A Letter to Robert Frost

OUR friendship, Robert, firm through twenty years,
Dares not commend these couplets to your ears:
How celebrate a thing so rich and strange —
Two poets whose affection does not change;
Immune to all the perils Nature sends,
World war and revolution and kind friends.
Something there is that does n’t love a wall;
Your apples and my pines knew none at all,
But grow together in that ghostly lot
Where your Vermont meets my Connecticut.
Ours is a startling friendship, because art,
Mother of quarrels who tears friends apart,
Has bound us ever closer, mind and heart.
Before the War, among those days that seem
Bathed in the slanting afterglow of dream,
Were happy autumn hours when you and I
Walked down that street still bright in memory.
I was a boy apprenticed to my rhymes,
Your fame already rose above our times,
Your shadow walking tall, my shorter gait, —
Both taller now, the difference as great.
Of wisdom I learned much, an artist’s creed
Of work the flower, and worldly fame the weed;
I have forgotten phrases; it remains
As part of me, it courses in my veins.
From many conversations I remember
One on a windy day in late November.
The sly recluse of Amherst in those times
Moved me, in spite of questionable rhymes.
We talked of women poets, nothing else,
From Sappho to our friend at Sevenels.
‘Miss Dickinson is best!’ You shook your head.
‘Perhaps a genius, but mad,’ you said.
Alas for Emily, alas for me,
That now I go much further than agree:
Once irresistible, now merely coy,
Her whims, her verbal airs and graces cloy.
Taste changes. Candid Louis Untermeyer
Consigns his past editions to the fire;
His new anthology, refined and thrifty,
Builds up some poets and dismisses fifty.
And every poet spared, as is but human,
Remarks upon his critical acumen.
Ah, could we know what vogue will be to-morrow,
What plumes of Paradise our pens could borrow!
Or to the Communistic muse entrust
Our sparrow feathers ruffling in the dust.
You bid me name no names, so I shall heed
By using cypher he who runs may read.
In short, I note the vogue no longer smiles
On one un-Briton in the British Isles;
Nor heeds from Italy that ‘wandering voice’
Whose absence should make Idaho rejoice.
Ah, sir, commend me to your quiet wit
That smiles at fraud and so dismembers it.
These twenty years the precious frauds I’ve seen
Relieved themselves of gall — and me of spleen.
You with relentless patience watch them go,
My rage prolongs their stay a week or so.
Yet not alone among the modem names
Does Fashion choose; she rummages in Fame’s.
One poet to be praised — and sometimes read —
She chooses, and the rest are safely dead.
One must be sacrificed if one is praised,
As Crashaw mounts, Shelley must be abased.
With what astonishment we witnessed Donne,
A poet we have always counted on,
Whisked from his niche among the second shelves
And placed with Chaucer, Shakespeare, — and ourselves!
While Blake departs, abandoned by the vogue,
To Beulah-land, where Reason is the rogue;
And Hopkins, fashion’s choice to follow Donne,
Rattling his rusty iambs, climbs the sun.
Blest be thy name, O Vogue, that canst embalm
A minor poet with a potted palm;
Make me immortal in thy exegesis, —
Or failing that, at least a Doctor’s thesis.
Yet, Robert, through the charlatans who swarm
Like blowing gnats before the social storm,
The stout immortals stand in this our time,
With manners, morals, metres, — even rhyme.
Not every age can triumph over death
In the bright train of Queen Elizabeth,
And our ingenious and cynic age
Has not quite lost the better heritage.
Take Robert Bridges, laureate forever,
Calm as the sea and flowing as a river,
Who knew his source and end, but also knew
The homely country he meandered through.
Who, when we thought his broadening current spent,
Flung high that sun-capped wave, his testament,
The Testament of Beauty. Of the few
Titles he gave his poems, all are true.
And Robinson, what other age but this
Has bred so classic an antithesis:
Mild in his manner, mocking in his eye,
Bold in appraisal, and in statement shy,
He knew all men, — the Man against the Sky.
And urbane Santayana, who alone
Among philosophers still seeks their Stone;
Whose irony, in golden prose alloyed
With doubt, yet yields not to the acid Freud;
Who after years of rightful fame defrauded,
Wrote one bad book at last, — and all applauded.
If gold get rusty, what shall iron do?
If poets, prophets, critics, are untrue
Why blame the statesmen, who in turn reflect
On dusty mirrors the uncircumspect?
When poets laugh at metres, with applause,
Why punish citizens who laugh at laws?
All follies regimented are akin —
Free verse and Bolshevism and bad gin.
Surely a subtle spring, in flow or drought,
Waters one age or burns another out.
When worlds go mad, all things go mad together,
Nations, philosophers, the arts, the weather.
