Robert Frost: Philosopher - Poet [i]Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher[/i] by Peter J. Stanlis - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Robert Frost: Philosopher – Poet [i]Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher[/i] by Peter J. Stanlis

Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher by
Peter J. Stanlis. Foreword by Timothy
Steele (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books,
2007). 452 pp.

JOHN F. DESMOND is Mary A. Denny Professor of
English at Whitman College and the author, most
recently, of Walker Percy’s Search for Community (2004).

Probably no other American poet has
suffered more misunderstanding at the
hands of his readers, admirers and detractors
alike, than Robert Frost. The range and
variety of misreadings of both the man and
his poetry are legion: he was simply a nature
poet, child of the Romantics; a clever versifier
with little depth; a genial country wit; a
moral monster; a cranky, iconoclastic reactionary
against modernity, and so on. The
problem of understanding this complex man
and poet was vastly compounded by the
publication of Lawrence Thompson’s threevolume
biography, authorized by Frost himself,
which portrayed much of the poet’s life,
his thought and his poetry in a glaringly
simplistic and often negative light.

In his monumental study, Robert Frost:
The Poet as Philosopher, Peter J. Stanlis offers
the most comprehensive and penetrating
analysis to date of the intellectual foundations
of Frost’s general philosophy and his practice
as a poet. The result of more than fifty years
of close study of and personal friendship with
Frost, Stanlis’ book sets out to correct the
many misperceptions of Frost by elucidating
the development of the poet’s personal and
poetic responses to the rapidly-changing
current of ideas in the late nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. As Stanlis demonstrates,
Frost was an immensely learned, largely
autodidactic philosopher who absorbed the
prevailing ideas of his time and fashioned his
own independent thought in the face of
turbulent cultural changes. To explicate his
complicated subject, Stanlis situates each
aspect of Frost’s beliefs within its larger
historical context and then examines it in
relation to Frost’s growth as man and poet.
His attendant goal is to refute the reductive
view created by Thompson and other critics,
and to show Frost as a true philosopher, a
“seeker of wisdom.”

Frost was an unsystematic philosopher,
but he emphatically affirmed the bedrock of
his views of man, God, nature, and history
when he said: “I am a dualist” (4). Dualism
for Frost meant that all reality is comprised of
matter and mind, or as he preferred, matter
and spirit; as opposed to a monism that sees
reality comprised of one element, spiritual or
material. In contrast to Platonism’s pure
idealism on the one hand, and simple materialism
on the other, Frost believed with
Aristotle that matter and spirit were equally
real and that all reality consisted of “things in
pairs ordained to everlasting opposition” (3).

Dualism formed the basis of Frost’s art as
well. In an important “Prelude” to his study,
Stanlis shows the link between Frost’s dualism
and his developing aesthetic creed. At age
twenty-one Frost discovered that he wanted
to write “talking poems” that dramatized the
opposition of voices, personalities, and ideas
in an open-ended dialectic irresolvable into
any neat monism. Such poetry could provide
“a clarification of life” in all its duality, but
only a “momentary stay against confusion”
(my emphasis). Poems rooted in human
conversation, including the “sound of sense”
beneath the actual words, could capture all
the contentious forces at play, seriously and
humorously, in experience. In another crucial
early discovery, Frost learned that poetry
was neither a subjective autobiographical
response to life nor an empirical record of
events, but rather a vehicle for philosophical
wisdom, a way to “perceive truths in terms
of symbols and the whole range of metaphorical
language beyond literal-minded
beliefs” (14). Frost’s belief that metaphor and
symbol are the heart of both poetry and a
philosophical vision corresponded perfectly
with his dualism, as well as his aim to write
poems that “say spirit in terms of matter and
matter in terms of spirit” (6).

