June 20, 2016

“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

The great American poet Robert Frost died in 1963, when he was 88 years old.

But he wrote his epitaph more than two decades before that, in a poem titled “The Lesson for Today.”

Frost first unveiled and recited the poem on June 20, 1941, at an event celebrating the anniversary of Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa Society.

In 1942, it was published in the book A Witness Tree, a collection of his recent poetry.

“The Lesson for Today” is not one of Frost’s more accessible poems.

It’s an imaginary discussion in verse with the Medieval scholar Alcuin of York and it includes a number of obscure literary and historical references. (The kinds of references people like Harvard Phi Beta Kappa graduates might know.)

But the last line of the last verse of the poem became one of Frost’s most famous:

      “I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori
       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’s unclear whether Frost truly planned for that last line to be his real epitaph when he wrote it.

However, over the next two decades, it became increasingly associated with him.

Public awareness of the line was especially enhanced by its use in the title of a widely-seen documentary about Frost released shortly before his death — Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World.

When Frost died, his family had it inscribed on the headstone of his grave in Bennington, Vermont.

You can see it there above the name of his wife, Elinor, who died a quarter of a century before him in 1938.

For her epitaph, Frost had chosen the words “TOGETHER WING TO WING AND OAR TO OAR,” a romantic line from a poem he wrote in 1936 for his daughter’s wedding, titled “The Master Speed.”

Below his name on the headstone are the words that became a famous summation of Robert Frost’s own life: “I HAD A LOVER’S QUARREL WITH THE WORLD.”

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