Beholding war, Nature, who brooks no rival
In blind destruction, threatens Man’s survival.
While underground he plants his dynamite,
She answers with an earthquake overnight.
While from ingenious wings his bombs rain down,
She rips the clouds apart and cities drown.
Machine guns clatter, but her ticking worm
Of death bombards his armies with a germ.
Nor can the propaganda of slow doubt
That one by one puts all faith’s candles out
Find Nature unprepared; her insect ranks
For Man’s destructive unbelief give thanks.
The ant, the termite, and their brotherhood
Wait busily, as all good soviets should,
To crack his concrete and to gnaw his wood,
And after war and storm have done their worst,
To view the last man, as they viewed the first.
From such dark thoughts only Dark Ages come;
I see not yet the end of Christendom; —
And if an end? In cloistered minds like yours
The classic wisdom of the past endures;
The ancient learning from the ancient guilt
Survives, and from slim chances worlds are built.
Black-armored barons, after Rome declined,
Warred on each other and on soul and mind;
Yet while they slept, cell after lonely cell,
Nearsighted eyes bent to the pliant quill.
The barons’ mail adorns Park Avenue,
Quite spurious; — the words remain as true
As when, frail thread amid a mad sword-dance,
They led men to the sunlit Renaissance.
The things that make outlive the things that mar,
Rome and Byzantium crashed, — but here we are;
And even the dark spectre of dark ages
Calls forth old warriors who shame our sages:
Which would you choose, to put it in a word, —
To die with Arthur? or to live with Ford?
Men are as cells within a mighty brain
Swept with one thought of happiness or pain;
Thus when the Thinker gazed beyond all time
Egypt and China blossomed at their prime,
Both worshipers of beauty and of peace.
That mood resolved. He meditated Greece,
Whose culture, wedded to the arts of war,
Brought beauty forth and slew the thing it bore.
Less fortunate we who brought forth the machine
And dare not slay it, lest the truth be seen
That we, now helplessly identified
With the machine, would perish if it died.
We watch each other, our fates intertwined:
It feeds us canned goods and we feed it mind;
It kills us and then calls us from the grave
With new machines, lest it should lack a slave.
In war, where no one wins but the machine,
I pondered as I brought the wounded in:
Of these three choices — death, deformity,
Or patched for war again, who would not die?
And now the final triumph: the star actor
In ‘Steel: a Tragedy,’ makes God a tractor.
Yet let us still believe, in thinking deeper,
These are but twitchings of a troubled Sleeper
In whom the nightmare rages, and who can
To-morrow dream the incredible — a Man.
Why, Robert, look! it’s after midnight. Always
At this hour I hear stirrings in the hallways.
You would not mind. If I recall aright
You and Miss Lowell would converse all night,
Seldom agreeing, always the best friends
That poetry can shape to different ends;
Myself, too sleepy then as now, would run
To catch the last car back at half-past one.
Heigh-ho, I’ve seen worse things than morbid youth
Inscribes in his dark diary. The truth
Remains that my few perfect moments seem
Eternal, and the bad ones but a dream.
Like Johnson’s friend, I woo philosophy,
But cheerfulness creeps in in spite of me.
So does the spirit sift a life away
Into its best, preparing for the day
When, from its golden nucleus, shall rise
That happy part attuned to happier skies.
But happier skies? That phrase is fustian stuff, —
This green Connecticut is good enough;
My shining acres and the house I built,
All mine, all earned, all mortgaged to the hilt.
If I may make some changes here and there
When halos play on my unhallowed hair,
New England winters well might be curtailed —
In May it snowed, and in July it hailed.
Rosebugs should all be banished, and with those
The people who see rosebugs on the rose.
And yet I shrink from this celestial boom,
Lest, with improvements, also I assume
Responsibility for things in bloom.
I might forget wax flowers of huckleberry,
I might leave out the fragrance of wild cherry;
In short, I am content to leave to God
The natural world. O that our statesmen would!
And so good night with lullaby, my friend,
Republics fall and even letters end,
And Horace at one elbow sings of home
Far more eternal than the hills of Rome; —
Cæsar, in fact, must marvel, looking down,
To find an Ethiope in his Gallic crown.
And Gibbon, at my other elbow, gives
Wry testimony of what dies, what lives, —
A secret not to be imparted, but
Known to Vermont and to Connecticut:
New as to-morrow’s dawn, old as the Nile,
In Nefertiti’s tears and Shakespeare’s smile,
And all so simple in an age of guile;
For Horace on his acres has no fears,
His empire grows through twenty hundred years.
Good night, I take unconscionable time
A-dying, but in rhymeless years a rhyme
Bids one converse beyond the crack of dawn, —
It now has cracked, and dew is on the lawn.
Since I write oftener than you, I vow
Another letter twenty years from now.