Robert Frost’s Cold Universe
In reading “The Raven,” Robert Frost likely identified with the following lines: “Deep into that darkness peering / long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, / dreaming dreams no mortal dared to dream before.” While Edgar Allen Poe’s protagonist gazes into an earthly darkness, he also ponders that deepest, most opaque darkness: The universe.
Poe is typically remembered as America’s “dark” writer. Frost, by contrast, seems … different — a cheerful New Englander full of light, naturalistic poetry. But the gulf between Poe and Frost is not so vast.
Frost was one of the darkest poets who ever lived.
The uncertain universe
The universe, like existence, is uncertain. Its ceaseless entropy — with its apparent apathy towards all, living and dead, organic and inorganic — sometimes renders us helpless to do aught but wonder, fear, and doubt. Too often, we are far from humble in our wondering. We delude ourselves that the most recent scientific paradigm explains all, forgetting that the collective data our keenest sciences and most reasoned philosophies have squeezed from the cosmos is meager, something like the area of a pin’s tip against a table. We know nothing. Who or what made us? Did something make us? Does life outlast death? Why are we here? Is there a why? And so on.
Like many transitioning into adulthood, in my early twenties my personal crisis of belief peaked. I desperately craved meaning, yet dreaded living in Shakespeare’s cosmos, “full of sound and fury” — “signifying nothing.” At core, I feared I was searching for meaning in a meaningless world. Why start a project — in our case, life — if that project is instantly erased upon completion? Absurdity pervaded all.
I spent considerably energy protesting that conclusion. Too young and (to be honest) awkward for enlivening experiences like love, I searched for the truth in a second-hand way that came naturally. I read. I devoured everything from On the Origin of Species to Mere Christianity. I selectively studied the Bible and meandered through the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I tried making head or tales of the Bhagavad Gita. I perused Plato’s Phaedo for reassurance that there was something beyond earth’s material veil. When falling asleep, I did so beside a laptop blaring debates between religious apologists like William Lane Craig and empiricists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.
My dilemma was as follows: Despite my craving for spiritual revelation, I could not reason myself away from atheism. Like Leo Tolstoy before his conversion to Christianity (recounted in his Confessions) I feared that without God any notion of meaning is illusory.
Nonetheless, no matter how hard or often I wracked my brain, reason’s conclusion was always the exact one I despised: That the universe is meaningless — consciousness a bizarre cosmic accident that emerged through sheer serendipity from the brilliant supernovas heralding creation. (This nihilism has withered with age. For me, Francis Bacon was right: “[A] little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy, bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”)
While the cosmos may lack objective meaning, art provides subjective meaning. When caught within a poem’s sweet cadence, every moment feels suffused by meaning. Even the most mundane objects begin to shine. Past and future are revealed as fictions; the present pervades all. And so during my crisis of meaning, reading and re-reading Frost proved a most powerful consolation.
Unfortunately, though dabbling in Frost usually inspired me, depth in Frost sometimes inspired depression. The woods of Frost’s poetry may have been lovely — but they were also dark.
Indeed, as Lionel Trilling notes, upon penetrating the surface of Frost’s poetry one uncovers a “terrifying poet”. Far from benign, Frostian metaphysics paints the universe as an uncaring machine where truth is shrouded in ambiguity, waste is “of the essence of the scheme,” and death is a constant. Analogized to a god, Frost’s universe is neither the judgmental God of Judaism and Islam nor the benevolent God of Christianity; it is, instead, the dancing Shiva, Nataraja, the Hindu deity who prances this way and that, creating and destroying with complete indifference. To Nataraja, humans are not even playthings. We are objects — objects in the way of the anthropomorphized universe, the ever-dancing Shiva.
