A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost

BookA Scientific Companion to Robert Frost

A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost

Clemson University Press


July 30th, 2018



Other Formats



Mention Robert Frost and people instantly think of snowy woods and less-traveled paths and rural neighbors meeting to fix their stone fence.  But what does Robert Frost have to do with science?  You might be surprised. Born in 1874, Frost lived through a remarkable period of scientific progress, including the development of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, the Big Bang theory, the discovery of the structure of DNA and the beginnings of space travel.  Possessing a powerful intellect driven by keen curiosity, Frost was highly knowledgeable about the science of his time and infuses his poetry with imagery and language borrowed from science.    Frost not only uses the language of science to enrich his poetry in the same way he uses classical, historical, biblical and literary allusions, but he also uses ordinary language to create sophisticated metaphors based on scientific concepts such as evolution and entropy.  A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost represents the first systematic attempt to catalogue and explain all of the references to science and natural history in Frost’s poetry.  The book, which is organized chronologically, uses language that is accessible to laymen and is supplemented by numerous illustrations, and appendices that should make it a valuable resource for teachers and scholars. 

What a wonderful idea Virginia Smith, with her strong scientific background, had in providing us with A Scientific Companion to my grandfather’s verses!   Always impressed by Rorber Frost’s deep understanding of his natural surroundings – in botany, archeology, astronomy, among others – we learn here just how his scientific knowledge enriches the metaphorical language of many of his verses. As a teacher of his poems, I frequently note the need for such a Companion: the heal-all in “Design,” the iris in “Iris by Night” that is not a flower, or the complex interaction of fruit, trees, ancestral primates, and a young girl, in “Wild Grapes,” one of my favorites. Richly illustrated, the volume will help you move ever more deeply into the poet’s layers of meaning while, at the same time, awaken you to the endless mysteries of the universe.

 Lesley Lee Francis, author of You Come Too: My Journey With Robert Frost and Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900–1918.


More than half a century ago, C. P. Snow lamented that science and the humanities had become so specialized that their practitioners could no longer speak to one another. With the publication of A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost, Virginia Smith proves the exception to the “two cultures” divide. A professor of biochemistry at the United States Naval Academy, Ms. Smith is also an astute reader of Frost’s poetry. In combining her “avocation and vocation,” as Frost advises in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Ms. Smith demonstrates the breadth of Frost’s engagement with science and carefully discloses how Frost used the lessons of science—in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and natural history—to inform his poetry. In doing so, she provides devotees and scholars with an invaluable primary resource that will surely stimulate new thinking about our most thoughtful and complex American poet.

Robert Bernard Hass, author of Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science and co-editor of the Letters of Robert Frost

          Any lover of Frost’s poetry will be delighted by Virginia Smith’s A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost.  It brings an exciting new perspective to many of the poems we have all long admired. Now with her book as our guide through all the allusions to matters of science that Frost continually turned to in writing his poetry, we can experience and appreciate these poems more fully.  Smith has not missed a single one of these allusions, providing us with clarifying details of the significance and history of specific words and phrases in the poems related to the fields of botany, ornithology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, physics, and the technology of his day. But her book is not merely a catalog of Frost’s use of scientific language and imagery; Smith puts her commentaries in the context of where he was living, the books he was reading, the people he knew, and the discussions of the times.  Each entry is meticulously documented, drawing on an impressive body of research, often primary sources, including what he had read, courses he had taken, and letters he had written and received. The ninety one illustrations throughout the book further illuminate and enrich our understanding of Frost’s fascination with science. While scholars will surely make use of this book for academic study, I urge the multitude of readers who have made Frost their favorite poet not to pass up this opportunity to get to know his poetry more deeply and enjoy it even more.

 Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, author of  Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry

Robert  Frost  was  one  of  the  few  poets  who  knew  as  much  about  science  as  he  did  the  humanities.  Here  at  last  in  one  volume  Virginia  Smith  allows  readers  to  see  just  how  deeply  informed  and  rich  with  scientific  knowledge  Frost’s poetry could  be.

 Jonathan  N.  Barron,  director  of  The  Robert  Frost  Society  and  author  of  How  Robert  Frost  Made  Realism  Matter



About The Author

Dr. Virginia F. Smith is a Professor of Chemistry at the United States Naval Academy where she maintains an active research program and has published over twenty scientific articles. Her interest in Robert Frost's use of scientific imagery and language has led to three publications and multiple speaking engagements at colleges, universities, and professional meetings. She has also served as president of The Robert Frost Society. After earning an A.B. in physics and chemistry from Mount Holyoke College, Virginia served five years on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, then worked in industry before earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Washington State University. Virginia and her husband live in Annapolis, MD.