Robert Frost? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The acclaimed American poet Robert Frost was asked as an octogenarian what he had learned about life, and he succinctly replied: It goes on.
I have been unable to find a contemporaneous citation, and a popular quotation website says that the attribution is disputed. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: Robert Frost did utter this proverbial wisdom during his eightieth birthday celebration according to journalist and self-help writer Ray Josephs. In September 1954 the Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” published “Robert Frost’s Secret” by Josephs which included the following exchange. Ellipses were in the original text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“In all your years and all your travels,” I asked, “what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?”
He paused a moment, then with the twinkle sparkling under those brambly eyebrows he replied: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles . . . with politicians and people slinging the word fear around, all of us become discouraged . . . tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The adage was certainly not novel although Frost’s emphatic version was memorable. Decades earlier in 1915 fellow poet Edna St. Vincent Millay placed a sardonic instance into a verse of the work “Ashes of Life”: 2
Love has gone and left me, and the neighbors knock and borrow.
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse.—
And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
There’s this little street and this little house.
In 1971 the “Des Moines Sunday Register” reprinted the article containing Frost’s statement under the title “Words To Live By”. 3
In 1978 the syndicated feature “The Aces on Bridge” relayed an instance of the saying: 4
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”
In 1984 the Associated Press published the following “Thought for today”: 5
Thought for today: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.” — Robert Frost, American poet (1874-1963).
In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Robert Frost did make the remarks in the 1954 citation. The accuracy of the quotation depends on the testimony of Ray Josephs.
(Great thanks to Lino’s Version whose tweet led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1954 September 5, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Section: This Week Magazine, Robert Frost’s Secret by Ray Josephs, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1915 September, Current Opinion, Volume 59, Number 3, Edited by Edward J. Wheeler, Voices of the Living Poets: Ashes of Life by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Quote Page 200, Column 3, The Current Literature Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1971 January 24, Des Moines Sunday Register (The Des Moines Register), Section: Picture, Words To Live By, (Today’s Words To Live By were selected by Author Ray Josephs), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1978 February 1, The Ithaca Journal, The Aces on Bridge: West learned too late by Ira G. Corn Jr., Quote Page 26, Column 5, Ithaca, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1984 April 2, Casper Star-Tribune, Almanac by The Associated Press, Quote Page B2, Column 3, Casper, Wyoming. (Newspapers_com) ↩