Robert Frost: Old Testament Christian or Atheist?
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: GSloan@liberator.net) [January 28th, 2003]
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 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 were 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.
He 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 Khrushev and other heads of state. Attendees 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.
“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.”
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 public perception of Frost as genial, witty, and patriotic sage. It glosses over the “dark” Frost batted around by scholars.
“The 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 (“But” means “only”):
[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”)
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. Frost liked to call himself an Old Testament Christian. Though he might joke 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.
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 familial influences were mingled with ideas the poet gleaned from science and philosophy, particularly Emerson, Thoreau, Darwin, George Santayana, and William James. Santayana, 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 happiness.
None 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—
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.
When 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 angry Almighty:
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”)
In 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.”
In a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1937, Frost expatiated on the jealousy: “What 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.”
In 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 living.”
Despite 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.”
When 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 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.
He also 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.
The poet’s 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.”
So what was Frost really? Old Testament Christian or atheist?
Elinor Frost, his wife, thought he was, like her, an atheist. In 1920 (the couple had then been married twenty-five years) Frost confided to 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 neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. A part of him, the rational part, must have known his wife was right. But in the subterranean recesses of his mind, the ancient fear continued to lurk.
Toward the end, his piety hardened. In his last letter, written a few days before he died, he insisted we cannot save ourselves unaided. “Salvation,” he said, “we will never have from anyone but God.”
Chalk up another one for Yahweh.
Resources and Avenues for Further Study
Google: Robert Frost
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