Having laid this philosophical and
aesthetical foundation, Stanlis proceeds to
examine how Frost’s mind and art were
shaped in response to major intellectual developments
in science, politics, religion, social
and educational theory, and art over the
course of his career. Foremost among the
developments in science was the conflict over
Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the
evolution of species. Against Thompson’s
simplistic view, Stanlis shows the nuanced
grasp of Darwin’s thought Frost developed
during and after his Harvard years by his
reading of Darwin, Asa Gray, Sir Charles
Lyell, William James, Alfred Weber, Thomas
Henry Huxley, and others. Frost accepted
Darwin’s general theory of evolution,
but as a dualist he emphasized more the
creative power of mind and will in the
evolutionary process, the “passionate preference”
exerted by the human spirit (53).
Noting that Darwin did not exclude the idea
of a creator, Frost quipped: “You say God
made man of mud, and I think God made
man of prepared mud” (30). At the same
time, Frost maintained that “there was a
difference in kind, not merely in degree,
between man and other animals” (37). He
eventually came to see Darwin’s theory as an
“epic metaphor” for life’s complexity, diversity,
and human struggle—the “trial by
existence.” Understanding Darwin’s complexity,
Frost strongly opposed Thomas Henry
Huxley and other scientists who reduced
Darwin’s theory to a materialist monism that
unfortunately became the dominant viewpoint
in twentieth-century science. Frost
objected especially to the Huxleyites’ application
of their monistic views to social theory,
their heralding of science as the sole means of
inevitable progress. As a dualist with a keen
sense of human evil and mystery, Frost condemned
their equation of evolution with
progress as a naïve utopian fantasy.

As Stanlis shows, Frost’s dualism also shaped
his reaction to the concept of creative evolution.
While drawn to Bergson’s élan vital as
an antidote to the strict materialists’ view of
evolution, Frost agreed with Santayana’s
criticism that Bergson’s philosophy was too
idealistic, optimistic, and undisciplined. In
addition, Bergson’s romantic emphasis on
spontaneous emotion and self-expression in
art ran counter to Frost’s belief in reason, that
a “poem is a thought-felt thing.” Rejecting
Huxley, Spenser, and Bergson as material
and spiritual monists, Frost found a kindred
intellectual spirit in A. O. Lovejoy. After
Lovejoy’s important work in the history of
ideas, The Great Chain of Being, was published
in 1936, Frost’s friend Reginald Cook
discussed the book with Frost and then delivered
the key insight that “the route through
the poetry of Robert Frost leads […] away
from the Great Chain of Being to an exercise
of options in an ‘open-ended universe'”
(109). For Stanlis, Cook’s statement provides
the key to Frost’s “essential philosophical and
scientific views” and his art. In The Great
Chain of Being and The Revolt Against Dualism
(1930), Lovejoy traced the conflict between
material/spiritual monisms and “natural dualism”
from Descartes to Einstein. With
depth and precision, Stanlis summarizes
Lovejoy’s complex development of the history
of ideas and “the great chain” from the
Enlightenment to the twentieth century in
order to argue that Lovejoy’s work “provided
Frost with his original historical perspective
on the complex intellectual changes
that determined man’s view of nature and the
physical universe during the past three centuries”
(120). Like Lovejoy, Frost refused to
separate mind from matter, and rejected
both rationalism and romantic primitivism;
instead, he credited the power of evil in
human affairs, and recognized the relativity
of all human knowledge.

Albert Einstein proved to be another kindred
spirit to Frost. Stanlis analyzes the
conflict between the theory of relativity and
the dominant scientific monisms of the age,
at the same time underscoring Einstein’s
theism and his traditional ethical beliefs.
Stanlis argues that Einstein’s essential philosophy,
like that of Frost, was dualistic. Frost
himself called Einstein “a philosopher among
great scientists,” accepted Einstein’s view of
an “open-ended universe,” and especially
praised Einstein’s insistence on the importance
of “intuition and deductive thought,”
as well as memory and reflection, in science.
Such views dovetailed with Frost’s view of
poetic creativity. Intuition meant “metaphorical”
thinking, which Frost affirmed as
the essential ingredient in all creative thought.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, like Darwin’s
theory of evolution, represented for Frost
another “epic metaphor” of the creative
human spirit.

Regarding his own religious belief, Frost
claimed to be “an orthodox Old Testament,
original Christian.” In a letter to G. R. Elliott
(April 22, 1947) Frost said that “his approach
to the New Testament is rather through
Jerewsalem (sic) than through Rome or Canterbury”
(104). Though deeply versed in the
Bible as well as the writings of Augustine,
Aquinas, Pascal, and other religious thinkers,
Frost was no systematic theologian. He simply
found the “Old Testament” most compatible
with his dualistic philosophy. His one
reference to the Christian Incarnation, Stanlis
points out, appears in the poem “Kitty
Hawk,” and while his poetic goal to “say
spirit in terms of matter and matter in terms
of spirit” ostensibly affirms an incarnational
aesthetic, Frost did not dwell upon how Jesus’
Incarnation radically transformed conventional
notions of dualism, of human consciousness,
of the historical process (including
evolution and relativity), and indeed, of the
Hebraic biblical tradition itself. He seemed
content in his dualism to see the Incarnation
as another poetic metaphor: “As a demonstration/
that the supreme merit/ Lay in
risking spirit/ In substantiation.” As Stanlis
acknowledges, in his philosophy Frost was
“more a humanist than a theologian” (173).

