The Poet as Philosopher
by Peter J. Stanlis
ISI, 350 pages, $28
Poor Robert Frost. Nearly half a century after his death, he is still suffering at the hands of both friends and enemies.
Frost brought much of this problem on himself when he selected a troubled young academic named Lawrance Thompson to document his life. Like the fictional official biographer in Philip Larkin's “Posterity,” Thompson came to loathe his subject; he painted Frost as a right-wing psychopath in a three-volume hatchet job of a biography published between 1967 and 1973.
Thompson's biography warped critical appreciation of Frost's poetry for decades, though in recent years such clearer-eyed scholars as William Pritchard, Jay Parini, and Robert Pack have worked to reclaim Frost. This task is not an easy one, and it is by no means done. Frost was alternately charming and boorish, scheming and naïve, humble and arrogant. He also did not hesitate to craft his own public image, and his pragmatic nature meant his views on many subjects changed over his lifetime.
One of the recent scholars trying to reclaim Frost is Peter J. Stanlis, a retired professor of humanities at Rockford College best known as a leading expert on Edmund Burke. Stanlis first befriended the poet in 1939 and promised him in 1944 that he would someday write the best book about his art. Unfortunately, worries that Stanlis falls short of his ambition began with his book's subtitle, The Poet as Philosopher. Despite superficially similar goals, neither philosophers nor poets prosper when they invade each other's turf. The verse of the philosopher John Dewey is excruciatingly bad—which parallels the fact that nearly every prose pronouncement by a poet about metaphysics or political philosophy lacks the rigor typical of even a mediocre philosophical mind.
Stanlis' book is accompanied by a superb introduction from Timothy Steele, a noted New Formalist reared in Vermont. With apt selections from Frost's letters and close readings from major poems, Steele reminds us that Frost was no country bard and that his work reflects a sophisticated understanding of philosophy and science. Indeed, Frost was steeped in the classics and taught philosophy at Amherst, despite his lack of any college degree. He read scientific treatises (how many contemporary poets can make that claim?) and relished debating the Old Testament with a friend who was a rabbi.
Steele makes this key point about Frost's view of the world: “Frost's intellectual guardedness also reflects his belief that much in life is unknowable and his alarm at people who demand easy answers to complex questions. Like Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, he felt that nature itself resists assaults on its ultimate secrets. In ‘For Once, Then, Something,' he describes looking down a well and being on the verge of identifying, beneath the water's surface, a shiny object—'a something white, uncertain/Something more of the depths'—when a droplet strikes and blurs the pool, as if to preserve its modesty and privacy: ‘Water came to rebuke the too clear water.'”
Regrettably, in his zeal to make the philosophical case for the poet, Stanlis consistently discounts this element of caution in Frost's thinking. Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher sees black and white where Steele rightly sees gray.
Stanlis is an ardent dualist, so passionate about the history of metaphysics that his world divides neatly into good guys and bad guys. His bad guys are Plato, Hobbes, Hegel, and Emerson, whom he reads as monists, contending “that reality consists of only one element.” For Stanlis, monism is a gateway ideology to Nazism, communism, and the nihilism of the twentieth century. Accordingly, a good guy, such as his friend Frost, must believe in dualism, “the belief that reality consists of two distinct, absolute and all-inclusive elements, most commonly identified as matter and mind.”
While Stanlis' thesis that Frost was a dualist has some truth to it, the emphatic rhetoric with which Stanlis makes his case suggests he is overstating, which he is. Granted, the greatest Frost poems invariably portray a conflict between good and evil, and in many of his poems, such as “On Going Unnoticed” and “Desert Places,” one senses grief about the chasm between the world as it is and the poet's inner world. And granted, Frost knocked Emerson's monism in his acceptance speech when he received the Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.
Despite this supporting evidence, Stanlis would have been well advised to remember Steele's observation about Frost's “intellectual guardedness.” Frost was always trying on ideas to see where they would take him, and even the misguided Thompson may have made a fair point by suggesting that Frost would take an occasional walk on the monistic side in such poems as “I Will Sing You One-O,” to which one might add “Bereft” (“Word was I was in my life alone/Word I had no one left but God”) and “The Trial by Existence,” a retelling of a myth from Plato's Republic with a perfunctory Christian veneer. In order to force Frost into a dualist framework, Stanlis also makes the mistake of discounting the mystical element in Frost's thought, which came primarily from his upbringing as a Swedenborgian.
