Robert Frost: Depression & Tragedy
Critics have noted a tension on the surface of Frost's poems, an ominous note that suggests something darker below the placid surface of the pastoral. The critic M. L. Rosenthal called it a "shocked sense of the helpless cruelty of things,"16 pointing to poems like "Once By the Pacific":
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last 'Put out the Light' was spoken.17
Frost had his own demons to battle, and he understood all too well the darkness that lurked on the periphery of life. Born to an alcoholic father and a depressed mother, Frost was plagued all his years by the effects of mental illness on himself and on those he loved. Frost had to commit his sister Jeanie to a Maine state mental hospital in 1920, and she died there in 1929 at the age of 53. His son Carol committed suicide in 1940, at the age of 38. Daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. And other tragedies rocked the family—his daughter Marjorie died in childbirth in 1934, when she was 29 years old, and wife Elinor died of heart failure in 1938, a few months after the couple's 42nd wedding anniversary.
Frost also suffered from depression, and often felt himself unhinged by his darker impulses. His daughter Lesley recalled waking up one night to find Frost pointing a gun at Elinor and threatening, "Take your choice. Before morning, one of us will be dead."18 His fears, angers, and jealousies could be alarmingly intense. When Frost learned that his publisher, Holt, was planning to put out a book of literary criticism that did not contain an essay of Frost's own work, the poet threatened and raged until the book's author was forced to find another publisher.19 For all of his weaknesses, poetry seemed to be the glue that held Frost together. It was his way of making sense of the world, of distilling the vast terrifying wild into controlled verse. Poetry was a way to engage with life—not a means of escaping it. "The weak think they are escaping," Frost once said. "The strong think they are pursuing."20