The Agitated Heart
by Theodore Morrison
THE only way to describe a man so complex as Robert Frost is to say that he was a bundle of paradoxes, that he was made up of pairs of opposites, both of which were true of him at the same time. He was, for example, a great man who contained a small man. His intellectual endowment, even apart from poetry, was immense, and at his best he had a wide and sympathetic humanity. He was also capable of seeing enemies where none existed, capable of nursing grudges and sulking over fancied slights. He gave an impression of magnificent sanity, as firmly grounded as a granite slab, and this impression was not false; yet in private his complicated balance, as complicated as the motions of a gyroscopic top, could be so disturbed as barely to recover its perilous equilibrium.
Another paradox appears in the first stanza of “Revelation,” a little poem in his first book:
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.
Frost wanted to be found out — by the right people in the right way. The agitation of his heart to be discovered was intense and did not cease to the end of his life. The man who in his later years became not only an American but an international public figure, who became a father image to television viewers who had never opened one of his books, used light and not-so-light words to tease and flout, both privately and on the platform, and made himself a place apart behind their shelter. But in the very act of hiding he wanted to reveal himself to those who could see him as he wanted to be seen. He craved a kind of ideal sharing of his poems, a total, intuitive transfer of the poem to the mind of a sympathetic reader or listener, without meddling intervention by study, explication, or dogged analysis. He also craved a similar sharing of his life. Frost was obsessed by his own life. As his biographer, Lawrance Thompson, has pointed out, and as those who knew him were sharply aware, he told many of its episodes over and over again. He was his own Horatio, and in this harsh world drew his breath — in pain, yes; also in pleasure, in wonder, and in a constant battle of self-justification — to tell his story. When the mood was on him, he could spill out confidences with a recklessness the very opposite of the man who made himself a place apart and hid his tracks by teasing and flouting.
In a tart admonition to Sidney Cox, quoted in Lawrance Thompson’s Selected Letters, Frost informs his friend, “I have written to keep the over curious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters to such as you.” Warning enough to any interpreter! Yet it remains true also that he wanted to make his revelation, both in and out of poetry, and to be found out, in his own way, on his own terms. He himself has not only revealed but exposed himself to an astonishing extent, in talk and in letters, for better and for worse. Nothing can prevent the continuing scrutiny of the evidence as it comes to hand, and if much of the scrutiny would be distasteful to him if he could return to us, yet as long as he continued to be Robert Frost he would veer between covering his tracks and laying them so that the right people could follow his trail.
In his later life Frost was accused of casting himself in a role, making himself a legend, acting a part, adopting a persona. The charge was usually brought against him as a public performer, but has recently been extended to the voice we hear in his poems, as though that were an equally nurtured artifice. On the face of it, in view of the television appearances, the films, the press interviews, the showmanship of his readings, the charge against his public manner can claim a good deal of support. The evidence makes it plausible. Yet to many of those who knew him well, the case is subtler and more difficult than any such one-sided statement of it. And when the charge is carried over to the poems, it becomes even more questionable. If it were true in any deep-rooted or distinctive way, the poems would cease to ring true, and they don’t.
What we confront, in trying to deal with charges of this sort, is another of the paradoxes in the man, the pairs of opposites, each true at once. Frost says in one of his letters that no one who is affected can write really well. He had his affectations — who hasn’t? Mrs. Morrison and I used to smile when during World War II Frost would tax Churchill with affecting a Cockney accent, as though Frost himself never affected the rustic. He began one of his most brilliant and delicately felt discourses at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference with the words, “It says in the Bible, or if it don’t, it oughta. . . .” No doubt my memory exaggerates, but he certainly did not say, “It says in the Bible, or if it doesn’t, it ought to. . . .” No doubt he artfully split the difference in the way that made his spoken remarks so inordinately hard to transcribe in print. Yet despite his calculated manner on occasion, he was in a large sense one of the most unaffected men anyone could hope to encounter. He began another Bread Loaf discourse, shortly after the death of Mrs. Frost, by saying that he had lately kept in his pocket some object he Could finger while he talked on the platform, to remind himself that he was the same man in public as in private. Recently, he added, the object had been a thorn. In a curious way, despite the showmanship he learned gradually over the years, he was the same man in public as in private. He had the same crotchets, spites, defensiveness through humor and pun and witticism and plain wisecrack, the same greatness and fertility of imagination. His conversation, at dinner table and in private, was “all of a piece throughout” with the man who spoke on the platform, the man who wrote the poems, except, of course, that the poems arrived at formal perfection — they had that kind of artifice — while the talk was half conveyed by a spectrum of gesture and by the expressive play of loose flesh over the magnificent structure of his skull.
