We cherish a good story, from someone who uses a poet’s skills and gifts to touch our minds and our hearts. Some storytellers can do both almost at the same time, as deftly as they can make us laugh and then cry, see something familiar in a new way, even make us think. We don’t often wonder how they can do this. But we know they can. This is the magic of poetry, in all its forms.
Somewhere, I read - or heard - an odd expression, “having a lover’s quarrel with the world,” and it stuck in my mind. Some research told me these few words were attributed to a man I never expected to have had a lover’s quarrel with anyone: the poet Robert Frost.
Frost’s poetry and popularity are world-wide. During his 88 years (1875-1963), he received four Pulitzer prizes for his work and, toward the end of his life in 1963, he even appeared in a movie about himself, appropriately titled “A Lover’s Quarrel With the World.” President Kennedy was also a character in this movie, played by the President himself. It was this movie, and his discussion of the expression that made the association indelible.
On June 20, 1941, the expression appeared for the first time, when Frost recited a poem he had written called “The Lesson for Today.” At the very end, he wrote that for his own epitaph, “ I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
And so it was. When Frost died, his family had those words inscribed on the headstone of his grave in Bennington, Vermont
Other than with poetry, Frost’s biography doesn’t say how he became famous, or even why he was successful in anything. Frost is known for his country writing, but he actually grew up in a city, doing different jobs, even teaching. He tried farming several times unsuccessfully. He only wanted to be a poet.
But he was very good. and started young. His first poem appeared in his high school newspaper. In 1894 he sold his first poem for $15. A reviewer describes Frost as “A man of the earth. Of the soil. But above all, a man. A man who can express in words to reach anyone the unique feeling of becoming one with the land.”
But how? Poets are masters of writing in a way that makes best use of words. Especially in descriptions, making comparisons.
Frost could make his poetry seem written effortlessly about the rural life he seemed to enjoy so much. But it takes a poet to make a word mean more than one thing at once, or to get a whole world of meaning from a single phrase. They have a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, turning it into something else, a figure of speech called a trope.
And what is a lover’s quarrel? Depends. For Frost, a turbulent, passionate, complicated relationship with life. It won’t say much to someone who has never had or been a lover. Sometimes it’s as simple as some guy having an argument with his girlfriend, a “surface ripple,” forgotten by the next day.
His personal life was plagued with grief and loss; there we can see the turbulence that would prompt him to describe his life as a lover’s quarrel. He was 11 when his father died, leaving 8 dollars. When he was 26, his mother died.
Of his six children, one died of cholera, one committed suicide, one died giving birth, one only lived 3 days. Frost, his mother, and his wife had depression. A sister and a daughter were committed to a mental institute. His wife died 25 years before he did.
Many will recall hearing this from Frost’s poem about stopping a horse-drawn carriage by a snowy woods: “ 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. ” Some scholars believe this is the author’s reluctantly rejected yearning for the tranquility that he believes might come with death. Considering his life, that could be a possible theory. Fortunately for us poetry lovers, he went on his way.