Biography of Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874 to William Prescott Frost, Jr., a journalist and zealous Democrat, and Isabelle Moodie, a Scottish schoolteacher. A descendant of early British colonist Nicholas Frost, Frost’s father was originally based in New England but worked as a teacher and an editor of the “San Francisco Evening Bulletin” in California. When William Frost died of tuberculosis in 1885, the family was left with only $8 to support themselves. Isabelle Moodie and the eleven-year-old Robert were forced to move to Lawrence, Massachusetts, under the financial patronage of Frost’s paternal grandfather, William Frost, Sr.
During his time in Lawrence, Frost began to develop a particular interest in poetry and writing and published his first poem in the student magazine of Lawrence High School. After receiving his high school diploma in 1892, Frost enrolled at Dartmouth College and was accepted into the Theta Delta Chi fraternity. However, he only studied at Dartmouth for a few months before returning home to work at a variety of jobs, including delivering newspapers, working in a factory, cobbling shoes, and editing the local newspaper.
In 1894, Frost sold his first professional poem to The Independent for fifteen dollars. He also had five poems privately printed. Encouraged by this success, Frost proposed marriage to Elinor Miriam White, a former schoolmate who was studying at St. Lawrence University. White asked to postpone the wedding until she had finished college, and Frost acquiesced, deciding to study liberal arts at Harvard University while he waited for her to graduate. The couple was married in 1895 at Harvard and eventually had six children: sons Elliott (1896-1900) and Carol (1902-1940) and daughters Lesley (1899-1983), Irma (1903-1967), Marjorie (1905-1934), and Elinor Bettina (1907-1907).
Despite his academic success, Frost had to leave Harvard before obtaining a degree in order to support his growing family. Frost’s grandfather had given the couple a small farm in New Hampshire as a wedding present before his death, and Frost and White promptly relocated. For the next nine years, Frost would write poetry in the early morning hours and then work on the farm for the rest of the day; it was during this period that he wrote many of his most famous poems.
Unfortunately, despite the couple’s best efforts, the farm failed. Desperate for another means of financial support, Frost worked as an English teacher at Pinkerton Academy and the New Hampshire Normal School from 1906-1912. Frost continued to write poetry but struggled to find success; his repeated applications to The Atlantic Monthly were rejected with the declaration: “We regret that the Atlantic Monthly has no place for your vigorous verse.”
In 1912, Frost sold the farm and moved to England with his wife and four small children. While abroad, Frost became exposed to prominent literary circles and began making the acquaintance of significant poets such as Edward Thomas, Rubert Brooke, Robert Graves, and Ezra Pound. He published his first full book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, in 1913, and followed it soon after with North of Boston, in 1914. North of Boston, which made Frost’s reputation as a poet, included many of the poems for which he would ultimately become most famous, such as “Mending Wall” and “Death of the Hired Man.”
Prompted by the start of World War I, Frost returned to America with his family in 1915 and bought a farm near Franconia, New Hampshire. His newfound success as a poet allowed him to embark on a lucrative career of writing, teaching, and lecturing. He was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1916 and, later that year, published his third book of poetry, Mountain Interval, which included “The Road Not Taken” and “Birches.” In 1916, Frost also began to lecture and teach English at Amherst College, a position that he would maintain off-and-on until 1938.
In 1920, Frost bought a farm near Middlebury College in Vermont and helped to found the Bread Loaf School and Conference of English, where he would spend nearly every summer teaching until 1963. The following year, Frost was given a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan, and he lived in Ann Arbor until 1927, when he was awarded a lifetime appointment as a Fellow of Letters.
Tragedy struck in 1934 when Frost’s daughter, Marjorie, died from puerperal fever after childbirth. In 1938, Frost’s beloved wife (and the primary inspiration of his poetry) died of heart failure. Two years later, his son Carol, a poet and farmer, committed suicide. Despite these tragedies, Frost continued to focus on his work, publishing A Witness Tree in 1942 and Come In, and Other Poems in 1943.
By the last decade of his life, Frost had achieved a coveted position as one of the most prominent poets in the United States. Among his many awards and honors, Frost received tributes from the American Academy of Poets (1953) and New York University (1956), and four Pulitzer Prizes, as well as the Congressional Gold Medal (1962) and the Edward MacDowell Medal (1962). In additional, he was an honored guest at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and was invited to travel to the Soviet Union as a member of a goodwill group in 1962.
Despite his ultimate literary success, Frost’s personal life was plagued with depression and tragedy. Of his six children, Frost outlived all but two. Moreover, three of his children suffered serious mental breakdowns (one of his daughters was eventually committed to a mental institution). Frost’s own depression constantly filled him with self-doubt about his skill as a poet, and he became obsessed with a desire to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature as justification for his talent.
On January 20, 1963, Frost died of complications from surgery. He is buried in Bennington, Vermont.