Naturally, Frost’s poems are full of the dramatic. He is dramatic in that he can create characters who are not mere phases of his own sensibility. He is dramatic in the stricter sense that a surprising number of his narratives make natural stage pieces as they stand. No one ever emphasized more than he did the element of play in literature. I used to think he emphasized it to excess, often as a covert form of his peculiar defensiveness, a way of keeping “the over curious out of the secret places” of his mind. If we undertake to see the man in his work, we must make ample allowance (as I cannot do here) for the places where biography is not significantly present, as well as trying to understand it where it is.
PERHAPS enough has been said on the complexities and paradoxes of Frost the man to serve as prelude to an examination of a particular group of his poems. These are poems in which he may at first seem out of character, very different from the accepted impression of him, or in which his life is a powerful though concealed presence, or in which he approaches the esoteric—a word which may surprise Frost readers, but which has its application.
Of course, Frost is not esoteric in the sense of having a private doctrine to peddle through a circle of initiates, but I think it fair to say that he comes close to the esoteric when he publishes a poem that cannot be understandingly read without clues divulged to friends. Such a poem is “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers.” The general scheme of the action in this poem stands out clearly enough, but its treatment in detail is sufficiently secretive and allusive so that it has misled both private readers and public commentators.
A woman of dignity and beauty is to be punished for her choice in marriage, the consequences of which do not lie within her foresight or control. The punishment is to be carried out by joys which form an ironic parallel to the seven joys of Mary, ironic because each joy is a grim compensation for pain and humiliation. The progressive punishment takes place in an eerie metaphysical frame, The poem, except for a single passage of description, consists of a dialogue between “The Voice,” who is supreme in the poem, and “Voices,” who are obviously subordinate agents of the omnipotent Voice, his officers appointed to carry out the relentless chastisement. The place that punishment occupied in Frost’s mind deserves a word. Punished physically and severely himself in childhood by his father, Frost could not exclude from his view of things a sort of metaphysical sense of the rightness or ultimacy of the punitive. The God, or “Voice,” who rules in the world of “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers” speaks with a note of outright authoritarian sarcasm in the lines: “She would refuse love safe with wealth and honor! / The lovely shall be choosers, shall they?” Yet, and this is of highest importance to the poem, the Voice that orders the lovely chooser hurled seven levels down the world by means of seven joys that are so many pains also orders that at every stage she shall be left blameless.
The woman was Frost’s mother, to whom he was peculiarly close. Frost made the identification himself, more than once, to more than one person. Mrs. Morrison has said to me and others that in all the uncounted hours she spent as Frost’s secretary, listening to him disburden himself of his life, past and present, while often enough she ached to get an important letter written or an essential decision made, his mother was the one human being of whom she never heard Frost say an ill word. We could hardly guess how many times, after one of his public triumphs in later life, we have heard him repeat, with doggerel emphasis that did not conceal how much he meant by it, the words of the old song or catch he could not forget: “I wish my mother could see me now.” Those who think his platform manner was entirely a calculated artifice could well give a thought to this telltale refrain. He slept in his mother’s room until at least well into his high school years. Another of the paradoxes in this man of complexity was the combination in him of something very like mother fixation with the full measure of virility he brought to his marriage.
