The Gift Outright

THIS is not the first time I have assisted a President of the United States to start a library. The first occasion was some twenty-odd years ago at Hyde Park in the state of New York, where a building had been constructed to house the papers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; which was all very well except for two facts: that I was Librarian of Congress at the time, having just been appointed to that office by Mr. Roosevelt, and that the Library of Congress, until the date of my appointment, had itself been the usual repository for presidential papers.

Mr. Roosevelt’s invitation to me to speak at Hyde Park — if “invitation” is the word I want - was, I daresay, kindly meant; there was to be nothing personal about the affront. But it is one thing for an invitation to be kindly meant and another thing altogether to accept it in kind, particularly when it involves a speech by the director of the library to which invaluable papers ought to have gone, celebrating the opening of the library to which they are going. I made, I am told, a memorable impression. Indeed, my friend and classmate Dean Acheson, on whose unfailing candor I have always been able to rely whether I wanted to or not, assured me on my return to Washington that no public servant in the history of the Republic had ever appeared to better advantage with his pants firmly caught in the crack of the door.

There are differences, of course, between that day and this. I don’t work for Mr. Kennedy; or if I do, it is from the private heart, not from public office. And as for the Library of Congress, it has long since grown accustomed to the alienation of hoped-for papers, some having been alienated as far west as Independence, Missouri. But whatever else is altered, the fact remains that a library, or the idea of a library, is here again in process of inauguration by a President of the United States and that I seem again to be part of the proceedings. If precedents mean anything in this revolving world, the probability must be very great indeed that no good will come of it.

No good, that is. to me. Amherst can be more hopeful. And so too can this October valley and the old, soft, lovely hills off to the west of it where I have lived for half a biblical lifetime. The people of this countryside may forget in ordinary human course what anyone says on this occasion, but they will remember for many, many years that a young and gallant President of the United States, with the weight of history heavy upon his shoulders, somehow found time to come to our small corner of the world to talk of books and men and learning.

I say “small corner,” not in modesty but in Yankee modesty, which is a different thing. We may not be as conspicuous at this end of the Commonwealth, Mr. President, as some you must have heard of at the other, but we bear up. We remind ourselves that it was a citizen of this very town of Amherst who was once described by a famous daughter as “too intrinsic for renown,” and we like to think that now, nearly a century after Edward Dickinson’s death, there are still men in these valley villages and up along the Deerfield, Bardwell’s Ferry way, and in the hills behind, who deserve the tribute of Emily’s unfractured crystal of pure poetry, pure praise. But whether we are right or not — whether we and our neighbors are too intrinsic for renown or merely too remote for notoriety — we know an honor when we see one, and your presence here we take to be just that: an honor to this college and these counties and ourselves.

Not to mention Robert Frost. For Frost, of course, is another matter, as he always was. There is an old Gaelic tale of the West Highlands called “The Brown Bear of the Green Glen,” which has a whiskey bottle in it so definitively full that not a drop can be added, and so fabulously copious that nothing is lost, no matter how you drink it. Frost’s fame is like that bottle: it can’t be added to because it is full already, and it won’t draw down however it is drunk. We may name a library for him. We may go further than that; we may give his name to the first general library ever to be called for a poet in America, which is what this library will be. We may pass even that superlative of honor; we may designate as his the first general library but one in the entire world to bear a poet’s name — the one being the A. S. Pushkin State Public Library in farthest Kazakhstan in the U.S.S.R. We may do what we please. Nothing whatever will have happened to the bottle; it will merely continue to be full.

This, I suggest, is a phenomenon which might well concern us on this particular occasion — the secret of that bottle. Is it the mere bulk and body of the fame which keeps it so miraculously brimming — the fact that no poet of our age, with the single exception of Yeats himself, had as much fame in his lifetime as Frost had at the end of his? Ts it the quantity of the reputation, the number of people who knew Frost’s name or recognized him on the streets or crowded into those wonderful talkings which some called readings and lined up afterward for autographs they rarely got?

I doubt it, and so do you. We know a little in our time and country about fame in bulk and its effect on lasting fame. At least we know what happens when a whole new industry is established, dedicated to nothing but the manufacture, in larger and larger quantities and in shorter and shorter periods of time, of crude, bulk reputation; we have seen its fruits. If great actresses are in short supply, as they invariably are, two or three to a century being about all the natural processes can produce, the industry will assemble you a dozen assorted Greatest Actresses in a single season, inflate them with adjectives, and launch them like blimps to float about for a year or three or maybe five or longer. But then what happens to them? Or to the greatest novels, the greatest plays, detergents, sedatives, cigarettes, laxatives, which circle with them?

Or even to the greatest men? And even when they are great? For the industry processes everyone, true as well as false. Let the actual thing itself appear — Keats’s seldom-appearing Socrates in fact and in the flesh — and the assembly line will multigraph him and pass him current by every mechanical means until nothing is left of the single, human fact of the man himself but his bubble reputation in as many million mouths as the new technology can activate. It takes an Einstein to survive it. And even Einstein had reason to be grateful for the isolation of his vast achievement out among the galaxies of space and mind where the copywriters couldn’t follow.

