Cover image for Robert Frost : a life
Robert Frost : a life
Parini, Jay.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Henry Holt, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 514 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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PS3511.R94 Z868 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PS3511.R94 Z868 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3511.R94 Z868 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
PS3511.R94 Z868 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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This fascinating reassessment of America's most popular and famous poet reveals a more complex and enigmatic man than many readers might expect. Jay Parini spent over twenty years interviewing friends of Frost and working in the poet's archives at Dartmouth, Amherst, and elsewhere to produce this definitive and insightful portrait of both the public and private man. While he depicts the various stages of Frost's colorful life, Parini also sensitively explores the poet's psyche, showing how he dealt with adversity, family tragedy, and depression. By taking the reader into the poetry itself, which he reads closely and brilliantly, Parini offers an insightful road map to Frost's remarkable world.

Author Notes

Jay Parini was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1948. In 1970 he graduated from Lafayette College and he received a doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 1975. Before becoming a professor of Engliah and Creative Writing at Vermont's Middlebury College in 1982, Parini taught at Dartmouth College.

Parini writes poetry, novels, biographies, and criticism, and he has published numerous reviews and essays in major journals and newspapers. He co-founded the New England Review in 1976. In 1995, he was appointed literary executor for author Gore Vidal. A film version of The Last Station, his 1990 novel, was released in 2009.

Parini's novel, One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Parini, the author of a superb biography of John Steinbeck, now turns to his "favorite poet ever since the ninth grade." What distinguishes this biography most is not the meticulous research he conducted over more than two decades, but its focus on the internal realm where, in Frost's case, creativity and madness fought a battle royal. Parini begins his investigation into Frost's often contradictory sensibility with vivid descriptions of his precarious early years in late-nineteenth-century San Francisco, suggesting that Frost may have inherited his love for walking, language, and independence from his somewhat feral newspaperman father and his spirituality and debilitating tendency toward depression from his gentle mother. After his father's death, the family moved to New England and the land that inspired Frost's finest poems. It's obvious that he could have been a brilliant college student had he overcome his dislike of school, but he never received a degree, a lack that didn't keep him from being a spectacularly popular itinerant teacher and lecturer in his later years. Frost preferred the quiet of a farmer's life to academia, yet, as his poetry evolved and as he suffered epic bouts with depression, he found it necessary to propel himself out into the world whenever the opportunity presented itself. This conflict between the need for solitude to write and the need for public forums to survive becomes Parini's leitmotif as he gracefully intermingles superb close-readings of Frost's poems with sensitive accounts of Frost's many personal losses and artistic accomplishments. Parini puts various misconceptions about Frost to rest and greatly enhances our appreciation of both the man and his poetry. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

March 26 marks the 125th anniversary of Frost's birth, and there could be no better tribute for a poet so often underrated, maligned and misunderstood than this sympathetic and balanced portrayal. Frost has been depicted as selfish and vindictive in biographies by Lawrance Thompson and Jeffrey Meyers, but Parini, himself a poet and novelist, sees Frost as a man who "struggled throughout his long life with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion." Rarely has Frost's story been told this dexterously, or with a better understanding of the relation of Frost's personal crises to his accomplishment as a poet. The Yankee farmer-poet actually lived his first 11 years in San Francisco, was thoroughly schooled in Latin (was, in fact, "more of a classicist by training than either Eliot or Pound"), and nursed an early ambition to pitch in the major leagues. He was competitive, funny, smart about his own career and reputation, and throughout the height of his fame was plagued by horrible family tragedies. His father, sister and several of his children suffered from deep depression, suicide and early death, and Frost was often blamed for tragedies he was helpless to prevent. Frost fought his own bouts with what he called "the grippe" with hard work, and thrived on outdoor labor. Parini makes generous use of Frost's verse, often quoting entire poems, but avoids treating the poems as if they were mere transcriptions of the poet's experience. Instead, he achieves the more difficult task of clarifying Frost's process of composition, as he shaped his material from everyday sources and shaped his lines against the strict pattern of a metric line to achieve the natural stresses of the spoken voice. The result is a book revelatory of both the poetry and the poet. