Review of Peter Stanlis’s Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher

Robert Bernard Hass

ISI Books, $28.00 (hardcover)

On Robert Frost’s 85th birthday, Henry Holt and Company, Frost’s lifelong publisher, threw a party in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria and invited the eminent critic Lionel Trilling to deliver the keynote address. Widely regarded at the time as the champion of high modernist culture, Trilling stunned Frost’s friends and supporters by confessing that he had long disregarded Frost as a purveyor of rural pieties and had only recently begun to admire him for the “Sophoclean” horror he saw in the poems. ”I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet,” he announced. “The universe he conceives of is a terrifying universe.” In the wake of the controversy his address instigated, Trilling sent a letter to Frost apologizing for any discomfort his remarks had caused. ”Not distressed at all,” Frost wrote back. “You made my birthday party a surprise party.” Frost then concluded his letter with a sentence that would prove prophetic: “No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down.”

With the long anticipated publication of Peter Stanlis’s far-reaching and impressive Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, the clash of arms over Frost’s career will likely reach détente. Having promised Frost in 1944 that he would write the “best book on Frost he had it in him to write,” Stanlis spent the next sixty years formulating and refining the argument that would eventually become the thesis of this book, namely that the key to understanding Frost’s poetry is to place it the context of the poet’s complex, though unsystematic, philosophical dualism. A clear understanding of Frost’s dualism, Stanlis argues, dispels much of the negative criticism of Frost’s poetry (Yvor Winters, for example, once condemned the poet as a “spiritual drifter”) and allows us better to comprehend the underlying principles behind all of Frost’s thought, including his ideas about aesthetics, science, religion, politics, education, and ethics.

In rudimentary terms, dualism is a philosophy that negates the idea that reality can be reduced to a single, unifying principle and posits instead that two categories, or principles, govern the nature of things and exist in a complex and perpetual relationship with one another. In epistemological domains, the two categories most often considered involve a dichotomy between mind and body; in ontological domains, between matter and spirit. Contrasting dualism, philosophical monism, in either its Idealist or Materialist forms, seeks to unite mental and physical phenomena into a single, harmonious synthesis. As Stanlis makes clear, Frost objected to both forms of monism-idealism because it disregarded material necessity, and materialism because it negated the power of the mind to negotiate, interpret, and thus give meaning to matter. “There can be little doubt,” Stanlis asserts, that the “‘endless. . . things in pairs ordained in everlasting opposition’ [Frost's phrase] was to Frost the universal, God-given condition of man’s trial by existence” and that such a condition prevented one from resolving with any certitude the deepest mysteries of existence.

That Frost’s dualistic musings are often saturated with the language of religion is not surprising given the intellectual ferment of the late nineteenth century. As instrumental philosophy developed in reaction to positivism, then the dominant intellectual tendency, many philosophers, including Frost’s two great intellectual mentors, William James and Henri Bergson, wrestled with the problem of the mind/body split and sought to rescue thought, volition, and religious belief from the throes of material determinism. They also grappled with the related problem of epiphenomenalism. Most ardently championed during Frost’s youth by Thomas Henry Huxley, epiphenominalism argued that all mental activities arise only from matter and that consciousness is simply a function or adherent property of matter. In countering this belief, James and Bergson maintained that consciousness comprises its own ontological class and, being immaterial, is therefore not dependent upon the laws of physical mechanism. The obvious problem with this position, and one that has bedeviled philosophers since Descartes, is the problem of interaction. How can there be causal commerce between two radically different principles? Do they remain forever parallel? Or do they interact with one another in a way consistent with our common sense experience of the world?

According to Stanlis, Frost insisted that although complete understanding of the relationship between spirit and matter is impossible, commerce between these two ontological domains can, and indeed must, occur via the mediating power of metaphor. As the mechanism that yokes together abstract idea and concrete sensation, metaphor for Frost was not simply a means of saying “one thing in terms of another,” but a habit of mind that enabled one to negotiate an ever-changing physical reality in the most effective way possible.