His own marriage is a subsequent story. About the marriage of his parents, Frost formed a suspicion that in retrospect can be viewed only with a certain amusement. For a long time Frost misdated his birth, making himself younger by a year than he actually was. After the death of his father, Frost’s mother brought him and his younger sister from San Francisco to live with the Frost grandparents in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Frost believed, justly or not — for the poem the belief is what matters — that his grandparents looked down on his mother, and even by insinuation accused her of luring or perhaps trapping his father into marriage. He suspected that as the first child he might have arrived unconventionally early. This suspicion pretty plainly underlies the first of the ironic joys in the poem: “Be her first joy her wedding, / That though a wedding, / Is yet — well something they know, he and she.”
The second joy introduces the friends among whom she stood, proud herself and a pride to them, in the one descriptive passage in the poem, friends left behind at a distance when Mrs. Frost followed her husband to San Francisco. Among them, one supposes, was the man she might have married “safe with wealth and honor.” Her second joy is plainly called a “grief”; its only joy is that she can keep it secret. The friends know nothing of it to make it “shameful.” And her third joy is that although now they cannot help knowing, “They move in pleasure too far off / To think much or much care.”
What was this grief that might have put her in a shameful light to the far-off friends? The same suspicion that led Frost to misdate his birth may continue to be at work in the second and third joys, but it seems plain that another motif enters as well. Frost learned of, or at least came to believe in, his father’s infidelity, or at any rate indiscreet conduct. His sense of his mother’s humiliation by his father’s public attentions to another woman may well be the chief element in the two joys that turn on her grim comfort in knowing that her friends were too remote and preoccupied to think much of her. She had indeed chosen, as it turned out, the opposite of love safe with wealth and honor.
The succeeding joys, through the sixth, deal progressively with the unhappy satisfaction of pride. Give her a child at either knee so that she may tell them once, unforgettably, how she used to walk in brightness, but give her new friends so that she dare not tell, knowing her story would not be believed. Then give her the painful joy of pride that she never stooped to tell. Then make her among the humblest seem even less than they are.
Why should Isabel Moodie Frost have come to seem, at least as her son imagined her case, less than the humblest? Isabel Moodie seems to have been a beautiful and gifted woman, but her gifts were intellectual and spiritual. They did not extend to dressing smartly or keeping house in a meticulous New England fashion or disciplining rowdy children in a schoolroom. Her sixth joy is the comfort of knowing that her way of life, as a widow trying in pinched circumstances to bring up two children by schoolteaching, is one she comes to from too high too late to learn.
Her seventh and final joy turns on the word one, italicized by Frost himself in the printed text. “Then send some one with eyes to see . . . And words to wonder in her hearing how she came there / But without time to linger for her story.” I have no express warrant in anything I ever heard Frost say for asserting that this one is Robert himself, Isabel Moodie’s son, but this interpretation is so natural as to be inevitable. What is the whole poem except the poet’s vision of his mother’s life? We must keep in mind that while in substance the poem is retrospective, a vision of a woman’s life after the fact, in form it is anticipatory. The Voice is giving orders to the Voices that they are to carry out over a period of twenty years. “How much time have we?” / “ Take twenty years. . .” Of course this figure is a round number, but by two decades, give or take a little, after Isabel Moodie’s marriage — the central choice from which everything follows — her son could well have been old enough to make surmises about his mother’s life, old enough to “wonder in her hearing how she came there.” And by the same token his own expanding life, the battles of late adolescence or early manhood, would deprive him of “time to linger for her story.” Time and growth were needed if he was to be “sent” on this particular mission of understanding, yet time and growth defeat the mission, so that her seventh joy is “her heart’s going out to this one / So that she almost speaks.” Almost. She is left with the barren pride of never in fact telling “how once she walked in brightness,” never directly telling even the son to whom her heart went out, as Isabel Moodie’s unquestionably did to her son, Robert Frost. “That Rob can do anything” was a refrain she spoke often in his hearing, and that he himself often repeated to others.
