David Nightingale: Robert Frost (3/26/1874 - 1/29/1963)

May 24, 2015

Long ago, looking for a particular physics text in a London bookstore, I found, not far from the "P"s for physics and philosophy, a Penguin paperback simply called 'Robert Frost' [Ref.2.]. Browsing through the book, I was completely taken. I really couldn't afford such, from my meager graduate assistantship, but knew I would have to buy it.

I still have that paperback, scotch-taped, brown patches where the tape has hardened, spine now only partially intact. The poems were a selection by Frost himself. It began with poems from his first book, A Boy's Will, and I was immediately struck by the one that begins:

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long. -- You come too.

There have of course been shelves and shelves written about Robert Frost and it seems almost impudent to re-visit. His "A Boy's Will" was first published in UK -- as was his second book, North of Boston.

Frost had been born in California, where his father, who had graduated with Honors from Harvard, tried and failed to get into politics. Eleven years later Frost's father died from drink and TB, so their mother took Robert and young sister Jeanie back east, to stay in the cheerless and rather depressing home of Frost's grandparents in Lawrence, Massachusetts. [Ref.1, p.16]. Frost's mother, an intelligent woman of Scottish birth, tried to get teaching jobs. In High School the young Frost met Elinor White, and they graduated as co-valedictorians. Elinor was almost 2 years older, but they promised each other they would marry, and while she went on to college in Canton, northern NY, he did various jobs. However, Frost's grandfather paid for him to study Latin and Greek at Dartmouth. He left before the end of his first semester, going to assist his mother, who was having discipline problems with her unruly students [ref.1, p.23.] . At 19 he received $15 (about ~$400 today) for his first published poem, BLUE-BUTTERFLY DAY.

When Robert heard that his Elinor had acquired a suitor, he took a train up to Canton, to try to persuade her to drop out of college and marry him. She refused, shutting the door in his face.

After such rejection, he travelled down to the heavily forested Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina in depression, and despite their marriage the following year, (she graduated within 3 years) he never really forgave her.

In "A Boy'sWill" there is a poem, perhaps roughed out in the woods of North Carolina, that indirectly harps on that rejection and begins

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest masks of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

and it ends with the stubborn

They would not find me changed from him they knew
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

At 23, five years older than most freshmen, and with wife and young son, Robert entered Harvard, intending to become a teacher of Greek and Latin -- subjects he always loved -- his g'father again paying the tuition. But he didn't like all his professors; his English professor said to him "so we are a writer, are we?" He left in his 2nd year, just before his daughter was born, and just before his 3 year old son died. With the help again of his grandfather he and Elinor bought a 30 acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire. After 6 years of rather difficult farming, he turned also to teaching. After his g'father died he was left an annuity [ref.1. p.52.] and in 1912, using that annuity, he and his small family spent 3 years in England. Submitting a collection of his poems, which he entitled A Boy's Will, a London publisher promptly accepted it. He was 38.

Elinor died when Frost was in his 60s; he lived on to nearly 90. Because so many of his poems were quite lengthy, I conclude with just his 4-line poem entitled ON BEING CHOSEN POET OF VERMONT:

Breathes there a bard who isn't moved
When he finds his verse is understood
And not entirely disapproved
By his country and his neighborhood?

1. "Robert Frost, A Biography", by Jeffrey Meyers; Houghton Mifflin, 215 Park Ave South, New York , NY 10003; 1996.
2. "Robert Frost" selected by himself; Penguin Poets; Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex; 1955.
3. "Frost,", by Elizabeth Jennings; Oliver & Boyd, Tweeddale Court, Edinburgh 1, 1964.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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