obscure New England farmer and teacher until his first book of verse, A
Boy’s Will, was published in 1913, Robert Frost (1874-1963) died a
celebrity. He won
four Pulitzer prizes and was awarded forty-four honorary degrees.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Mending Wall,” “Birches,”
“The Road Not Taken,” and other anthology favorites remain standard fare in
American high schools and colleges.
He read and lectured to packed houses.
Newspapers quoted him.
Universities vied to have him on their faculty.
became the official national bard.
He recited a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, lectured at the
State Department to ambassadors, senators, generals, and cabinet officers, and
was sent to the Soviet Union to confer with Nikita Khrushchev and other heads of
at his eighty-eighth birthday dinner in Washington included Chief Justice Earl
Warren, Justice Felix Frankfurter, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and
friend Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior.
he was honored with a U. S. Senate Resolution.
The first, from 1950, reads:
Whereas, Robert Frost in his books of poetry has given the American people a
long series of stories and lyrics which are enjoyed, repeated, and thought about
by people of all ages and callings and whereas, These poems have helped to guide
America’s thoughts with humor and wisdom setting forth to our minds a reliable
representation of ourselves and of all men and whereas His work throughout the
past century has enhanced for many their understanding of the United States and
their love of country and whereas Robert Frost has been accorded a secure place
in the history of American letters. Therefore,
be it resolved, That
the Senate of the United States extend him felicitations of the Nation he has
served so well.
tribute mirrors the public perception of Frost as genial, witty and patriotic
sage. It glosses
over the “dark” Frost batted around by scholars.
universe that he conceives,” said Lionel Trilling, “is a terrifying one.”
In 1935, Frost described for students at Amherst College the cosmic
milieu in which he wrote:
“The background is hugeness and confusion, shading away into black and
utter chaos.” Ominous
forces lurked within and without.
In “A Loose Mountain,” Frost imagines a cosmic assassin awaiting a
propitious moment to sling a cataclysmic meteor at us:
huge meteor] lately seen to glint
sunlight near us in a momentous swing
something in a Balearic sling
heartless and enormous Outer Black
still withholding in the Zodiac
from irresolution in his back
when best to have us in our orbit
we won’t simply take it and absorb it.
inner world was equally unsettling:
cannot scare me with their empty spaces
stars—on stars where no human race is.
have it in me so much nearer home
scare myself with my own desert places.
(from “Desert Places”)
existential angst was interlinked with recurrent anxiety about God.
From his Puritan forebears, he had inherited the specter of an
inscrutable deity who demands unremitting obedience and punishes the wayward.
Frost liked to call himself an Old Testament Christian.
Though he might have joked about God, his anxiety was real.
According to Peter Stanlis, a Frost specialist, the poet believed that
“because of the uncertainty of God’s ultimate justice or mercy, man is
compelled ‘to stay afraid’ deep in his soul.
his Scottish mother, a Swedenborgian mystic, Frost derived a supplementary
conception of God as a loving creator who rewards the faithful with an inward
joy denied to unbelievers.
The poet’s father, who died of tuberculosis when Frost was eleven, was
a dissolute, irreligious lawyer and newspaper editor.
familial influences were mingled with ideas the poet gleaned from science and
philosophy, particularly Emerson, Thoreau, Darwin, George Santayana, and William
one of his professors at Harvard, maintained that gods are idealized projections
of the human imagination, and religions, metaphorical representations of human
values. James, a
Harvard professor much admired by Frost, defended “the will to believe,”
even when the evidence is tenuous, since belief (he thought) conduces to
of the influences wholly preempted the others.
For most of his life, Frost vacillated between belief and skepticism,
piety and irreverence, submission and rebellion.
“He tossed the idea of God up and down like a ball,” said critic
Alfred Kazin. When
the fear of God was in remission, he might deride the concept of a benevolent
creator—or a creator of any kind:
I found a dimpled
spider, fat and white,
On a white
heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white
piece of rigid satin cloth—
characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to
begin the morning right,
the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings
carried like a paper kite.
What had that
flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue
and innocent heal-all?
What brought the
kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the
white moth thither in the night?
What but design
of darkness to appall?—
design govern in a thing so small.
the fear of the Lord was on him, natural phenomena assumed a sinister mien.
A gathering storm could presage a universal holocaust orchestrated by an
shattered water made a misty din.
waves looked over others coming in,
thought of doing something to the shore
water never did to land before.
clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
could not tell, and yet it looked as if
shore was lucky in being backed by a cliff,
cliffs in being backed by a continent;
looked as if a night of dark intent
coming, and not only a night, an age.
had better be prepared for rage.
would be more than ocean-water broken
God’s last Put out the
Light was spoken.
(“Once by the Pacific”)
his lectures and letters, Frost often alluded to his fear:
“My fear of God has settled down into a deep and inward fear that my
best offering may not prove acceptable in his sight,” he told his friend G. R.
Elliott in 1947. In
a 1932 letter to poet Louis Untermeyer, Frost specified that the god he feared
was the “God of Israel, who admits he is a jealous god.”
a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1937, Frost expatiated on the
is jealousy? It’s
the claim of the object on the lover.
The claim is that the lover should be true to the object; the claim of
God that you should be true to Him, and so true to yourself.
The Word still lives for me.”
a 1946 talk at Cincinnati’s Rockdale Avenue Temple, where his friend Victor
Reichert was rabbi, Frost called irreligion “worse than atheism.”
He pontificated on the necessity of religious faith:
“We’re sure—sure enough—have to be—day by day—to go on
the testament, Frost was often unsure—or not sure enough.
His letters are sprinkled with declarations of unbelief.
He was “an old dissenter,”
“a semi-detached villain,” “secular till the last go down.”
There were “no vampires, no ghouls, no demons, nothing but me.”
The religion section of a mock résumé he concocted for poet Amy Lowell
traced his devolution: “Presbyterian,
Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.”
in 1948 Frost’s official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, asked him to clarify
his beliefs, the poet was evasive and facetious.
While he had never been formally religious, he said, he nevertheless had
a “passion for theology.”
He was, for example, intrigued by Thomas Aquinas’ disquisition on the
know my mild prejudice against Ghost Writers.
But I am sublimated out of my shoes by the thought that in Heaven we will
all be Ghost Writers if we write at all.
Maybe we won’t write any more than we marry there.
Everything will be done out of wedlock and said off the record.