What happens to the poem when the reader is given the necessary clues? Surely the gain in clearness does not destroy but deepens and vindicates the mysterious and visionary power of “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers.” The poem is as truly a feat of imagination as if it had been written about an altogether fictitious character and not about the poet’s mother. All characters become imaginary in the act of being imagined, and in this sense Isabel Moodie becomes an imaginary character in the poem devoted to her. The poem, which is not without a strain of bitterness and of guilt, is a metaphysical vision. But we do not have real access to the content of the vision until we know who the characters are, and when we know, it is not merely a persona or mask we hear speaking. It is the actual son of an actual mother, since the son happens to be a poet.
FROST’S mother left a lifelong imprint on his memories and his deepest emotions. The second person of utmost importance to him was his wife. One has the impression that Frost and Elinor White were destined for each other by a fatality as deep as ever united a human pair in marriage. Yet there was much that was unpropitious for her in the stormy courtship to which he subjected her. Now that the first volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography has appeared — an absorbing work, rich in material and deeply understanding — the tenor of this courtship has become a matter of record. Frost was in no mean degree jealously suspicious of Elinor while she was away at college. He was possessive, also in no mean degree. He subjected her to an assault of self-will by which he was himself later to be troubled in memory. At one point, in despair of gaining her compliance, he made his defiant flight to the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, leaving his friends and family in ignorance of his whereabouts or even his continued existence. One side of the eventual marriage is reflected in such an idyll as “West-running Brook,” but it had other sides. It was haunted and troubled not only by personal catastrophes but by differences of temperament. After Mrs. Frost’s death, in a letter to Mr. and Mrs. G. R. Elliott, printed in Thompson’s Selected Letters, Frost wrote: “Pretty nearly every one of my poems will be found to be about her if rightly read.” Reflections of the marriage, and of Frost’s attitude toward marriage, in fact occur in surprising places in his work.
“The Subverted Flower,” unlike “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers,” is fully intelligible as a poem without extrinsic clues. It presents an encounter of a sort unusual in Frost’s work, an encounter between a girl who is unready for a virile advance and a man who is humiliated and driven to flight from her terror and disgust when he is interrupted by her mother’s call. Frost himself let it be known that Mrs. Frost would never allow him to publish “The Subverted Flower” during her lifetime. If this hint is not enough, the fundamental sexual difference with which the poem deals is sufficiently confirmed by Thompson’s biography.
Why, someone may ask, more concerned for propriety than for poetry, did Frost write the poem in the first place or publish it after his wife’s death? The answer must be that Frost was not exempt from the common rule that for a poet the writing of his poems is paramount. Let him see, in any kind of material, a poem to be made, and few if any forces, public or private, can contend against the right of the poem to come to birth. And of course whatever the experience he is dealing with, in becoming a poem it undergoes a transformation. Its roots go underground, and what counts is the plant that shows itself in open air. Of course again the poem makes use of elements that were not in the original experience at all, the very elements that make it a poem.
What must chiefly strike the reader of “ The Subverted Flower” is its extraordinary manipulation of animal imagery. Animal imagery, we may say retrospectively, was inevitable to this poem once it started to become a poem, but I should be hard put to it to think of another in which such imagery is used with like force, at once compressed, sustained, and inventive. The girl sees the man’s attempted smile of entreaty as one that “cracked his ragged muzzle.” The effort to force out words makes him “choke / Like a tiger at a bone.” She is afraid to “stir a foot / Lest movement should provoke / The demon of pursuit / That slumbers in a brute.” At her mother’s call, she steals “a look of fear / To see if he could hear / And would pounce to end it all / Before her mother came.” She sees the shame by which the man begins to be overwhelmed at the sound of her mother’s voice. “A hand hung like a paw . . . An ingratiating laugh . . . cut the snout in half . . . And the dog or what it was ... A coward save at night, Turned from the place and ran. / She heard him stumble first / And use his hands in flight. / She heard him bark outright.”
