Who is not more than his limitations?
I didn’t like Robert Frost. I didn’t want to like Robert Frost. I was young; he seemed snowy-haired and crinkle-faced from birth. My sensibility skewed urban, while his wasn’t just quaintly rustic, it was straight-up agricultural: the man had actually farmed for a living. Over and over, I’d meet the same lines—I took the road less traveled by, Miles to go before I sleep—quoted with glaring incomprehension by people otherwise dead to poetry. Whatever vigor might once have belonged to these wan platitudes, their use as tokens of wholesome affirmation tarred their author, for me, as corny beyond redemption. Footage of his delivery from a lectern, his demeanor in an interview, was just too grating: the well-honed folksiness, the sly twinkling, the tiresome Yankee uplift. His “jokes” were didactic and ponderous. Even the images of his face—photographs, frontispieces, postage stamps—radiated a smarmy complacency, a smirking condescension, that I found insufferable. And beyond the irritants of his branding (as we call it today), there was the substance of what Frost did and wrote.
He affected a sturdy yeoman iconoclasticism even as he accumulated prizes and honorary degrees by the cluttered wall-full. He frequently opined in a crankishly retrograde way about the events of his time, sniping at progressive reform in general and the New Deal in particular. He ascended quite easily, even eagerly, onto the pedestal reserved for those upgraded to “national treasure” status, and basked in the meretricious glow of JFK’s Camelot like a favored court poet in the days of the Pax Romana. Some of his most famous poems (accompanied by his glib comments on them) explicitly validated an unreconstructed American exceptionalism that was plainly hubristic then, and the nemesis of our national crisis now (I’m looking at you, “The Gift Outright”: The land was ours before we were the land’s). With few exceptions, his poetry was content to disport itself within the vanilla precincts of insular High Americana. There it flourished, in a mental space constricted by agreed-upon ways of seeing—and of not seeing—the chronically violent realities of our national life, doing its small part to preserve white and white-aspirational Americans in their tenuous state of virtuous ignorance. (Let the skeptical reader try to imagine a Frost poem that dares to mention, let alone confront, segregation.) The respect he nevertheless enjoyed, especially from people I didn’t respect, was to my younger self more than sufficiently disqualifying; so for many years I would read him no more than was absolutely necessary. And through it all, I was sure my recoil was an exercise of literary virtue.
Most readers will have noticed that this litany of distaste contains little mention of Frost’s poetry, except as a function of his public persona. That’s because these extra-poetic details served to exempt me from any direct engagement with the work. What I knew, or thought I knew, entailed disapproval tout court of the man, his poetry, and its influence. Besides, at some point all mature readers cross a watershed beyond which they cannot help but contemplate with dread how their lists of must-read volumes continually lengthen, even as their reservoir of reading hours continually dwindles. I’m therefore often quite glad to read a fresh, authoritative hatchet job, or a damning bulletin of lurid kompromat, if it cancels for me a long-deferred reckoning with some iconic author I’ve yet to read. So for those of us descending the far side of that bleak ridge line, articles about (for example) Heidegger’s loathsome and obsequious embrace of Nazism will uncork the secret joy of, just maybe, never ever having to trudge the long, dreary path of his writings. So I felt a perverse satisfaction each time I came across a new factoid “proving” that Frost’s conduct was so reprehensible his poems need make no claim on my time. But of course, inferring the value of an oeuvre from a verdict on the life is a dubious exercise, which those of us susceptible to it perhaps commit out of habit, or lazy groupthink, or the misguided belief that boycotting such work somehow amounts to a moral act on the reader’s, i.e. nonreader’s, part. It does not; or if it does, it is one of a peculiarly self-defeating kind.
In classical logic, ad hominem arguments seek to convince by deflecting attention from the truth-value of the statement under debate to the moral circumstances of the audience or speaker; typical examples might run You should believe this because you’re conservative, or You shouldn’t believe him because he’s conservative. As a form of persuasion, it is entirely fallacious and often quite successful. By aligning a proposition with or against the audience’s prejudices, it can trigger an emotional response that overwhelms the still, small voice of reason in order to compel assent, however unwarranted. Poems, of course, are not arguments, even if they sometimes seem to assert factual, disprovable claims about reality; but unlike an argument, a poem can make false claims, contradictory claims, or no claim at all, and still be precious: as Picasso said, art is a lie that shows us the truth. Dismissing a work because we disapprove of its creator’s beliefs or behavior, I keep having to remind myself, is a fallacy of an analogous kind. And the error seems all the more indefensible if disapproval precedes that fullness of knowledge required by simple justice, which can derive only from experience of the work itself.
