Cloud Of Witnesses: Robert Frost

My recollections of college are inseparable from New England snow. Our songs were about “the clanging bells, the crush of feet on snow” and “the wolf-wind wailing at the doorways.” I never thought the cold too cold because I was too young for common sense about the senses. Barely had I turned 16 when I showed up at Dartmouth. The infantile mind records some things of which it never lets go, and I have a sharp picture of hurrying in the chill past a man 71 years older than I, with hair like mountains of snow. “You young fellas are always in a rush.” He stopped me, and that is how I first met Robert Frost. I got to know that sing-song voice and do not remember him speaking any other way.

Frost was dead two years later, and while his talks to us young fellas (college was all-male) were rare, there was a gentle hint of a world come all around to its start, for he had matriculated there, but his restless spirit had led him away in his own freshman year. Sometimes he lectured in front of a blazing hearth; he mastered the pose, and even my juvenile eye saw that there was theater in him. He combined the thespian with the Calvinist in his ambiguous line: “Hell is a half-filled auditorium.” Nor was I too young to hear in his chanting kind of reading an icy melancholy. That is how my soft soul encountered the remnants of glacial Calvinism.

Frost gleaned his precise rhythms from the Puritan instinct to be “parsimonious with words.” His mother had been a Swedenborgian, which I think worsened things by mixing Puritan sobriety with unresolved mysticism. “Forgive, 0 Lord, my little jokes on thee and I’ll forgive thy great big one on me.” A generation earlier that coyness had been Sturm and Drang: “The background is hugeness and confusion, shading away into black and chaos.” That took a toll on bucolic reverie: Two daughters had nervous breakdowns and a son committed suicide.

I must say that he did not warm my New England winters, for there was a cold battle going on in him between a benevolent and even elegant God and the God of arbitrary anger and unmerited predestinations. This was his “lover’s quarrel with the world.” His long-dead wife, Elinor, thought that he shared her atheism. Not so. But it was distressfully not so:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars—on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

He was shaped by the anthropomorphism of George Santayana and the pragmatism of William James, but that seemed only to embitter him in his inability to reconcile the light and dark places. His definitive poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is as shocking in its casualness about fear as Goya is in his violence. The grandfatherly benignity that he affected toward the end, as he shuffled and I skipped across the college green, was a calculus of charity in the face of all these deep questions about God that had no resolution in the flinty recesses of a Yankee mind. The only poem of his I knew pretty well was “The Road Not Taken” of 1916, and when my freshman gaucheness asked what the fork in that road really was, he replied: “The fork in the road just south of Thetford Junction.”

It would be a stretch to put Robert Frost in the front row of the great cloud of witnesses, but after reading St. Thomas Aquinas on the Holy Ghost, which he could handle as a lifelong Latinist, he wrote: “You know my mild prejudice against Ghost Writers. But I am sublimated out of my shoes by the thought that in Heaven we will all be Ghost Writers if we write at all. Maybe we won’t write any more than we marry there. Everything will be done out of wedlock and said off the record.”

I do not think an atheist would have disdained free verse as a blasphemy. He said that when Jehovah revealed himself as I AM, it was as a command to write in iambics and not in free verse, and I suspect that is also why he told a rabbi friend that irreligion is worse than atheism. Though he might have found chaos more explicable, a sense of order in the universe raised his wrestling notions of a Calvinist God and a Catholic God to a bleak level of pain. But it may have been a redemptive pain. He freely wrote things out for me, but one day when I asked him to inscribe a Bible he said, “No. I didn’t write it.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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