Did Robert Frost Choose the Wrong Road?
Robert Frost should have been a failed writer. He never graduated college, and spent the first half of his life writing in total obscurity.
By the time Frost was closing in on his 40th birthday, he’d been unable to publish any books (not counting a privately printed volume of six poems that he’d given to his fiancee years earlier), and had only been fortunate enough to see a select few of his poems appear in print at all. While writers often improve in later years as they accrue more life experience and hone their talents, it’s obviously still quite daunting to fail at achieving any recognition after years of pursuing the craft.
So what makes a writer continue to toil away in the face of persistent neglect?
In Frost’s case, the answer may be twofold. He’d always wanted to be a poet, and he’d experienced some mild success early on that might have made him feel entitled to this passion.
Poetry was the thread that tied his life together. He graduated high school as class poet (an honor you wouldn’t likely see highlighted in year books today.) Two years later (after a brief stint at Dartmouth), Frost sold his first poem to a small magazine called the New York Independent for the grand sum of $15. Published and paid, what could be better?
The poem was My Butterfly: An Elegy. While many writers come to despise their early efforts, Frost remained fond of the poem even late in life. According to the Robert Frost Reader, this “remained for [Frost] the poem wherein he discovered his personal poetic idiom.” My Butterfly does contain many fine elements that would reappear in Frost’s later writing, most notably his ability to wring nature for all its beauty. “The grey grass is scarce dappled with snow / Its two banks have not shut upon the river.” Yet at times this poem gets bogged down with poor word choice and messy descriptions. Take the sixth stanza, which attempts to express the memory of a particularly tense and confusing time in ones life, but the wording turns out to be the truly confusing part:
Ah! I remember me How once conspiracy was rife Against my life-- The languor of it and the dreaming fond; Surging, the grasses dizzied me of thought, The breeze three odors brought, And a gem-flower waved in a wand!
Still, on the whole, the poem was a success, one which Frost intended to surpass. “Rather than equal what I have written and be satisfied, I will idle away an age accumulating a greater inspiration,” Frost wrote in a letter to the publisher of this poem. And it did take nearly half a lifetime to do so.
For two more decades, this poem was pretty much all the world heard from Robert Frost, though he kept himself busy. Frost moved around, first to Virginia then Massachusetts, where he attended Harvard briefly, then to a family farm in New Hampshire, where he worked for several years as a poultry farmer. Along the way, he got married and continued to write, and even teach high school English. At last, he became fed up with his lack of success in America and moved abroad to England, where he finally managed to kick start his career and make up for lost time.