Frostís Quarrel

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Frost’s Quarrel with the World

RFrostTombstone-9-3-08Robert Frost’s epitaph reads, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” and according to Paul F. Kisak’s 2002 Unique Perspective on the poet laureate, this epitaph was first penned in 1942 as a verse in the poem, “The Lesson for Today.” The entire verse reads: “And were an epitaph to be my story I'd have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover's quarrel with the world.” It was also used in the title of the 1963 documentary about his life. When Frost was interviewed for this Academy Award-winning film by Shirley Clarke, a film in which he played himself, Frost admitted that he thought about changing it. In the film, Frost says, "I thought of modifying that, and saying I had my lover's quarrels, plural, with the world, but I make that one sustained quarrel all my life . . . It's a long sustained quarrel.”  

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He is also well known for another famous quote in which he would seem to be just as confounding: "I never take my side in a quarrel." But that was Frost. His poetic genius was his ability to clearly see life’s contrasts. That, and to cleverly write them down so others could see too. He was known by his family as simply, “RF,” and more than any other American poet before him, RF brought out the darker side of daylight and the lighter side of night, as witnessed in “Come In:” But no, I was out for stars; I would not come in. I meant not even if asked; And I hadn't been.

And in his poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” he compares morning’s first light and spring’s first leaves with how quickly they become old. The entire poem is only eight lines, and yet it evokes both brightness and sadness, both eternal hope and unavoidable despair. Frost was at his finest when comparing love to hate and life to death. “The Death Of The Hired Man” has been called a long poem, a narrative, a drama, and a dialogue. But when it was finally produced as a one-act play, there were only two characters on stage; the husband and wife, Warren and Mary. Between them, they fully develop Silas, the hired man, entirely in dialog. They give us the scoundrel’s loves, losses, and bad habits, and we know him well – but he is never on stage! It isn’t until the final line, the final spoken word that you realize Frost has made you see something that wasn’t there.

Though he is often thought of as being a New Englander, RF was actually born on the other side of America, in San Francisco, on March 26, 1874. His father died when he was 11, the first of many such tragic funerals he would attend in his life. Frost would bury his mother, his sister, four of his six children and his wife of 42 years before his own death on January 29, 1963, at the age of 88. He is thought of as being from Massachusetts, or perhaps New Hampshire or Vermont because so many of his poems are set in New England, and indeed he did own homes in each of those states. But the man who loved New England so much moved his family to Jolly Old England in 1912 where “A Boy’s Will” and “North of Boston” would become his first published works (David Nutt, London, 1913 & 1914). When he returned to America in 1915 it was to fulfill two life-long dreams; poetry, and to find "a farm in New England where I could live cheap and get Yankier and Yankier." Approaching age 50, when most people are thinking of settling down, he left his newly-purchased, Stone House, in Vermont to accept a fellowship at the University of Michigan (1921-22 and 1926). The Ann Arbor house he lived in during those semesters is still around, and can still be toured, alas in Dearborn, as it is now one of the exhibits at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village. Frost also owned a house is South Miami, Florida, where, under doctor’s orders, he wintered out his final years. But in all his travels and times away, he managed to keep New England in his heart and on the page. Frost was a man who derived as much enjoyment from looking out onto a field full of harvest as he did a room full of students. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he was honored as “Consultant in Poetry” by the Library of Congress during his long career, but in all that time he never quit farming, or quarreling.

Robert Frost didn’t win his first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry until age 50; "New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes." He went on to win the Pulitzer for Poetry again in 1931 for "Collected Poems," in 1937 for "A Further Range," and a final time, at age 69, for "A Witness Tree." All published by Holt, all very collectable today. Frost was also a great teacher. He received 44 honorary degrees from universities and colleges around America and England and taught at several, lectured at others, yet he never finished either of the two colleges he attended as a student; Dartmouth, for less than one semester, and Harvard, for a two and a half years RFrostsKennedy225

At age 86, RF became the first poet to speak at a Presidential inauguration; Kennedy, 1961. The ceremonies were running late as the cold weather had been playing havoc all that morning. Frost’s voice was not strong, and his eyesight was failing, and gusty winds on January 20 combined with strong glare off of the newly fallen snow made it all but impossible for Frost to read his handwriting. He penned (or penciled?) a new lead-in, titled “Dedication” just for the President’s inauguration – something he said he would not do! He meant to read it before the poem “The Gift Outright,” which he and Kennedy had selected. With the ceremonies running long and mother nature working against him, Frost handed Jacqueline Kennedy the original, handwritten two-page Dedication and recited the 16-line poem from memory. The new First Lady framed Dedication and made it the first thing she hung in JFK’s Oval Office. But if JKF was a fan of RF, then RF was certainly a fan of JFK. For you see, The Gift Outright is about America gaining her independence, and the original version carried the last line as, “such as she was, such as she would become,” but the President-in-Waiting suggested that, “such as she will become,” would make a stronger ending. “It would make it more optimistic,” Kennedy argued. Frost, who didn’t take criticism well, simply replied, “I suppose so.” Of course, Frost recited his President’s preference, “such as she was, such as she will become,” and he had to have been quarreling with himself as he did so. RFrostsPoemMounted200

An interesting sidebar here for the rare and one-of-a-kind collector. The framed poem Dedication that Jacquie O hung in the Oval Office went missing after JFK’s death. There is a typed copy of “Dedication” that resides in the Library of Congress. Presumably the same copy Interior Secretary Stewart Udall saw Frost practicing with the morning of the Inauguration, but Frost’s original handwritten notes were thought to be lost forever. But we now know that a Kennedy administration official had it all those years as a personal keepsake. Upon this official’s death, it was willed to the Kennedy Presidential Library where it arrived in the mail, unannounced, on April 18 - 2006! Frost the man may be gone but his influence lives on.

Like his poetry, his grave site is both simple and easy to find. It’s at the end of a dirt path behind the Old First Church, somewhere out there in Vermont. Yet ... Frost wasn’t a religious man.find.¬ It‚Ä™s at the end of a dirt path behind the Old First Church, somewhere out there in Vermont.¬ Yet ...¬ Frost wasn‚Ä™t a religious man

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