“God’s Own Descent”: Dante, the Incarnation, & Frost’s “The Trial by Existence” (Myah Gebhard, February 6th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

However, Frost introduces his own poetic shift in these braided traditions by suddenly plunging into an incarnational focus at the end of the poem with the Christological figure of the brave soul. In the sixth stanza, he writes, “Nor is there wanting in the press / Some spirit to stand simply forth / Heroic in its nakedness, / Against the uttermost of earth…./ And the mind whirls and the heart sings, / And a shout greets the daring one…. / And the awe passes wonder then, / and a hush falls for all acclaim.”25 Frost’s previous reference to the daring souls as those “that are slain” and the description of this choice as a “sacrifice” is strongly reminiscent of the thirteenth chapter of Revelation, where silence falls in heaven before Christ appears as the Lamb “slain before the foundation of the world.”26 Scholar Cai Pei-Lin has noted that, besides the biblical resonances, Frost also appears to allude here to Milton’s figure of the Son of God.27 In Book III of Paradise Lost, God asks if anyone in heaven is willing to descend to earth to “redeem / Man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save.” The angels stand “mute / And silence was in heaven,” until the Son stands forth to become mortal flesh for man’s sake, telling the Father: “Behold me then: me for him, life for life / I offer…. / Account me Man; I for his sake will leave / Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee / Freely put off.”28

Frost’s allusion to Milton indicates that the sacrifice of this soul that all the other spirits behold at the top of the mountain is, in fact, the sacrifice of the Son of God in becoming flesh. Pei-Lin has also noted that Frost’s later description in “The Trial by Existence” of this event as God breaking “a flower of gold” is another reference to Milton. Further on in Book III, after the Son has declared his intention to become incarnate, Milton moves into a description of amaranth and gold as flowers connected with the Tree of Life and divinity itself: “Their crowns inwove with amaranth and gold / Immortal amaranth, a flower which once / In Paradise, fast by the tree of life / Began to bloom, but soon for man’s offence / To Heaven removed where first it grew, there grows / And flowers aloft shading the fount of life.”29 The association of this golden flower with the Son means that its “breaking” in the final stanzas points to a certain cruciform move inherent in the Incarnation itself. Thus, Frost pushes past Dante’s reticence by emphasizing that the vision at the top of this purgatorial-type mountain is Christ: in other words, the beatific vision is God-in-the-flesh. The human souls in his poem ascend the cliffs in order to look with “awe [passing] wonder” on Christ as the “brave soul” that chose to become flesh and broken for our binding together.30

From this turn towards the Incarnation, Frost moves into a deeply sacramental view of the world, one in which spirit and matter are irrevocably knitted together and purified by Christ’s presence. After describing the Son of God as a broken flower of gold, Frost continues to explain that God has used this broken flower as “the mystic link to bind and hold / Spirit to matter until death come.”31 Christ is portrayed here as ultimately fulfilling what Frost sees as the essential poetic vocation: to unite spirit and matter. The Incarnation is the final word, there will never be a future in which the spiritual is disconnected from the material. For Frost, paradise cannot be the place where one beholds pure spirit; instead, it is the place where one is finally able to experience their full unification in a divine affirmation of creation and matter.

In the last stanza, Frost turns to the experience of earthly life. Although spirit and matter are bound together in Christ as the broken flower, this does not mean that persons have this perception during their life. In fact, forgetfulness and lack of perception are a key aspect of earthly suffering. Frost draws attention to this in his recognition that “the essence of life here” is “still to lack / The lasting memory at all clear, / That life has for us on the wrack / Nothing but what we somehow chose.”32 These lines express how earthly life is often characterized by an inability to perceive meaning or freedom within suffering; Frost thinks this is because we cannot remember our own will to become enfleshed. However, he finds comfort in the fact that we are not alone in the suffering of earthly experience: “in the pain” there is “one close, / Bearing it crushed and mystified.”33

The description of this “one” as “crushed” and “bearing” human pain immediately recalls the image of Christ as the crushed flower in the previous stanza. His sharing in human flesh means that he is capable of being “close” in human suffering, and this proximity of divine presence is capable of transforming that experience. Frost’s grammar here is creatively ambiguous: one can read “crushed and mystified” as applying both to Christ himself and to the pain that is borne. This connection reinforces the idea of transformation. The descriptor “crushed” alludes to the breaking of the flower and also likely to Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ as “crushed” for man’s healing.34 The description “mystified” likewise contains a multilayered significance. Its more modern and common meaning of confusion echoes the forgetfulness of human experience that Frost attended to earlier in the poem. However, it also has the etymological source and older meaning of “full of mystery,” “mystical… of secret rites,” and mystic as “one who has been initiated.”35 This reading of the word in Frost’s final line emphasizes the sacramental significance of human experience and all of physical creation. Finally, Frost says that it is through this union that we are “wholly stripped of pride.”36 The binding together of spirit and matter allows for a process of purification that is a creative reworking of Dante’s Purgatorio, closely linking purgation as well as paradise closely to earth.

“The Trial by Existence” is an example of Frost’s strong and brilliant reworking of Dante’s poetic tradition in his own work. He incorporates many of Dante’s images, but he also pushes past the ending silence of Paradiso by making the incarnate Christ the sight at the top of the mountain. For Frost, the Incarnation is the religious pinnacle and affirmation of his poetic vocation to unite spirit and matter. It means that no matter how deeply one may enter into the spiritual, one never gets beyond the physical: they always mutually reveal one another. The religious concept of a sacrament or mystery expresses this very thing and is thus deeply incorporated into the ending of Frost’s poem. These theological themes make sense of the way that Frost continually uses his poetry to ascend to the highest spiritual places and yet always return with the conviction that “Earth’s the right place for love,” for Christ is the one in both these movements come together: in which divine descent and human ascent are united.37

It required Christ’s despair for the unification to occur.

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