In the middle of June 1957 Robert Frost arrived in Dublin at the end of a goodwill tour for the State Department: he had been to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Durham. His next assignment was to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland; then he was free to spend four or five days being feted. He was accompanied by Lawrance Thompson, since 1939 his designated biographer. I was teaching in the English Department at University College, Dublin, so I was included in a few social occasions. On one of those I met Thompson and we hit it off pretty well. Over the following days I showed him the literary sights of Dublin, Joyce’s tower at Sandycove, the Merrion Square of Wilde and Yeats, the Book of Kells, and the Hill of Howth.

We talked mostly about Melville, hardly at all about Frost. I sensed an awkwardness there. But I mentioned that I had written an essay on Frost that I thought of submitting to an English monthly magazine, The Twentieth Century. I might also use it as a chapter in a book I was writing on modern American poetry. Thompson offered to read it. I warned him that the essay was severe and that he would not like it. Why? Well, I thought that several of Frost’s poems were nasty and that they corresponded to the chilling, careless note of the Social Darwinists, especially Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. I couldn’t see the merit of transferring to politics, economics, and sociology the conclusions that emerged from Darwin’s biology. It seemed to me that some of Frost’s poems were corrupted by Social Darwinism, and that their narrative voice implied: “I’m surviving quite well under my own steam, why should I worry about you?” Thompson asked me which poems I had in mind. I named “Death of the Hired Man,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “Sand Dunes,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and the last lines of “Out, Out—.” More specifically, I thought it was cruel and glibly Darwinist of Frost to say of the parents of the dead boy in “Out, Out—“:

…And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Why should Frost think they turned to their affairs? “Since” gives the most blatant explanation available, and “turned” is morally facile. The parents may have turned their faces to the wall and lived out their lives in despair. “Give us immedicable woes,” Frost said, “woes that nothing can be done for.”1 Speak for yourself, I say.

Two or three weeks later, I sent Thompson the essay on Frost. In reply, he wrote me a long letter—which I’m sorry I’ve lost—in which he said that my sense of Frost was accurate but that I didn’t know just how accurate it was. Frost, he said, was a monster, a man of systematic cruelty. His indifference to other people was at least partly to blame for the insanity of his sister Jeanie, the sadness of his wife, Elinor, the mental illnesses of his daughters Irma and Marjorie, and the suicide of his son Carol. Social Darwinism was indeed an ugly prejudice, regularly called upon to justify mistreating poor people—if they haven’t survived, it proves they didn’t deserve to survive—and Frost’s version of it was so habitual as to be instinctive: he had probably inherited it, Thompson said, from his father, a drunken, violent lout.

That was the gist of Thompson’s letter, so far as I can recall it. His edition of Selected Letters of Robert Frost came out in 1964, followed by Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915 in 1966 and Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 in 1970. In those books, Thompson makes the same charge against Frost: that he was an appalling man, petty, vindictive, a dreadful husband and parent. Very little of the third volume of the biography, Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963 (1976), is Thompson’s work, so there is no need to put it in evidence: he died after a long illness on April 15, 1973, and the book was mostly written by a former graduate student of his, R.H. Winnick. But the books and essays for which Thompson is solely responsible make a sustained attack on the man he once revered. Jay Parini’s biography presents an almost entirely different account of Frost.

As Parini notes, there are three phases in biographies of Frost. The first one began in 1927 with Gorham B. Munson’s Robert Frost: A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense and culminated in Sidney Cox’s A Swinger of Birches (1957) and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant’s Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence (1960). In that phase, Frost is a farmer-poet, a man of classical temper, wise, imperturbable, humorous in a craggy way, a man accessible to the people and therefore universally loved. Thompson’s biography inaugurates the second phase. Jeffrey Meyers’s Robert Frost: A Biography (1996) is an extension of it. In this version, Frost was cruel to his wife and children and combative toward virtually every contemporary writer who had become prominent. He was also a predator: as soon as Elinor died, he took his friend Theodore Morrison’s wife, Kathleen, as his mistress and employed her as his secretary to facilitate the affair. He urged Kathleen to marry him, but she declined, preferring to stay with her husband. But she assured Frost that she was married to Morrison in name only. Meyers claims that she gave sexual favors not only to Frost but to Thompson, Bernard de Voto, and Stafford Dragon, Frost’s hired man on the farm in Vermont.


