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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Robert Frost (1874-1963)

[5873]Dorothea Lange, Napa Valley, CA. More Than Twenty-Five Years a Bindle-Stiff. Walks from the Mines to the Lumber Camps to the Farms (1938), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018799-E].

Although Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, where he spent his first eleven years, he is commonly associated with the rugged landscape and traditional values of rural New England. His father, William Frost, graduated with honors from Harvard and spent most of his life working as a journalist, but alcoholism led to an early death in 1885. In answer to William’s wishes to be buried in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the family moved back east and settled in Lawrence. Robert quickly distinguished himself as both student and poet in high school, and he eventually married Elinor White, who with Frost was co-valedictorian of their high school class. Frost attended Dartmouth for less than a year before dropping out to work odd jobs and write poems. Not finding the success he had hoped for, he decided in 1897 to return to college, this time attending Harvard as a special student. Although he didn’t graduate from Harvard, he was influenced by many of the important thinkers in residence at the time, including George Santayana and William James. He left Harvard in 1899 and moved to a farm in Derry, New Hampshire. These early years of marriage were difficult financially for the Frosts, who had five children by 1905. Things began to look up when he accepted a position at Pinkerton Academy in 1906, where he spent five years teaching English, directing plays, and writing poetry.

In 1911, Frost sold his farm; he took his family to Scotland and London in the fall of 1912, a trip that proved invaluable to his writing career. Despite trouble getting his work published in America, Frost found a willing publisher in London, and A Boy’s Will appeared in 1913. North of Boston followed in 1914. It was in London that Frost first met many of the leading young American poets, including Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound, who subsequently introduced Frost to Yeats, a poet he had long admired. The outbreak of World War I cut short Frost’s time abroad and he returned to America in 1915. He had little trouble publishing his verse thereafter, and his growing reputation as a poet brought attractive offers at prestigious universities. He began teaching at Amherst in 1917. While he remained loyal to Amherst, Frost spent short periods at other institutions as poet in residence, and he lectured all over the United States. He eventually became an emissary to South America and later, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, to the Soviet Union. As the most famous poet of his time, Frost read at President Kennedy’s inauguration.

Frost’s poetry is widely recognized for its intense evocation of rural New England settings, its aphoristic lines, and its enigmatic voice-wise, clipped, and thematically evasive. Like other American modernists, Frost wrote in the American idiom, striving for colloquial language that evoked everyday speech. His poems usually have a narrative feel, and the characters are often engaged in manual labor, whether they are building a fence, picking apples, or chopping wood. Despite this penchant for the common and colloquial, Frost still believed very much in poetic form; he was famous for saying, in the face of so much free verse, that writing without rhyme and meter was like playing tennis with the net down. For Frost much of the challenge and beauty in poetry comes from a tension between a dynamic, dangerous subject matter and the poise and restraint of literary form. Although Frost’s poems often seem as simple and accessible as Sandburg’s, his work reveals a darker underside, suggesting the complexity he sensed beneath the tranquil surfaces of New England country life. Frost’s sagacious voice and gift for narrative lend his poems a popular appeal not shared by other modernists.

Teaching Tips

  • While Frost’s poems are wise and meditative, they almost always portray a narrator doing some sort of physical labor. Have the students write their own piece-either prose or poetry-in which they describe doing some sort of job. Then, ask them to reflect on the labor. How does this exercise help them understand the relationship between physical work and reflection? What is it about manual labor that seems to inspire Frost’s writing? How does this connection to the land contribute to modern ideas about an American identity?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Mowing,” Frost uses a form of whisper four times, but we never find out the secret. What is the effect of withholding the mystery from the reader? Does the narrator learn something we don’t? What poetic form does Frost use? Why?
  2. Comprehension: What does the wall symbolize in “Mending Wall”? Why does the neighbor repeat the cliché “Good fences make good neighbors,” and how does the narrator interpret this? What season is it? Why do they have to repair the wall?
  3. Comprehension: In “After Apple-Picking” why does the narrator refer repeatedly to sleep? How does the word change throughout the poem? What are the connotations of the word at the beginning of the work? Do they change at the end? What is the tone of this poem? Compare this poem to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
  4. Comprehension: In both “Birches” and “Out, Out-” Frost portrays a young boy. How do the portraits differ? What is the tone of each poem? What does he seem to say about youth in each poem? How is death figured in each work? What is the relationship between the Shakespearean title “Out, Out-” and the rest of the poem?
  5. Context: In comparison to that of the other poets in this unit, Frost’s work seems strangely removed from the modern world, where world wars erupted and technology marched on rapidly. What kind of change does Frost write about? How does he reflect change in his poetry?
  6. Exploration: What does Frost have to say about the relationship between the land and its inhabitants in “The Gift Outright”? How does he portray history and American identity? How do his ideas about history and the land compare to those of other writers in the unit?
  7. Exploration: Compare Frost’s use of traditional poetic forms to that of Claude McKay. What does each gain by using these forms?
  8. Exploration: Compare Frost’s depiction of apple picking to the depictions of fruit picking in the prose of Steinbeck, Carlos Bulosan, and Helena Maria Viramontes (all in Unit 12). What does fruit mean for each?
  9. Exploration: A spider serves as the central symbol in both Frost’s poem “Design” and Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” What are the connotations of spiders? Why do spiders have particular resonance in a spiritual argument? How does the symbol function in each of these works?

Selected Archive Items

[5873] Dorothea Lange, Napa Valley, CA. More Than Twenty-Five Years a Bindle-Stiff. Walks from the Mines to the Lumber Camps to the Farms (1938), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018799-E]. 
Transients, referred to as “hobos” or “bindle-stiffs,” often traveled around the country by rail and on foot, working odd seasonal jobs such as harvesting crops or lumber. During the depression, the hobo became a character in American literature, particularly in works by Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Robert Frost. Poems and autobiographies by hobos themselves also flourished.

[7111] Samuel H. Gottscho, Gate Bordered by Stone Walls (c. 1918), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-4334]. 
This photograph shows a fence constructed in typical New England style: stone laid upon stone. In poems such as “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost emphasized rural New England settings and used images like this to represent larger concepts.

[8002] Anonymous, Robert Frost, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Front (between 1910 and 1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115064]. 
Robert Frost is often thought of as a pastoral New England poet, but even his simplest-seeming poems engage complicated questions about life and death, good and evil.

[9066] Joseph John Kirkbride, Panorama of Mooseriver Village (c. 1884-91), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-61485]. 
“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost tells us in “Mending Wall.” Nineteenth-century writer Sarah Orne Jewett, the daughter of a country doctor, also drew much of her inspiration from the small-town New England life with which she was familiar.

[9142] William Shakespeare, from Macbeth (c. 1608), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
Macbeth’s famous soliloquy from Act 5, scene 5 of Macbeth. Numerous works of American literature have drawn on this soliloquy, including William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Robert Frost’s “Out, Out-.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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