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Elaine Markson. Author tour. (Apr.) FYI: All of Frost's backlist poetry and prose is in print with Owl; last year, Holt also released the CD-ROM Robert Frost: Poems, Life, Legacy. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Parini, a Middlebury College English professor, poet, novelist, and essayist (e.g., Some Necessary Angels, LJ 2/1/98) believes that there is more to be said about Robert Frost, especially as a husband, a father, and a man struggling for recognition of his poetry, which often represented the layered levels of his and his family's existence. While some biographers have concluded that Frost was self-involved and tyrannical, Parini sees him as a loving and faithful husband and a tender father. Parini acknowledges that Frost was often combative and independent, sometimes duplicitous, and wrestled with depression. However, he maintains that these characteristics informed the strength and spirit of Frost's best poems‘those that attempted to find clarity in confusion and made the case for individualism and personal freedom. The well-known Frost is here, too, from his early days in San Francisco to his three-year sojourn in England. After all is said and done, it is the poetry that finally matters, but Parini does offer a fresh perspective on Frost and his poetry.‘Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Parini (Middlebury College) offers a sympathetic, evenhanded treatment of Frost the man, portraying him as a conscientious and affectionate parent, a much admired teacher, and a popular lecturer and reader of his own poetry--but not glossing over the fact that Frost was complex and difficult. Parini also makes a case for Frost's careful cultivation of his public image as the rural sage and oracular poet: in Parini's view, Frost did what he had to do, however inconsiderate of others at times, in order to produce a major body of poetry. In the course of his account, Parini gives frequent and insightful readings of poems appropriate to the context. In an appendix he offers critical but partisan evaluations of previous major studies of the poet. Jeffrey Meyers is not as forgiving of the poet in his biography Robert Frost (CH, Nov'96), which presents a different perspective on the same biographical record. A major study of Frost, highly recommended to all readers interested in the poet's life and work. J. J. Patton; emeritus, Atlantic-Cape Community College



Chapter One ONCE BY THE PACIFIC 1874-1885 Europe might sink and the wave of her sinking sweep And spend itself on our shore and we would not weep Our cities would not even turn in their sleep. Our faces are not that way or should not be Our future is in the West on the other Sea. --Frost, unpublished fragment, 1892 I know San Francisco like my own face," Robert Frost once told an audience in that city, late in his life. "It's where I came from, the first place I really knew. You always know where you come from, don't you?"     Because Frost is so intimately associated with rural New England, one tends to forget that the first landscape printed on his imagination was both urban and Californian. That he came to appreciate, and to see in the imaginative way a poet must see, the imagery of Vermont and New Hampshire has something to do with the anomaly of coming late to it. "It's as though he were dropped into the countryside north of Boston from outer space, and remained perpetually stunned by what he saw," Robert Penn Warren observed. "I don't think you can overemphasize that aspect of Frost. A native takes, or may take, a place for granted; if you have to earn your citizenship, your locality, it requires a special focus."     Frost certainly had that intensity of focus. The lush valleys and rocky mountains of northern New England, with their dry stone walls meandering through dense second-growth forests, their cellar holes and abandoned barns, acquire an almost hallucinatory clarity in his poems. He was a poet who took nothing for granted, who could cast his thoughts upon the objects around him, as Emerson--always a central figure in Frost's imagination--urged poets to do.     And yet the urban surroundings of Frost's earliest years affected him permanently. "My father was a great walker," Frost said, recalling that he had hiked the streets of San Francisco countless times during the first decade of his life. "I used to trail him everywhere, in the way a boy does." And it was quite a city, as Rudyard Kipling noted on a brief visit there in the 1880s: "San Francisco is a mad city," he wrote, "inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.... Recklessness is in the air. I can't explain where it comes from, but there it is. The roaring winds off the Pacific make you drunk to begin with. The aggressive luxury on all sides helps out the intoxication, and you spin forever `down the ringing grooves of change,' as long as the money lasts."     Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874, in a small apartment on Washington Street--one of many similar, second-rate dwellings that the Frost family would occupy during their anxious decade in California. According to family legend, the poet's brash, talented father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., warned the doctor who delivered his son that he would shoot him if anything went wrong. This was no idle threat. Will Frost was well known among his colleagues on the Daily Evening Bulletin (and, later, on the Daily Evening Post ) as a slightly mad easterner who packed a Colt pistol in emulation of the westerners around him. The pioneer mentality, with its wildness and bravura, suited him just fine.     