Although Stanlis' analyses of Frost's views on education and political theory are generally fair, much of the book either rehashes his dualism point or awkwardly injects Frost into digressions about other thinkers. Frost disappears for long periods during the chapters on “Frost and the Three Generations of Huxleys,” “Frost and Creative Evolution,” and “Frost and Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being.” Particularly maddening are diatribes about the German theorist Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919). One learns that Stanlis despises Haeckel but never whether Frost was even aware of Haeckel's existence.
Once Stanlis moves away from metaphysics into other topics, he tends to lose his focus. I noted an increasing number of sweeping yet unsupported statements, such as: “Frost could not help but be aware in a vital passage in Appendix III in Relativity: The Special and General Theory, Einstein emphatically rejected as inadequate the methodology and theory of Descartes' rationalism and Locke's empiricism in developing scientific theory.” Could not help but be aware? Well, maybe, but how do we know? Even worse, Stanlis speculates about Frost's views on books Frost never read or, in at least one case, a book that was not even written until long after Frost's death—Roger Sperry's Science and Moral Priority.
Stanlis' disservice to Frost extends to his effort to drag the poet into the fold of religious orthodoxy, particularly with facile readings of Frost's deservedly denigrated religious satires, A Masque of Mercy and A Masque of Reason. Stanlis even goes so far to claim that “it is in A Masque of Mercy that Frost makes God's love for man the ultimate basis of hope and faith in life.” Whatever conclusions one makes about this odd pair of plays, any poet who explains God's trial of Job by having God announce “I was just showing off to the Devil” hardly qualifies as an affirmation of God by a mainstream theological thinker. Indeed, Stanlis' intellectual acrobatics about A Masque of Mercy grow so convoluted that even he can't keep his own analysis straight. “It would seem Keeper speaks more for Frost than Paul,” he explains—only to tell us, a hundred pages later, that Frost “has left no doubt that the character ‘Keeper' (an abbreviation for ‘My Brother's Keeper') epitomized Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal sought to ‘homogenize mankind.'”
Throughout his life, Frost deflected most inquiries into his religious beliefs, and, when he did respond, he labeled himself inconsistently. He certainly was not a churchgoer, and in 1920 his wife accused him of hiding his atheism from the world. God makes a few conventional appearances in Frost's first book, A Boy's Will (1913), and there is an instructive reference to “God afar” in “Revelation.” Frost's God then largely disappears for fifteen years until West-Running Brook (1928), in which the mystical “Bereft” suggests that Frost is coming to terms with God after a long struggle:Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,Word I had no one left but God.Similarly, while “Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight” describes a struggle toward belief, it also elaborates on the sense of being abandoned by God that was suggested by Frost's phrase “God afar”:God once declared He was true
And then took the veil and withdrew,
And remember how final a hush
Then descended of old on the bush.
God once spoke to people by name.
The sun once imparted its flame.
One impulse persists as our breath;
The other persists as our faith.These two poems may be Frost's most genuine expressions of faith, but those sentiments seem to have been transient. In “To a Young Wretch (Boethian),” from his 1942 collection, A Witness Tree, Frost portrays himself as estranged from Christmas rituals and perhaps the joy of Christ's birth. In his final collection, In the Clearing (1962), Frost's choice of verb tense in the parenthetical beneath the poem “The Bad Island—Easter” seems to question the resurrection of Jesus (“Perhaps so called because it may have risen once”).
Most of Frost's later poems about religion are jokey in a style that suggests he may have been trying to compete with Auden's comic verse of the 1930s and 1940s. If true, Frost lost that competition badly. Moreover, the bulk of Frost's work displays no palpable connection with Jesus or the symbolism of the New Testament.
Stanlis never comes to terms with this problem for his reclamation effort. While we will never know for sure what Frost believed at different points in his life, it is safe to conclude that he moved back and forth between a guilty atheism and an uneasy theism infused with the issues and imagery of the Old Testament. Whatever the precise truth may have been, Stanlis fails to force Frost into his elaborate taxonomy of metaphysical analysis. One can almost hear the poet softly rebuking his old friend the professor in the epigram “Boeotian”:I love to toy with the Platonic notion
That wisdom need not be of Athens Attic,
But well may be Laconic, even Boeotian.
At least I will not have it systematic.
A.M. Juster's third book, a translation of Horace's Satires in heroic couplets, is due out shortly from the University of Pennsylvania Press.