Eventually, it was the endorsement of Frost’s poetry by other poets—D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney—that compelled me to take up his books, and I found much to admire, indeed to love, there: so much, in fact, that my opinion of the man was altered gradually but irrevocably for the better. No one could be entirely irredeemable who had written, of birds inhabiting a derelict barn, that
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
— “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” (1923)
Nor had his imagination been completely eclipsed by ego, if he could write thus about walking past a grove of trees:
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went—
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn’t been.
— “Come In” (1942)
How foolish it had been, I eventually came to see, how unjust, to judge this poet by everything except his poetry—the life’s work for which so much had been sacrificed, the unique achievement that ultimately makes any poet worth remembering at all! I went on to learn as well how incomplete my biographical facts had been in the first place: there was a vulnerability to the man I had not suspected, acts of bravery and kindness I had been disinclined to credit, a stubborn integrity not to be disregarded. I still have no doubt, though now it’s more a matter of regret than indignation, that on topics beyond poetry Frost often pontificated out of timidity, resentment, or ignorance, sometimes uniting all three in a single utterance. And it is still the case that he was for decades a closet conformist, availing himself of the social perquisites accorded to the bohemian artist without risking his place in the plush bosom of midcentury American academe; a promiscuous crowdpleaser addicted to celebrity, whose neglected family seems to have paid an unconscionable price for his relentless careerism and egotistic neediness; an envious, calculating, and at times heartless operator. Yet however much Frost disappoints by proving himself all too evidently a flawed human and an unadmirable product of his time, the poetry nevertheless seems to have easily skipped free from the dead weight of his many failings. Except, that is, of one.
It is hard not to infer a profound moral inadequacy from Frost’s long and conspicuous silence about American racism. He was publishing, touring, lecturing, and editorializing—what he termed “barding around”—throughout the decades of Tulsa and Scottsboro, of lynchings, of Emmet Till’s murder and the ordeal of the Little Rock Nine. Yet about the barbarism Black Americans were enduring from the white majority—North and South, rural and urban—this most loquacious of poets found little to say. Regarding the poems themselves, the worst that can be said is that their silence amounts to complicity with the white supremacist consensus of their milieu: a grave charge indeed at any time but especially so now, when the prolonged struggle to purge U.S. society of its racist toxins feels at once so urgent and yet, as police killings of unarmed Black men and women continue, so far from attainment. Such complicity, common enough among the ranks of white American poets of the last century, may suffice to turn away many readers, Black and non-Black alike, from Frost’s work, perhaps pending a later reconsideration, perhaps forever.
Our choices about which authors to read—even more, which to reread—are small but meaningful acts of self-definition, in which refusal can signify as much as inclusion. Today, as the ranks of literary gatekeepers (editors, academics, critics, and yes, authors) slowly continue to diversify, earlier writers are undergoing, as they must, reappraisal by standards emergent from the belatedly included, as well as by those inherited from the old guard. But whatever plot on the asphodel-strewn slopes of Parnassus a poet ultimately attains, the poems that live (as opposed to those that merely survive) are the ones that blaze with relevance both to the world we actually inhabit and to others we are free to imagine. Frost is only too typical of white twentieth-century U.S. poets in failing to confront the nation’s racial realities, or to envision how equality for all might be more than just a slogan. And so, when it comes to the ongoing refusal by so many white Americans to fully acknowledge the humanity of their Black compatriots, I think it is obvious that Frost has little to offer us, beyond his poor example.
The problem with Frost’s poetry is therefore, as the poet himself once posited, “what to make of a diminished thing.” Here the task of analysis is complicated by the fact that in his published work Frost is never, to my knowledge, explicitly racist. There are some apparently slighting references to Native Americans and others (for example, “The Vanishing Red,” in Mountain Interval). There is also an ambiguous but disturbing passage late in the title poem of New Hampshire that certainly seems to refer, with reprehensible flippancy, to the Klan.
But because these examples are debatable and far between, his readers—provided their attention not stray beyond the page—are free to enjoy what is on offer untroubled by any reference (except that of omission) to the greatest societal evil of Frost’s and our time. But not everyone will care to experience poetry, even great poetry, on such terms. Regarding my own continued enjoyment of Frost’s work, I remain conflicted, at times seeing it as the ahistorical hedonism that is one marker of white privilege; at others as the triumph of humanistic tolerance over ideological puritanism; sometimes as just one of the knotty paradoxes that allows both art and life to defy the systemizer’s comb and clippers. Yet perhaps this is one of the great redemptive generosities of art, that it first reprieves us from the intractable ills of our fallen world, then returns us inspired afresh to love the place regardless. As much the outraged observer of our age’s horrors and fatuities as anyone, I cannot help but like the poems less because of something—call it Black-directed empathy—that is just not there . But liking them less is not the same as not liking them at all; and so the question confronting any reader of such work becomes: what if, freighted with what I know, I go on reading and loving it?
