the
feeling of not being connected to either another individual, a community,
nature, or one’s self. You might discuss “Mending Wall,” “Acquainted with the
Night,” “Desert Places,” and “The Gift Outright.”
3. Create a continuum and chart Frost’s poems on an axis with polarities like
optimistic―pessimistic, faith―doubt, contentment― discontentment, sense
of community―sense of isolation, nature as source of wisdom and
comfort―nature as indifferent, etc.
Literature: Craft & Voice | Delbanco and Cheuse | Chapter 28