January 29, 2017


The Classicism of Robert Frost (Gorham Munson, Imaginative Conservative)

"I may as well confess myself the author of several books against the world in general."

What did Frost mean by these lines, I asked; for up to then, Frost had been classified by Amy Lowell, Waldo Frank and other champions of the "new poetry" as a votary of the new movement in American literature. But in "New Hamp­shire" Frost seemed to disassociate him­ self from the new wave of American writers. He took a stand against their tendencies and revolts.

I was made equally curious by Frost's reply in "New Hampshire" to "a narrow choice the age insists on." According to the poem, Frost had been commanded: "Choose you which you will be--a prude, or puke, / Mewling and puking in the pub­lic arms." "Me for the hills where I don't have to choose" was Frost's first reply, and then he said: "How about being a good Greek, for instance?" In that question I seemed to discover a key to Frost's poetic intentions, but I needed corroboration. That confirmation I received from an acci­dent of reading that same summer at Woodstock.

Edwin and Vera Seaver were living at Zena, near Woodstock, and Edwin was producing a short-lived "little magazine," 1924--had it survived it would have changed its name with the new year each year--to which I contributed an essay on the negativism of T.S. Eliot. I liked to walk over from "Ma" Russell's boarding house to the Seavers' shack for chit-chat about letters and the young generation. One afternoon, Seaver told me of the stimulation he had received from Irving Babbitt's famous course at Harvard on Rousseau and romanticism, and he so far overcame my prejudice against Babbitt, which I had acquired from the aspersions of H.L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks, that I found myself carrying Seaver's copy of Rousseau and Romanticism back to "Ma" Russell's. Soon, I was engrossed in this illuminating study of the imagination, its nature, kinds, and function, and the further I read into it, the more light it seemed to throw on the poetics of Robert Frost. Babbitt's study of the imagination gave me an explanation of why Frost went against the general drift of the world and why he wanted to be a good Greek. I saw that Frost was not a romantic poet, as some would have it, but rather a classi­cal poet, as nobody seemed to be remark­ing.

So I wrote a paper at the end of that summer of '24 that was intended to show that Robert Frost was a poet of humanistic temper. "The purest classical poet of America today is Robert Frost," I de­clared at the outset of this paper. This was the "something different," the "some­thing new" that I said about Frost that led him to leave a note in my mailbox a couple of years later.

I did not know at the time that Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, the leaders of the New Humanism, as it was to be called in the last years of the twenties, had discovered the humanistic nature of Frost's poetry as early as 1916. In that year, Frost was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. "It was over the dead body of Robert Underwood Johnson, and with the backing of Wilbur Cross, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More that I got in," Frost told Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant. "Johnson's resistance had its source in my early refusals by magazines. My back­ers could only bring me in as a Humanist." "Which means a Platonist," Frost mistak­enly added, forgetting that while More was a Platonist, Babbitt might better be termed an Aristotelian.

Nor had I then read an essay on Frost's neighborliness by a follower of Babbitt and More, a young Amherst professor, G.R. Elliott, in which Frost's neighborliness was differentiated from humanitarianism, a romantic cult Frost despised. As Law­rence Thompson was to observe long after Elliott's essay, "the metaphor which represents the key to Frost's social outlook is the metaphor of community relationship: neighborliness." Frost felt, in Thompson's well-chosen words, that "the well-meaning pity of the humanitarians encourages the abandonment of that self-discipline and individual action which is the basic unit of social strength." [...]

The most classical trait of Frost, I should say, is the high place he gives to form in his ars poetica. In his early conversations with me, he several times men­tioned form as one of the highest literary qualities. Four years later, at one of his New School for Social Research lectures, I took down verbatim his definition of creation: "Creation has its end implicit in the beginning but not foreknown." Has a better definition of organic form ever been offered? Frost said it again in 1939 in his prose introduction to Collected Poems. Of the course of a true poem, he said that "it has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood­ and indeed from the very mood." The principle of the unforeseen but predestined is the very principle of growth or organic form, and in its working exemplifies the classical laws of probability and inevit­ability.

Posted by at January 29, 2017 8:16 AM