The girl is on the whole gently reproached in the poem for “her own too meager heart,” which subverts the innocence of the intermediary flower, prevents her from making any response except one of disgust, and reduces the man to the status of a beast in his own eyes. Yet surely the remarkable thing in the treatment of this harrowing scene is the poet’s capacity to see the man’s part through the girl’s eyes, to understand and sympathize with the image of repulsion he presents to her, repulsion so violent that the words she spits leave traces about her mouth. “Her mother wiped the foam / From her chin, picked up her comb / And drew her backward home.” These relentless final details, expressed in the bluntest nouns and verbs except for the one charged adverb “backward,” may leave the reader not so much poetically satisfied as shuddering or squirming. Yet in expression “The Subverted Flower” shows Frost at the top of his bent. In the rapid compression of its narrative, in the spring and inventiveness of its idiom, in the resourcefulness of its rhyming, in the prosody of its quick trimeter lines that require nothing less than a master hand, it is among the most dazzling of his performances.
Possessiveness, jealousy, self-will! These may seem unlovely traits, but in the complexities of human nature they are not incompatible with romantic idealization, nor with deep and lasting, however troubled, attachment. They turn up in odd places in Frost, even in so odd a poem as “Paul’s Wife.” The question is whether Paul Bunyan had a wife. He did. Murphy was witness to her mythic origin. Why was Paul so secretive about her? When Murphy, the ostensible narrator of the poem, sums up, he becomes a laughably thin disguise:
About his wife to keep her to himself.
Paul was what’s called a terrible possessor.
Owning a wife with him meant owning her.
She wasn’t anybody else’s business,
Either to praise her, or so much as name her,
And he’d thank people not to think of her.
Murphy’s idea was that a man like Paul
Wouldn’t be spoken to about a wife
In any way the world knew how to speak.
ANOTHER of Frost’s most brilliant performances, so brilliant as a feat of poetic expression as to dazzle belief while one reads it, is “The Discovery of the Madeiras.” Like “The Subverted Flower,” this poem may be read as an entirely self-contained and lucid imaginative work, without reference to any personal roots, though under the surface they are all-importantly present. The poem has for subtitle “A Rhyme of Hackluyt,” and with one important exception it does follow in narrative outline a prose document in Hakluyt’s Voyages. Aside from the story, everything in the poem is Frost’s, of course, except two key phrases he modified from Hakluyt, “stolen lady” and “died of thought.” The important exception, the episode he did not find in Hakluyt, is the episode of the slave ship told by the captain of the vessel on which the lover and his stolen lady are sailing. Where Frost got this episode, unique in his work in the kind of human degradation it represents, I have no idea.
If anyone should wonder how Frost came to write this poem, the answer would lead us again through his life, and especially his marriage. Elinor White was an intelligent and gifted woman; as a young woman, she must have been strikingly beautiful. On those who were acquainted with her only in her later years, and only slightly, as I was, she could make an impression of austerity, of being a deeply solitary spirit. The paired solitude reflected in “West-running Brook” seemed to have become for her, at least in part, a solitude of one, single and withdrawn. To marry Robert Frost was no light undertaking for any woman. If the part she accepted made demands on her over the years to give way to his will, if sacrifice eventually took its toll, the result is hardly surprising.
That an area of alienation came to exist between her and her husband is more than a suspicion. At least in her later years, she did not attend his public performances, even such a triumph as his Norton Lectures at Harvard, where on the spring afternoon of his final appearance, after the series had been transferred to the largest hall available, people climbed the fire escapes and perched on the grating to hear him through the windows. Her absence, for whatever reasons, seems to have been a policy agreed on between them. Frost intimated as much to Mrs. Morrison, using an evasive phrase such as “it was thought best. . .” And he did not conceal that during the days when Elinor was approaching death he waited and hoped, vainly, for some word or sign from her saving, in effect, that the marriage had been worth its griefs and difficulties. The absence of the hopedfor word, under the circumstances, is hardly to be wondered at. It tells us, as much as anything, of Frost’s own perpetual need for self-justification, and of his capacity on occasion, despite his formidable ego, for seeing into the lives and needs of others, for sometimes doubting his own assumptions, for compunction and self-questioning, without which he wouldn’t have needed self-justification.