Nevertheless, in A Masque of Reason (1945)
and A Masque of Mercy (1947) Frost set out to
explore man’s relationship to God. In the
former, he created a satirical, witty version
of the Book of Job, casting Job as the prototypical
modern rationalist guilty of pride in
assuming human reason’s power to penetrate
mystery and for accusing God of injustice
toward him. Frost’s God rebukes Job with
humor to demonstrate the crucial role both
evil (i.e. Satan) and faith play in taking man’s
true measure and defining the relation between
God and man in terms of divine, not
human, justice. As Stanlis shows, Frost’s
argument is aimed primarily at the hubristic
rationalists, monists, and optimists of his own
day. In A Masque of Mercy, Frost modernized
the story of Jonah to examine the justicemercy
paradox from a New Testament perspective.
In a debate mainly between Jonah,
St. Paul, and a modern “pagan-religious”
character called “My Brother’s Keeper,”
Jonah argues that God’s mercy to Nineveh
violates strict justice. St. Paul argues instead
that “Christ came to introduce a break with
logic”; while Keeper insists that divine mercy
is “a frame-up to insure the failure/ Of all of
us.” Jonah finally admits that he lacked the
courage and faith to believe in the mystery of
God’s omnipotence. Through St. Paul, Frost
voices his own humanistic lesson: “We have
to stay afraid deep in our souls/ Our sacrifice
–the best we have to offer…Be found acceptable
in Heaven’s sight.” As Stanlis concludes,
“To Frost, God always remains an invisible
reality of the ideal spiritual perfection toward
which man aspires, with courage and daring
and a fully free commitment, and with the
softer virtues of love, faith, and humility”
(193).

Frost’s dualism also determined his political
and social philosophy. For him, the central
issue was the tension between the individual
and society. He extolled the New
England virtues of self-reliance, personal
freedom, and courage—the strength of character
he believed best cultivated in a rural
setting. At the same time, he affirmed the
need for social responsibility and loyalty to
region and nation, to counterbalance the
“scot-free” impulses in man. Fiercely patriotic,
he felt American democracy to be the
best political system devised, and condemned
Marxism and fascism as monistic systems that
destroyed individual freedom and responsibility.
Belief in dualism and the “trial by
existence” led Frost to condemn any social or
political program that promoted what he saw
as a collectivist, monistic social order that
weakened individual self-reliance. Thus he
opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, the League
of Nations, and the United Nations as illusory
attempts to homogenize men and women
in ways that undermine the personal struggle
with the dualities of good/evil, reason/impulse,
freedom/ social obligation. Frost’s
essential conservatism remained unchanged
in his later years, despite accelerating
globalism, the horrors of Auschwitz and
Hiroshima, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Conservative principle also shaped
Frost’s philosophy of education, again rooted
in dualism. His brilliant essay “Education by
Poetry” affirmed metaphorical thinking as
the centerpiece of learning, developed through
a disciplined mastery of the three R’s, plus
tradition and custom. He much admired
Newman’s “Idea of a University,” deplored
the modern system of “progressive education”
at all levels promoted by John Dewey
and his minions, which Frost regarded as
another pseudo-scientific monism and utopian
delusion.

Stanlis’ study is a masterpiece of impeccable
scholarship and will likely stand as the
definitive analysis of Frost the philosopherpoet.
To do full justice to the poet’s complexity,
Stanlis commands a wide range of knowledge
of the Western philosophical tradition,
as well as political, scientific, social, and
literary theory. It is written with a force of
logic, clarity, and persuasiveness that puts to
rest all the over-simplified critical and popular
misconceptions of Frost. It is supported
throughout with detailed references to specific
poems in which Frost’s dualism is clearly
manifested. In all, Stanlis’ book is a groundbreaking
and indispensable contribution to
our knowledge of this great American poet,
and a life’s work brilliantly consummated.

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