Frost would occasionally accompany his father to the ramshackle offices of the Post . His father, who eventually became city editor, then business manager, of the paper, worked at a large oak desk piled high with books and papers. Bullets rolled around in the center drawer, where he kept his pistol during the day. There was a jar on the desk filled with pickled bull's testicles--a suggestion to all comers that Will Frost was not someone they should treat lightly. Loose tobacco, for chewing, was kept in a tin in a lower left-hand drawer, and a brass spittoon was located behind the editor's chair. A small engraving of Robert E. Lee was propped on the desk, as if to symbolize Will Frost's independent nature. Indeed, he had been an aggressively free spirit throughout his life--a character trait that he passed on to his son. His own father, who managed a mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, had tried his best to discipline the boy, but it never took. During the Civil War, Will ran away to fight under General Lee, his hero (and after whom he named his son), although he got only as far as Philadelphia before the police found him and packed him home to his angry parents.     Will's father had hoped his son might get into West Point, thinking that a military setting would be appropriate for a young man of Will's tendencies, but the boy was not admitted. He did, however, get into Harvard, and he found the freedom of college life exhilarating. In those days, education took second place to play on most campuses, and Will Frost played hard; he gambled, drank heavily, and visited brothels in Boston, while still managing to do well enough in his studies to graduate with honors in 1872. His goal was to enter politics after a period in journalism, and in preparation he had spent his senior year working part-time for the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette . The idea of trying his hand at more literary work also attracted him, though his lack of self-discipline would foil him here, as elsewhere.     The puritanical mores of New England appalled him, and his relationship with his parents was, at best, strained. He hoped to move to the West Coast in due course, following in the adventurous footsteps of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Ambrose Bierce--each of whom had recently found San Francisco a good place for a young man with literary ambitions. But Will needed money for the transcontinental journey, so he took a job as principal of Lewistown Academy, a private school in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, with the intention of quitting after one year.     He was temperamentally ill-suited for such a job, but he tried to give it his best. Only twenty-two, with lank dark hair, sideburns, and a flowing mustache, he was described by the school yearbook as "dashing and energetic." That fall term he met a young teacher (the only other teacher at this small school) who agreed to give him lessons in stenography--a skill he rightly guessed would come in handy when he turned his hand to journalism. Six years his senior, this teacher was Belle (Isabelle) Moodie, a pretty, ethereal woman born in Leith, near Edinburgh, on the North Sea; indeed, throughout her life she retained the slight rustle of a Scottish accent.     Her father, Thomas Moodie, was drowned at sea when she was eight; her mother, Mary, shipped Belle off at the age of eleven to a wealthy uncle and aunt in Ohio--not a peculiar thing to have done in those days, when the New World beckoned to so many immigrants. Still, the rumor that Belle had been the child of an illegitimate relationship would persist in the Frost family.     At first, certain obvious differences between Isabelle and Will got in the way of their courtship. She was by nature a religious person, attracted to the mystical sides of Christianity, whereas Will was a rationalist with little taste for revealed religion. He was impetuous, reckless, and willful; she was demure, hesitant, and cautious. Nevertheless, the young couple found themselves growing close: to a degree, both were mavericks, and they shared an interest in literature and ideas. In a note to her written in February, he put his feelings on paper: It is now five months since I shook hands with you on your arrival here. To say that I liked you at the very outset of our acquaintance would be superfluous,--for who could do otherwise? Yes, I liked you. That was all. I have always thought that that was the only feeling I could have towards any woman. And I little dreamed that this sentiment,--if sentiment it can be called,--was to be supplanted by a passion whose hold upon me, oh! how dear a hold! has now for some time been stronger than any other tie that connects me with the world, and which makes my heart beat faster, faster, faster, as I write these lines.     Belle had already turned down a proposal from a Presbyterian clergyman some years before, feeling herself unworthy of him (perhaps because of the nature of her parents' relationship). She told Will firmly that she would never marry him, nor anyone else. Her life would be dedicated to teaching, which was not unusual for young women in the nineteenth century. But Will's persistence impressed her, and in January she accepted his offer of marriage; the ceremony itself took place only two months later, on March 18, 1873. In early June, when the school year ended, they both said farewell to Lewistown Academy forever.     