Many resist this view; Poe may be America’s dark bard, but Frost is as comforting as American pie. Their reticence is understandable. For a long time, scholars and casual readers alike did not think Frost macabre. “[I]n an age when writers [like] Eliot and Stevens seemed … perverse highbrows, the common reader could feel vindicated in his bafflement by turning to schoolbook favorites such as ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘The Road Not Taken,’ with their traditional meter and New England dialect.” To the casual reader the variegated trees in “Stopping by Woods” do not represent sleep, unconsciousness, ambiguity, release, or death. They do not represent anything. They are trees. Yet to careful readers, the woods represent (among other things) Thanatos, the Freudian death instinct, the cognitive dissonance that comes from a desire on the one hand to give up on life and on the other hand to march on anyway. Certain defeat awaits because certain death awaits, and to be human is to know one will die — but to live anyway. As Ralph Ellison wrote, “humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.”
Frost was tragically aware of death. His father died of tuberculosis in 1885, when he was eleven. His mother died of cancer in 1900. Only two of six children outlived him. A brother committed suicide. Aside from potential heredity factors (Frost committed his younger sister to a mental hospital in 1920), these tragedies probably contributed to Frost’s clinical depression, a disease he and his wife shared and endured together. No wonder Frost said he could sum up all he had learned about life in three words: “It goes on.”
It is true that certainty rather than uncertainty and tangibility rather than abstraction seem to rule in Frost’s poems. On its face, his poetry concerns natural — comforting — things: snow, trees, birds, squirrels, and leaves (though usually dead leaves). Taken literally these are harmless. They are the positive aspects of nature that soften its negative ones. Woods are “dark and deep” but they are also “lovely.” Nonetheless, as evidenced by the death wish in “Stopping by Woods,” in Frost we find a universe that is anything but ordered. We find chaos — the “hidden terror of Robert Frost.”
Even Frost’s explicitly dark poems have been misinterpreted and cast in a positive light. Take “The Road Not Taken.” Clearly, the protagonist is lying when he says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference”; in the preceding stanza, Frost makes clear that both paths “equally lay / in leaves no step had trodden black.” Yet only the last three lines have infiltrated the collective psyche, and so, for most the poem’s message is therefore not a sardonic one of egoistic self-deception, but an inspirational one of forging new paths. Indeed, though the title itself — “The Road Not Taken” — connotes nostalgia stemming from untaken roads, readers usually emphasize the taken road.
Taken together, “Stopping by Woods” and “The Road Not Taken” exemplify ambiguity’s centrality in Frostian metaphysics. As Charles Hands writes, “Skepticism and doubt occur again and again in a number of Frost’s better poems … The universe always holds the menace of the uncertainties.” The universe is menacing precisely because of its uncertainty. The truth is no more solid than water, and it is gone as soon as one reaches for it.
By labeling Frost’s poetry “terrifying,” Trilling triggered a revolution that eventually led critics to re-evaluate Frost. Not nature, but nature’s waste, became the theme undergirding Frost’s poetry. Critics began to perceive the dark lurking beneath the light. Trilling therefore accomplished “something … few toast-masters in history have ever done: In his brief remarks, he permanently changed the way people think about [Frost’s poems].” As Trilling and Randal Jarrell write, “Criticism of Frost has [until now] accomplished only the first two stages … recognition and acceptance. It has at last arrived at the threshold of the third, the phase of understanding and full discovery.”
What did critics discover? That aside from being vast, deep, ambiguous, and (seemingly) meaningless, the nature in Frost’s poetry represents waste — endless waste. Humans, consisting of stardust — the hydrogen and nitrogen atoms forged in the fractal supernovas emanating from that scientific Prime Mover, the Big Bang — are not merely part of that waste, but its apotheosis. We live lives that seemingly brim with colorful meaning but that are ultimately rendered meaningless by death. As Ernest Becker wrote in Denial of Death and as Kierkegaard noted before him, to be human is to be half-animal and half-soul — a simultaneous god and worm. What a fate!