Considered in the context of the modernist obsession with metaphor, Stanlis’ argument seems exactly right, and he proves his case by marshaling ample evidence from Frost’s occasional, unsystematic prose and from the copious notebooks that Frost wrote and kept over the course of a sixty year career. Chief among the texts Stanlis enlists in support of his argument is Frost’s important essay, “Education by Poetry.” Composed in 1930, the essay reveals a mature Frost who clearly understood the difficulty of the mind/body problem as well as its epistemological limitations:

Greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter, to make the final unity. That is the greatest attempt that ever failed. . . But it is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, the attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter.

To Frost, metaphor is not simply the occupation of poets but rather the very foundation of thought, a universal process that holds in suspension the two governing principles of experience and allows us perpetually to investigate, in a spirit of creative play, our place in the physical universe. The “lost soul,” as Frost later describes the philosophical monist, is one who “gets lost in his material” and cannot find “a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order.”

Much of the value of this book emanates from Stanlis’ systematic application of this useful heuristic to the many disciplines Frost routinely engaged in his poetry and prose. Well reasoned chapters on Darwin, the individual and society, education, and religion demonstrate that Frost was certainly the intellectual equal of his contemporaries, Eliot and Pound, and several fresh and convincing readings of many overlooked poems validate the positive critical reassessment Frost has enjoyed over the last two decades. Particularly noteworthy is the chapter on Einstein. Reminiscent of Alexander Koyre’s magisterial From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Stanlis’ history of the revolution in twentieth-century physics shows a Frost enthralled with Einstein’s abandonment of a strict empirical method in favor of imaginative deduction. Although Einstein himself was a property dualist (he was the first to recognize that both particles and waves existed at the quantum level) who spent much of his life trying to find a Grand Unified Theory of the cosmos, his failure to do so, as Stanlis sees it, confirmed Frost’s belief that finding a convincing synthesis uniting all phenomena was beyond human capability.

While the argument for Frost’s dualism is irrefutable in light of the overwhelming evidence, unfortunately Stanlis sometimes becomes overly monistic himself and gets lost in his own material. Most often this occurs when Stanlis, an esteemed scholar of Edmund Burke, imposes his own conservative ideology upon his subject. Although Stanlis’ training in political philosophy is sometimes an advantage, especially when he deals with the Frost of the late twenties and thirties, passages such as the following suggest that one of dangers of an author having spent so long with his subject is a conflation of identities. Unfortunately, such a conflation tends to reduce Frost’s famous contrariety into ossifying positions that are clearly more Stanlis than Frost:

To him [Frost], the modern political liberal is too often a sophisticated, sentimental, unprincipled humanitarian with no definite strong convictions about anything; moreover, he is a person who holds to a position more by default than by depth of conviction.

or:

He [Frost] trusted such common readers of poetry far more than he did ideological academic literary critics who were corrupted by speculative rational systems of abstract theory, such as Marxists, Freudians, feminists, scientific linguists, the “New Critics,” and postmodernists. Often such critics were addicted to an ideology, which they mistook for a philosophy, and prided themselves on being “intellectual” and “modernists” by virtue of their assumption that the scientific method or discursive analytical reasoning and logic were the essential tools for dealing with art objects.

Given the fact that Frost sustained a long friendship with Louis Untermeyer, a self-proclaimed Marxist (and one of Frost’s most astute readers), and that the poet did not live long enough to see the advent of postmodern theory (at times, Stanlis even speculates about Frost’s reaction to books the poet never read), excerpts such as these unfortunately exaggerate Frost’s conservatism, ignoring the vacillations of Frost’s political thought throughout his career, and thus distracting readers from the genuinely valuable contribution of the book’s major arguments.

Despite these distractions, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher is an important book and a thoroughly convincing rejoinder to those who have misread Frost as a materialist. Careful readers willing to sift through its occasional digressions and redundancies will be richly rewarded by a luminous elucidation of this most enigmatic poet and be reminded, once again, that the best poetry of the twentieth century transcends the quotidian experiences of its author and investigates, with great clarity and beauty, the most profound problems of human existence.

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