‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by’
At the age of 86, Robert Frost read his poem ‘The Gift Outright’ at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In turn, the new president paid tribute to Frost: ‘He has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding’.
Four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Frost had an unrivalled ability to turn colloquial language into cadenced poetry, making him the bard who spoke to generations of Americans of their rural roots. A deep sympathy for the countryside, formed in childhood and through years spent as a farmer, informs all of Frost’s poetry, whether he is describing the land, the pattern of country life, or the labourers, farmers and animals that live there. Yet he does not seek to evoke a pastoral idyll. His poems have a tough and unsentimental feel, with a muscular turn of expression appropriate to his characters: farm workers of few words, unsympathetic husbands, unmarried sisters with their lips set …
Although he had been writing for years, Frost was almost 40 and living in England when his career was launched with the support of writers including Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas and T. E. Hulme. His first two collections included lyrical pieces such as ‘Mending Wall’, ‘The Road Not Taken’ and his first extended conversation-piece poem, ‘Death of the Hired Man’. Frost’s time in London was highly creative and upon returning to America in 1915, he quickly established himself as a major poetic voice. His later poems, including perhaps the most famous, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘The Gift Outright’, were exceptionally widely read. His final collections appeared in 1949 and 1962, revealing a playful pleasure in aphorisms and epigrams, albeit often infused with dark humour: ‘[gloom] is on me by night or day, / Who have, as I suppose, ahead / The darkest of it still to dread.’
This selection is introduced by the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who provides a beautifully close reading of ‘Directive’ as he examines Frost’s enduring appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. Jonathan Gibbs’s deep connection to nature made him the perfect choice to illustrate the work of a man who modestly declared that his life’s ambition was to write ‘a few poems it will be hard to get rid of ’.
‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.’
stopping by woods on a snowy evening