Consider the account given by one of Frost’s staunchest admirers, the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, about the effect of coming upon a racially derogatory comment in one of Frost’s letters:
[…] the sudden encounter of Frost as a racist should be neither sudden nor shocking but normal for a white New England poet, which is how he suddenly forces the reader of this remark to think of him. But the passage is hardly without a lasting effect. It does something, from now on, or at least for a while, to this reader’s delight in Frost, a delight that may now be damaged [… .]
—“The Road Taken,” Homage to Robert Frost (1996)
While it matters, as Walcott earlier acknowledges, that this passage occurs in a private letter, it will still affect many readers’ experience of the poems, because we tend to prefer the authors of the literature we love to be themselves lovable, or at least not despicable. The race of the reader is likely to matter as well; most Black readers will not be at all surprised, while many white readers will soothe their qualms, should they feel any, with pat excuses; some won’t need to do even that. It turns out that reading Frost is a lot like living in the U.S.A.: the quality of the experience will very much depend on the color of your skin, though there will be no shortage of voices, mostly white, denying that such is the case; there will be days when it makes you proud, and days when it feels utterly shameful; and events will go on happening that tempt you to ditch the whole enterprise once and for all. In time, any shock you might feel comes to seem misplaced: for how could race, which lacerates America in every other conceivable way, not similarly splinter the readership for poetry?
Yet Walcott’s commitment is clear:
Poetry is its own realm and does not pardon. There is nothing to forgive Frost’s poetry for. There are, instead, many poems to be grateful for, so many poems, indeed, that the man, the biography, the symbol of Yankee resilience are all negligible, since poetry pronounces benediction not on the poet but the reader. A great poem is a state of raceless, sexless, timeless grace, and [Frosts’s work] is too full of such benedictions for this reader not to pick it up and continue. — Ibid
A damaged delight is, after all, still a delight; and given that knowledge has an insidious way of eventually diminishing all delights, once we come to know Frost we must choose between denying ourselves the good that is in his work, and enjoying it for what it is. Worrying about whether we can or should forgive Frost’s poetry is entirely beside the point, for it is instead the poetry that forgives us. Forgives us for what, you ask? For the flagrant inconsistency, approaching hypocrisy, of taking pleasure in the work of a man we condemn; a pleasure that, by apparently betraying the cause of racial justice, seems to implicate us in Frost’s—and America’s—failings. Walcott’s point, hard as it may be to accept, is that a fully achieved work of art somehow escapes beyond the limitations of its creator, even those of its audience, into a realm where the ordinary moral concerns of choice and responsibility and intent simply cease to apply.
This is not at all to denigrate the power of some poetry to inculcate values in its audience. But however much or little we believe that poets are, in Shelley’s famous phrase, the unacknowledged legislators of the world, there is a significant difference between an active, forthright promotion of evil and a tacit, shrugging acquiescence in it. Put another way, Frost’s poems are bystanders, not perpetrators; they are a symptom, not a cause, of America’s crimes against its Black minority. In mirroring reprehensible white attitudes of their time by doing virtually nothing to oppose them, the poetry’s actual contribution today toward bolstering racist structures nevertheless remains negligible. For this reason, the pleasure it offers is not like the pleasure of, say, smoking, which is indisputably harmful to ourselves as well as to others around us. Rereading “The Most of It” or “Directive” or “Home Burial” just isn’t like that; the vast and lamentable absence of Black characters, of Black experience, from these poems doesn’t somehow contaminate us with their author’s bigotry. In fact, the opposite might well be true: readers may emerge from the world of the poetry both grateful for what it has to give, and saddened, even outraged, by what it lacks. Whether or not we agree with Auden that poetry makes nothing happen, not reading poetry certainly does: none of the world’s problems, racism included, is advanced closer to resolution by canceling the achievement of Robert Frost. What such a move would accomplish, I think, is to deny us—readers of today and tomorrow—our proper sustenance, leaving our lives a little less joyful, and our world a little more impoverished.
Difficult as it may be to conceive, a day will come when the urgent battles of our time, whether won, lost, or forfeited, will end. Authors like Frost will likely then be read (assuming anyone is still reading) without much regard for whether they wrote from the right or wrong side of our bitter political conflicts. I sometimes fantasize about a future where the campaign for equality and for the recognition of every person’s humanity has been victorious. Frost, along with other writers of his ilk, could then be appraised by a readership that would be, by its embroilment in other disputes and its division along other lines, as utterly uninvested in the outcome of our current strife as we are in the victors of medieval theological debates. It will no doubt seem curious to such distant readers that a poet as gifted, intelligent, and otherwise humane as Frost should have been unable, or unwilling, to see Black people and to include their distinctive experience of America in his poetry. But in a society no longer riven by grotesque inequities, no longer demented by the pathologies of its racial imaginary, the felt severity of this failure will likely have ebbed, becoming a matter for historical memory and scholarly study. The point of such a farfetched scenario is only to highlight how contemporary responses to Frost’s poetry are contingent—as how could they not be?—on contemporary circumstances. Changes in those circumstances will alter the reception of Frost’s work; and while his personal failure will deserve no mitigation, readers will be free to note it, regret it, and move on.
