Robert Frost

As poets go, Frost (1874-1963) was no longer young when he published his first book of poems, A Boy's Will, in 1913. Though born in San Francisco, he came of a New England family which returned to New England when he was ten. Like many other writers, he had a brief brush with college and then supported himself by various means, ranging from shoe-making to editing a country newspaper. However, he had been brought up on a farm and he liked farming. Most of all, he liked to write but he could not support himself by writing. He was in his late 30s when he moved to England, where he issued his first book and found an appreciation for his work he had not found in America. At the outbreak of World War I, Frost went back to farming in New Hampshire. Thereafter, although he made many journeys and frequent visits elsewhere, he considered the farm his home and its activities remained the focus of his poetry.

Frost's verses bacame part of a great tradition, shaped by the Roman poet Vergil, of what is called bucolic poetry-poetry about farming. However, though he used farm situations in much of his poetry, he gave them a wide application. He might write about stepping on a rake and describe the feeling when it hit him, but he used the incident to show how life gives us bruises.

Some talents in poetry are used up early, but not Frost's. He continued to publish fine poetry for fifty years. He reached the height of his popularity after World War II. If America of the 20th century had a national poet, it was Frost. He was chosen to read one of his poems at the inauguration of the late President John F. Kennedy, the first poet ever so honored.

Because Frost wrote so well for so long, it is hard to select poems to reprint. Here, however, are two favorites among readers, "Mending Wall" and "The Road Not Taken," plus three short, lesser known poems.

"Mending Wall" shows Frost at work with a neighbor, helping to repair a stone wall that separates their two farms. Frost dislikes walls; his neighbor likes them. We soon see that the walls Frost is talking about are all the things that separate one human being from another, all the things in life that keeps us from loving our fellow man. Yet Frost never makes a sermon of his poem. He teaches the brotherhood of man, but not tediously. What keeps the poem from being pious is, first, Frost's whimsical humor and, second, the easy informality of his lines. The poem is written in what is termed blank verse. It has five beats to a line, and the beat comes on every second syllable. Also, the lines do not rhyme. But Frost takes the blank-verse form, shakes it up, loosens it, and makes it sound almost like everyday conversation. The point is, however, that it turns out to be a wise and beautiful conversation.

"The Road Not Taken" is set in some woods but the place where it occurs is really anywhere and any time. It is, so to speak, the land of "Might Have Been." We must make a decision. We Must decide which way to go. This universal dilemma Frost turns into poetry of gentle yet strong understanding. Here there is nothing local or folksy in the words he uses. His message is worldwide. He also has fewer of his personal, colloquial rhythms in these lines than in "Mending Wall," and the form of the poem is one of stanzas, each regular in its arrangement of rhymes.

"Fire and Ice," "Acquainted with the Night," and "Design" seem at first reading to be lucidly simple, yet after better acquaintance they turn out to be rich in hidden meanings. There is a certain reticence, a teasing indirectness, in Frost's way of telling his thought, evident in these three short poems. He often leaves the reader to search for any implied significance and frequently implies a more general meaning to his moral than he seems to state. He appears not to commit himself to any solution which runs the danger of being too simple. On one occasion he said: "... I prefer the synecdoche in poetry-that figure of speech in which we use a part for the whole." Life, as Frost saw it, is full of apparent paradoxes. It is tragic and hilariously comic, beautiful and ugly, chaotic and unified, and he refused to take an either/or position, as we will see in such poems as "Fire and Ice" and "Design."