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Robert Frost: A Life Paperback – March 15, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Robert Frost, the farmer-poet of New England, actually spent his formative early years in San Francisco. His mother moved the family east after the death of her husband--a hard-living journalist from whom Robert took his willful perversity. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard, leaving both prematurely, and after putative stabs at teaching and journalism became a poultry farmer in New Hampshire. It took a trip to England in 1912 (to live "under thatch") for his poetry finally to be published, and when he returned to America in 1915 his reputation had preceded him. Until his death in 1963, he worked assiduously at consolidating his position as America's premier voice; reading at Kennedy's inauguration and meeting Khrushchev were just two of the scenes he stole. So why does Jay Parini need to reclaim him?

The answer lies with Lawrance Thompson. Thompson was one of Frost's most earnest disciples, and for years the poet, ever eager to shape his own image, allowed him a Boswellian intimacy. Unfortunately, Thompson came to despise his former mentor, and his exhaustively documented volumes portray Frost as a kind of solipsistic monster, in marked contrast to the awe with which he had previously been described. Parini, also a biographer of John Steinbeck, in a wave of perspective seeks a corrective to Thompson's bile. His writing is intelligent yet breathlessly generous, and he is at his best when considering the poems themselves. He rightly ascribes to Frost the innovation of the colloquial voice in serious verse--a legacy that appears immense today when so much contemporary poetry consists of little else. Frost's mastery lay in the freedom he found within conformity and the dark corners he discovered by probing, which contribute to a melancholic spirituality beyond the rusticity for which he is popularly celebrated. While Thompson's egg is cracked and dry, Parini prefers a softer boil, and his elegantly reverential tone is imbued with a perception that reminds readers how great a poet Frost remains. The clergyman who advised him at an early age that his verse was "too close to speech," and thus gave him his voice, deserves eternal gratitude. --David Vincent, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (March 15, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805063412
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805063417
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #201,833 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College, Vermont. His six novels also include Benjamins Crossing and The Apprentice Lover. His volumes of poetry include The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. In addition to biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner, he has written a volume of essays on literature and politics, as well as The Art of Teaching. He edited the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and writes regularly for the Guardian and other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Craig L. Howe on February 4, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One of my first memories of Robert Frost is watching him attempting to read a poem he had written for John F. Kennedy's Presidential Inauguration. Struggling with the bright sunlight reflecting off the fresh snow on that crisp winter's day, he abandoned his effort to recite an older poem from memory.
I remember thinking the image of this short, stocky white-haired old man was as close to a wood nymph as I would ever come. Later, I was to learn that Frost lead anything but a simple life. Biographer drawing on this image, often sensationalized the details of his life at the expense of the precious poetry he created.
Jay Parini, the Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College, does not travel that path. Rather, he provides his readers with insight into how Frost lived day-to-day, poem to poem. He animates Frost's daily struggles with depression, anxiety, self-doubt and confusion. The poet's family life was not happy; he experienced bad luck with his children. Yet, he exhibited tremendous force of will, love for his children and dedication to creating a lasting body of creative work.
Unlike Frost previous biographers, Parini skillfully weaves the details of the poet's life with poetry he created. Frost's desire to "lodge a few poems where they can't be gotten rid of easily" is woven into a picture of an artist attempting to rescue his sanity by creating what he called a "momentary stay against confusion."
For me, reading Frost's poetry is a labor of love; reading Parini's biography is like reliving a best friend's life. This biographical study offers an unusual glimpse into the life, poetry and times of Robert Frost, a man who ranks as one of the world's greatest poets.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Robert A. Jacques on June 2, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Jay Parini's well-written and well-organized life of Robert Frost weaves together beautifully the many contradictory Frosts: the spiteful yet respectful colleague, the insensitive yet devoted husband, the domineering yet supportive father, the bullying yet challenging teacher. What we have as a result is a definitive picture of one of our country's greatest poets as a three-dimensional human being, a man of great passions and great talent. As if that weren't good enough, Parini does a magnificent job of showing how many of Frost's best poems fit into periods of his life, how they often reflect his successes and failures, his dreams and his fears. In brief, this is a superlative biography, a must read for anyone curious about the life of this powerful and important poet!
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Although many of Robert Frost's poems revolve around traditionally American themes, even a European, like I am, can easily recognize his genius.
This biography offers a major reassessment of the life and work of America's premier poet--the only truly "National Poet" the U.S. has, so far, produced.
Author Jay Parini began working on this biography in 1975, through interviews with friends and associates of Frost's and working in the poet's archives at Dartmouth, Amherst and elsewhere.
In prose that is both elegant and simple, Parini traces the stages of Frost's colorful life: his boyhood in San Francisco (no, he was not a native New Englander!), his young manhood in New England, his college days at Dartmouth and later at Harvard, his years of farming in New Hampshire, his three-year stay in England where he became friends with people such as Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas and other important figures of modern poetry.
Following Frost's meteoric rise upon his return to America from England in 1915, Parini traces the path Frost took from poet to cultural icon, a friend and intimate of presidents, a sage whose pronouncements attracted the attention of the world press.
Yet, the beauty of this book lies in the fact that Parini never loses sight of Frost at his deepest and most human, the man behind the gorgeous and sensitive poetry that enraptured a nation. Always managing to take us back to the poetry and Frost's roots, Parini, in this beautiful book, offers a sensitive roadmap of both Frost, the man and his incredible talent.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moreland( on April 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As the best known American poet of the twentieth century, Frost needs a good biographer.At last he has one. His "official" biographer,Lawrance Thompson, portrayed him as monster.(One suspects because Thompson and Frost-in his old age- fancied the same woman).
Difficult,petulant,egoistic-Frost could be. But he was no monster. He had a deep affection for his friends and family.His charm and humour show him to be a man whom many could like.In later life he was much in demand at universities,dinners and ,of course,who can forget his performance at the inauguration of President Kennedy.
Parini's book is the first to put the character of Frost into perspective.He does not duck the down side such as Frost's attempts to denigrate or badmouth his rivals.Nevertheless Parini reminds us that Frost was an engaging character who could make great friends.
One important illustration of Frost's ability to charm is his period in England.Frost was first published-not in the United States- but in England where he lived from 1912-1915.There he became close friends with a number of English poets-such as Edward Thomas,Wilfred Gibson and (my great-uncle)Jack Haines.Parini comprehensively covers this period showing Frost's close relationship to Thomas whom he persuaded to write poetry and his life in Gloucestershire which was to have an influence on the rest of his life.
The book should not be read just for its success in bringing the character of Frost into balance.The book provides also an excellent analysis of Frost's poetry.Parini shows Frost versatility but equally that Frost -unlike so many poets- could produce poetry of quality in his old age.
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