January 17th, 2014

If you read just one biography of Robert Frost…

…I think it should be this one by Jay Parini.

I’ve read quite a few, and Jay Parini’s is the only one that seems to capture the Frost I sense from Frost’s poetry and his other writings. Plus, Parini’s book is very readable, with an excellent flow—something I can’t say for many of the other biographies. It reads almost like a novel.

What’s more, Parini is a poet himself and has lived most of his life in Frost country, teaching at Dartmouth in New Hampshire and Middlebury in Vermont. He understands both poetry and the territory, and he spends quite a bit of his book in fresh and insightful reading of the poems.

From a review of the book, which came out in 1999:

Robert Lee Frost, that quintessential New England writer, was born in 1874 in San Francisco. His ill-matched parents seem to have stepped from some nasty naturalist novel of the period. Frost’s mother, pretty and ”ethereal,” as Jay Parini describes her in his sturdy and well-informed new biography, ”Robert Frost: A Life,” was besotted with Swedenborg and spiritualism — her name, Belle Moodie, could hardly have been more apt. Will Frost, by contrast, was a hard-drinking, pistol-packing newspaperman who kept a jar of pickled bull’s testicles on his desk (meaning, presumably, ”Don’t mess with me”)…

Robert Frost was a brilliant student; as Parini notes, he became a better Latinist than those self-proclaimed ”classicists” Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. But he found academic rituals stultifying and thought the classroom was about the last place to pick up anything useful. ”We go to college,” he wrote, ”to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in high school.”…

In 1958, when Frost turned 85, his publisher gave a party in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria and invited Lionel Trilling to be the featured speaker. Trilling, who preferred cities to rural idylls, shocked everyone by confessing that he had only recently come to admire Frost’s work, specifically for its overlooked grimness. ”I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet,” he announced. Trilling sent a letter to Frost apologizing for the stir his remarks had caused. ”Not distressed at all,” Frost wrote back. ”You made my birthday a surprise party.” And then, in one of those swooping summations with which he regularly rewards his readers, Frost added: ”No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down.”

Frost had a wry, playful way of speaking, so that reports of things he said or things he wrote in letters have a naturally aphoristic quality, almost like small poems themselves. And his poems have a colloquial quality, too. It all seems to be of a piece.

5 Responses to “If you read just one biography of Robert Frost…”

  1. expat Says:

    I just put this on my Wish List. It sounds fascinating.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    I didn’t study Frost, but I did choose to study William Blake. I liked his Tyger piece. Eventually went into a deconstruction and comparison between the sheep one, the tiger one, and another one.

  3. Tonawanda Says:

    Another reason why neo, Lileks, VDH, Steyn, and others ought to start a radio syndication appealing to high information citizens.

    It would be delightful and constructive.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    Okay. Sold. Here soon.

  5. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Like most poets, the poesy can be taken in a number of ways.
    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…is frost heave which happens every year. So you are doomed to brute labor every spring. Are you sure it’s worth it?
    know what I was walling in or out….yeah, because keeping sheep out is different from keeping a bull in. You have to know your business or things could go wrong.
    When I studied it, the general conclusion was that we were to understand walls were icky and mean-spirited.
    So Frost uses the commonness of reality to make a point. But if you understand the reality, it might not be the point you get in a suburban high school or a college learning from an instructor who’s never been more than one summer vacation away from formal ed since kindergarten.
    It is not, I submit, an instruction manual about walls. But good fences making good neighbors is common sense. We have permanently agreed on the metes and bounds and neither of us has to be suspicious of the other’s intentions as to land. Life is incrementally easier.
    Sure, you can get from and put in other meanings. And nobody can argue, since Frost is dead and might not want to referee the contest anyway.
    Poetry as a Rohrshach test doesn’t interest me. But it does employ a good many people.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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