Robert Frost: Showing Off to the Devil

Gary Sloan

An 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 an international celebrity. He garnered 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 are 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.

Frost 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 state. Attendees at his eighty-eighth birthday dinner in Washington, D.C., included Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Felix Frankfurter, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and friend Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior.

Twice 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.

The tribute mirrors the entrenched public perception of Frost as a genial, witty, and patriotic sage. It glosses over the “dark” Frost familiar to scholars.

“The universe that he conceives,” said literary critic 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 planet Earth:

[The huge meteor] lately seen to glint
In sunlight near us in a momentous swing
Is something in a Balearic sling
The heartless and enormous Outer Black
Is still withholding in the Zodiac
But from irresolution in his back
About when best to have us in our orbit
So we won’t simply take it and absorb it.

The inner world was equally unsettling:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. [from “Desert Places”]

In his early years, Frost’s 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. From 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.

The disparate familial influences were mingled with ideas the poet gleaned from science and philosophy, particularly the work of Emerson, Darwin, George Santayana, and William James. Santayana, one of Frost’s 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 happiness.

None of the influences wholly preempted the others. For much 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 designer—or a designer 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—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop 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?—
If design govern in a thing so small. [“Design”]

When the darkness thickened, natural phenomena assumed a sinister mien. A gathering storm could presage a universal holocaust orchestrated by some raging inscrutable something:

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by a cliff,
The cliffs in being backed by a continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken. [“Once by the Pacific”]

Despite the sporadic recrudescence of cosmic anxiety, the mature Frost gravitated intellectually toward agnosticism, even atheism. 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 Frost concocted for poet Amy Lowell traced his long devolution: “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.”

When asked to expatiate on his beliefs, Frost was typically playful, wry, and facetious. He liked to tell the unwary that he was an Old Testament Christian. He told his official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, that he, Frost, had a “passion for theology.” He was intrigued, he said, by Thomas Aquinas’s disquisition on the Holy Ghost:

You 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.

Frost also gratuitously floated his latest theory on prayer:

It might be an expression of the hope I have that my offering of verse on the altar may be acceptable in His sight Whoever He is. Tell them I Am, Jehovah
said. And as you know I have taken that as a command to iamb [to write in iambic meter] and not write free verse.

Frost’s putative passion for theology is waggishly manifest in his closet drama A Masque of Reason or The 43rd Chapter of Job. Here, a sheepish Jehovah, after extricating himself from the burning bush, apologizes to Job for having afflicted him with unmerited torture to show the world “There’s no connection man can reason out / Between his just deserts and what he gets.” Pressed for the real reason for the torture, Jehovah responds: “I was just showing off to the Devil.”

Elinor Frost, the poet’s freethinking wife, considered her husband an atheist. In 1920 (the couple had then been married twenty-five years), Frost confided to poet Louis Untermeyer:

Elinor has just come out flat-footed against God conceived either as the fourth person seen with Shadrack, Meshack, and Tobedwego [sic] in the fiery furnace or without help by the Virgin Mary. How about as a Shelleyan principal or spirit coeternal with the rock part of creation, I ask. Nonsense and you know it’s nonsense Rob Frost, only you’re afraid you’ll have bad luck or lose your standing in the community if you speak your mind.

Frost didn’t retort. It is a wise wife that knows her own husband.

Further Reading

  • Harris, Kathryn Gibbs. Robert Frost: Studies of the Poetry. Boston: Hall, 1979.
  • Kazin, Alfred. God and the American Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
  • Thompson, Lawrance. Selected Letters of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964.

Gary Sloan

Gary Sloan is a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana.

An 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 an international celebrity. He garnered 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 …

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