They traveled together by coach and train to Columbus, Ohio, where they stayed with Belle's uncle and aunt, who seemed quite pleased with Belle's choice of a Harvard man. The plan was for her to remain there, with her family, while he made his way to San Francisco. It was a scouting mission of sorts. He would look over the terrain, find an apartment, and try to secure an acceptable post on a newspaper.     Will arrived in Oakland in midsummer, then took the ferry across San Francisco Bay to his new home. He found a room in a boardinghouse, and immediately wrote six sample editorials, which he sent around to the most important papers in the city, including the Bulletin and the Chronicle . All six were accepted, much to his surprise and delight, and he was promised a regular position with the Bulletin . He wrote back proudly to his wife, telling her to come at once, as there seemed to be endless opportunities here for them both. "Home is now to me the sweetest thing in life," he wrote, with a lyric panache typical of his letters, "and home is anywhere in the wide world where you are."     Given Will Frost's romantic mind-set, San Francisco was just the place for him. The famous Gold Rush was long over, but a boom in silver mining that had lured millions of treasure hunters across the continent was at its peak in the 1870s. Eighty or more ships arrived each day, freighters and passenger vessels alike, bringing upwards of sixty thousand immigrants each year to San Francisco, many of them from China. It was a city on the boil, with vastly contradictory and potentially conflicting elements pouring into it daily. "The excitement of the place appealed to my father," said Frost. "He was part of it. There was gold dust in his eyes, you might say."     Indeed, Frost would register some of the atmosphere of that city by the sea in "A Peck of Gold," which opens: Dust always blowing about the town, Except when sea fog laid it down, And I was one of the children told Some of the blowing dust was gold.     Frost, like so many other children in San Francisco of that time, had been told that gold "was what they would eat, presumably instead of the plebeian dust mentioned to ordinary children in ordinary places."     Will Frost followed rigorously the original game plan of his career, setting out purposefully to befriend many of the best-known politicos of his day. He campaigned for Samuel Tilden, the unsuccessful presidential candidate, in 1876. Four years later he was picked as a delegate to the national Democratic convention in Cincinnati, where Winfield Scott Hancock (a hero of the Union during the Civil War) was chosen to run against James A. Garfield, and one of Frost's keener memories was of seeing his father, in frock coat and top hat, depart for the East from the train station in Oakland. In 1882, Will tried without luck to win the Democratic candidacy for Congress in his district--one in a string of defeats that seems to have worn him down.     Will Frost moved from the Bulletin to the Daily Evening Post in 1875, drawn to the latter by its crusading editor, Henry George, whose ideas on Christian socialism had proved attractive to a wide range of intellectuals around the world, including George Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy, both of whom corresponded with him. George developed the concept of a single tax in Progress and Poverty (1879), arguing that free enterprise did not mean private monopolies were morally justified. In this vein, Will's editorials called repeatedly for "a democracy uncorrupt and sensitive to the people's needs."     Unfortunately, Will also came under the influence of Christopher "Boss" Buckley, often referred to in the press as the "Blind White Devil." Buckley--a prototype for the bloated political tyrant who dominates his party by bribing some people and bashing others--found in the young newspaperman a gullible and eager lackey. Robert Frost later remarked, with disdain, that his father had let himself become "the willing slave of the blind boss, rushing to do his every bidding without question" in the hopes of being "named to some important post" that never materialized.     Perhaps the finest moment of Will Frost's life came when he chaired the Democratic committee for San Francisco in 1884, when Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York, won the presidency; young Robert--called Robbie by his parents--recalled "being carried through the streets" afterward "atop a fire engine, by torchlight." Inspired by this success, Will put himself forward again, this time for the post of city tax collector; he lost, resoundingly, and was so humiliated and angry that he went on a drunken binge lasting most of the week.     Will and Belle were, by this time, seriously at odds with each other. The original contrast of temperaments that had made them seem an unlikely couple had only grown more severe. He had begun to drink heavily the year after his son was born, finding any excuse to join his friends at the Bohemian Club, where writers and journalists, actors and musicians gathered, especially on the weekends, to drink whiskey and exchange lewd jokes. Belle increasingly took solace in the Swedenborgian Church, named after the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, whose elaborate system of beliefs had appealed to the likes of Emerson (who wrote about Swedenborg in Representative Men ) and Henry James, Sr., the father of William, Alice, and Henry James. Her mentor in the Swedenborgian faith was the charismatic Reverend John Doughty, a black-bearded mystic who had been raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, and had graduated from Harvard.     