Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet, who drew his images from the New England countryside and his language from New England speech. Although Frost’s images and voice often seem familiar and old, his observations have an edge of skepticism and irony that make his work, upon rereading, never as old-fashioned, easy, or carefree as it first appears. In being both traditional and skeptical, Frost’s poetry helped provide a link between the American poetry of the 19th century and that of the 20th century. See also American Literature: Poetry.
Robert Frost’s Life
Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California, the son of William Prescott Frost, Jr., of New Hampshire and Isabelle Moodie of Scotland. He was named after Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate armies during the American Civil War (1861-1865). When Frost was 11 years old, his father died of tuberculosis. The Frost family then moved to Massachusetts, where William Frost wanted to be buried. Frost attended high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and began writing poetry. He attended Dartmouth College briefly but withdrew during his first year and went to work. In 1895 he married Elinor White. The couple eventually had six children, two of whom died young. From 1897 to 1899 Frost attended Harvard College, but he left before receiving a degree. In the early 1900s the family owned a small poultry farm in New Hampshire, and Frost taught at a small private school nearby.
Frost continued to write poetry, but he was unsuccessful at publishing his work. Seeking better literary opportunities, the Frosts sold their farm and moved to England in 1912. In England, Frost achieved his first literary success. His book of poems A Boy’s Will (1913) was printed by the first English publisher that Frost approached. The work established Frost as an author and was representative of his lifelong poetic style: sparse and technically precise, yet evocative in the use of simple and earthy imagery. His second collection, North of Boston, was published in 1914 and also won praise.
In England Frost met other American poets, including fellow New Englander Amy Lowell and the avant-garde writer Ezra Pound. But Frost’s work during this time was associated with that of the Georgian poets, a group of English writers whose lyric poetry celebrated the English countryside. The Georgian poets included Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Edward Thomas.
In 1915 Frost and his family returned to the United States, where his poetry had become popular. He continued to write for the rest of his life, while living on farms in Vermont and New Hampshire and teaching literature at Amherst College, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College. In 1961, at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, Frost became the first poet to read a poem—’The Gift Outright”—at a presidential inauguration.
Robert Frost’s Works
Frost’s poetry mainly reflects life in rural New England, and the language he used was the uncomplicated speech of that region. Although Frost concentrates on ordinary subject matter, he evokes a wide range of emotions, and his poems often shift dramatically from humorous tones to tragic ones. Much of his poetry is concerned with how people interact with their environment, and though he saw the beauty of nature, he also saw its potential dangers.
Frost disliked free verse, which was popular with many writers of his time, and instead used traditional metrical and rhythmical schemes. He often wrote in the standard meter of blank verse (lines with five stresses) but ran sentences over several lines so that the poetic meter plays subtly under the rhythms of natural speech. The first lines of ‘Birches’ (1916) illustrate this distinctive approach to rhythm: ‘When I see birches bend to left and right/ Across the lines of straighter darker trees,/ I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”
Frost listened to the speech in his country world north of Boston, and he recorded it. He had what he called ‘The ruling passion in man … a gregarious instinct to keep together by minding each other’s business.’ Frost continued to mind his neighbors’ speech and business in his volume Mountain Interval (1916), which included the poems ‘The Road Not Taken,’ ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night,’ ‘Birches,’ ‘Putting in the Seed,’ ‘Snow,’ and ‘A Time to Talk.’
Frost’s 1923 volume New Hampshire earned him the first of four Pulitzer Prizes that he would win over the next 20 years. The volume included longer poems that told stories, such as ‘Paul’s Wife’ and ‘The Witch of Coös,’ as well as short meditations on various subjects. These meditations include ‘Fragmentary Blue,’ ‘Fire and Ice,’ ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay,’ and ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ which is perhaps Frost’s best-known poem. The poem’s ending, in which the line “And miles to go before I sleep” is repeated, indicates Frost’s philosophy of continual and productive work—whether it be work on his New England farm, or the written work required to create his poetry.
In the title poem of New Hampshire, Frost makes an explicit statement about his beliefs. He declares how much he would ‘hate to be a runaway from nature,’ and asserts that people must make the best of life. He accepts pain or pleasure with indifference but expects more of the former than of the latter, saying that he makes “a virtue of my suffering” and that he will “not lack for pain to keep me awake.”
Frost’s Collected Poems (1930) won him his second Pulitzer Prize. And his next two collections—A Further Range (1936) and A Witness Tree (1942)—also won Pulitzers. He then wrote two plays in blank verse. The first, A Masque of Reason (1945), received lukewarm praise from critics. The second, A Masque of Mercy (1947), which is a modern treatment of Christian biblical figures, was more successful.
Frost’s final volumes of poetry were Steeple Bush (1947) and In the Clearing (1962). The masterpiece of the first collection is ‘Directive.’ In this complex poem, rich words and images direct a reader to escape the present that is “now too much for us” by remembering a past time and place, which memory has “…made simple by the loss/ of detail…” The poem concludes with symbolic lines about the value of returning to one’s roots: ‘Here are your waters and your watering place./ Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.’
