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Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Early Life

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert then made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Marriage and Children

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education.

The two married on December 19, 1895. The couple produced six children: (1) Their son, Eliot, was born in 1896 but died in 1900 of cholera. (2) Their daughter, Lesley, lived from 1899 to 1983. (3 ) Their son, Carol, born in in 1902 but committed suicide in 1940. (4 ) Their daughter, Irma, 1903 to 1967, battled schizophrenia for which she was confined in a mental hospital. (5 ) Daughter, Marjorie, born 1905 died of puerperal fever after giving birth. (6) Their sixth child, Elinor Bettina, who was born in 1907, died one day after her birth. Only Lesley and Irma survived their father. Mrs. Frost suffered heart issues for most of her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1937 but the following year died of heart failure.

Farming and Writing

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost’s first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper. The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

Sample Poems from the Robert Frost Canon

The following sample poems from the Frost canon demonstrate Robert Frost's versatility as a poet. His little verse, "Design," shows keen attention to detail and the ability to create a little drama while making a comment on the human condition.

Frost's "The Gift Outright" reveals the poet's knowledge of American history and his ability to render that history both patriotically and poetically. That this poem became the first poem to be recited at a presidential inauguration adds a measure of heft to its importance in American literary history.

Introduction and Text of "Design"

The speaker of Frost's "Design" muses on the odd happenstance of finding three albinos together in a conspiracy of death.

Robert Frost's "Design" is an American, or Innovative, sonnet. It follows the Petrarchan form with an octave whose rime scheme is traditional, ABBAABBA and a sestet, but the rime scheme of the sestet is quite innovative, ACAACC, with the final two lines echoing the couplet of the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, sonnet.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Design

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 that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Reading of "Design"

Commentary

The form of "Design" is a complex sonnet, combining the features of both the Petrarchan and Elizabethan sonnets styles into an innovative or American sonnet.

First Quatrain in the Octave: An Astonished Speaker

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

The speaker reports, somewhat astonished, that he happened upon a white spider that was grasping and holding aloft a white moth and both were situated on a white heal-all.

The speaker then describes the event as "assorted characters of death and blight" because of the eerie feeling such an unlikely sight has given him.

Indeed, the speaker likens the moth to "a white piece of rigid satin cloth," an image that serves the poet well in both rime and kinship to death, as caskets are often lined with a satin-finish material.

Second Quatrain in the Octave: Odd Mixture

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.

The so-called mixture of albino spider, moth, and flower, the speaker claims, was ready to begin the morning right. He then colorfully likens them to the ingredients of a witches broth.

Again, the speaker richly describes the ingredients of this "witches' broth" as "a snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, and dead wings like a paper kite."

First Tercet in the Sestet: The Philosophy of Astonishment

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,

In the sestet, the speaker turns philosophical. His astonishment at happening upon such an uncanny sight leads him to question the appropriateness, even the naturalness, of it all and what one thing has to do with another.

For example, the speaker asks, "What had that flower to do with being white?" And he explains that the heal-all is usually blue, and he calls it innocent—not a part of a witches' broth as it is now appearing before him.

The speaker then poses the question, "What brought the kindred spider to that height?" He is musing on what motivations might have prompted these three unlikely entities to be found together.

Second Tercet in the Sestet: A Puzzling Calumny

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Finally, the speaker wonders what might have steered the white moth to have come there in the night. The speaker ultimately muses that if this scene were designed, it could have well been done with the intention to appall the poor soul who happened upon it.

But on the other hand, he does not want to take too seriously that some design has conspired to such calumny; thus, he just sloughs it off by sticking the notion in an if clause and labeling the whole thing small.

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "The Gift Outright"

Robert Frost’s "The Gift Outright" became the first inaugural poem, after the 35th president asked the famous poet to read at his swearing in ceremony—the first time a poet had read a poem at a presidential inauguration.

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th president of the United States of America. For the inauguration ceremony, Kennedy had invited America’s most famous poet, Robert Frost, to write and read a poem. Frost rejected the notion of writing an occasional poem, and so Kennedy asked him to read "The Gift Outright." Frost then agreed.