Remembering Frost’s jealous suspicion during courtship that Elinor had pledged herself to another man, remembering the difference at the center of “The Subverted Flower,” remembering the “terrible possessor” of “Paul’s Wife,” and not forgetting the idyllic unitedness of “West-running Brook,” a reader may well be startled to look again at “The Discovery of the Madeiras.” The lover and his “stolen” lady set out on their voyage to “some vague Paphian bourn,” and when the ship had ceased tossing enough for her to come on deck, “she and her lover would sit opposed / And darkly drink each other’s eyes . . . The most he asked her eyes to grant / Was that is what she does not want / A woman wants to be overruled.” Then the captain tells the lover his story of the black pair on the slave ship who, because the man was infected by plague and the girl had not bothered to conceal her intimacy with him, were bound naked, face to face, and pitched overboard in a parody of marriage. “When after talk with other men / A man comes back to a woman again / He tells her as much of blood and dirt / As he thinks will do her not too much hurt.” But in allowing himself a moment of pique under her questioning and retelling the captain’s story to his stolen lady, the lover miscalculates his effect. “Seeing no help in wings or feet / She withdrew back in self retreat / Till her heart almost ceased to beat. / Her spirit faded as far away / As the living ever go yet stay.” When by the lover’s request the pair are landed and the ship abandons them, “slowly even her sense of him / And love itself were growing dim. / He no more drew the smile he sought. / The story is she died of thought.” In a letter to Bernard DeVoto, quoted in Thompson’s Selected Letters and written soon after Elinor’s death, Frost said: “I suppose love must always deceive. I’m afraid I deceived her a little in pretending for the sake of argument that I didn’t think the world as bad a place as she did. My excuse was that I wanted to keep her a little happy for my own selfish pleasure. It is as if for the sake of argument she had sacrificed her life to give me this terrible answer. . . .”
At the end of the poem, the naming of the bay where the stolen lady died for her lover instead of for her, in itself a trivial injustice, is exalted into one of those sobering generalizations Frost is capable of. The distribution of rewards, both historic and personal, is put forward with chilling detachment: “The island he found was verified / And the bay where the stolen lady died / Was named for him instead of her. / But so is history like to err, / And soon it is neither here nor there / Whether time’s rewards are fair or unfair.” Poets before have found circuitous ways of transforming their profoundest feelings into impersonal, objectified works. Surely “The Discovery of the Madeiras,” going all the way around through Hakluyt and the captain’s story of the slave ship, must be one of the most remarkable examples of such transformation to be found anywhere.
Many of Frost’s poems unite concealment with revelation hazarded or hoped for, but it is in “Directive” that he makes his most explicit avowal of that strain in him that I have called the esoteric. The poem begins by posing a state of confusion. Its first line, composed of nothing but monosyllabic adverbs, prepositions, and pronouns — “Back out of all this now too much for us” — could surely come from no other poet writing in English. The little pronoun “us” is interesting. This opening line seems to address confused human beings inclusively, but a change rapidly occurs. The “us” becomes “you,” and speciously the poem singles out and isolates each individual reader as the object of an invitation to accompany a guide on a journey to a house that no longer shelters anyone, on a farm that has all but gone back to woods. “The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost . . .” Already the invitation to the reader as “you” takes on a note of the equivocal. This is no such simple beckoning gesture as “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring . . . You come too.” It will not help to be reminded of St. Mark, the eighth chapter, the thirty-fifth verse: “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake . . . the same shall save it.” For the journey in “Directive” is not concerned with losing one’s life for Christ’s sake. The important use that Frost makes of St. Mark comes later in the poem; but even at this point the reader who is addressed as “you” should be on his guard. Not everyone may choose to follow a guide who undertakes to see that his follower gets lost; not everyone may be able to stay with such a guide until, as the poem later says, he is lost enough to find himself. As the journey goes on, the “you” grows more and more ambivalent. The address to the reader begins to sound like an internal address of the poet to himself; but still the “you” leaves room for the reader to follow the guide —if he will and if he can.
