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Robert Frost: The Man Behind the Persona
I love Robert Frost and always have--ever since I first read the lines of his beautiful poems "Mending Wall" and "The Road Not Taken," among others. So don't get me wrong in what I write. I read Frost's biographies because I wanted to find out what he was like as a real man not just artist. Though I dabbled in several biographies, it wasn't until I grasped the book written by Jeffrey Meyers that I believe I held the truth. Too many had shown Frost in the light you would expect of a great man and poet: all positive, flattering information. Jeffrey Meyers in Robert Frost: A Biography, however, presents an unbiased look at the man and poet and the tragedy he endured.
Initially as a young child growing up in San Francisco, Frost had to contend with a domineering, alcoholic father who eventually succumbed and left Frost at age 11 and his family fatherless. They were obliged to move east to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they would live with his grandparents. His mother, Belle, obtained a teaching position that precariously lasted the next seven years and barely kept the family going. In high school, Robert fell in love with his co-valedictorian, Elinor White. Frost doggedly pursued her and eventually made her his wife. Unfortunately, the marriage never turned out as ideal as he first imagined it would be.
Jeffrey Meyers details the many struggles the young couple experiences during the time of their marriage--at least until Frost gains prominence as a poet. There was the move to England during which Frost made friends with the English poet Edward Thomas and his acquaintance with Ezra Pound during that time as well. It was not until the publication of A Boy's Will, about this time, that Frost grabbed the public's attention. After two and a half years in England, Frost returned to his native land with the attention he deserved as an accomplished poet.
Frost would, still, however, have to rely upon teaching to pay his bills and so accepted a job teaching at Amherst College. Teaching would continue at several universities, and Frost would earn additional income from public readings. The most interesting feature of Meyers' biography is not portraying the historic timeline of Robert Frost's life, but rather the detailed interactions that happened along the way between Elinor and Robert and Frost and his critics. Meyers does point out "There is no doubt that from their first meeting in high school until her death in 1938 Elinor, Frost's first reader and principal advisor, both inspired and nutured his poetic flame (p. 161)."Their relationship, however, was far from ideal.
Hiding From the Public
Frost was a very complex man who clearly guarded and somewhat shaped his persona. Meyers states that he "was all for secrecy and guile" and urged one biographer, Sidney Cox, to not "disillusion Frost's admirers by revealing the factual basis of his 'sources and processes (page 224).'" Frost postponed, almost indefinitely (25 years) the long-awaited publication from his main biographer, Lawrence Thompson.
What was he trying to hide from? Perhaps it was his failure as a father as he had poor relationships with his children, particularly Carol, who later went insane and shot himself with a deer rifle. Or perhaps it was the many "disputes" he engaged in with his critics. More interesting perhaps might have been the long affair he engaged in with his secretary, Kay Morrison...
The Tragedy He Endured
Frost's life was indeed tragic in that he lost so many close to him. Daughter Elinor died after two days and son Elliott died at three years of age. Sister Jeanie was, on Frost's consent, sent to a mental institution where she died, Daughter Irma was also institutionalized with mental illness and son Carol committed suicide. His wife Elinor, who experienced seven heart attacks, eventually succumbed in 1938 at age 66. Frost stated, "I'm afraid I dragged her through pretty much of a life for one as frail as she was. I have prospered in an outrageously self-indulgent life. I have been given absolutely my own way (page 231)."
Like most artists perhaps, Frost had a large ego which is revealed as you read through the pages of this book. He never seemed to receive enough adulation or honors. "He had been poor for a long time, had no recognition for the first forty years of his life, and remained personally insecure and emotionally needy (page 291)" and "craved honors." His ego became most offended by literary critics whom he often referred to as "enemies." In an entire chapter, Meyers details the bitter and enduring dispute Frost had with Ezra Pound, once a friend.
As many of you know, Frost lived a long life and on his eighty-eighth birthday received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Kennedy--about the same time he released his ninth volume of poetry, In the Clearing. As a poet he was one of America's greatest and the reader certainly can appreciate that in reading this book or any volume of Frost's poetry. As a man and father, Frost was not perhaps as great and that too is clearly revealed.
One can not help to have sympathy for this great poet, despite the many self-inflicted troubles that seem to manifest throughout this life. If you love or are interested at all in the poetry of Robert Frost, you will gain a much greater understanding and appreciation of what you read through the contents of Jeffrey Meyers' unabashed biography.
Robert Frost: A Biography