Why is it that so many poets seem to have tragic lives plagued with mental illness and misery? Maybe a certain amount of suffering is necessary to truly scour the depths of human experience and give it back to us transformed. Whatever the case, Robert Frost had suffering to spare – a brutish undependable father, a mother worn away from stress and poverty, isolation, irrational fears, mysterious health problems, a tortuous love life, low self esteem, failure and the untimely death of two of his children. It seems a high price to pay for becoming a poet, even a beloved one, but Frost couldn’t deny his calling.
He was born in the rough frontier city of San Francisco in 1874. His father, Will, a brilliant but reckless Harvard graduate, fled to California to get away from his own strict Puritan parents. He became a newspaper reporter with hopes for a career in politics. But Will was unpopular, humorless and a scoundrel. He cheated on his wife, gambled and had constant problems with alcohol and violence.
Young Robert was devoted to his father and often accompanied him on walks around town to cover news stories. Even with his father’s strict discipline and unpredictable bursts of violence, Robert still hoped to win his affections. But it wasn’t long before the son became disillusioned with his unscrupulous and selfish father.
In contrast, Robert’s mother Belle was very sensitive and gentle. She protected, spoiled and pampered Robert as much as she could. She escaped her unhappy circumstances by her devotion to religion. She had been raised a Presbyterian in Scotland, but became a Unitarian, then a Swedenborgian. She was considered queer and dreamy by those who knew her and even her son later questioned her mental health. When his father whipped him, Belle would drop to her knees in the next room to pray for mercy.
She used the poor example of his father’s violence and drunkenness to encourage Robert to control his will and feelings. He did to some extent – he was not reckless, and always avoided smoking and drinking – but he had trouble controlling his emotions.
Belle read lots of Bible stories to Robert and his little sister Jeannie. She loved to read aloud to them: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, George MacDonald’s stories At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin, and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. She passed on her Scottish heritage by reading Walter Scott’s The Tale of a Grandfather, Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, and the poetry of Robert Burns and Walter Scott.
Robert claimed he did not read a book for himself until he was a teen but through his mother’s reading, he acquired an ear for dialect and was especially sensitive to the sounds of words. His mother noticed that he seemed to learn best by ear. He also claims to have heard voices as a child which deeply troubled him. He could not understand the voices and tried to cover his ears and bury his head in a chair to stop them. Later he wondered if those voices could help him with his poetry.
He suffered from numerous health problems as a child and was not very strong, although he often used this excuse to get out of unpleasant duties (even as an adult). The boy was terrified of the dark and had frequent nightmares – another problem that would persist into adulthood.
Unfortunately, his father died of tuberculosis when Robert was 11 and his family was left destitute. Belle decided to move her family back to New England and return her husband’s body to his family in Massachusetts. The austere Frost grandparents temporarily took Belle and the children in, but they were not welcome. They blamed Belle for their son’s failures and resented the children, so Belle wasted no time trying to find work as a teacher.
Robert and his sister began attending his mother’s school of 34 students. Robert was behind the other 12 year olds, so Belle worked hard to get him caught up. This is when he apparently first read a book for himself, The Scottish Chiefs. He seems to have caught the spirit of learning during this time, and in just two and a half years was ready for high school.
When Rob entered Lawrence High School in 1888, he chose the classical curriculum, which would prepare him for college. This entailed Latin, Greek, ancient and European history and mathematics. By the end of the first year he was head of his class of 32 students. He disapproved of his teacher’s methods but was glad to have the thorough grounding. The Latin instructor “taught Homer and Virgil for the grammar merely. She never told us that this was great literature. I used to resent this . . . [But] she taught me at least to read the Latin poets in the original and I could come to them later and discover their greatness for myself.”
Here is where he first started reading and writing poetry – Shelley, Keats, Poe and Arnold. In his senior year he became editor of the High School Bulletin and graduated at the top of his class.
But his promising academic career ended with an early departure from Dartmouth College. Robert was morose, apathetic and lonely without his mother. The other pupils were far more interested in drunken bouts of hazing than study. He had discovered Palgrave’s anthology of poetry, The Golden Treasury, and wanted nothing more than to wander in the woods reading and composing poems. But leaving college meant leaving any hope of a career and the harsh disapproval of his grandparents in Lawrence. He later wrote, “A cloud of puzzlement hung over me as an obstinate, indecisive young fool.”
He had a vague dream of becoming a poet but did not know how to make any money at it. Over the years, he took various jobs farming and teaching, got married, tried college again at Harvard (but didn’t like Harvard any better than Dartmouth), read quantities of books and wrote his poetry.
When a poem came to him he had to drop everything and write it down. When his poem, “My Butterfly” came to him, he locked the kitchen door and refused to let anyone in until he was finished. This was published before he was 20 years old but was not able to publish again until he was 40.
Until that time, and perhaps for the rest of his life, he felt like a failure. Despite his sense of humor and witty conversation, Frost always had problems with his self-esteem. He was very touchy and sensitive to criticism. The poet was very cautious of his own secrets and personal tragedies. He was also a poor loser – he enjoyed playing tennis and baseball but his friends always let him win for fear of his temper.
Frost is noted for teaching his own four children at home. He taught the children botany and astronomy. His wife Elinor taught geography, reading, writing and spelling. Robert did not believe in using textbooks and instead took his children on long walks and read great books to them. Some of his favorites were: The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, Walden, Poe’s Tales, The Oxford Book of English Verse, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Jungle Book, and Emerson’s Essays and Poems.
Like his own father, Robert was not good at showing affection, but he did love his children and try to do his best. He did not whip them but enforced discipline by confining the children in closets and pinching them. Perhaps for lack of a better role model, he was overbearing and controlling, and his children were always somewhat afraid of him. They resented him even as adults.
Robert Frost is a famous proponent of h
ome schooling but his life probably offers us more lessons about what not to do as parents. There is no doubt that he was a brilliant, talented poet and a gifted conversationalist. He received many awards and honorary degrees in his later years – which he never tired of. His fragile self esteem craved recognition. One wonders what he might have accomplished if his father had loved him properly – maybe more, maybe less. But then he might have been a happier man and a better father to his own children.
Long walks, great books, life experience and a thorough study of Latin classics may have been Frost’s prescription for a good education. But in his case, a good education did not include the best mental or emotional health. This might be a prerequisite for poets, but not for parents.
Gould, Jean. Robert Frost: The Aim Was Song. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company,
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.