But now and for the foreseeable future, of course, the U.S. will almost certainly remain a country as unable to treat all its people with justice as it is unwilling to examine its own history in good faith. Given this status quo, is it not then a blatant exercise in white privilege to suggest that Black readers—who must inhabit the real America and not some improbable post-racial Neverland—should forget, for a white writer’s benefit, the monstrous realities of white supremacy? If Frost, practically by his own admission, knew nothing of Black people, never wrote for or about them, and almost certainly shared the racist attitudes of his time, what possible reason is there for Black readers (and for anyone in solidarity with Black America) to care about a poetry that cares nothing about them? Finally, isn’t it obvious that because he pretty much wrote only about and for white people, reading his work today is tantamount to collaborating in the very erasure of Black experience from U.S. life that has long been a chief goal of the white supremacist project?
I would begin my response to such questions by pointing out that once Frost is distinguished from his poetry, many of these criticisms can properly apply only to the man. Just as there are writers who are broader, nobler, braver than their books, so there are writers who shrink—morally, spiritually—by comparison to their works. Frost clearly belongs among the latter. As Walcott is neither the first nor the last to point out, a great poem has an uncanny ability to slip the tether of its origins, attaining thereby an independent existence where the limitations of its maker are forgotten like the scaffolding dismantled from a finished monument. Frost’s poems are among the relatively few examples of serious poetry to have acquired, and to retain, some currency in the popular culture of America, which rarely takes any notice of its poets, let alone embraces them. Being so much better than the man, the poems are therefore welcome where the man is not. And though their silence about Black life can indeed be construed as erasure, this is mainly because the context in which we read them is a society where the drive for such erasure is real, massive, and ongoing. Absent such egregious circumstances, the poems might well incur no blame for omitting worlds of experience to which their author lacked access. It is plainly Frost’s fault that he never registered the moral imperative of acquiring such access; it is America’s fault that its white majority was embarked on a generations-long project of ruthlessly devaluing Black life. But it is not the poetry’s fault. And perhaps it says something about the redemptive force of poetic traditions that a man like Frost, despite being who he was and what he was, somehow wrote poems largely unsullied by the racism of his time and place.
Yet the main reason I believe it is permissible, indeed necessary, to uncouple the poems from their circumstances is neither a misguided hope that progress has today rendered our racial problems any less dire, nor an urge to salve white consciences troubled by Frost’s bigotry, nor a need to rescue cherished literary heirlooms from the wrath of a woke poetry audience. It is instead the simple fact that white racism’s core tenet—the superiority of pale-skinned people to others—is patently false, a lie long propagated by religion and capital, by malice and power-lust, by imperialism, pseudoscience, and advertising. But not, it bears repeating, by these poems. They are simply too well-written, too insightful, too illuminated by an intelligence perhaps not entirely Frost’s, to do anything so idiotic as to endorse such vicious nonsense. And in conforming to the aesthetic necessity of excluding that nonsense, they manifest a moral integrity Frost himself apparently lacked, and perhaps would not even have acknowledged. A better way of putting it might be to say that the poems possess a conscience of their own, which overlaps only partly with Frost’s; when it came to race, what was permissible for him was, often enough, impermissible for them.
Certainly the voice we hear in the best poems can no longer be confused with Frost’s, not least because it possesses a humane and magnanimous authority whose ground, given the facts, simply cannot be located within Frost’s biography:
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see. […] What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himelf, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
— “The Wood-Pile,” (1914)
Nothing, except dispensable preconceptions, prevents us from imagining the wielder of that ax to be a Black man; the same goes for the speaker, indeed for both. In leaving these possibilities open, the maker in Frost wrought better than the man in him could know, for the maker is the legatee of poetic traditions spanning centuries, even millennia, while the man was but the busy creature of a brief season. I think lines like those above demonstrate poetry’s power of benediction, as described by Walcott, both in the hold they maintain on us while we read and through the subtle changes they work afterward. It was only after I encountered this power—elsewhere, of course—that I began to understand the reason for my own long avoidance of Frost’s work: I was afraid of liking it, which I suspected might disclose something about me that I wouldn’t care to acknowledge. Now, of course, I not only like it, I love it; and the only disclosure I think this love makes about me is how I now accept, as in my youth I dared not, that “we love the things we love for what they are.”*
* “Hyla Brook,” Mountain Interval (1916)