the imaginative conservative logo

Robert FrostRobert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, by Peter J. Stanlis.

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 Lawrance Thompson’s three volume 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 justice mercy 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 philosopher poet. 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.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Modern Age.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: