“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.” — Robert Frost
As someone who has written a 114-page paper on Robert Frost and his poems’ application to my life, I hold the poetry of Robert Frost very close to home. This might be the 10,000th piece of writing I’ve written about Robert Frost. I never will claim to be a “Frost expert” because his brilliance and power in his poetry was that deep. But I especially hold the words of Frost close to home now, during the tumultuous year that is 2020.
To say that the year has been eventful has been an understatement. We are living through a pandemic that has killed almost 250,000 Americans, an unprecedented year of reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, an unprecedented election, and a sitting incumbent president who won’t concede and accept election results.
I have had many days stressed out of my mind this year, but the words of Robert Frost hold true about life now more than ever: it goes on. And the way to really internalize and best practice Frost’s words to guide us through crisis, let’s take a look through Robert Frost’s poetry and how he lived through his tragic personal life.
We know Robert Frost as someone who has made household poems that are the subject of inspirational posters. The final three (often misinterpreted) lines of “The Road Not Taken” are cited often during job interviews:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
However, contrary to popular belief, the most common read of the poem as living life taking “the [road] less traveled by” is not the meaning of the poem. The two roads were “worn…really about the same,” so there was no difference between taking one road or the other. The poem actually meant people should make a choice, one way or the other, instead of agonizing. Frost wrote the poem for his friend, Edward Thomas, who took the poem as such a personal insult that he chose to enlist, then die, as a result of Frost sending him the poem.
Regardless, Frost is often known for being the subject of inspirational posters, but less known for his life marred by personal tragedy. According to Biography, Frost outlived his children and had his parents die when he was very young. When he was rejected by his wife and high school sweetheart, Elinor White, at 20, Robert Frost planned suicide in a swamp. In 1920, he committed his younger sister to a mental hospital. He suffered from depression, and in 1947, committed his daughter, Irma, to a mental hospital. His first son, Elliot, died of cholera at only four years old, while another son, Carol, died by suicide in 1940. His daughter, Marjorie, died after childbirth, while another daughter would die as an infant. Only Irma and Lesley Frost Ballatine would outlive him.
Robert Frost lived by his quote. He went on and kept living life despite his tragedy and loss. He found a reason to keep on living. And while many read his poems as inspirational nature poems, many were dark, unbelievably dark.
Robert Frost once said: “I am not a nature poet. There is always a person in my poems.”
And to take a look at the darkness behind Frost’s poems, it’s important to note that so many poems either implicitly or explicitly reference suicide. The most explicit reference is in the poem, “Acquainted with the Night,” which is among Frost’s darkest of poems. The poem revolves around a narrator who has gone through a lot — he has “walked out in rain — and back in rain” and has “outwalked the furthest city light.”
The tone of the poem is dark, and midway through, the narrator hears an “interrupted cry” that is “not to call me back or say good-bye.” But a clock sends a message when it:
“Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.”
I think it’s pretty clear that the time means a time for death, and “Acquainted With the Night” is one of the most chilling Frost poems since it actively contemplates death and suicide. A poem that less explicitly contemplates death is another famous Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The last stanza of the poem reads:
“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.”
“Sleep” is often interpreted as death, and scholar Jeffrey Meyer says the poem has “the temptation of death, even suicide. The woods are where the narrator goes to die, and the woods provides an attraction for that death. Funny enough, according to Steve Hendrix at the Washington Post, Frost wrote the poem in about 20 minutes after staying up all night writing another poem, and while frustrated, he saw a “hallucination” where he would write the poem very quickly. The poem was written on the “darkest evening of the year,” an indication that Frost intended the poem to be perceived in a dark manner.
In “Out, Out — ,” a poem that references Macbeth, has a boy who has his hand cut off by a saw, and dies in the process. The death is described very matter of factly, especially in the last two lines:
“And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
Life goes on even though the boy dies, and people seem to go on very crassly. But what were they going to do? They can’t grieve the boy’s death forever, at least not to the point of not making a living. They weren’t the ones who died, so they had no reason other than to be indifferent. “Life goes on” is not permission to be indifferent, but an acceptance death is unpredictable and happens unjustly from chance. Every day we live, every day we survive is a gift, a heavy stroke of luck.
And then Robert Frost’s personal life all reiterated the sense that life went on for Robert Frost. Biographer William Pritchard wrote a book titled Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, one of the most tragic parts of Frost’s life was the death of his son, Carol. Carol wanted to be a poet, but he could never live up to Frost’s success and fame as the most famous poet in America. Robert Frost was a farmer and a poet, and his son tried to follow in his footsteps.
“But none of it was good enough for Carol,” Pritchard wrote. In a letter to a friend, Frost said that “I took the wrong way with him. I tried many ways and every single one of them was wrong. Some thing in me is still asking for the chance to try one more. That’s where the great pain is located.”
One time, Frost went to visit his son and tried to convince him to be more validated in his farming. He told him he was a great poet and a great writer. He told him not to take his own life because he was not a failure. And the last words Carol told his father were:
“You always win an argument, don’t you?”
Carol killed himself with a shotgun. At the time, he started hearing voices in his head, and his wife was going through an operation in the hospital. Frost’s wife’s and Carol’s mother had just died shortly before, and Carol Frost wasn’t handling his mother’s death well. Robert Frost’s grandson, and Carol Frost’s son, 15-year-old Prescott Frost, discovered his father upstairs after hearing the commotion.
After Carol died by suicide, Frost lamented that he didn’t push Carol into the career he wanted, which included working with horses and children. Frost wrote a poem to his friend, Louis Untermeyer, titled “To prayer I think I go,” where he took the role of the “abased” sinner, spread out before a cross, and said:
“If religion’s not to be my fate
I must be spoken to and told
Before too late!”
I can feel the pain and agony in Frost’s words, in the aftermath of losing not only his wife but his son in such a tragic manner.
Frost also had to commit his daughter, Irma Frost, to a mental institution. According to Pritchard, Irma had divorced her husband and lost custody of her children. A strange part of Frost’s life that Pritchard mentions is that he rarely if ever talked or wrote letters about his daughter.
On Robert Frost’s 80th birthday, journalist Ray Josephs interviewed him. Josephs asked:
“In all your years and all your travels, what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?”
Frost told Josephs, in words that resonate especially in our current context:
“In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles . . . with politicians and people slinging the word fear around, all of us become discouraged . . . tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.”
Life goes on, even when it doesn’t seem like it will. That means even in the worst parts of 2020, no matter how much we doomscroll, no matter how much we feel like things will never be able to live life as we’re used to, no matter how we feel about politics, life goes on.
For me, that means that no matter what happens with the transition of power in America, no matter what happens the rest of 2020, life goes on. In Mad Men, Betty Draper gave a corollary to Frost’s quote:
“I know people say life goes on, and it does but no one tells you that’s not a good thing.”
And it’s true — life going on doesn’t always feel like a good thing. And I’m sure it didn’t feel like a good thing when Robert Frost lost so many people close to him.
But I don’t know who you are and whether you need to hear this right now or not: life goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.
Originally published on November 18, 2020.
Photo made by the author.