Robert Frost was always a bit uncomfortable with his mother's religious predelictions, and would occasionally refer to her "incipient insanity," tracing many of his own mental crises and those of his children back to this source. Nevertheless, he later said, "I looked on at my mother's devoutness and thought it was beautiful." Indeed, one finds more than a trace of mysticism in his work. "Frost liked to play down his own religious sense of things," said Rabbi Victor Reichert, a good friend during the poet's last decades, "but it was there. And he always said he learned about those things from his mother, who could see right through the material world as if it didn't exist."     Doubtless Belle Frost was driven deeper into her religion as a means of escape from a life that was not going in the direction she had hoped. "She was unhappy," her son recalled, "and couldn't find a way around it." Will Frost, in the meanwhile, lost interest in trying to mend the relationship, which tumbled quickly from bad to worse. It seems little wonder that so many of Frost's early poems, especially the dramatic monologues of North of Boston , were crammed with grueling portraits of husbands and wives at odds, unable to communicate their feelings, unable to find common ground. One harsh interlude in the Frost marriage occurred in the summer of 1876. Belle was pregnant with her second child, and she could no longer abide the level of emotional abuse that, in her view, had been inflicted on her--mostly a result of Will's drinking. Without her husband's consent, she set off for the East to visit her in-laws, in Massachusetts. The elder Frosts were not happy to see her, but they took her in, and Jeanie Florence Frost was born there, on June 25, 1876, just before midnight, with Will's mother and an aunt in attendance.     The birth went well, but relations between Belle and her husband's family grew increasingly strained; they could not understand why a pregnant woman would set off so cavalierly on such a lengthy journey, and without her husband. Not wishing to have to justify herself, Belle left as soon as she could for Greenfield, where an old friend, Sarah Newton, was spending the summer with her parents on the family farm. Belle had met Sarah in Ohio, and they had remained close friends through correspondence. Belle was welcomed warmly by the Newtons, a devoutly religious family who immediately took to this forlorn young woman with a baby girl and a two-year-old son in tow.     The relationship between Belle and Will slowly began to heal as they corresponded throughout the summer. She knew that his health was poor, and it upset her when she learned that he had entered a six-day footrace--motivated by a desire to beat Dan O'Leary, a legendary local runner. Will lost the race, and his letters darkly hinted that his health was waning. Belle's sympathy was thus drawn. In September, she started back to San Francisco, breaking her journey in Ohio, where she stayed with her aunt and uncle, who adored the children and felt sorry for Belle's obvious marital stress.     One of the more curious facts of this visit was Belle's reacquaintance with an old high school friend, Blanche Rankin, who suddenly decided to accompany Belle and the children to San Francisco. The idea was that Blanche would live temporarily with the Frosts while looking for a teaching job. This "temporary" situation would last for several years, and Blanche became "Aunt Blanche" to the children and a companion to Belle, whom she later described as "a queer woman."     When Belle finally arrived back home, her worst fears were realized. She found Will in a hospital, where doctors were treating him for what looked terrifyingly like consumption, one of the dread diseases of the age. Already a thin man, he had lost a good deal of weight in her absence, and now appeared gaunt and jaundiced; he was also coughing blood--the telltale sign of consumption. Horrified, Belle withdrew even more willfully into her religion, trying occasionally to win over her seriously ill and often depressed husband, without success.     He, on the other hand, refused to admit the seriousness of his illness, which he repeatedly brushed off, resorting to his favorite remedy: whiskey. What little money he managed to save from his salary of thirty-five dollars a week was foolishly invested in silver mining shares, and he boasted he would take his family to Hawaii for "the cure" as soon as his ship came in. But it never did. Indeed, the family circumstances only grew steadily worse.     The Frosts moved from hotel to hotel, from apartment to apartment, as Will's fortunes shifted. During relatively good periods, they would lodge at the Abbotsford House, a fairly posh hotel on the corner of Broadway and Larkin Street. "Those rooms at the Abbotsford stay with me," Frost later said, recalling the heavy velour curtains, the pressed-tin ceilings, Oriental rugs, and brass railings. But these good times were few and far between, and the Frosts had to be content with drab, sparsely furnished apartments.     The Frost children were well looked after by their mother and Aunt Blanche, both experienced teachers who put a premium on a disciplined, traditional education. When Robbie was five, arrangements were made for him to attend a private kindergarten in the home of a Russian woman, Madame Zitska, even though he had to go halfway across the city of San Francisco by horse-drawn omnibus to get there. The experience was not a success, and the boy was often unable to go because of nervous cramping in his stomach.     