The journey is a journey backward through time, extended through the “book” of geology to an almost cosmic scope. “And there’s a story in a book about it: / Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels / The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest, / The chisel work of an enormous Glacier / That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.” But though it is presented with Frost’s deceptive charm and whimsicality, the journey is strewn with traces of human loss and defeat. “Two village cultures” have vanished; the only field now left about the deserted house on the deserted farm is “no bigger than a harness gall.” The journey passes the children’s playhouse with its shattered playthings — “Weep for what little things could make them glad.” It passes the house that was a house in earnest, which has become no more than a “belilaced cellar hole, / Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.” But the destination of the journey lies beyond all these human relics of defeat. It is the brook that gave water to the house, “Cold as a spring as yet so near its source, / Too lofty and original to rage.”
At this point the guide, who has hitherto used the third person, though covertly he has been the poet all along, speaks for the first time in the first person. He is no longer “a guide”; he is “I.” “I have kept hidden in the instep arch / Of an old cedar at the waterside / A broken drinking goblet like the Grail ... (I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.) / Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again against confusion.” Your waters, reader! You have only to reach out and drink! But first go back and weigh two lines I omitted, lines immediately following the word “Grail”: “A broken drinking goblet like the Grail / Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it, / So can’t get saved, as St. Mark says they mustn’t.” You are invited to drink from a broken goblet like the Grail, an object, therefore, with something sacred and redemptive about it; but the goblet is under a spell. It is not for everyone. The wrong ones cannot find it, and so cannot be redeemed. St. Mark himself says they must not be.
The particular passage of St. Mark that Frost had in mind is essential to understanding “Directive.” It occurs in the fourth chapter, immediately after the parable of the sower and the seed: “And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.”
AT THIS point I must express a grateful indebtedness to Hyde Cox, a friend of Frost’s for many years, and the co-editor of Frost’s Selected Prose. With utmost generosity, Hyde Cox has allowed me to make free use of his notes of conversations with Frost bearing on the origin and meaning to Frost himself of “Directive.” The poem appeared in the volume Steeple Bush, published in 1947. Hyde Cox has written me that during an evening earlier in the forties he asked Frost whether he remembered the reply Jesus gave his disciples when they asked why he always spoke to crowds in parables. In Hyde Cox’s words, “R. F. did not remember. Like many other people, it was his recollection that Christ said something about parables being easier to understand. I gleefully pointed out that this was just the opposite of what Jesus had said, and I read to R. F. the 4th Chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. He was delighted and said at once ‘Does that occur anywhere else?’ I then read him the thirteenth Chapter of Matthew especially verses 11—13! The rest of the evening was spent discussing the wisdom and the hardness of this thought. R. F. pointed out that it is the same as for poetry; only those who approach it in the right way can understand it. And not everyone can understand no matter what they do because it just isn’t in them. They cannot ‘be saved.’ . . . And R. F. quickly connected this quotation with the thought that unless you come to the subject of poetry ‘as a child’ you cannot hope to enter into ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ ”
“From this evening on,” Hyde Cox writes, “the quotation from St. Mark . . . began to appear in R. F.’s conversation and ... in his public talks.” Mrs. Morrison and I can bear similar testimony. Nor did he drop his play with this topic after the publication of “Directive.” He came back to it in his prose piece ”A Romantic Chasm,” reprinted in Selected Prose. And Hyde Cox points out that he reverted to it as late as 1962 in his last public appearance at Dartmouth College, when he announced: “In the Bible it says . . . twice it says ‘these things are said in parables ... so the wrong people won’t understand and so get saved.’ It’s thoroughly undemocratic.”
A joke, but much more than a joke. No one will challenge Frost’s sometimes uneasy and doubtful love of his country. No one will challenge his fundamental sympathies with democracy. But he was constantly straining at the problem of “the common man,” a phrase often on his lips. He used to say he was an egalitarian who could only be comfortable with his equals. He did not expect everyone to be saved, by the welfare state or any other agency — saved from his own obtuseness or limitation or downright misfortune. He accepted the heart of the parable: the sower sows the “word,” but some of the seed falls on barren ground.