The third phase of biography began with the publication of Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost, edited by Arnold Grade in 1972. Kathleen Morrison’s Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle (1974), William H. Pritchard’s Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (1984), Stanley Burnshaw’s Robert Frost Himself (1986), John E. Walsh’s Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (1988), and now Parini’s book present Frost in far more genial terms. According to this version, he may not have been gifted with a sweet nature, but he was a faithful husband to Elinor for the forty-three years of their marriage, and a devoted parent to their several children. He supported his grown-up children not only financially but with endless and unquestioning affection. If he was combative, his early life gave him no choice. He had to win the struggle for existence.

These three phases in biography occur in other writers than Frost. In the first phase, the writer is presented as the author of works already widely loved: it is not a time for discrepancy between the writer and the work. The life is in accord with the poems. Discrepancy arises later and in a spirit of irony. A biographer in the second phase is not convinced that the writer was as agreeable as the standard portraits claim. In this phase, Van Wyck Brooks writes The Ordeal of Mark Twain and claims that Twain was a bitter man, not a humorist in a white suit. Mark Schorer writes nine hundred pages on Sinclair Lewis and makes him appear hateful. Lyndall Gordon shows that T.S. Eliot was often careless in his treatment of the women who attended him: he had good reason to reflect, in “Little Gidding,” on “the awareness/Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.” In the third phase, biographers who knew the writer—and some who didn’t—claim that the portraits painted in the second phase are libels: the subject was not like that disfigured wretch at all.

But it is difficult to revert to images of simplicity, the transparent smile, the lavish manner. After Thompson’s evidence, and even if we think that Thompson’s hatred of Frost accrued from many little slights, a sense of injured merit, and sexual jealousy, it is implausible to insist that Frost was a good man after all and that his true voice was the one we hear in “After Apple-Picking” and “Birches”:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Parini’s claim seems reasonable:

My narrative presents Frost as a major poet who struggled throughout his long life with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion. His family life was not often happy, and he experienced some extremely bad luck with his children. On the other hand, he was a man of immense fortitude, an attentive father, and an artist of the first order who understood what he must do to create a body of work of lasting significance….

But some of those words and phrases—“struggled,” “not often happy,” “extremely bad luck,” and “what he must do”—could be interpreted as hiding something, as if Parini chose them to suppress many rival considerations.


Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, the first child of Isabelle Moodie and William Prescott Frost Jr. She had been a teacher and was still interested in literature: in her religious life she was a Swedenborgian, an adept of vision and second sight. William was a journalist, a Democrat with political ambitions, but mostly given to drink, gambling, and, so far as his bad health permitted, swimming and running. He died of tuberculosis on May 5, 1885, and the family soon moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to be cared for by William’s father and other relatives before Isabelle got a teaching job. Frost started writing poems in 1890 and took odd jobs to keep himself afloat.


On December 19, 1895, he married Elinor White in a ceremony conducted by a Swedenborgian pastor. In 1897 Frost entered Harvard on money borrowed from his grandfather. On March 31, 1899, he withdrew from Harvard and, partly for medical reasons, took up poultry farming in Methuen, Massachusetts, and later in Derry, New Hampshire, where he combined farming with a part-time teaching job at the Pinkerton Academy. During those years the Frosts were poor, but not—as some biographers claim—dirt poor. In 1901 their fortunes improved dramatically when Frost’s grandfather William Prescott Frost Sr. died and left Frost an annuity of $500 and use of the farm in Derry for ten years, after which the annuity was to be increased to $800 and Frost was to own the land.

In 1912 Frost and his family moved to England, where he intended to devote himself full-time to his poetry. By now there were four surviving children: two had died, Elliott at the age of four and Elinor Bettina in infancy. In London, Frost met the poet F.S. Flint and, through Flint, Ezra Pound, who took him up and reviewed his first two books of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). Pound reported to Alice Corbin Henderson in March 1913: “Have just discovered another Amur’k’n. VURRY Amur’k’n, with, I think, the seeds of grace.” But he lost interest in Frost’s poems after two or three years and decided, I surmise, that he was not up to the mark of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford.

Frost became friends with Edward Thomas and with several other poets much less gifted than Thomas: his closest friends in England were Wilfred Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie. When the war started in 1914, the Frosts decided to go back to the US. On February 13, 1915, the family sailed from Liverpool to New York, where Frost’s poems and books were much in discussion. So a remarkably successful career began with the American publication of North of Boston (1915) and Mountain Interval (1916). Thereafter, Frost lived a comfortable public life as a poet: some of his books sold triumphantly, he was continuously in demand as a highly paid lecturer and poet-in-residence, his readings—“barding around,” as he called his travels—were immensely popular, he won the Pulitzer Prize four times, his years were loaded with honors. Not that he was ever content. His domestic life, as Parini and other biographers have made clear, was a scene of occasional happiness but also of stress and confusion.