He entered his first public school in 1880, when the Frosts were once again living in the Abbotsford. The school was only a short distance away, across the busy street, which came as a relief to Frost after the journey to Madame Zitska's place. Unfortunately, the stomach pains returned, preventing him from attending first grade, and his mother decided to school him at home for the rest of the year. She found that Robbie had no talent for arithmetic or reading, but he loved to write. She rewarded him one day with a new copybook, which he treasured. She would supply him with a text, and he would copy it meticulously into his book; if he made a mistake, his rage would be so extreme that he would tear out the page and crumple it up.     Frost entered the second grade without a hitch, excelling in geography and writing. His mother and Aunt Blanche hovered over him, making sure that he did not lose his focus. They were indulgent and kindly, much in contrast to Will Frost, who could be difficult, a fierce disciplinarian whose progressively worsening illness made life hard for everyone. Fortunately for the children, Will Frost was busy with his work, trying hard to earn enough money to support the family and himself in the manner he thought appropriate, while having to deal simultaneously with bouts of spitting up blood and his own urge to drink heavily.     Frost could recall many scenes of violence, such as the time he and a friend were building a ship from wood fragments gathered from a nearby lot. Will Frost came home drunk in the late afternoon, saw sticks and glue lying all over the living room carpet, and flew into a rage; he stepped on the half-built ship and hit young Robbie several times with the back of his hand while Belle stood anxiously in the doorway, unable to restrain him. She knew enough to wait until he was sober.     Belle tried her best to make life pleasant for Robbie and Jeanie, taking them for long walks on weekends, climbing Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill to show them the views from the top. The grand mansions on Nob Hill made a lasting impression on the young boy. They would sometimes trek to the waterfront to see the massive schooners loading or unloading, and to watch the flocks of cormorants and gulls feeding on scraps dropped overboard. They would go for long drives in horse-drawn carriages, sometimes crossing the peninsula for lunch or dinner at the Cliff House restaurant below Lands End, where they would follow the winding paths along the cliffs to see the ocean blast and shatter against Seal Rocks, a well-known landmark. On warm Sundays in spring, they often went to the botanical displays at Woodward's Gardens in the old mission district--the setting for "At Woodward's Gardens," which Frost published in 1936. As a boy, Frost was most impressed by the aquatic merry-go-round at the gardens.     On weekends, they would venture into the California countryside. Memories of these excursions stayed with Frost in later years, and some were folded into late poems, such as the beautiful and underrated "Auspex," from In the Clearing , which opens: Once in a California Sierra I was swooped down upon when I was small, And measured, but not taken after all, By a great eagle bird in all its terror.     The Frost family would regularly attend the picnics put on at Cliff House by the Caledonian Club, to which Belle, an enthusiastic Scot, belonged. Robbie and Jeanie would wander down to the sea to watch seals on the rocks. Fiddlers played traditional Celtic music on the beach, and there were footraces for the children and folk dancing for the adults. Will Frost, being a runner himself, encouraged his son in the races, buying him a special pair of running shoes on one occasion; he was pleased when the boy proved a talented sprinter.     Will prided himself on his ability to walk twenty miles at a clip or swim long distances in icy waters. It was therefore agonizing for him, and his family, to witness the steady onslaught of tuberculosis. His weight continued to drop, and he often lay in bed on the weekends or evenings without energy. Living in a perpetual state of denial, he insisted on doing things his body could not withstand. Some evenings after work, for example, he would take Robbie to a favorite swimming spot near the harbor. The boy was left on shore to guard his father's clothes, towel, and whiskey bottle while he swam a half mile through cold, choppy waters to a bell buoy. He would climb up the buoy and wave defiantly to his son before leaping back in the water to swim ashore. "When his father swam out into San Francisco Bay, and he was left alone on the beach, he was in a terrible state of agitation until his father returned," recalled Peter J. Stanlis, with whom Frost reminisced about his early days.     Frost's mind often returned, in later years, to the Pacific coastline of his childhood. He especially remembered walking along that rocky beach near the Cliff House with his father at dusk as the surf boomed in the broken rocks. In a famous poem, "Once by the Pacific," he recalled this scene, noting: "The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff, / The cliff in being backed by continent." With a bleakness that seemed to attend his memories of these early years, he concluded: It looked as if a night of dark intent Was coming, and not only a night, an age. Someone had better be prepared for rage. There would be more than ocean-water broken Before God's last Put out the Light was spoken.     The rage discovered in the natural world, with its threat of a dangerous storm, was not unlike the rage often found in Will Frost, who might well erupt before the household lamps were finally extinguished on any given night. Not surprisingly, one finds threats of rage quite often in Frost's poetry, and an underlying awareness that any moment of stasis, however idyllic, can easily be shattered.     