The Road Not Taken
In our journey with Frost today, we will try to decipher the codes he placed here and there in his magnificent poem, The Road Not Taken. According to Frost himself, this poem was tricky and often misinterpreted. I am not claiming that the interpretation or insight I am going to offer is going to be the missing piece of the puzzle, as it does not have to be, but an approach to look into this poem and come out with something we can think about for our lives.
The poem starts with the very first dilemma we face at different stages of our lives, and to put it simply, it is a problem of choice. We always want everything—we want to take all the roads, try all the flavors, and go on all the journeys life has to offer, but we all know this is not an option we can take, regardless of how much money we have or the power we possess, because there is the universal finite resource that we all share, which is time. Back to the poem, Frost finds himself at a crossroad. Some people tend to use the literal meaning of a forest, but I believe that all the poem is metaphorical, and the forest Frost talked about is life. Let’s read the first stanza and see how Frost sees it:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
We see a young man making a decision here. He needs to decide which path to take. As full of common sense as he is, he knows he cannot take both, but we can feel that his hesitation and waiting is partly because he was trying to make the right decision and partly because he had a craving for enjoying the perks of both paths. He closely looks at one of them and sees it is bent in the undergrowth showing that this is not as virgin of a road as the other, and that’s why in the next stanza, he takes the other.
This is true when at certain times of our lives, we face some difficult choices. It could be the choice between getting married or staying single, taking on a hard challenge that takes a lot of effort leaving behind the worldly amusements to do something that really matters. No matter what our decision is, the other path we did not take takes its toll on our hearts, too. We are human beings—we are bound to ponder on the things we have missed no matter how much we gain.
Let’s continue with the second stanza and see how he contemplates his decision:
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
We know he has taken the other path, the less mainstream one, and he starts to convince himself of it by saying that it is the path that is needed, and he is still thinking of what he is supposed to do, not of what he really wants to do. He wants to be special, to do something nobody else has done before him. However, by the end of stanza, he hits another internal obstacle—he feels ordinary again, the road feels ordinary and simple, and by choosing this path he opened it to other people who followed him, and the path has become as populated and ordinary as the other one he did not take.
Here it comes to all of us when we choose to do something and be kind of like pioneers doing it; soon after we do it and be successful at it, people are drawn to imitate and do the same to an extent when we might not be called originals, and we get so mixed with the crowd that we are no more distinguishable. The special coziness of taking a lonely road, an untrodden path, is gone and this is the most difficult phase of any meaningful human endeavor. The first part of the journey is lonely and nice; it feels like an adventure every day, yet we are completely obscure. The next phase comes with getting a little more famous, but like bees drawn to a flower, others come, and they mix with us and share the success we have busted our asses off to achieve just like that. Most people stop here, just inches between being good and being magnificent; they quit just before the finish line.
Let’s read the third stanza and see how this journey unfolds:
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
He consoles himself here that he could be going back to take the other road any day, but not today. Today, he is going to take it on a little further, one step at a time. However, he knows inside that he might never go back and take that road not taken because every step will lead to a new step and every goal will lead to a bigger goal, and he will never have enough and be able to stop.
If we are not quitters and we have survived the second phase of the journey, which is far worse than the obscurity phase, we tend to think of the destination less and less and enjoy the journey more and more. Sometimes, it might feel that we are lying to ourselves by pretending nothing wrong is happening with our lives and all the sacrifices we make have got to count for something we are not able to comprehend yet. Yes, sacrifices, we all know that exceptional people sacrifice most of the worldly amusements and spend their time trying to make a difference while other people are enjoying their lives being carefree and indifferent of what happens in this world or how it works. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, a doctor, a painter or an engineer, you all sacrifice something if you decide to pursue excellence and innovation. Yes, at this stage, you might choose to stop, but you have come very close to make a difference and never live in the margin of life. Would you stop now? I beg you do not, for what comes next is worth all your sacrifice.
Let’s read the last and most memorable stanza of the poem:
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.
He acknowledges that at times he feels nostalgic and maybe, slightly regretful over not taking the first path, but sticking to the path he took a long time ago is the one decision that has made him who he is today, and we can feel some sheer pride of the whole journey by the end of the poem, although the word sigh in the first line of the stanza might mislead us. The last two lines say it all. He took the lonelier path and the more difficult one, and he has suffered walking the path all this time, mostly on his own, but he has lived all the way with himself, true to himself, which made all the difference.
When we reach the mountaintop, we suddenly forget all the effort and how tired we are. When we know we are leaving this world but the cry we have sounded in the deep will echo forever, we know for sure that every step of the way was really worth taking.
Some people might look at that and think that the purpose of life is to have fun and enjoy ourselves, and they are right about that. Others might agree that there must be a higher purpose for our lives, and they are also right. One thing for sure is that I will live my life and you should, you all should. Nobody is right or wrong. I may see the grassy road that you may never see, and the same goes for you, but does it matter? What really matters is that I take the road I believe I should take, and I suggest you do that, too. Don’t follow the trodden roads made by others just because they are easier, but make up your own, or at least, follow the one you really want to follow, be that mainstream or eccentric, as long as it is you, you should be on the road less traveled by and that should make all the difference.
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