Meanwhile he wrote poems, essays, and plays. Parini is good on the poems. He doesn’t go in for close reading, but he has a vivid sense of patterns and archetypes. Like Richard Poirier and other critics of Frost, Parini notes how often Frost’s later poems “return to the scene of a lone walker in a swamp or dense forest, which rapidly takes on symbolic aspects”:

Indeed, if Frost can be said to have an archetypal poem, it is one in which the poet sets off, forlorn or despairing, into the wilderness, where he will either lose his soul or find that gnostic spark of revelation. The pattern of setting out into the unknown, of casting free from the bonds of society and family, is there in everything from “The Sound of the Trees” and “Birches” to “Directive.”

Parini quotes, to illustrate this, the first stanza of “Traces”:

These woods have been loved in and wept in.
It is not supposed to be known
That of two that came loving together
But one came weeping alone.

Parini is informative, too, on Frost’s theory of poetry, which started as a theory of what Frost called “sentence sounds.” Parini quotes from a well-known letter of Frost’s to John Bartlett:

I give you a new definition of a sentence:

A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.

You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes.

The number of words you may string on one sentence-sound is not fixed but there is always danger of over loading.

The sentence-sounds are very definite entities….

They are apprehended by the ear. They are gathered by the ear from the vernacular and brought into books. Many of them are already familiar to us in books. I think no writer invents them. The most original writer only catches them fresh from talk, where they grow spontaneously.

It sounds casual, but it allows for a workable theory of the mutual impingement of meter and rhythm, syntax and the vernacular. Meter is the abstract pattern of sounds, as in iambic pentameter, a pattern of ten syllables, five metrical feet, each consisting of a relatively unstressed followed by a relatively stressed syllable. But even in a regular line of iambic pentameter—“He thought he kept the universe alone”—the abstract pattern is enacted as rhythm, featuring different degrees of semantic emphasis and the play of a word of three differentiated syllables—“universe”—against the pattern. The pattern is ideal or notional, but it is sufficiently in the mind’s ear to be played with, played against. Similarly, the laws of grammar and syntax don’t capitulate to the vernacular, but they make concessions to it and to the rhythm. As Frost’s “In a Poem” has it:

The sentencing goes blithely on its way
And takes the playfully objected rhyme
As surely as it keeps the stroke and time
In having its undeviable say.

The sentence is a genial master, and it admits “the playfully objected rhyme” without being deflected from its course. The linking of “rhyme” and “time” adds a new relation, a further consideration aslant from the main one, but it doesn’t undermine the authority of the sentence. It is the syntactical form of Frost’s will: he listens to objections, but gets his own way, his own say. Sometimes, as in “Directive,” he imposes the will of the sentence immediately, as if he were indifferent to the meter, and he relents only after the force of the sentence has been acknowledged:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.

In another version of the tension between authority and freedom, Frost feels the power of the public world, but he exerts his own force of will against it. “Every poem,” he said in “The Constant Symbol,” “is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.” That was his metaphor, too, of his way of being in the world.

Parini is helpful on these matters, but he doesn’t wait patiently enough on their disclosures or meditate on their significance. He treats Frost’s life as if it were a sequence of external events broken now and then by domestic insistences. It is hard to know at any moment what Frost was thinking about, as distinct from the next move he was plotting for his career. He must often have been reading and thinking, if we take seriously—as I do—Robert Faggen’s argument in Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin that he thought hard not only about Darwin but about Lucretius, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, and William James. The best context in which to understand Frost’s poems, according to Faggen, is Frost’s thinking about biology, botany, astronomy, and technology, prompted by Darwin and other writers.

Faggen doesn’t claim that Frost was a scientist: he entered into the popular Darwinism of his time, and made what he could of it. He wasn’t, as Henry Adams described himself, “a Darwinist for fun.” But it would be absurd to claim that he went deeply into the niceties of the hypothesis. My own sense of the matter is that Frost got from Darwinism metaphors for his poetry and, more pervasively, warrant for his prejudices. He didn’t look into the issue between Lamarck and Darwin on genetics.2 Faggen hasn’t done much with my own hobbyhorse, Social Darwinism, but that doesn’t matter now; very few of Frost’s poems are nasty in the way I made a little fuss about in the Twentieth Century essay and in my book Connoisseurs of Chaos. Faggen has shown the difference it makes if you read, with Darwin in mind, “Spring Pools,” “A Star in a Stone-Boat,” “West-Running Brook,” “Kitty Hawk,” “Design,” and “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” “Design” ends:

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Even if you didn’t especially think of Darwin, the repeated “design” would call up the theological “argument from design,” a standard argument for the existence of God. But it would make your reading of the poem more pointed if you recalled William James’s discussion of design in Pragmatism or—Faggen quotes it—a letter of July 12, 1870, in which Darwin wrote:

My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficient [sic] design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details. As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a specific end, I can no more believe in it than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.

