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Robert Frost: On the Farm

In September 1896, Robert and Elinor Frost had their first child, a son named Elliott. A year later, Frost enrolled at Harvard. He left Harvard to support his rapidly-expanding family just two years later, in the spring of 1899. Very soon after, Elinor gave birth to their daughter Lesley. In July 1900, the family experienced the first of several tragedies when four-year-old Elliott died of cholera.

Three months after Elliott's death, the family left Lawrence and moved to a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, purchased for Frost by his paternal grandfather. For the next decade, Frost farmed poultry, raised children (son Carol, born in 1902; daughter Irma, born 1903; daughter Marjorie, born in 1905; and daughter Elinor Bettina, who died just days after birth in 1907), and taught English at nearby Pinkerton Academy. He wrote poetry as well, with little success in getting published.

In 1911, Frost called it quits. He sold the farm and a year later moved his family to Great Britain, where the living was cheaper and Frost could have a serious go at becoming a professional poet. Frost befriended several literary notables who helped launch his career, including the poet and critic Ezra Pound. In 1913, Frost published A Boy's Will, his first book of poetry. He was 39 years old. (It appeared only in England at first; a U.S. edition was published two years later.) A Boy's Will was a respectable start, but the literary world really sat up and took notice of his second collection, 1914's North of Boston. The book established Robert Frost as a new and serious poetic voice; one that spoke of tragedy and darkness in a clear and modern manner.

Frost's poetry "has the tang of the New Hampshire woods, and it has just this utter sincerity," wrote Ezra Pound in an influential review in the journal Poetry. "It is not post-Miltonic or post-Swinburnian or post-Kiplonian. This man has the good sense to speak naturally and to paint the thing, the thing as he sees it."10 Pound was the first of many critics to admire Frost's use of the New England vernacular, praising the poet who "dared to write [...] in the natural speech of New England; in natural spoken speech, which is very different from the 'natural' speech of the newspapers, and of many professors."11 (Although Pound's article brought crucial attention to Frost's work, the notoriously sensitive Frost noticed only the review's criticisms and nursed a grudge against Pound forever after, calling him "that great intellect abloom in hair."12)

The deceptive simplicity of Frost's verse boosted his popularity among serious and casual readers alike—critics saw deeper meanings, while casual readers misinterpreted and quoted out of context.13 For example, his poem, "Mending Wall," features the oft-repeated line "Good fences make good neighbors." The line is taken completely out of context; the narrator is actually skeptical about the value of his neighbor's wall, wondering, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out."14 Regardless of how well readers understood his poems, though, they wanted more of them. By the time Frost returned to the United States in 1915, magazines that previously rejected his work were asking him for poems.

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