In this story from August 1955, John Sherrill writes of his time spent with beloved poet Robert Frost.
Robert Frost talks with the subtle indirection that gives such unique quality to his poetry. For weeks after his interview with America’s great poet, Guideposts reporter John Sherrill found the experience meaningful, almost haunting.
The poet, dressed in a gray suit and white shirt open at the neck, was finishing breakfast. His first words were keynotes. Frost looked up. His great eyebrows moved upwards as he spoke.
I hope you won’t ask me to put names on things,” he said. “I’m afraid of that.
Yet that was what I had come to do. And one of the first topics we discussed was what God meant to him in his poetry, as for example in “Bereft,” written after the death of his wife:
Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and day was past.
Somber clouds in the west were massed.
Out in the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.
Frost folded his massive hands—he is a large, well-built man—and spoke softly: “People have sometimes asked me to sum up my poetry. I can’t do that. It’s the same with my feeling about God. If you would learn the way a man feels about God, don’t ask him to put a name on himself. All that is said with names is soon not enough. If you would have out the way a man feels about God, watch his life, hear his words. Place a coin, with its denomination unknown, under paper and you can tell its mark by rubbing a pencil over the paper. From all the individual rises and valleys your answer will come out.”
We reviewed, a little, what I knew about Frost’s life. Perhaps from its rises and valleys a picture would emerge.
Robert Frost was born in 1875 in San Francisco, 3000 miles away from the New England he writes about in most of his poetry. Frost’s family, however, was ninth generation New England, and when his father died, Frost’s mother moved with her son back to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to live with in-laws.
It was while Frost was living with his grandparents that he bought his first book of poetry. As a boy, Frost’s spending money was at a minimum, but he liked to visit bookstores and browse. “I had gone to Cambridge one day,” Frost recalls, “and I was standing in a bookstore, thumbing through Francis Thompson’s famous religious poem, The Hound of Heaven. I became fascinated with his idea that we are not seeking God, but God is seeking us. I bought the book. I spent my carfare for it, and I had to walk home.”
The distance was 25 miles!
It was in Massachusetts, too, that Robert Frost wrote his first poem. In his high school, no English was taught. Only history, mathematics, Greek. In history one day, Frost learned about Cortez, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, and on his way walking home that afternoon, Frost composed a long ballad about Cortez.
“I remember the time so clearly,” said Frost. “I recall how there was a wind and darkness. I had never written a poem before, and as I walked, it appeared like a revelation, and I became so taken by it that I was late to my grandmother’s. The next day I took it to the editor of our school paper, and it was published.”
Nothing was quite the same with Robert Frost after that. It isn’t that he suddenly had a burning ambition to become a great poet. It was more of a stirring, a desire somehow to keep poetry in his life even if it meant difficulties.
And the difficulties were not long in coming. It was apparent to those close to Frost that something had happened. He seemed to have lost all ambition. His grandfather thought he was plain lazy, and began bending every effort to get him settled into some respectable work.
Reflecting on those days, Frost spoke of how no one had confidence in his future. “Where is it that confidence and faith separate?” he asked. “…We have confidence in the atom. We can test the atom and prove that it is there. I have seen an old New England farmer try to test God in this same way. He stood in his field during a thunderstorm and held his pitchfork to heaven and dared God to strike him. You just can’t prove God that way.”
Robert Frost must have had faith in his poetry. It certainly couldn’t have been confidence. He submitted to magazines time and again. Most of his work was returned.
And all this while, pressure was great to pin Frost down, to get him to commit himself to a career. Frost evaded the efforts. His grandfather got him a job as a bobbin boy in one of the textile mills in Lawrence, hoping he would rise through the ranks. Frost took the work, but he refused to advance. All the while Frost was steadily writing.
A little later Frost married his childhood sweetheart, Elinor White. His grandfather bought them a farm up in New Hampshire, but Frost refused there, too, to be classified, pigeon-holed. Reports soon began to circulate through the neighborhood that young Frost milked his cows late at night so he wouldn’t have to get up early in the morning. Frost has always preferred to write at night. But the townsfolk called it laziness.
Then, to help increase the support of his growing family, Frost began to teach school up in New Hampshire. The school was impressed by the stimulation of Frost’s unorthodox classes, where the students were expected to catch the spirit behind Frost’s teaching, not the exact fact. When Frost was 36, the job of headmaster became vacant. Frost was offered the position.
At last, in the eyes of his hometown folk, Frost was on the verge of redeeming himself. Then he ruined it all by committing what they described as an act of supreme shiftlessness—Frost declined the post of headmaster.
“That would have been the ruin of the poetry in me,” he says. “I’d never have taken up my writing again. People called me lazy. Perhaps they were right. I’ve always been careful to protect this laziness.”
It took a long time to gain recognition—until he was 40 years old in fact—but into his poetry Frost managed to instill some of this same haunting subtleness that he sought in his life. There was a quality about his poetry that the 20th century responded to, and now, after 40 years, Frost is recognized as the dean of American poets.
Often Frost has been asked to interpret the philosophy behind his poetry before a group of students. Each time Frost refuses. He says that the poem’s meaning is as the individual reader interprets it. “It must be personal with you,” he says.
So I won’t try to pin Frost down and say, “This is what he has to say.” But I can say what meeting Frost, learning about his life, reading his poetry, talking with him about his views on religion has meant to me.
When I went to see Frost that day I was hoping, I can see now, to put him quickly into a pigeon-hole in my mind, I’d have liked to pin him clown and classify him.
Robert Frost refused. And that is precisely why his interview haunted me so. Let me put it this way.
Imagine that you see a butterfly, and its beauty is something you want to capture and take home with you.
You catch the butterfly and place it carefully on a cardboard under glass.
And to your sorrow, you haven’t caught the butterfly at all. You can examine the thing that you have under glass, and give it a name. But your relation to it is changed. Where once the butterfly had a subtle, vibrant aliveness, the very act of pinning it down has destroyed it for you.
As we make more and more progress controlling and classifying the material world, we are tempted to try to capture more elusive qualities of the spirit in the same way. It just can’t be done. And that to me was Robert Frost’s message. Frost, through his poetry, his life, was saying:
There is a point beyond which the spiritual side of life must be protected, kept sacred as a personal experience, not captured or tested like the farmer with his pitchfork tried to do. As Frost himself said: “You can’t test a stirring. You can’t pin down the God within you.”
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