Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874 but is remembered as a New England, East Coast American poet. The Frost family moved east following the early death of his father, who was an alcoholic. Frost attended Dartmouth College and later Harvard, but never gained a formal degree. He went on to teach and also worked in a mill and as a newspaper reporter. He didn’t enjoy these jobs, however, feeling his truly calling was as a poet.
Frost is regarded as one of America's leading 20th-century poets and was a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He is often called a ‘pastoral poet’, a poet who explores the benevolent effects of nature and country life and he does clearly express the beauty of the New England landscape in many of his poems. He also, however, explores the nature of humanity and human relationships in great depth including the darker, gloomier side of life.
In the course of this article I will explore four themes: nature, everyday life, communication and youth versus maturity, and Frost’s distinctive style.
Frost is famed for his representations of the New England countryside where he lived. His descriptions vividly capture rural settings across many different seasons, for example, his description of the icy debris left after an ice storm: ‘Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away/ You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.’
He often uses natural settings as ‘jumping off’ points for exploring deeper philisophical issues. The Tuft of Flowers explores our shared humanity and Birches explores the idea of escape from the life’s troubles. The speaker in these poems receives consolation and inspiration from nature.
There is sometimes a darker side to nature depicted in Frost’s poems. In Mending Wall nature is associated with dark, supernatural forces; ‘elves’, that repeatedly destroy what man creates. In Design he reminds us that the world is full of dangerous predators as he describes a spider killing a moth.
Frost is very interested in the activities of everyday life, because it is this aspect of humanity that is the most "real" to him. Even the most basic act in a normal day can have numerous hidden meanings that need only to be explored by a poetic mind. For example, in the poem Mending Wall, the simple act of fixing a stone wall is transformed into an exploration of the need for and purpose of man-made barriers. :
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in and walling out,
Frost believed that the emphasis on everyday life allowed him to communicate with his readers more clearly because they could empathize with the struggles that are expressed in his poems and come to their own conclusions.
Communication, or the lack thereof, is also a significant theme in several of Frost's poems on the Leaving Cert course. He sees it as the only possible escape from the isolation and despair inherent in modern day life. Unfortunately, Frost also makes it clear that communication is extremely difficult to achieve. Frost explores this theme in Acquainted with the Night, in which the speaker is unable to pull himself out of his depression because he cannot bring himself even to make eye contact with those around him: “and dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.”
Sometimes communication is easier to achieve even in the absence of the other person as in The Tuft of Flowers. As the speaker works turning the grass he notices ‘a leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared’ and feels a deep connection to the mower who had cut the grass earlier that morning. They had both considered the needs of the butterfly and he concludes: “Men work together… Whether they work together or apart.”
The adult figures in Frost’s poetry are burdened with a rational, practical approach to life but occasionally the world of imagination and youth calls to them. For example, in Birches, the narrator wishes that he could climb a birch tree as he did in his childhood and leave the rational world behind, if only for a brief moment.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be..
This ability to escape rationality and indulge in the liberation of imagination seems confined to childhood. After reaching adulthood, the habits of modern life require strict practicality and an acceptance of responsibility. As a result of this conflict, Frost makes the poem Out, Out-- even more tragic, describing a young boy who is forced to leave his childhood behind to work at a man's job and ultimately dies in the process: ‘big boy/ Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart.’
Frost’s style of verse is quite traditional with many of his poems written in blank verse [unrhyming iambic pentameter] with a strict rhyming pattern. Frost also liked to write poetry in the language he heard spoken everyday. The many colloquial phrases in his poetry show this aspect of his style and makes his poetry feel modern:
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
In many of his poems, his rhythm is based on the way the human voice groups or assembles words and sounds in spoken language. While many of his poems have a regular amount of syllables and would fit into a traditional system of poetic metre, it is better to listen for the rhythm of the everyday speaking voice in Frost’s poems.
Frost, therefore, is a blend of the traditional and modern poet, exploring traditional and modern themes and using traditional poetic forms and his own innovative techniques to capture the modern voice. John F Kennedy said of him: “he has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding” and he continues to be the most popular American poet of the twentieth century both in the US and around the world.