Robert Frost (1874-1963) was an American poet. His first collection of poetry was published in Great Britain while he was living in Beaconsfield (1912-1915). He went on to win four Pulitzer Prizes (1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943). At the age of 86 he recited his poem ‘The Gift Outright’ at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. He’s known for his depictions of rural life (he inherited and for a time ran the family farm in New England) with social and philosophical themes.
Please give my apologies to the group for not being able to report in depth on my choice, a very favoured poet, Robert Frost, but my laptop has been playing up this afternoon . . . I had prepared quite lot to say beyond his well-known favourites, ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’, which he called ‘My best bid for remembr’nce’ and ‘The road not taken’. I went to work in New Hampshire, which became his home state the year he died, 1963. His time in England (1912-1915) was interesting with Edward Thomas and the Dymock Poets including Rupert Brook. He in fact had a tragically sad life reflected in some of his less popular/well-known poems. His mother died of cancer when he was young as did his wife in 1938. Of four children only two survived him. In ‘Birches’ he wrote:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
For his epitaph on his very simple grave: ‘I had a lover’s quarrel with the world’.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse will think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I like this poem where R.F. is celebrating a magic moment when he stops his pony trap near some woods on a snowy day in mid-winter. The mesmeric quality of the falling snow is conveyed by the rhyme scheme and using simple words (know, though, here, snow). This is enhanced by onomatopoeic sound effects (‘the only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake’), and with long drawn-out vowel sounds (dark, deep, keep, sleep). In the final verse there is also his decision to re-engage with life (‘But I have promises to keep’) and there is the metaphor of life’s journey which is made more effective by the use of repetition (‘And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep’).
I have to confess that I now receive, by notes and telephone, occasional poetry tuition from my neighbour who was a lecturer in English Literature many years ago!
The first poem that came to mind when I saw this week’s subject was ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost. It’s a wistful take on the freedom and joy of both the poet’s experience of swinging on birch trees and an imagined farm boy similarly having fun:
As he went out and in to fetch the cows –
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball
Whose only play was what he found himself….
The poet yearns to return to the joy he experienced as ‘a swinger of birches’ but realises that life is often ‘a pathless wood’ He seems to suggest that the patience and stamina needed to successfully swing on birches are useful traits for later life. How childhood foreshadows adulthood is a common theme for poetry; here Frost keeps it fresh with original imagery.
Poem Number Two is ‘Mending Wall’ – the poet has agreed to repair the boundary wall of his property in conjunction with his neighbour. My take is that this is mostly an interior conversation that he is having – his ambivalence about the need for walls is only overtly expressed when he tells his neighbour:
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
The neighbour replies with the well-known proverb: ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.
So in the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, Frost keeps any further contrary thoughts to himself but the reader is party to them. The proverb appears again in the last line of the poem as if, tradition is so stubborn, the more expansive thinking of Frost cannot prevail.
On a historical note when President John F Kennedy inspected the Berlin Wall he quoted the poem’s first line: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ A pity the current president was not of the same mind.
‘The Road Not Taken’ is so well known I hope it’s not jaded; the ending is worth waking and thinking about it every now and then.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is also very familiar and again I think the final verse is the important –
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
ANd miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
A less well-known poem that I really relate to and love the wry humour underlining it is ‘The Armful’:
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns –
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast,
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.
I feel I begin to understand Frost through that poem far more than any of his poems I’ve read. He was a close friend of Edward Thomas and he gave Thomas confidence with his encouragement to write poetry, very wonderful poetry. I imagine they drew upon each other very intensely, becoming very close and shutting out much outer life. How do I know!
I always feel a bit out of my depth with poetry so can’t say I know Robert Frost’s poems, though of course his name, but have enjoyed learning a bit about him and looking at a few of his poems in my trusty Poem for the Day: Two, and now feel inspired to read more. I’ve chosen this lovely poem that he wrote when devastated by the death of his friend, the poet Edward Thomas, with whom he shared a passion for the countryside and long ‘botanizing’ walks:
My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
Please let us know which are your favourite Robert Frost poems in Comments below.