Belle Frost, meanwhile, did her best to protect the children from the vicissitudes of her husband's mental state, as well as from his physical decline. She also tried to counter Will's skepticism, which at times erupted into tirades against organized religion. Belle was convinced that she had the gift of second sight, and could therefore see into the future. Her bedtime stories teemed with fairies and spirits, and she taught Robbie and Jeanie to respect the spirit-world as much as the world visible to the naked eye. An odd mix of skepticism and faith (often tinged with a streak of Calvinism, with its emphasis on God's arbitrary preselection of certain souls for heaven) became typical of Frost, and is present in poems such as "The Fear of God," which begins: If you should rise from Nowhere up to Somewhere, From being No one up to being Someone, Be sure to keep repeating to yourself You owe it to an arbitrary god Whose mercy to you rather than to others Won't bear too critical examination.     Around the time of his seventh birthday, Frost himself began to hear voices and experience a touch of clairvoyance. His mother found this unsurprising, and comforted him with stories of other gifted people who could see and hear things that "ordinary" people could not. "To the end of his life," said one friend, "Robert believed he could hear voices, real voices. His poems came to him like voices from nowhere. He liked to be alone just to listen, to communicate with the spirit-world."     Frost later described his formal religious progression as "Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing." Having moved around so many churches in childhood, he deliberately stayed away from most churches in later life; nevertheless, his correspondence, conversation, and poems are saturated with religious feeling, with questing after God, with evocations of doubt, with meditations on time and eternity. Indeed, one of the last letters Frost ever wrote moved straight to the heart of the matter: "Why will the quidnuncs always be hoping for a salvation man will never have from anyone but God? I was just saying today how Christ posed Himself the whole problem and died for it. How can we be just in a world that needs mercy and merciful in a world that needs justice?"     Belle loved to read to her children, and she favored stories by George MacDonald, whose mystical Christianity appealed to her. At the Back of the North Wind (1871) was a particular favorite of Robbie's, who saw himself in the story's central character, a boy named Diamond, whose real and imagined adventures ultimately collapse into each other. Belle would read aloud from many of the standard, popular works for children: Tom Brown's School Days , by Thomas Hughes, and The Last of the Mohicans , by James Fenimore Cooper. Because of her sentimental connection to Scotland, she took special care to introduce Robbie and Jeanie to Scotland's heroes, such as Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. She loved the poems of Robert Burns and could recite many of them by heart. Another book of Scottish interest that she introduced to her children was The Scottish Chiefs (1810), a work of popular history by Jane Porter. She would also read stories of her own composition, one of which-- The Land of Crystal, or, Christmas Days with the Fairies --was published in 1884.     Frost disliked and did not attend elementary school beyond the third grade, but even sixty years later he could recall the names of his first principal and teachers. "When I was a child in San Francisco," he later told Louis Untermeyer, "I played sick to get out of going to school." Again, a pattern was put in place early in his life that would play out in distinct ways later on. Organized education, as he later said, was "never my taste." He would attend college sporadically, dropping out of Dartmouth and Harvard before getting a degree, and he would never fit comfortably into any academic setting, even though he held various distinguished posts at Michigan, Harvard, Amherst, Dartmouth, and elsewhere. "He was always a round peg in a square hole at these colleges," said a former colleague. "He didn't teach in any conventional way. He didn't do anything in a conventional way." Belle Frost and Aunt Blanche tutored Robbie and Jeanie in the mornings, and they were free to roam about the streets in the afternoon. The last address of the Frosts in San Francisco was 1404 Leavenworth Street, near Washington, where Robbie had been born. The apartment was tiny and cramped, but there was a small garden at the back with a shed that Robbie converted into a chicken coop--the first sign of his interest in animals and farming. When not working with his chickens, Robbie liked to set off alone on foot, often hiking to Nob Hill, where the new millionaires--men such as Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and D. D. Colton--were building huge Victorian houses as monuments to their own egos, crafting them from the best imported materials, including English brick and marble from Italy. James Clair Flood, a brash Irishman whom Will Frost had met several times and often talked about, constructed a handmade brass fence around his entire property, giving it an air of glittering menace. (One can easily imagine Will Frost standing at the gates of this mansion like John Dickens with his impressionable son, Charles, saying, "One day you will grow up to live in a house like that one.")     