This ClassicNote on Robert Frost focuses on seven collections of poetry: “A Boy’s Will” (1913), “North of Boston” (1914), “Mountain Interval” (1916), “New Hampshire” (1923), “West-Running Brook” (1928), “A Witness Tree” (1942), and “Come In and Other Poems” (1943). Twenty poems, some more well known than others, have been selected from among these collections of poetry in an effort to provide a broad spectrum of Frost’s style, emotional range, and development as a poet over the course of his career.
Each of these poems demonstrates different aspects of Frost’s style; some are long narrative works that are more like short stories than poems, and others speak to his sharp sense of irony and literary brilliance. Throughout all of these selections, however, there is a shared focus on the deeper meaning of everyday activities, the rural setting of New England, and the “truth” of real people and real struggles.
The first collection of poetry that will be examined is “A Boy’s Will,” which contains the poems “Mowing” and “Reluctance.” The title of the work is a reference to a line from Longfellow’s poem “My Lost Youth,” which reads: “‘A boy’s will’ is the wind’s will / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” The majority of the poems in the collection have a pastoral quality and, though he is vague in terms of location, Frost clearly demonstrates a growing attachment to New England. The poem “Mowing,” for example, which describes a whispered conversation between a farmer and his hard-working scythe, is clearly colored by thoughts of a New England harvest. As “Reluctance” reveals, Frost also begins to explore ideas of development and maturity—the journey from childhood to manhood—and questions the relationship between nature and mankind.
Frost followed “A Boy’s Will” with the 1914 collection “North of Boston,” which contains the poems “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” and “After Apple-Picking.” No longer vague in terms of location, Frost suddenly positions New England as the overt inspiration for his poetry, even incorporating it into the title. The poems “Mending Wall” and “Home Burial” have autobiographical elements that suggest a certain amount of homesickness. “Mending Wall,” about two neighbors who meet every year to repair the wall dividing their property, is taken from an annual activity that Frost performed with his French-Canadian neighbor in New Hampshire. The poem “Home Burial” describes the destruction of a marriage after the death of a child: a possible reference to the tragic death of Frost’s first son during infancy. The poems “After Apple-Picking” and “The Death of the Hired Man” discuss more general themes of life in New England, particularly the loss associated with the changing seasons and the sense of isolation inherent in such a rural environment.
After his return from England with his family, Frost published the collection “Mountain Interval,” which cemented his reputation as a prominent New England poet. This collection contains “The Road Not Taken,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” “A Patch of Old Snow,” “Bond and Free,” “Birches,” “Out, Out—,” and “The Sound of Trees.” In these poems, Frost continues to explore the deeper meanings of everyday activity. In “Birches,” for example, Frost suggests that the childhood game of swinging on birches expresses a human desire to escape the rational world and climb up to the heights of imagination. This conflict between desire and responsibility is also expressed in “The Sound of Trees,” in which the narrator sees the constant swaying of the trees outside his house as a need to escape the “roots” of responsibility and considers taking the same action himself.
In “A Patch of Old Snow” and “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” Frost discusses the darker topics of isolation and oblivion, first describing an old man whose only remaining sense of identity is tied to his presence in a house, and then pointing out a once-beautiful patch of snow that is now mistaken for a worthless piece of old newspaper. Following this trend of existential thinking, he uses “Bond and Free” as a discussion of larger questions regarding the conflict between Love and Thought. Frost creates one of his most compelling scenes of life and death in “Out, Out—,” in which an accident with a buzz saw leads to the tragic death of a young boy and hints at the unthinkable horrors occurring in the battlefields of World War I. The final selection from this group of poems is “The Road Not Taken,” a description of a man’s choice between two paths in a yellow wood and arguably the most famous of Frost’s poems.
The 1923 collection “New Hampshire” contains the poems “Fire and Ice,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Lockless Door.” The piece “Fire and Ice” is a brilliant example of Frost’s skill with form and line structure; in only nine lines, he outlines the central debate about the fate of the world and then undercuts it with an ironic quip. The poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” another of his most famous works, combines an autobiographical experience with discussion of the conflict between desire and responsibility in a classic New England setting. “The Lockless Door,” also based on an actual event, revisits the theme of isolation as the narrator is so frightened by the sound of a knock (and the threat of a companion in his “cage”) that he would rather abandon his home than face his fear.
The 1928 collection “West-Running Brook” contains the poems “Once by the Pacific” and “Acquainted with the Night,” both of which show a preoccupation with the themes of isolation and depression. “Once by the Pacific,” about the destructive threat posed by the ocean, was inspired by a traumatic childhood experience in which Frost was accidentally left alone on a California beach as a storm approached the shore. The incident haunted Frost throughout his life, as did the fear of abandonment and complete isolation in the face of unspeakable danger. The poem “Acquainted with the Night” takes a more passive perspective on isolation by describing an individual’s struggle with depression.
The collection “A Witness Tree” was published after several unfortunate tragedies had occurred in Frost’s personal life: his daughter Marjorie died of complications from childbirth in 1934, his beloved wife died of heart failure in 1938, and his son Carol committed suicide in 1940. Despite these losses, Frost continued to work on his poetry and eventually fell in love with his secretary Kay Morrison, who became the primary inspiration of the love poems in “A Witness Tree.” This collection is the last of Frost’s books that demonstrates the seamless lyric quality of his earlier poems. This collection contains “The Gift Outright,” which describes the quest for an American identity through a connection to the land. This poem emphasizes the traditional New England view of property and identity (also explored in “Mending Wall”), and was recited at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
The final collection that will be discussed in this ClassicNote is the 1943 work “Come In and Other Poems,” which contains the piece, “Choose Something Like a Star” (titled “Take Something Like a Star” in some works). This poem revisits Frost’s satirical side through its blended interpretation of science and religion and the human need for assurance from a higher power.
Each of these poems reveals a slightly different side of Robert Frost, just as the seven collections of poetry from different times in his life provide a glimpse into his development as an artist. Each poem should be read with the understanding that Frost instilled meaning into even the most basic aspects of a work, from the number of feet in a line to the specific sound of a syllable. As a result, the poems have endless possibilities in terms of meaning and interpretation and should be seen as an opportunity for the mind to revel in exploration.