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Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Robert Frost and Fear of God


One of the nicest surprises about Robert Frost is that he's hilarious. His public poetry readings are at least as funny as any stand up comedy act, where he quietly deprecates the toil of constructing his poetry, and makes light of his often furiously disharmonious relations with other poets, and with the Modernist trend of poetry and society in general. But my favourite surprising thing about Frost is the way he so even-handedly serves both the smug and self-satisfied with pastoral poesy porn, and the thoughtful with dark and poignant truth, at the same time and within the same, single poem.

Frost as an old man would often talk about what was missing in himself. He said he was shy and solitary owing to a "lack of continuity" in himself. A kind of constant discontent and inability to remain "consistently happy". A perennial dissatisfaction, if you like. And as he got older he would muse a great deal about god, especially the concept of the fear of god. I remember a documentary I watched once, where a shot of the great poet throwing apples at a fence with boyish glee suddenly cut to him standing, droop shouldered and forlorn, beside a wheelbarrow full of hay. "I think about the fear of god," he said. "I think about those who died on the battlefield crying out, 'May my sacrifice be worthy of you.' To me, that's the fear of god." And then he stared silently into the camera for a few long seconds, before we cut to him making jokes about Ezra Pound in a great hall, with the kids rolling in the aisles.

What's funny about this is that Frost's poetry indicates a lack of belief in at least any kind of god who is present or active in the world. He never accepted, the way Yeats insistently did, that truth or god or beauty was transcendental in any way. He always insisted that truth was only held in the moment of its construction, and that god simply wan't coming to help. Consider the first stanza of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
He will not see me stopping here 
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   
The owner of the world the persona finds himself in is absent. He will not see the lone figure stopping to watch the snow fall. This is a constant trope in Frost's poetry – the lone figure, observing, but unobserved by any other intelligent consciousness. Always and again this idea of a solitary person in land owned, but with no owner in evidence – roads, plantations, gardens, mown grass: all shaped landscapes forlorn of their shaper.

There is a sense, sometimes submerged and sometimes more or less open, of a simmering anger at the contented and self-satisfied. The injection of horror and poverty into pastoral idylls in the poems in North of Boston is probably the most open example. We see it in Mending Wall, where musings on the futility of re-building a fence-line every spring give rapid way to a contemplation of Neolithic man murdering his neighbour with an upraised rock. Or in The Tuft of Flowers, and many others, where every instance of pastoral idyll is slyly, unfailingly, tainted with the deathly imagery of scythe and reaper. It's as if Frost, as an observer of humanity, thinks us far too blithe – far too pleased with ourselves – and wishes to remind us of our frailty, our insignificance, and our essential ugliness.

I identify most strongly with Frost on this point. To the lone observer, humanity as a whole seems far too gruntled with its own appearance, powers, opinions, personal truths, and intrinsic significance. Such contentment is as alien to me as it was to Frost. Like all good poets, Frost's effort was at least partly directed at decoding the universe, and in doing so he could see the bald effrontery of human self importance, and the ludicrousness of unreflective happiness in the face of the ordeal of life. The last stanza of Stopping by Woods highlights this with Frost's typically disconcerting bittersweetness.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
Put it all together, and Frost tells us what I think we know in our dark, solitary moments to be true, deny it as we might: that it is never time to be entirely pleased with ourselves. There is always work to do, always the fear of the nameless and vast beyond our comprehension to drive us, and miles and miles to go before we can sleep.

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