Robert Lee Frost (March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963) was an American poet, one of the foremost of the 20th century. His work frequently drew inspiration from rural life in New England, using the setting to explore complex social and philosophical themes. A popular and often-quoted poet, Frost was highly honored during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes.
Although he is commonly associated with New England, Frost was born in San Francisco to Isabelle Moodie, of Scottish ancestry, and William Prescott Frost, Jr., a descendant of a Devonshire Frost who had sailed to New Hampshire in 1634. His father was a former teacher turned newspaper man, a hard drinker, a gambler, a harsh disciplinarian; he had a passion for politics, and dabbled in them, for as long as his health allowed.
Frost lived in California until he was eleven years old. After the death of his father, he moved with his mother and sister to eastern Massachusetts, near his paternal grandparents. His mother joined the Swedenborgian church and had him baptized in it, but he left it as an adult. He grew up as a city boy and published his first poem in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He attended Dartmouth College in 1892, for just less than a semester, and while there he joined the fraternity, Theta Delta Chi. He went back home to teach and work at various jobs including factory work and newspaper delivery. In 1894 he sold his first poem, My Butterfly, to The Independent for fifteen dollars. Proud of this accomplishment he asked Elinor Miriam White to marry him. They had graduated co-valedictorians from their high-school and had remained in contact with one another. She refused, wanting to finish school before they married. Frost was sure that there was another man and went on an excursion to the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. He came back later that year and asked Elinor again, she accepted and they were married in December 1895.
They taught school together until 1897. Frost then entered Harvard University for two years. He did well, but felt he had to return home due to his health and because his wife was expecting a second child. His grandfather purchased a farm in Derry, New Hampshire for the young couple. He stayed there for nine years and wrote many of the poems that would make up his first works. His attempt at poultry farming was not successful, and he was forced to take another job at Pinkerton Academy, a secondary school.
In 1912, Frost sailed with his family to Glasgow, and later settled in Beaconsfield, outside London.
His first book of poetry, A Boy's Will, was published the next year. In England he made some crucial contacts including Edward Thomas (a member of the group known as the Dymock poets), T. E. Hulme, and Ezra Pound, who was the first American to write a (favorable) review of Frost's work. Frost wrote some of the best pieces of his work while living in England.
Frost returned to America in 1915, bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire and launched a career of writing, teaching and lecturing. From 1916 to 1938, he was an English professor at Amherst College. He encouraged his writing students to bring the sound of the human voice to their craft. Beginning in 1921, and for the next 42 years (with three exceptions), Frost spent his summers teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont. Middlebury College still owns and maintains Robert Frost's Farm as a National Historic Site near the Bread Loaf campus.
Frost represented the United States on several official missions. He recited a poem, "The Gift Outright", at the January 20, 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Nominally a tribute to the country's early Colonial spirit ("This land was ours before we were the land's"), the poem ends on an optimistic, but characteristically ambivalent, note:
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.
Frost had intended to read another poem, "Dedication", which he had written specifically for Kennedy and for the occasion. But with feeble eyesight, difficulty reading his typescript in the sheer January light, and a unfamiliarity with the new poem, Frost chose only to deliver the poem he knew from memory (which he did in strong voice, despite his 86 years).
In April 2006, a handwritten copy of "Dedication" was donated to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts; it had come from the estate of one of Kennedy's special assistants (who died the year before). On the manuscript, Frost had added "To John F. Kennedy, At his inauguration to be president of this country. January 20th, 1961. With the Heart of the World," followed by, "Amended copy, now let's mend our ways." After removing the paper backing from the frame, a Kennedy archivist discovered a faintly-legible handwritten note from Jaqueline Kennedy: "For Jack, January 23, 1961. First thing I had framed to put in your office. First thing to be hung there."
... The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.
Over the course of his career, Frost also became known for poems involving dramas or an interplay of voices, such as Death of the Hired Man. His work was highly popular in his lifetime and remains so. Among his best-known shorter poems are "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", "Mending Wall", "Nothing Gold Can Stay", "Birches", "After Apple Picking", "The Pasture", "Fire and Ice", "The Road Not Taken", and "Directive". Frost won the Pulitzer Prize four times, an achievement unequalled by any other American poet.
Upon his death in Boston on January 29, 1963, Robert Frost was buried in the Old Bennington Cemetery, in Bennington, Vermont. Harvard's 1965 alumni directory indicates his having received an honorary degree there; Frost also received honorary degrees from Bates College, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and he was the first to receive two honorary degrees from Dartmouth College. During his lifetime, the Robert Frost Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia as well as the main library of Amherst College were named after him.