Robert Frost 101
Robert Frost may be not only the most famous American poet but also the most misunderstood. There is not just one way to read Frost’s poems but many, and different interpretations can be difficult to reconcile. Frost was a traditionalist in his style, preferring to write in blank verse and often with rhyme, but he was also an innovator who sought to marry the plain speech of New England to formal verse. We have the nature-loving farmer Frost, who wrote often of rural landscapes and people, and the dark and brooding Frost, whose bleak lyrics literary critic Lionel Trilling called “terrifying.” There is the Modernist Frost, the ambitious cosmopolitan who moved to England to rub elbows with Ezra Pound, and the classical Frost, the poet greatly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman poets and by the classic poems in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury anthology that he memorized as a boy. This brief sampling of poems, presented chronologically, is a look at the poet’s varied work and introduces readers to a number of different Frosts.
Like many of the poems in Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will (1913), this sonnet is a meditation in the Romantic mode: the speaker sees truth and “earnest love” through the contemplation of a pastoral scene. But Frost also notably resists Romanticism in important ways: rather than inspiration or natural beauty, work is the source of truth here. The poem can be read on its surface and admired for its ability to capture a quiet moment, but it could also be interpreted symbolically as a poem about poetry itself. For example, the poetic muse can be the tool (a scythe), and poetry—its whisper suggests—is viewed as a process, a form of labor whose yield is facts, not fantasies of “fay or elf” dreamed up in “idle hours.” If writing, for Frost, is a kind of work, then so too is reading—a helpful thing to keep in mind when looking for the deeper readings of his poems. Like the departing mower in the poem’s final line, the poet must eventually move on and leave readers to make hay of the poem.
The first poem in his sublime second book, North of Boston (1914), “Mending Wall” bears many hallmarks of Frost’s distinctive style. Though written in blank verse, its syntax is wild and complex (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”), and its narrative approach is indirect. Both intimate and impersonal, the poem’s coy speaker poses a kind of riddle: if “it’s not Elves exactly,” then what does knock the rocks from his stone walls? Frost never says, only hints. Indeed, the poem treats the very idea of certainty with some skepticism: The poem’s best-known line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” is ironically not said by the speaker but by his neighbor, whom Frost gently mocks for being set in his ways. Frost called North of Boston his “book of people,” and here we see Frost both of and apart from them, at once teasing and, walking alongside, listening. It’s an example of a Frost poem that is often read as a quiet, humorous look at rural life and can be—and has been—read as a statement on isolationism and relations between countries across borders.
It’s easy to see why poet Joseph Brodsky, in his great essay on Frost, “On Grief and Reason,” presents this New England eclogue as his primary evidence of Frost’s essential darkness. “Home Burial” is certainly one of Frost’s bleakest poems: building relentlessly in intensity, the dialogue between husband and wife about their deceased child reaches no real resolution—the last line cuts off in a dash. Though its brutal theatrics may be a far cry from the sly humor of “Mending Wall,” the two poems do have one thing in common: a commitment to the sound of speech and the music of vernacular English. As in “The Oven Bird,” Frost knew “in singing not to sing” that a kind of practiced plainness could sound more authentic than traditionally lyric language. Much of the power of “Home Burial” (and Frost’s book North of Boston generally) derives from its backwoods characters, whose common speech and circumstances were then uncommon in poetry.
For a holiday poem, this Yuletide georgic poem from Mountain Interval (1916) is remarkably unsentimental: the speaker declines to sell off his fir trees, not out of principle or Christmas spirit but because the offer is too low. If Frost was skeptical of farming economics, he was also a shrewd student of them, playing up his rural provenance to make ends meet. It’s fitting, then, that this meditation on “the trial by market everything must come to” was the first poem his publishers chose for what became an annual tradition, one that neatly charts Frost’s growing popularity: the Frost Christmas card. For that first printing in 1929, Spiral Press printed 275 broadsides, intended mostly for friends and family; for the last card, sent shortly before Frost’s death in 1962, they printed 16,555.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Frost didn’t publish his first book until 1913, when he was almost 40. But in the decade that followed, he published three more books, the last of which, New Hampshire (1923), won a Pulitzer Prize. That volume contained this poem, one of his best known and most beloved, which was apparently inspired by a real incident, one that may help explain what was behind his enormous burst of creativity. In the years before he found literary stardom, Frost lived in poverty in New Hampshire, farming to support his family and struggling to finish his first book. Riding home on the winter solstice, the story goes, Frost stopped and began to cry on the side of the road, overwhelmed by shame: he hadn’t sold enough at market to give his family a good Christmas. Such personal details are left out of the poem’s final version to accommodate a much broader series of interpretations, but their impression lingers: the woods, dark in literal and perhaps figurative ways, offer oblivion for the dispossessed speaker, who nonetheless chooses obligation and the hard work ahead. After all, he believed “the woods are lovely” because they are “dark and deep.” The spellbinding repetition at the end of the poem—“And miles to go before I sleep”—has been interpreted to reference the big sleep of death.
A major part of Frost’s popular appeal comes from the farmer-poet persona he cannily cultivated on the page and on the stage. In poems like this one, a collection of ten epigrams first published in Poetry magazine in 1936, then collected in Frost’s book A Further Range (1937), his tendencies don’t cancel so much as synergize; he simultaneously projects wisdom and humility, always making sure we’re in on his jokes. The first aphorism sets the tone: the parallel constructions of “Precaution” neatly perform the moderation it espouses. Elsewhere, his couplets are winks and nods, theirrhymes both undercutting their seriousness and underscoring their cleverness. In the final section, “In Dives’ Dive,” Frost likens the American dream to a card game, at once mocking attitudes and embodying them: the speaker can certainly afford to take a chance on “another five”—he owns the joint. This series of poems shows Frost’s tonal range and his uncanny ability to write brief poems capable of yielding multiple interpretations.
“The Gift Outright”
Frost was asked to prepare a new, celebratory poem to read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, but on the morning of the ceremony, Frost had difficulty reading his papers in the bright sunlight and instead recited this poem from memory. On its surface, “The Gift Outright” is frankly imperialistic, offering an account of colonization and Manifest Destiny as a kind of national sacrifice. But the 13th line sticks out like a thorn: enclosed in parentheses, it reminds us of the centrality of violence (our “many deeds of war”) in American history. As critic Albert J. von Frank observed, our “deed of gift” is literally Faustian: Frost likely lifted the uncommon legal term from Marlowe’s version of the German legend in which an ambitious scholar sells his soul to the Devil.
"The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics The Commentators Merely by Statistics"
By the end of his career, Frost had achieved a level of fame and status still unmatched in American letters. He had won four Pulitzer Prizes and been awarded so many honorary degrees that he had pieces of the doctoral hoods sewn together to make a quilt. Lionel Trilling said he was “virtually a symbol of America … not unlike an articulate … Bald Eagle.” In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, Frost even visited the USSR on a cultural exchange and used his influence to get a brief meeting with Khrushchev. In this poem, the last one he published (and the last of his Christmas card poems), Frost relishes his role as a public figure. Adopting the title of prophet, he imagines, in heroic couplets, a kind of spaceship Earth, unmoored in the heavens by “our lofty engineers.” Though its style is far removed from the rural voices that made his name in preference for the scientific fascinations of his later years, Frost still ends the poem with an earthward turn, as if the farmer in him were showing through. “What a charming earnest world it is,” he writes in the final stanza, “so modest we can hardly hear it whizz, / Spinning as well as running on a course / It seems too bad to steer it off by force.”
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.