Parini hasn’t given himself time for such considerations.

Nor has he pondered all the evidence he has produced. I’ll give two instances, both involving Lionel Trilling. In late September 1946 Frost lectured at Kenyon College. Trilling attended the lecture and wrote in his journal:

At Kenyon: Frost’s strange speech—apparently of a kind that he often gives—he makes himself the buffoon—goes into a trance of aged childishness—he is the child who is rebelling against all the serious people who are trying to organize him—take away his will and individuality. It was, however, full of brilliantly shrewd things—impossible to remember them excepting referring to the pointless discussion of skepticism the eve-ning before, he said: “Skepticism”—is that anything more than we used to mean when we said, “Well, what have we here?—But also the horror of the old man—fine looking old man—having to dance and clown to escape (also for his supper)—American, American in that deadly intimacy, that throwing away of dignity—“Drop that dignity! Hands up” we say—in order to come into anything like contact and to make anything like a point.3

Parini comments on this:

This account is harrowing to read. Trilling cringed at the manner Frost had evolved over the years: the joshing, avuncular, ingratiating manner that won over large audiences but, at least in Trilling’s mind, demeaned the great poet and his work.

No, it won’t do. Buffoonery is not a joshing, avuncular, ingratiating manner. Eliot spoke of Hamlet’s levity as “the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action” and said that in Shakespeare himself “it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.”4 “It would at least be worth thinking of the possibility that Frost’s buffoonery in his road-show at Kenyon issued from similar frustration. The form—the lecture, the public reading—could not have fulfilled the emotion of such a poet. There are also, in Trilling’s note, the questions of the aged childishness and the larger cultural issue of the terrible American intimacy, matters that deserve at least the passing tribute of a biographer’s reflection.

The second episode I want to mention is Trilling’s speech at the dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria for Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday on March 26, 1959. It was Stanley Burnshaw who suggested that Trilling be the invited speaker; he wanted to hear what Trilling would say, since he hadn’t yet written anything on Frost. Burnshaw gave a convincing account of the dinner in Robert Frost Himself. But I would venture a slightly different interpretation. It is clear that Trilling’s short speech disturbed Frost’s friends more than it disturbed Frost himself. Parini takes the standard view, that Trilling caused a commotion by saying that he regarded Frost as a terrifying poet. There was nothing unusual in that emphasis. It was Randall Jarrell who promulgated “the other Frost,” the tragic poet, not the genial bard of New Hampshire and Vermont. What really disturbed Frost’s friends, I think, was Trilling’s assertion that “the manifest America of Robert Frost’s poems is not the America that has its place in my own mind:”

The manifest America of Mr. Frost’s poems is rural, and, if I may say so, it is rural in a highly moralized way, in an aggressively moralized way. It thus represents an ideal that is common to many Americans, perhaps especially to Americans of the literary kind, who thus express their distaste for the life of the city and for all that the city implies of excessive complexity, of uncertainty, of anxiety, and of the demand that is made upon intellect to deal with whatever are the causes of complexity, uncertainty, anxiety.5

Trilling repudiated, in effect, the whole pastoral tradition of American literature, before going on to say that he had of late surmounted his resistance to Frost’s poems in that respect. Perhaps, he said, the characters in Frost’s poems are ultimately reassuring even though they begin by terrifying us:

Read “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived.

It was the repudiation of the rural tradition, I think, that caused such a commotion, not the claim that Frost was a tragic poet. It is no insult to be associated, as Trilling associated Frost, with Sophocles. But when Trilling spoke of himself as “a man of the city,” and confessed that he had been for a long time “alienated from Mr. Frost’s great canon of work,” he turned an after-dinner speech into a cultural episode.

