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January 31, 2013

Bruce’s history lessons: Robert Frost: ‘The Gift Outright’

“The surest thing there is is we are riders, And though none too successful at it, guiders.” — Robert Frost, Riders

America’s most famous poet, who died this week (Jan. 29) in 1963, lived an eventful life. Robert Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, still a record, and many of his poems, including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken” are among the most beloved in the annals of poetry.

Frost himself is remembered as a kindly father figure, a gentleman farmer, a teacher and a hale New Englander, although the reality is somewhat different. His early life as a farmer was a struggle, and by his late thirties he was broke, suffering from depression, and had a wife and four children to support. So he abandoned farm life and moved to England, where he hoped to start fresh as a writer. He was a somewhat ambivalent husband and father — a son committed suicide, a daughter died in a mental institution — and poor health plagued him all his life.

His first book of poetry, “A Boy’s Will,” was published in England in 1913 and praised by critics, which earned him an American publisher for his second collection, North of Boston, which earned him an American audience — an audience that grew with each successive book. Returning to America, he purchased another farm in New Hampshire, which he worked when he was not writing or teaching at several colleges, including Amherst.

Given his New England background and his well-known friendship with President John Kennedy — he recited “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s Inauguration (he had written another poem for the occasion but was unable to read it in the glare of the outdoor sun, so he recited The Gift Outright from memory) — the conventional wisdom is that Frost was a political liberal. If anything, however, he was probably a libertarian.

His had been a life of hard work and self-sufficiency, which clearly shaped his poetry. Many of his poems are about working people, and in his poem “Provide, Provide” he says it is better to fail on your own terms than to depend on others. He distrusted anyone who depended on government assistance.

Frost considered poetry a way of coping with life’s hardships. Poetry is not about “great truths,” he once said — “that’s what religions are for.” Rather poetry is about finding “little momentary stays against confusion” — about finding a measure of clarity, however brief, in a very chaotic world.

Still, for all his hardships, Frost lived his life with admirable courage and crafted poems of great conviction. He took the “road less traveled by,” which “made all the difference,” both to him and his many loyal readers.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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Schools
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