Young Robbie's rebellious side gradually came forward, and he fell in with a local gang that roamed the streets around Leavenworth, Washington, and Clay; the gang was led by a tall, muscular boy of fourteen called Seth Balsa. Robbie soon "learned to live by his fists," he said. His mother was quite naturally appalled by her son's activities, most of which he kept from her (including the petty thievery that was part of any gang's reason for existence), but his father took this roguish play as a sign of the boy's inherent toughness and character. A brawler himself, he did not want to raise a son afraid to stand his own ground. Indeed, this fighting instinct never deserted Robert Frost, and "many of his friends in later life considered his eagerness to take on all comers a defining characteristic."     Life should have been good for Robbie and his family. His father was earning a considerable amount of money for those days, over $2,000 a year by 1884. But his penchent for speculation, gambling, and hard drinking inevitably took a heavy toll on the family finances. When Will Frost decided to run for the fairly lucrative public office of San Francisco city tax collector, he brashly resigned from his job as city editor of the Post in June 1884, throwing the family finances into a turmoil. The possibility that he might actually lose the election seems never to have occurred to him. But lose it he did, that September, and he was forced to scrounge around for another newspaper job.     The Daily Report hired him, more out of pity than interest, but he never felt well enough to perform his duties. Tuberculosis had by now ravaged his lungs, and his children would occasionally see him spit blood into a handkerchief, then nervously cram the evidence into his pocket. Some days he was so weak he never left the apartment, and Belle would cover for him and tell Robbie and Jeanie that their father had a case of the flu. Eventually he resorted to desperate remedies; once, for example, he took young Robbie with him to a slaughterhouse, where he drank cup after cup of fresh blood from the slit throat of a steer--a popular folk remedy.     Will Frost began coughing blood profusely in late spring of 1885, and it became obvious to his wife and children alike that the end was close. He remained calm throughout the final ordeal. Aware that he was leaving his family in precarious circumstances because he had not managed to meet the monthly payments on a life-insurance policy worth $20,000, he wrote his parents in Massachusetts asking them to look after Belle and the children. "You must do what you can for them," he said. He signaled the hopelessness of his situation by claiming to have "lost control" of his bowels.     It was lucky for everyone that death came swiftly. Will Frost actually managed to work at the newspaper office the day before he died, at age thirty-four, on May 5. Despite this sense of putting things in order, he left almost no money for his family. After funeral expenses were paid, Belle had only eight dollars in the bank--hardly enough to get through a week, let alone get the family back to Massachusetts, where Will had requested that his remains be sent for burial. Fortunately, his parents sent enough to cover traveling expenses for Belle, the children, and the body of their son.     Despite her reluctance to put herself into the debt and control of her husband's family, Belle saw clearly that there was no alternative for her and her young children. Once again, Will Frost's controlling hand was felt, even from the grave.     It would be hard to overestimate the impact these first eleven years in California had on the development of Robert Frost. One's early experience is, of course, essential in the formation of character. Frost absorbed from his father a great deal, including a feral drive to make something of himself, to exercise influence, to feel the world bending to his will. Frost's lifelong love of competitive sports, and his passion to excel and win in whatever he did, were also a legacy from his father. But Frost also learned the price of failure from Will Frost, and how easily one's ambitions may be thwarted, by others and oneself. In later years, Frost himself would swing between the poles of brash self-confidence ("I expect to do something to the present state of literature in America") and deep self-doubt ("I have been bad and a bad artist"). In this oscillation, he closely resembled his father in disposition.     Will Frosts skeptical view of religion would affect his son, too. Frost would never attach himself to any specific dogma; but from Belle, his mother, he acquired a religious sensibility, a gift for spirituality. His poems, in fact, would live on that perilous fault line between skepticism and faith. At times these contrarieties would merge in moments of complicated, synthetic vision, as in "All Revelation," which concludes: Eyes seeking the response of eyes Bring out the stars, bring out the flowers, Thus concentrating earth and skies So none need be afraid of size. All revelation has been ours.     With the death of Will Frost, a vivid chapter closed for Belle, Robbie, and Jeanie. They traveled, with the coffin, across the Bay to Oakland, where they boarded the train for the long, sad journey east. Aunt Blanche (who had moved to the Napa Valley a year before, much to Belle's distress) accompanied them to the station, in tears. Frost later told Peter J. Stanlis that the journey from San Francisco to Massachusetts was "the longest, loneliest train ride he ever took." It would be many years before Robert Frost, as an adult, would return to the city of his childhood, which he called "the first place in my memory, a place I still go back to in my dreams." Copyright © 1999 Jay Parini. All rights reserved.