It is now accepted, at least by literary critics, that Frost belongs to the dark strain of American literature: he is kin to Hawthorne, Melville, and—among the poets—to Edwin Arlington Robinson, another master of the tragic fable. In literary history, he has nothing to do with the international Modernism of Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, the Imagists and Objectivists; and therefore he has not been highly regarded by critics from Allen Tate to Hugh Kenner. He is now regularly placed in association with American Pragmatism, and especially with the sense of life we find, however diversely, in the Emerson of “Experience” and “Fate,” C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, George Santayana, G.H. Mead, Kenneth Burke, and Richard Rorty. Richard Poirier has made the strongest case for Frost’s Pragmatism in his Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, The Renewal of Literature, and Poetry and Pragmatism, a case further elaborated in Mark Richardson’s The Ordeal of Robert Frost.6 If you read Frost’s poems and essays alongside the major books of William James especially, the affiliations become irrefutable. In Pragmatism, according to Santayana, “theory is simply an instrument for practice, and intelligence merely a help toward material survival.” 7 Mead says that cognition “is simply a development of the selective attitude of an organism toward its environment and the re-adjustment that follows upon such a selection.”8 In The Will to Believe James is even more specific than Mead:

From its first dawn to its highest actual attainment, we find that the cognitive faculty, where it appears to exist at all, appears but as one element in an organic mental whole, and as a minister to higher mental powers—the powers of will.9

It is also typical of Pragmatism to say, as James does:

The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.10

And it resumes its rights in Frost’s “A Star in a Stone-Boat” and nearly every poem of Frost’s that marks his terrestrial insistence. When we read James, Santayana, and Mead on cognition, we think at once of Frost and we contrast Stevens, in whose poems consciousness is a free-standing creative power subject only to the constraints of the language it works with. I know that Stevens, too, is being assimilated to Pragmatism, as in Jonathan Levin’s The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism,11 but I find the argument unconvincing. Stevens seems to be irrefutably a philosophic Idealist at heart as well as on principle. Frost’s mind never claims the privilege it would have in Idealism: it wants to be respected only as a concentration of energy and will upon the matter in hand. He is never willing to lose the self “to the victory of stones and trees,” as A.R. Ammons, one of Stevens’s ephebes, writes in “Gravelly Run.”

But Frost, it is necessary to say, is a poet rather than a scientist or a philosopher. In my reading of him, he is a post-Romantic poet, more specifically post-Wordsworthian and post-Shelleyan. It is surprising how often his poems allude to poems by Wordsworth, Shelley, and other English poets he first read in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. “The Most of It” may have started from Wade Van Dore’s “The Echo,” but its deeper source is Wordsworth’s “The Boy of Winander.” “Spring Pools” reimagines Shelley’s “To Jane.” The main difference between Frost’s sense of life and Wordsworth’s is that Frost regularly insists, as Wordsworth only occasionally does, on finding the daily sublime in his own mind rather than in the given world. The quirks and turnings of his mind, the workings of it in the language, are his riposte to those who find plenitude only or mainly in the world at large.

So we come back to Frost’s life. Why does it matter whether the truth of it is in Thompson’s biography or in Parini’s or another’s? It matters, I think, for two reasons. First, many readers believe that at some level of interpretation there is no difference between the poems and the man or woman who wrote them. It would be more convenient to think that they are entirely separate and that we need not care what the mere man or woman was like: the poetry is everything. Eliot said that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”12 But few readers are ready to act on that belief. The publication of Philip Larkin’s letters has probably made readers—some readers, anyway—irritable in their relation to Larkin’s poems. If we hold to Eliot’s view, we are bound to think of Frost as a relatively imperfect poet: the man who suffered and the mind that created are inextricable.

The second consideration is that Frost is an icon in American life, the only such poet since Whitman. Readers who love Frost’s poems—I, too, however belatedly—must feel queasy about his life and wonder what the continuing veneration of Frost as a rural sage entails. Trilling’s speech made that question a pressing one. It arises also from Yvor Winters’s essay on Frost:

Frost writes of rural subjects, and the American reader of our time has an affection for rural subjects which is partly the product of the Romantic sentimentalization of “nature,” but which is partly also a nostalgic looking back to the rural life which predominated in this nation a generation or two ago; the rural life is somehow regarded as the truly American life. I have no objection to the poet’s rural settings; but we should remember that it is the poet’s business to evaluate human experience, and the rural setting is no more valuable for this purpose than any other or than no particular setting, and one could argue with some plausibility that an exclusive concentration on it may be limiting.13

If we put Winters’s essay beside Trilling’s speech, we have to ask ourselves whether establishing Frost as an icon is the projection of a pastoral or bucolic fantasy, as if we could designate American life in its essence, free of history—free especially of the urban experience of industrialization and Big Business. Frost may not survive much longer as an icon if the image of him as a tragic poet becomes common property. Readers may not want to think of American life as in its essence Sophoclean.

This Issue

October 21, 1999