Saturday, December 4, 2010

Robert Frost: Life and Career

A Great American Poet
Robert Frost is one of the greatest of American poets, one whose name is well-familiar in India because his poetry was a source of comfort and inspiration to no less a person than Jawahar Lal Nehru, the idol of the people, during his last years of his life. After his death on 27th May, 1964, it was discovered that on the office table of Jawahar Lal Nehru, there lay a piece of paper bearing the following four lines (written in his own hand) from Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

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’
These lines of Robert Frost served as an inspiration to one of the greatest men of India, and reminded him of the service of humanity and of his people to whom he had dedicated himself.
Birth and Parentage
This great poet was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1874. His father was a New Englander (New England is the name given to certain States in the U.S.A. These States are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The inhabitants of these States are familiarly described as "Yankees"), and his mother, Isabelle Moodie, was a Scot who had come to America from Edinburgh. She was a poetess and so wanted to name her son Robert after Robert Burns, the greatest poet of Scotland, but the father wanted to name him after General Lee. So, as a compromise, the boy was named Robert Lee. Hence his full name is Robert Lee Frost. He was a sickly, neurotic child. Tuberculosis ran in the family, the father died of the disease in 1885, when the poet was only eleven years old, and the mother feared a similar fate for the son. The father had willed that his remains be taken to his native New England and buried there. So the boy with his mother and younger sister went to New England. As they did not have enough money for the return journey, they settled in the village of Salem, New Hampshire. Thus the boy was uprooted from his birth-place and carried early in life to an alien environment which he disliked in the beginning.
Boyhood and Education
The mother earned an uncertain living to support herself and her family by teaching for a few years in the Grammar School of the village which was also attended by her children. In the beginning, the boy did not show much inclination for study, but during his four years' stay at the Lawrence High School, he displayed an intense pleasure in learning. In 1892, he joined the Dartmouth College, which he soon left, saying that he had enough of scholarship. During the next few years, he tried to earn a living in various ways. He worked in mills, took to newspaper reporting, and taught in schools. In his leisure hours, he wrote poetry. In 1894, his youthful poem My Butterfly was published in the New York Independent, and soon after he privately published six of his lyrics in a booklet entitled Twilight.
Marriage and Early Career—Illness
In 1895, he married his beautiful school-fellow, Elinor White and tried to lead a settled life as a school teacher. For more than two years he helped his mother to manage a small private school in Lawrence, then spent two years as a student at Harvard College, hoping to prepare himself for college teaching. But again he decided that the academic atmosphere was not congenial to him. Then he tried to make a successful business out of raising hens and selling eggs. In 1900, when a doctor warned him that his recurrent illnesses (largely nervous) might indicate tuberculosis, he moved with his growing family to a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire, and there continued his poultry business. During the winter of 1906, he came so near to death, from pneumonia that both he and his doctor were surprised when he recovered. Then he turned more and more to the writing of poetry, as a kind of consolation. Occasionally, he sold a poem or two. But when he could not make both ends meet, financially, as either poet or farmer, he turned again to school teaching, this time at Pinkerton Academy in Derry. Subsequently, he taught Psychology for one year at the New Hampshire State Normal School in Plymouth.
Takes to Poetry
It was in 1912, that Frost decided to make poetry his vocation in life. He sold his farm and with his wife and four children went to England where they settled in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. He was eminently successful as a poet. His first volume of lyrics A Boy's Will (1913) was accepted for publication by the first publisher to whom he offered it, and his second book of dramatic dialogues North of Boston (1914) attracted so much attention that it was also published in America soon after. When Frost returned there in 1915, he found that it had already become a best-seller.
Fame and Recognition—Passion for Farming
On his return to New England, Frost bought a small farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, hoping to live a quiet life. He was shy and reserved and public attention embarrassed him. But fame and recognition had come to him. He could not refuse for long, invitation for giving public lectures and reciting his own poems in public, and travelled from one part of the continent to another for the purpose. He became one of the first American poets who were invited to live on the campus of various institutions as poets-in-residence. But he loved the life of a farmer, and managed to enjoy his life at least during the months of sowing and harvesting. He left New Hampshire for Vermont and bought a farm in South Shaftesbury in 1919. After his children had grown, and after Mrs. Frost had died, he changed his residence from South Shaftesbury to an upland farm which he purchased in Ripton, Vermont. On doctor's orders he began spending the most severe winter months in Florida, then in 1940 he bought a rural acre outside Coral Gables, Florida, and built a typical New England bungalow there. “His feeling for the soil and for growing things remained a passion with him, long after that kind of life ceased to be a necessity.”
Fresh Honours: Death
Frost received more honours than any other contemporary literary figure in America. He was elected to the membership of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1916, to membership in the American Academy in 1930. Four times he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, and again on the eighty-fifth, the United States Senate adopted a formal resolution extending felicitations to him. He was given honorary degrees by more than forty colleges and universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. In 1961, he was called upon to recite his patriotic poem, The Gift Outright, when the late President Kennedy took office. He died in January, 1963.
Works
After the first two volumes A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914) which were issued in England, eight more volumes of his poetry were brought out in America—Mountain Interval' (1916), New Hampshire (1923), West Running Brook (1928), A Further Range (1936), A Witness Tree (1942), Come In, and Other Poems (1943), A Masque of Reason (1945) and A Masque of Mercy (1947).

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