Robert Frost: A 20th Century American Poet and Two of His Famous Poems

The quintessential American poet of the 20th century is, of course, Robert Frost. What appears to be the simple and honest poetry of an American poet, is, but also is full of profound meaning for life, both figuratively and literally. He saw the lessons of life naturally in nature in his beloved New England. Ironically, he was born in San Francisco, CA, but when his father died, his family moved to Lawrence, MA, and Robert Frost became New England and New England became Robert Frost. Never has a writer been so connected to a region as Robert Frost was to New England. He and his poetry reflected the simple, rustic life and toughness of the typical New Englander.

Frost is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech. Most of his poetry has settings from rural life in New England in the early 20th century. He used them to examine complex social and philosophical themes in his poetry. During his lifetime he received four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

He attended high school and graduated from Lawrence High School in Lawrence, MA. He published his first poem in his high school’s magazine. After high school, he attended Dartmouth College for two months but returned home ot teach and work at various jobs. Frost felt his true calling was writing poetry.

In 1895 he married Elinor Miriam White his only wife. He attended Harvard University from 1897-1899 but voluntarily left because of illness. His grandfather bought a farm for the couple in Derry, NH and Frost worked the farm for the next nine years after recovering from his illness. All the while he was working the farm, he would arise early in the morning and write and he produced many of the poems that would later become famous.

He was unsuccessful at farming and Frost returned to teaching as an English teacher at New Hampshire Pinkerton Academy from 1906-1911 and at the New Hampshire Normal School (now Plymouth State University).

In 1912, Frost took his family and sailed to England and it was here that he made some important acquaintances, Ezra Pound being one of them. Pound was the first American to write favorable review of Frost’s poetry, as Frost’s first two poetry volumes were published in England. After three years in England, he returned to America.

His next phase of life was to buy a farm in Franconia, NH in 1915. Here he launched a career of writing, teaching, and lecturing. This farm served as Frost’s summer home until 1938. It is maintained today as The Frost Place and is a museum and poetry conference site in remembrance of Frost and his great contribution to poetry.

He also taught English off and on at Amherst College in Massachusetts from 1916-1938. And, from 1921-1963, Frost spent almmost every summer and fall teaching English at Middlebury College at the mountain campus in Ripton, Vermont. At Middlebury, Frost had a major influence upon the development of the school and its various writing program. And, the Ripton farmstead he lived in while teaching there is a national historic site in the U.S.

From 1921-1927, Frost accepted a fellowsip teaching post at the University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor. He was awarded a lifetime appointment at the university as a Fellow in Letters. And, the Robert Frost Ann Arbor home now sits at The Henry Ford Museaum in Dearborn, MI. During all these years and all these residence, Frost continued writing his poetry and contributing to the lexicon of American letters.

In 1940, Frost bought a five acre plot in S. Miami, FL, called Pencil Pines, and spent winters here for the rest of his life.

Although Frost never graduated from college, he received over forty honorary degrees. Some of these honorary degrees came from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge. He received two honorary degrees from Dartmouth College. Frost was 86 years old when he performed “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration ceremonies of President John F. Kennedy in January 1961. He died two years later of complications of prostate cancer in Boston, MA.

Robert Frost was one of America’s iconic poet, teacher, and lecturer. His poetry has been appreciated by the youngest child to the heights of a president at President Kennedy’s inauguration. Following are my two personal favoite poems of Frost. Both have a special meaning in my life which I will explain. But these two poems, “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Road Not Taken,” both represent to me the best of Frost and his beloved New England.

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 must think it queer

To stop without a farmouse 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 sounds 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.

This just recently became one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. During one of the last three years or so of teaching before I retired, I had a wonderful, quirky, interesting, intelligent, insightful and down right goofy eighth grade Language Arts class. And, did I mention talkative? They never stopped talking. They knew it all, too. What could I ever teach them? Well, in my stubborn belief that they were quite intelligent and would respond to poetry with great insight, I decided to do a poetry reading every day by one of the great poets from around the world. This would be the intro to our unit on poetry. I read them poems by Tennyson, Shakespeare, Poe, Rimi, Goethe, Silverstein, the Brownings, Burns, etc. and of course, two weeks into this, no response. Just rolling of eyes and “let’s just humor Mrs. Walker,” so we can move on. Even my colleagues teased me in the lunchroom about my poetry readings falling on deaf eighth grade ears.