This focus on waste is especially evident when from Frost’s lecture ‘On Extravagance,’ delivered at Dartmouth in November 1962, less than two months before he died. The lecture began innocently enough. Frost recalled the “extravagance of the universe.” But as in his poems, dark soil underlaid his words’ grassy surface. “What an extravagant universe it is,” Frost said. “And the most extravagant thing in it, as far as we know, is man — the most wasteful, spending thing in it — in all his luxuriance.” While extravagance has positive connotations, waste is a sin. As Adam Kirsch notes, in the Judeo-Christian tradition waste demands divine retribution. With Frost it is not even clear such retribution is possible. Worse, neither science nor religion seem capable of saving us. Entropy is fundamental; whether creation was material or divine, waste was of the essence of the scheme. If God is a watchmaker, he is also a watch-destroyer. He is Nataraja, and though he created the watch, he seems to care little if its constituent parts break down. After all, he can replace them — forever.
Waste returns to Frost’s poetry over and over. Leaves wilt and fall to earth only to be forgotten, trampled by younger, greener flora; adults wither and ready for death as the overconfident young grow and ready for life. Generations come and go in Heraclitan fashion. Despite death’s omnipresence, most seem unaware of our common fate. We celebrate birth; we proudly display newborns; we divert our eyes from death. This bias towards youth and fear of reality is especially evident in the West.
When an ant dies in “Departmental,” society continues; the others continue working, playing, and (especially) mating. The whole does not stop for a constituent part. “No one stands round to stare. / It is nobody else’s affair”; and at the end: “It couldn’t be called ungentle. / But how thoroughly departmental.” The ant colony is like humanity — a churning mass. What does the whole care if one small part dies? Do we mourn or celebrate the hourly births and deaths of our cells? Even things that seem most golden — the greatest writers, the wisest statesmen, the tallest marvels, the most prolific philosophers, the most perceptive scientists, the most golden sunset, gold itself — ultimately whither. Entropy conquers all. “Nothing gold can stay.”
“Design” takes this Darwinian universe a step further. (Trilling calls it one of Frost’s most terrifying poems.) The poem’s narrator has found “a dimpled spider, fat and white, / On a white heal-all, holding up a moth.” He wonders at the sight: “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”? The answer is “design of darkness,” and it is implied that this design governs even in things so small as spiders, moths, and flowers. This is no biblical design — as Kirsch points out, the carnage implies something more purposeless than directed — but design by evolution, which really is saying no more than design by serendipity. That the spider, heal-all, and moth are at core made from the same stuff as we humans is terrifying. The animal world is cruel, and the human world (we are constantly reminded) is but a subset of the animal one.
The difference between a man and an oyster is one of degree.
Nothing above implies Frost was irreligious; evidence suggests he was (though his wife thought him atheist). Like most intelligent men, he seems to have been a man with a split mind — exalting nature even as he recognized its cruelty. In the natural world there is both good and evil, suffering and pleasure, and Frost’s poems — centered on nature — naturally reflected this dichotomy. “Stopping by Woods” and “The Road Not Taken” betray a view where truth is uncertain; “Nothing Gold Can Stay” elucidates Frost’s conception of waste as not just a part of the universe, but its very essence; and finally, poems like “Home Burial” — or even those seemingly trivial poems where winter turns to spring and summer turns to fall — suggest that death is essential to life. Waste governs everything — even, as we see in “The Span of Life,” creatures so friendly as dogs: “The old dog barks backward without getting up. / I can remember when he was a pup.” While Frost speaks of dogs here, he also describes us. Time degrades us, rendering us waste that is treated the same as any other waste — burned or buried — and it does this precisely when we can be of the most use to the world. In the face of it all, continuing to live may be irrational; that certainly was the view of Camus and some other existentialist philosophers. But human nature does not yield even to reason. “[W]hen to the heart of man / was it ever less than a treason / to go with the drift of things, / to yield with a grace to reason”?
God or nature has given we humans a trying existence — but not an impossible one. As we see in “Bond and Free,” Frost recognizes love, for all its denial of freedom, provides safety that in itself is liberating. Thus, we are not completely unarmed in the darkness. In addition to presenting a problem — the maddening impenetrableness of an uncaring and absurd universe, Frost furnishes an answer: Love. And though the essence of the universe may be waste, the essence of love is creation.
As Frost knew, “life goes on.”