Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California, on 26 March 1874. His father, a journalist and New England transplant named William Prescott Frost, Jr., named his firstborn child after his personal hero, Robert E. Lee. (No word on what his mother, Isabelle Moodie, thought of her son's namesake.) Frost's younger sister Jeanie was born two years later. Their father, William Frost Jr., was a rough-around-the-edges journalist who drank hard, carried a pistol, and kept a jar of pickled bull testicles on his desk.7; Frost's mother had a dreamy disposition and suffered from depression. When Frost was twelve years old his father died of tuberculosis, a demise hastened by alcoholism. The suddenly impoverished Frost family moved from California to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to live with Frost's paternal grandparents.
Frost graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892 as co-valedictorian. He enrolled at Dartmouth College, but dropped out after barely a semester in order to work. For the next two years, he unsuccessfully pursued two goals: getting a poem published, and getting his co-valedictorian, Elinor Miriam White, to marry him. He struck out repeatedly with both. In 1894, after his most recent attempt to win over Elinor had failed (he presented her with a printed book of his poetry; apparently she was less than impressed) Frost was distraught, and decided on a dramatic statement worthy of his tortured state. He left home and headed south toward Dismal Swamp (yes, that is a real place), a, well, dismal swamp along the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Because of its harsh conditions and its appropriate name, several poets had used the swamp as settings for verse about heartsick lovers, and Frost was certainly one of these. Ill-equipped and dressed only in his street clothes, Frost set off alone and on foot into the forbidding swamp. He could not bring himself to follow through with his original plans to dramatically sacrifice himself; after chancing upon a group of duck hunters, Frost eagerly joined their group. He eventually returned to Lawrence, but his brush with the eternal had changed him. The theme of setting out alone into nature and losing oneself in the wild appeared frequently from then on in Frost's poetry. "And if you're lost enough to find yourself / By now, pull in your ladder road behind you," read the poem "Directive," "And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me."8 Frost also wrote the poem "Reluctance" about his dramatic response to rejection:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?9
Whatever transformation Frost underwent in Dismal Swamp worked. In November 1894, his first published poem, "My Butterfly," appeared in the New York Independent . And, in December 1895, Elinor married him.