December 12, 2008


Robert Frost and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (Peter J. Stanlis, Spring 2000, First Principles)

[Frost’s mother] noted that, through the study of astronomy, that thinker taught that “our faith must not be hampered by scientific doubts, our science must not be hampered by religious scruples.” She also quoted to her son a line from Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts”: “An undevout astronomer is mad.” Clearly, Burell’s interpretation of Darwin’s theory came into sharp conflict with Frost’s religious orientation as derived from her Swedenborgian faith, which he remembered fondly throughout his life for its “purety of spirit.”3 His mother’s guiding spirit, moreover, was an important early factor in shaping both his religious and his aesthetic beliefs. Throughout his life Frost was fascinated by Christian theology and the conception of creativity as “correspondence,” so that from the very beginning of his newly acquired interest in Darwinian evolution he was faced with the philosophical problem of how to reconcile the materialism in Darwin’s naturalism with the strongly opposed religious beliefs taught by his mother.4

Belle Frost considered Darwin’s theory on the origins of life and on how changes occurred in species both shocking and blasphemous, and she warned her son against listening to such an avowed atheist as Burell. Apparently, at first, Frost agreed with her view that the botanist’s belief in Darwin’s theory was a form of undevout madness. He even expressed his agreement in a limerick titled “The Rubaiyat of Carl Burell”:

There was a young fellow, begad,
Who hadn’t but wished that he had—
God only knows what,
But he blasphemed a lot
And showed he was generally mad.

But in talking with his mother, when he referred to himself as “a freethinker,” Belle feared that he shared Burell’s impiety, and she responded, “Oh don’t use that word. It has a dreadful history.”5Frost reassured his mother that he had not become an atheist, but that he was merely rethinking the whole relationship between his conventional belief in God and the claims of the revolutionary theory propounded by Darwin.

In an editorial essay in his high school paper, the Bulletin (May 1892), Frost clarified what he meant by rethinking his beliefs:

A Custom has its unquestioning followers, its radical enemies, and a class who have generally gone through both these to return to the first in a limited sense,—to follow custom,—not without question, but where it does not conflict with the broader habits of life gained by wanderers among ideas. The second class makes one of the first and third. This is best exemplified in religious thought and controversy. 6

What is most remarkable about his schoolboy statement is that it is the first recorded instance of what became his lifelong habit of mind regarding how he responded to challenging new ideas. It became characteristic of the poet to listen open-mindedly to whatever anyone had to say in expounding his scientific, religious, aesthetic, political, or educational beliefs, and then to judge its truth and personal meaning to him: “I’ll accept anybody’s . . . premises. I’ll let them have their say, and then I take it my way.” Thus, in a highly eclectic manner, as a “freethinker” or “wanderer among ideas,” Frost responded both to Darwin’s theory and to the great range of arguments by both critics and defenders of his theory.

Frost’s open-mindedness regarding Darwin’s theory functioned within the all–inclusive frame of reference provided by his philosophical dualism of matter and mind or spirit, and by his growing conviction that all thinking (except possibly mathematical cognition) was essentially metaphorical. This meant that, unlike spiritual monists, such as religious fundamentalists, he did not reject Darwin’s theory out of hand; and in sharp contrast to materialist monists and scientific fundamentalists who defended Darwin’s theory and used it as a weapon to attack religious belief, he at once retained his lifelong belief in God and respect for religion while accepting as valid whatever appeared to be true in Darwin’s thought. Whether in religion, science, literature, or anything else, fundamentalism was to Frost a state of mind and feeling which treated conceptual ideas and philosophical principles with literal-minded rigidity, and often with a fanaticism that lacked all sense of metaphor.

The trinity of Frost’s open-minded eclectic method, his philosophical dualism, and his faith in metaphorical thinking makes his response to Darwin’s theory of evolution extremely complex. His deep knowledge of that theory, his positive response to much of it, his important differences with its propounder, and his conflicts with some of its defenders and critics require an accurate and thorough study of the whole controversy over evolution as experienced by him throughout his adult life. Only after making such a study can readers of his poetry make those important distinctions that are necessary to appreciate the nature and extent of the impact that evolutionary theory had on his thought and verse.

Frost was aware that his mother continued to be troubled by Darwin’s theory, especially that crucial aspect of it which supposedly traced the origin of man and his descent from a common ancestry with the apes. To counteract that view, she quoted from Genesis, II, 7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”7Belle Frost was unaware that in a letter to Thomas Henry Huxley (December 25, 1859), Darwin had candidly admitted that “ . . . we know nothing as yet [of] how life originates,”8and that in the Origin of Species (Chapter XV), he had noted “the old belief in the creation of species from the dust of the earth.” In response to this expression of his mother’s troubled state of mind, Frost had a “ready answer,” which he came to regard, in retrospect, as his first memorable witticism: “You say, God made man of mud, and I think God made man of prepared mud.”9Frost was well read in Emerson, and he may have taken his cue from that thinker’s statement: “Man was made of social earth.” In fact, he became so fond of his youthful witticism, made in 1892, that he repeated it, with significant variations, many times until his death in 1963.

In a poetry reading at Bread Loaf (June 30, 1955), he provided an addition to his witticism that explicitly harmonized Genesis with Darwin: “It doesn’t make any great difference to give up saying that God made [man] out of mud. All you have to say is that God made him out of prepared mud—worked it up from animal life. So it comes to the same thing—it’s a Darwinian thing.”10Metaphorically speaking, as it applies to the origins of life and the evolution of man, it does indeed come to the same thing, whether the appeal is primarily to things of the spirit, as in religion, or to things rooted in matter, as in scientific theory. Frost’s philosophical dualism of spirit and matter provided him with different metaphorical ways of explaining the same phenomena. Implicit in his witticism is his general belief that, despite apparent contradictions, there was no real conflict between science and religion, only “contrarieties” that needed to be resolved into a harmonious whole. The basic method of resolving all such contrarieties was through the free play of metaphorical thinking—the exploration of comparisons, contrasts, similarities, differences, analogies, parallels, parables, and so on, which involved saying spirit in terms of matter, and matter in terms of spirit.

It is enormously significant that sixty–seven years after Frost first made his witticism, he contended in “The Future of Man” symposium (1959), that the general public eventually came to reconcile its faith in traditional religion with Darwin’s theory by accepting the core idea in his witticism.

It speaks volumes that the many who believe in evolution guided by God are today considered Darwinists.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2008 12:20 PM
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