Hyde Cox’s notes of a later conversation, after the appearance of “Directive” in print, make still more explicit what his play with St. Mark meant to Frost. During this subsequent talk, Hyde said he had heard so much discussion of “Directive” he would like to pin Frost down to keep the record straight. “I began,” Hyde writes, “by telling him some people interpreted the poem as more Christian than most of his work.” Frost answered, according to Hyde’s notes, that “the poet is not offering any general salvation — nor Christian salvation in particular.
“In the midst of this now too much for us he tells everyone to go back ... to whatever source they have. The source might even be a conventional religion . . . but religion is most of all valuable when something original has been contributed to it. . . .
“It would be the poet’s directive that one must go back to what he believes in his heart to be the source; and to the extent that he had saved something aside, removed from worldly experience — unpolluted, he would be able to contribute something himself.” Then, in words as nearly as possible verbatim from Frost himself: “Not everyone can get saved as Christ says in Saint Mark. He almost says, ‘You can’t be saved unless you understand poetry—or you can’t be saved unless you have some poetry in you.’ ”
Going on with Hyde Cox’s notes: “The waters and the watering place are the source. It is there that you would have to turn in time of confusion to be made whole again: whole again as perhaps you haven’t been since leaving childhood behind. Aging, you have become involved in the cobwebs and considerations of the world. . . .” And again verbatim: “People miss the key to the poem: the key lines, if you want to know, are ‘Cold as a spring as yet so near its source, / Too lofty and original to rage.’ . . . But the key word in the whole poem is source — whatever source it is.”
For Frost the often playfully presented but deeply grim journey back through time and across human defeat and disaster was a journey upstream through a life given to poetry, but a life he constantly felt a need to justify to himself. Remembering only some of the catastrophes of that life, one can well understand why — a first son who died in infancy, a grown son who shot himself, a beloved daughter who died needlessly of septicemia, a wife whose death in his mid-career left him in a state of terrible doubt and self-accusation. Frost’s battle to justify himself was a classic form, with its own complications, of the dilemma of the greatly gifted who try to meet two commitments at once — the commitment to some form of lofty originality, and the commitment to common human ties and responsibilities.
But if poetry is at the heart of “Directive,” it is poetry in the largest sense, not merely poetry as the gift of writing poems. The poetry at the heart of “Directive” is only one of many possible manifestations of a “source” at work. Loftiness and originality can manifest themselves in a religion, or in science, or in statesmanship. The believer, the scientist, the statesman would have to have some poetry in him, in just the sense that Frost believed as he says in “Education by Poetry”) that metaphor, analogy, the perception of one thing in terms of another are at the root of understanding itself. To quote Frost again in words taken down by Hyde Cox, “Christ in Mark and Matthew is speaking about understanding.”
“Directive” is a riddling invitation to those who are capable of it to go, starting from confusion, back to whatever source their hearts venerate, and to find there the wholeness they may not have known since the forward journey innocently began. If the poem were to be regarded for its intellectual content, as a reasoned philosophic or ethical position, it would be vulnerable to attack or skepticism from many sides; but (to me at any rate) its force and depth do not lie on the intellectual plane, but on the emotional. I find it one of the most moving poems Frost or anyone has written. Under its deceptive intimacy and easy play of surface, it is dark and solitary, charged with a great pathos. The wholeness it asserts is won at the cost of counting up terrible penalties. It is a religious poem, not in any doctrinal or ritual sense, but in the sense that it is charged with a profound piety. Those who can follow the guide and be saved are those who have some poetry in them, whether they write or even read poetry or not. They are those who could understand Robert Frost as he wanted to be understood. To them he would not have cared how much of himself he revealed, or how intimately they found him out. If they read his work with understanding, they will find the man himself spread through it and exposed in startling ways.
This essay grew out of a paper read at a meeting of the College
English Association at the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College.