Kennedy then had one more favor to ask of the aging poet. He asked Frost the change the final line of the poem from "Such as she was, such as she would become" to "Such as she was, such as she will become." Kennedy felt that the revision reflected more optimism than Frost’s original. Frost did not like the idea, but he relented for the young president’s sake.

Frost did, nevertheless, write a poem especially for the occasion, "Dedication," which he intended to read as a preface to "The Gift Outright." At the inauguration, Frost attempted to read his occasional poem, but because of the bright sunlight bouncing off the snow, his aging eyes could not see the poem well enough to read it. He then continued to recite, "The Gift Outright."

Regarding the changing of the final line: instead of merely reading the line with the revision Kennedy had requested, Frost stated,

Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I – and for this occasion let me change that to – what she will become. (my emphasis added)

Thus, the poet remained faithful to his own vision, while satisfying the presidential request.

Robert Frost’s poem, "The Gift Outright," offers a brief history of the USA, which has just elected and was in the process of inaugurating its 35th president. The speaker of Frost’s poem, without becoming chauvinistically patriotic, manages to offer a positive view of the country’s struggle for existence, a struggle that can be deemed a gift that the Founding Fathers gave to themselves and the world.

To the question, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?,” regarding the product created by the Constitutional conveners during their meetings from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Founder Benjamin Franklin responded, "A Republic, if you can keep it." The US Constitution became a gift the has kept on giving in the best possible way. It replaced the old, weak Articles of Confederation, and kept the nation in tact even during a bloody Civil War, nearly a century later.

The speaker in Frost’s poem offers a brief overview of the American struggle for existence, and he describes that struggle resulting in a Constitution as a gift the Founders gave themselves and to all the generations to follow.

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Robert Frost Reading "The Gift Outright"

Commentary

Robert Frost’s inaugural poem offers a glimpse into the history of the country that has just elected its 35th president.

First Movement: The Nature of Possession

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

The first movement begins by offering a brief reference to the history of the country over which the new government official would now preside. The speaker asserts that the men and women who had settled on the land, which they later called the United States of America, had begun their experiment in freedom living on the land which would later become their nation, and they would then become its citizens. Instead of merely residing as a loosely held together band of individuals, they would become a united citizenry with a name and government held in common.

The official birthdate of the United States of America is July 4, 1776; with the Declaration of Independence, the new country took its place among the nations of the world. And the speaker correctly states that the land belonged to the people "more than a hundred years" before Americans became citizens of the country. He then mentions two important early colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, which would become states (commonwealths) after the new land was no longer a possession of England.

Second Movement: The Gift of Law and Order

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

During the period from 1776 to 1887, the country struggled to found a government that would work to protect individual freedom and at the same time provide a legal order that would make living in a free land possible. An important first step was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the first constitution written in 1777, which was not ratified until 1781.

The Articles failed to provide enough structure for the growing nation, and by 1787, it was deemed that a new, stronger document was needed to keep the country functioning and united. Thus, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was convened to rewrite the Articles. Instead of merely writing them, however, the Founding Fathers scrapped the old document and composed a new U.S. Constitution, which has remained the founding set of laws guiding America since it was finally ratified June 21, 1788.

The speaker describes America’s early struggle for self governance as "something we were withholding," and that struggle "made us weak." But finally, we found "salvation in surrender," that is, the Founding Fathers surrendered to a document that provided legitimate order but at the same time offered the greatest possible scope for individual freedom.

Third Movement: The Gift of Freedom

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

The speaker describes the early turbulent history of his country as a time of "many deeds of war," which would include the war the early Americans had to fight against England—its mother country—to secure the independence that it had declared and demanded.

But the young nation wholeheartedly gave itself that "gift" of existence and freedom by continuing its struggle and continuing to grow by expanding "westward." The people of this nation struggled on through many hardships "unstoried, artless, unenhanced" to become the great nation that now—at the time of the poet’s recitation—has elected its 35th president.

Sources

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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