America has a national bird (the bald eagle), a national flower (the rose), and a national anthem (come on, you know this one). If the United States ever adopted a national poet, chances are it would be Robert Frost. By the time Frost died in 1963 at the age of 88, an admiring public had all but carved his face on Mount Rushmore. His poetry was beloved. Frost earned the Pulitzer Prize a record four times. Though he never graduated from college, more than forty universities and colleges have awarded him honorary degrees. Not only was Frost tapped to speak at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, but the handsome young President-elect was actually worried that the crowd would be more interested in the august poet than in him.
Frost stood right at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He does not fit neatly into any one era. He was one of the first poets to advocate for individualism in language, before the idea was fashionable—in 1920, just as Frost was becoming famous, his British contemporary T.S. Eliot published an essay called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that decried individualism in poetry. While experimentalist twentieth century poets were falling over themselves to find new modes of expression, Frost reawakened readers to the power of the pastoral, the classic symbols of nature and countryside. He insisted that his poems be written in meter and verse ("I would as soon play tennis without a net,"3 he once said of free verse) but allowed the particular meter to be determined by that poem's individual needs.
"You know, we don't need to be original or inventive," he once explained to one of his many creative writing classes. "You don't need to find new things. Just take the old things you find about you, the things people have known all their lives, and say them with your style."4 Frost's style was a distinctly New England one, a voice informed by the years he spent as a farmer before his poetry career took off. By combining the best of the old and new, Frost achieved tremendous respect and popularity.
Though Frost's poetry often focuses on beautiful images—snow falling on quiet woods, gently swaying birch trees—close readers of his poetry have often noted that his verse seems to hint at something darker. The critic and writer Lionel Trilling once called Frost's poetry "terrifying."5 Poetry also illuminated the darkness in Frost's own soul. The same guy who wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" could be depressed, jealous, vengeful, and unstable. His life was rocked by tragedies and the mental illness and depression that ran through his family, afflicting his parents, his sister, his wife, and two of his six children. Four of Frost's children died before he did.
All of these are things to keep in mind when you read Robert Frost. His poems are about nature and the American Northeast, yes. But they are also about darkness, about the thin line that separates humans from the wild, our personalities from the darkness of the subconscious. His poems hint at something so intuitive, so primal, that it can hardly be put into words. That was Frost's goal. "If poetry isn't understanding all, the whole world," Frost once, "then it isn't worth anything."6