When an artist becomes so popular that hoi polloi celebrate him and politicians reward him, critics and avant-gardes do their best to dismiss him. But Frost was that rarest of rare things: a poet who was very, very popular—superstar popular—and, at his best, very, very good. His popularity is unmatched in the annals of American poetry; by the end of his life he had achieved the iconic status of living legend. His collected poems exceeded record sales; he appeared on magazine covers, was asked by President Kennedy to compose an inaugural poem, was sent to Russia on a mission of goodwill by the U.S. government, was recognized on the street and in restaurants. He almost single-handedly created the poetry reading circuit, delighting the public all over the country with engaging presentations of his work. He was perhaps the first poet-in-residence at an American university, in which capacity his duty was little more than to live and exude poetry.
Frost is a poet who often seems liked for the wrong reasons—a poet who is read much but often not very carefully. The subtle wit of his language, his broad humor, and his frequent despair are too often overlooked for his regional-ness, his folksiness, and his public persona. The neglect of his true talents was compounded by the fact that serious criticism for so long did its best to ignore him. However, regardless of who reads him and for what reasons, what really matters are the poems; they stand alone by virtue of their own strength, independent of the associations surrounding them: Though perhaps influenced by, or in agreement with, statements by Imagists, Frost nonetheless belonged to no school; he worked outside of movements and manifestos to create his own sizeable niche in English literature. In the years covered by this SparkNote we find Frost reaching toward, and finally achieving, a mastery of his art.
Robert Frost is considered the quintessential New England poet, but he spent the first eleven years of his life in San Francisco. Only upon the death of Frost’s father did the family go to live with relatives in Lawrence, Massachusetts. There, Frost excelled in high school and fell in love with his co-valedictorian at Lawrence High, Elinor White. They became engaged; Elinor went off to college at St. Lawrence in upstate New York while Frost entered Dartmouth. He was not happy there, however, and left after one semester. Back home, Frost worked as a reporter on a local newspaper and taught school (in part, to help his mother, a teacher with poor control over her students). Frost and Elinor married in 1896, the same year their son Elliott was born. In 1897, Frost matriculated at Harvard University, where he excelled in the Classics. However, the financial and emotional pressures of having a wife, infant, and another child on the way, forced Frost to withdraw after three semesters.
The Frosts moved to a rented farm near Methuen, Massachusetts, and began raising poultry. Tragedy struck in 1900 when three-year-old Elliott died. The family bought a farm in Derry, not far from Lawrence, and Frost settled in to farm, read, write, and raise a family. Three more children were born healthy before the Frosts lost another child in infancy in 1907. In 1906, Frost began teaching at the nearby Pinkerton Academy, where he proved an unconventional and popular instructor. In 1912, frustrated at his lack of success in the American poetry world, Frost moved his family to England. They remained there through 1915. In that time he met and befriended many of his British contemporaries, both of major and minor reputation, as well as the American ex-patriot wunderkind Ezra Pound. In 1913, Frost found a London publisher for his A Boy’s Will, and North of Boston appeared in 1914. When the Frosts returned to New England in 1915, both books appeared in the United States—North of Boston to much acclaim. The move to England had proved successful. Frost was suddenly well known in American poetry circles. He would soon be well known everywhere.
Mountain Interval appeared in 1916. Frost began teaching at Amherst College in 1917, then served as Poet-in-Residence at the University of Michigan. He would later return to Amherst, then to Michigan, then again to Amherst. He also taught at Harvard and Dartmouth but maintained the longest associations with Amherst and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College. His Selected Poems and New Hampshire were published in 1923. New Hampshire garnered Frost the first of his unmatched four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. West-Running Brook was published in 1928, followed by Frost’s Collected Poems in 1930 (Pulitzer #2), A Further Range in 1936 (Pulitzer #3), A Witness Tree in 1942 (Pulitzer #4), A Masque of Reason in 1945, Steeple Bush and A Masque of Mercy in 1947, another Complete Poems in 1949, and In the Clearing in 1962.
Frost’s crowning public moment was his recitation of “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January of 1960. He died on January 29, 1963.
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