Yet Frost too survived, and with no such adventitious aid. Everything about him — the seeming simplicity of his poems, the silver beauty of his head, his age, his Yankee tongue, his love of talk, his ease upon a lecture platform — everything combined to put him within easy reach — which still could not quite reach him. No one in my time upon this planet was so pursued by fame as Frost, so “publicized” in the specific sense and meaning of that word. But even now, a few months after his death, the “public image,” as the industry would call it, has already begun to change like elms in autumn, leaving enormous branches black and clean against the sky.

Frost too, it seems, but in a different way, an opposite way, is “too intrinsic for renown,” too intrinsic for renown to touch. Something in the fame resists the fame as burning maple logs — rock maple, anyway — resist the blaze. And what it is, I think we know. At least there is an evening, not many years ago or many blocks from here, an evening others in this room remember, which might tell us. It was his eightieth birthday. Frost had been in New York where every possible honor, including some not possible, had been paid him, and returning here to Amherst and his friends, he fell to talking of what honor really was, or would be: to leave behind him, as he put it, “a few poems it would be hard to get rid of.” It sounds a modest wish, but Frost knew, as his friends knew, that it wasn’t. Poems are not monuments, shapes of stone to stand and stand. Poems are speaking voices. And a poem that is hard to get rid of is a voice that is hard to get rid of. And a voice that is hard to get rid of is a man. What Frost wanted for himself in the midst of all that praise was what Keats had wanted for himself in the midst of no praise at all: to be among the English poets at his death, the poets of the English tongue.

Which means something very different from being talked about or passed from mouth to mouth by reputation. Reputation — above all, literary reputation — is a poor thing. It rises and falls. Consideration leads to reconsideration, fashions change, and no one yet has heard the verdict of posterity because posterity has never come. Frost will be praised and then neglected and then praised again like all the others. It wasn’t reputation he was thinking of that wintry evening; it was something else. To be among the English poets is to be, to go on being. Frost wanted to go on being. And he has.

It is this fact — this actual and not at all imaginary or pretended fact — I wish to speak of for a moment: the persistence of this man. It has a certain relevance to what we do here. On the surface of these proceedings Frost’s part in them is purely passive: nothing is asked of him but to receive the honor we now pay him and to relinquish a great name he does not own, having bequeathed it to the future — three syllables to be carved above a doorway, Frost and stone to age together. In fact, however, if one includes among his facts the fact I speak of, these roles are quite reversed: like that of the citizens of Colonus at the death of Oedipus in Sophocles’ great play, the passive part is ours. He gives; we take.

Not that Frost was Oedipus precisely, except, perhaps, in his constant readiness to talk back to sphinxes. But there is something in the ending of that myth that gives this myth of ours its meaning. You remember how it goes: the wretched, unhappy, humbled, hurt old king, badgered and abused by fate, gulled by every trick the gods can play on him, tangled in patricide and incest and in every guilt, snarled in a web of faithful falsehoods and affectionate deceptions and kind lies, exiled by his own proscription, blinded by his own hands, who, dying, has so great a gift to give that Thebes and Athens quarrel over which shall have him. You remember what the gift is too. “I am here,” says Oedipus to Theseus, King of Athens, “to give you something, my own beaten self, no feast for the eyes. . . And why is such a gift worth having? Because Oedipus is about to die. But why should death give value to a gift like that? Because of the place where death will meet him:

I shall disclose to you, O son of Aegeus,
What is appointed for your city and for you —
Something that time will never wear away.
Presently now without a hand to guide me
I shall lead you to the place where I must die! 1

And what is that place? The Furies’ wood which no man dares to enter, the frightening grove sacred to those implacable pursuers, ministers of guilt, who have hounded him across the world.

These things are mysteries, not to be explained,
But you will understand when you have come there.

The gift that Oedipus has to give is a great gift because that beaten, suffering self, no feast for the eyes, will face the dark pursuers at the end.

Frost, I said, was not Oedipus, and so he wasn’t. But he too has that gift to give. And I can imagine some future reader of his poems in the library that will bear his name feeling, like Theseus, that the beaten and triumphant self has somehow, and mysteriously, been given him — a self not unlike the old Theban king’s. Quarrelsome? Certainly, and not with men alone but gods. Tangled in misery? More than most men. But despairing? No. Defeated by the certainty of death? Never defeated. Frightened of the dreadful wood? Not frightened, either. A rebellious, brave, magnificent, far-wandering, unbowed old man, who made his finest music out of manhood and met the Furies on their own dark ground.

We do not live, I know, in Athens. We live now in an insignificant, remote, small suburb of the universe. Reality, if one can still speak of reality, is out beyond us in the light-years somewhere or farther inward than our eyes can see in the always redivisible divisibilities of matter that is only matter to eyes as dim and dull as ours. Homer’s heroic world, where men could face their destinies and die, becomes to us, with our more comprehensive information, the absurd world of Sartre, where men can only die. And yet, though all our facts are changed, nothing has been changed in fact: we still live lives. And fives still lead to death. And those who live a life that leads to death still need the gift that Oedipus gave Athens, the gift of self, of beaten self, of wandering, defeated, exiled self that can survive, endure, turn upon the dark pursuers, face its unintelligible destiny with blinded eyes and make a meaning of it: self, above all else, without self-pity.

This is the self that Frost had, and has given, and will go on and on to give, and we should thank him for it.

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.
  1. Adapted from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, Harcourt, Brace.