Image by National Portrait Gallery
About Robert Frost
Robert Lee Frost, named after the Confederate general, was born in 1874 in California, nine years after the end of the Civil War. His father was an unsuccessful politician and a severe and humourless man; he suffered bouts of depression and was often violent. Robert Frost's early childhood was further disorganised by domestic chaos, frequent moves and patchy education; at the age of eleven he tried to offer comfort during the final stages of his father's death from tuberculosis.
By this time the family had moved to New England to join Robert's grandparents. He now attended school regularly and fell in love with a fellow pupil, Elinor White, whom he was eventually to marry. He spent some time at both Dartmouth College and Harvard, but left to farm, learn to make shoes and write. His first two books of poetry were published during a visit to England with his family from 1912 to 1915. These demonstrated 'his simple woodland philosophy', as a reviewer put it at the time, but also gave glimpses of the more troubled spirit to be further expressed in later collections.
In 'Mending Wall', the first poem in the second collection, he examines and partly undermines the dull old saying he had seen on an advertisement for a picket fence: good fences make good neighbours. Frost explained that the poem explored 'the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making distinctions between good and bad'. The poem is grounded in the companionable and necessary farm job of helping his neighbour fill in gaps in the wall: the 'something that does not love a wall' is actually frost, but the poet plays with the idea that there is a more mysterious force at work.
'After Apple-picking' also, of course, describes a farming chore. The patterns of the poem, its tempo and rhythm, brilliantly suggest that labour has drained the narrator's energy. Yet in the drowsy numbness of apple scent, almost asleep, he becomes aware of the strangeness of familiar things; it is an intensely creative state, and in its own way equally draining.
While in England, Frost became a close friend of the poet Edward Thomas. 'The Road Not Taken', published in 1916, is partly a teasing comment on the difficulty Thomas had in making decisions about the direction of his life. But the ambivalence is also Frost's own: 'I have been pulled two ways and torn in two all of my life', he said in a letter written at almost the same time.
The last two poems recorded here were written much later. 'Desert Places' (1936) is a bleak statement of loneliness and despair: Frost's account of the desert places within himself.
After Elinor's death in 1938, Frost fell in love with a married woman; this passion late in life is celebrated in a love sequence in his collection The Witness Tree (1942). 'The Silken Tent' opens the sequence and describes the delicate tension between her bondage and freedom, as she is pulled, loosely by her husband in marriage or tightly by Frost in love.
Robert Frost died in 1963. In his final years, he was honoured and celebrated. He recited a poem at the Inauguration of President Kennedy who had often quoted Frost at the end of his campaign speeches: 'But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep'.
Frost: Poems (Everyman, 1997)
Robert Frost: The Collected Poems (Vintage, 2013)