Though Robert Frost has been gone for more than half a century—he died on January 29, 1963—his poems remain timeless, inspiring everyone from John F. Kennedy to George R.R. Martin. Though most people know him for "The Road Not Taken," there's more to Frost than that—and according to him, we've all been interpreting that poem wrong anyway.
1. HE WAS NAMED AFTER CONFEDERATE GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE.
Frost's father, Will, ran away from home at a young age in an attempt to join the Confederate Army. Though he was caught and returned to his parents, the elder Frost never forgot his war heroes, and eventually named his son after one of them.
2. HE WAS A COLLEGE DROPOUT—TWICE OVER.
First, Frost attended Dartmouth for just two months, later explaining, "I wasn't suited for that place." He got his second chance in 1897 at Harvard, but only made it two years before dropping out to support his wife and child. “They could not make a student of me here, but they gave it their best,” Frost later said. Still, he managed to get a degree anyway—Harvard bestowed honorary honors upon him in 1937.
3. HE MADE $15 FROM THE SALE OF HIS FIRST POEM.
Published by the New York Independent in 1894, when Frost was 20, Frost’s first paid piece was called “My Butterfly: An Elegy.” The payday for the poem was the equivalent of $422 today; the sum was worth more than two weeks’ salary at his teaching job.
4. EZRA POUND HELPED FROST GAIN A FOLLOWING.
As an established poet with a following, Ezra Pound exposed Frost to a much larger audience by writing a rave review of his first poetry collection, A Boy's Will. Frost considered it his most important early review. Pound might have reviewed the book sooner had it not been for a bit of a misunderstanding—he once gave Frost a calling card with his hours listed as "At home, sometimes." Frost "didn't feel that that was a very warm invitation," and avoided visiting. When he finally stopped in, Pound was put out that he hadn't come sooner. He wrote his review of Frost's poetry the same day.
5. HE BELIEVED “THE ROAD NOT TAKEN” WAS VERY MISUNDERSTOOD.
"The Road Not Taken" is often read at high school and college graduations as a reminder to forge new paths, but Frost never intended it to be taken so seriously—he wrote the poem as a private joke for his friend Edward Thomas. He and Thomas enjoyed taking walks together, and Thomas was constantly indecisive about which direction he wanted to go. When he finally did choose, he often regretted not choosing the other way.
Frost was surprised when his readers began taking the poem to heart as a metaphor for self-determination. After reading "The Road Not Taken" to some college students, he lamented to Thomas that the poem was “taken pretty seriously … despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling. … Mea culpa.”
6. HE WAS THE FIRST POET TO READ AT A PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION.
John F. Kennedy invited Frost to do a reading at his 1961 inauguration; though Frost prepared a poem called "Dedication" for the ceremony, he had a hard time reading the lightly typed words in the sun's glare. In the end, that didn't matter—the poet ended up reciting a different piece, "The Gift Outright," by heart.
Frost's performance paved the way for later appearances by Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco.
7. HE OUTLIVED FOUR OF HIS SIX CHILDREN.
Frost knew tragedy. Of his six kids—daughters Elinor, Irma, Marjorie, and Lesley, and sons Carol, and Elliot—only two outlasted him. Elinor died shortly after birth, Marjorie died giving birth, Elliot succumbed to cholera, and Carol committed suicide.
8. HE WASN’T MUCH OF A FARMER, ACCORDING TO HIS NEIGHBORS.
Though Frost adored living the bucolic life on his 30-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, his neighbors weren't exactly impressed with his skills. Because Frost mostly paid the bills with poetry, he didn't have to be as regimented about farm life as his full-time farming neighbors did, so they thought he was a bit lazy.
Even if his farming skills weren't up to par with the pros, the estate itself did wonders for his writing. According to Frost, "I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm down the road a mile or two from Derry Village toward Lawrence. The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn't have figured on it in advance. I hadn't that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor's prescription."
9. HE INSPIRED GEORGE R.R. MARTIN.
If Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire sounds a bit like Frost's poem "Fire and Ice," well, it is: “People say I was influenced by Robert Frost’s poem, and of course I was," Martin has said. "Fire is love, fire is passion, fire is sexual ardor and all of these things. Ice is betrayal, ice is revenge, ice is … you know, that kind of cold inhumanity and all that stuff is being played out in the books.”
10. NO ONE HAS MATCHED HIS PULITZER PRIZE RECORD.
Frost took home the award in poetry a whopping four times. His honors were for New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes (1924), Collected Poems (1931), A Further Range (1937), and A Witness Tree (1943). No other poet has yet managed to win on four occasions.
11. HIS EPITAPH IS TAKEN FROM ONE OF HIS POEMS.
The inscription on Frost's tombstone is his own words: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It's the last line from his poem “The Lesson for Today.” Here's the whole thing:
"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."