One Monday, I decided it was time for some Robert Frost, so I started reading “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Well, the room fell absolutely silent as I read on. My students’ eyes were glued on me as I read the poem. Not a sound. When I was finished, the class ringleader, said, “That was a beautiful poem. And, you read it beautifully, Mrs. Walker. Would you please read that one again?” Stunned, I said, “Sure,” and read the poem one more time.

When I had finished reading it a second time, without any prompting or questions from me, the entire class started discussing the content of the poem and what it meant to them. I watched with tears in my eyes one of the best and most civilized discussions of Frost’s poem I have ever witnessed. The discusssion began when one student from the back of the room proclaimed, “I get this poem. I know what the author is trying to say,” and from there about a ten minute discussion went forth. Finally, my students looked at me and said, “Mrs. Walker, you haven’t said a word.” I said, “I didn’t have to, you covered all the major points of this poem – you didn’t need me, to understand the beauty, images and metaphor in this poem. That is the highest compliment you could give me, is not to need me to guide you in the meaning of the poem. You were all able to discuss it and figure it out on your own. You have learned this year.”

From that moment on, this particular class loved poetry. They craved poetry readings and I read them a poem each day until the end of the year. They wrote their own poetry and read their own poems as poetry readings for me. We had a great time learning together through poetry. It is a moment in time I will remember for the rest of my life. The words of Robert Frost, one Monday morning, mezmerized my eighth graders and showed them the beauty of words painting images they could see in their minds.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear

Though as for that, the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowning how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The last three lines of this poem are probably the most quoted in the English language and certainly in the American lexicon. Carpe diem — seize the day! We all interpret these lines and this poem to mean this. But a more careful reading of Frost’s exact words are needed to really and truly understand this poem.

If you really read the second stanza of the poem, neither of the roads is less traveled by. In fact, each road he comes upon in the fork of the road are traveled the same. Of course, the dilemma here is to be taken literally and figuratively. We encounter many times in life a fork in the road and must decide which one to take. This is Frost’s deep-seated metaphor for life and its crises and decisions thrust upon us.

The fork in the road is a symbol for the contradiciton of free will and fate. We are free to choose which road to take, but we don’t know exactly what we are choosing between as we can’t see beyond where it bends in the undergrowth. Our route in life, therefore, is choice and chance. It is impossible to separate the two.

Since there is no less traveled road in this poem, Frost is more concerned with the question of how the concrete present will look from a future vantage point. When Frost said in the last stanza, he sighs – this sigh is critical to the true meaning of this poem. Frost sighs because he knows he will be inaccurate and hypocritical when he holds his life up as an example, as we all would be, too. In fact, he predicts that his future self willl betray this moment of decision later on in life.

He sighs before saying he took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference. He sighs first and then says this because he won’t believe it himself in the future. Somewhere in the back of his mind will always remain the image of the fork in the road and the two equally leafy paths. He knows he will second guess himself down the road. Frost is realistic and shows great forsight and insight to how he will view his choice and decision in the future as we all do. We have all second guessed ourselves about paths we have taken.

Frost will always wonder what is irrecovcably lost – the unknowable, “Other Path” – just this chosen path and “the other” path. Frost’s sigh is not so much for the wrong decision he might have made as for the moment of decision itself. He sighs for the moment that one on top of another make for the passing of a life. This is the true remorse indicated in this poem.

This Frost poem has always been so realistic for me. It is the moment of decision that is the crux of the matter. We like to think in the future, after our decision, we have taken the road less traveled – but have we really? None of us lives the perfect life and none of us makes the perfect decisions when we reach those forks in the road. We are hit and miss in this regard. But, what about the road not taken? Would it have been better? I tend to think not. The road not taken would be different, but not necessarily better.

I believe Frost’s last three lines of this poem have been taken out of context for years and the true meaning of the poem has been forgotten and overlooked. At the time of the decision, each path is equally good, equally trod – it is how we will look at it from a future vantage point that decides whether we have remorse or regret. The forks in the road that are both choice and chance.

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved