The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 16, 2017

Frost, Robert
Peter J. Stanlis - 03/11/11
Lifespan: (1874–1963)

In eleven books of poetry and miscellaneous other writings published between 1913 and 1962, Robert Frost established himself as the unofficial poet laureate of the United States. Four of his books won the Pulitzer Prize, and he received many other awards from literary organizations, colleges, and universities, as well as from Congress. During the last decade of his life, Frost became a well-known public figure through poetry readings, interviews, television appearances, and as a goodwill ambassador to Latin America, England, Israel, and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, few Americans recognize that in his views on religion, politics, science, education, and the arts, and in his conception of human nature and the role of history in shaping society, Frost was an original and profound conservative thinker.

Distrustful of abstract labels, Frost never referred to himself as a conservative. He knew that such terms as radical, liberal, conservative, reformer, and revolutionary were often the basis of ideological systems, and ideology had no place in his philosophy. Fearing that misconceptions regarding these categories would be attributed to him, Frost once said that two lines from some early verses summed up his whole viewpoint: “I never dared be radical when young / For fear it would make me conservative when old.”

A philosophical dualist, Frost regarded spirit and matter as the two basic elements of reality. Human nature itself was composed of spirit and matter, or body and soul. As for religion, science, art, politics, and history, each was a different form of revelation. They were metaphors aimed at illuminating the True, the Good, and the Beautiful for the mind of man. Though he belonged to no church or sect, Frost admitted to being “an Old Testament Christian.” He accepted the Law of Moses in the Decalogue and believed justice between God and man, and justice between men, was paramount. He was highly critical, therefore, of those who sentimentalized Christ’s teachings through doctrines like universal salvation that neglected justice not only in religion but in every aspect of man’s life in society.

Frost greatly respected science and its contributions toward man’s knowledge of the laws and operations of the universe. Scientists were to Frost among the “heroes” of modern civilization; their “revelations” proved the ability of man to penetrate and harness matter through the mind. But as a religious man and humanist, Frost also believed there were mysteries about both matter and spirit that were beyond the reach of science. And while the methods of the physical sciences applied to matter, they could not be applied with equal validity to human nature and society because man is more than a biological animal. There is a qualitative difference between matter and human nature, most evident in the religious, moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and social values recognized or created by man. Therefore, Frost believed, science could not shape the world toward utopian ends any more than could politics.

It was the function of poetry and the arts, Frost felt, to strive for the final synthesis and unity between spirit and matter. In fact, he defined poetry as the only way mankind has of “saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another.” The revelations of art, as well as those of religion, transcend those of science by providing human values and meaning in the universe and in human affairs. Art’s revelations are not merely of knowledge, but include insight and love; they involve not only recognition but also response, beginning in ecstatic aesthetic pleasure and ending in calm moral wisdom. Whereas science is like a prism of light cast on a particular point of nature to reveal its laws and operations, the arts are like the sun that shines on all alike, unleashing man’s aesthetic and moral imagination upon the whole of creation.

In his social and political philosophy, Frost provided a powerful defense of the American republic through his criticism of attacks upon it by Marxists, international pacifists, and New Deal liberals. Against Marxist collectivism and the welfare state, Frost defended individual liberty as an end in itself. He rejected the rationalist politics of the Left and put his faith in the historical continuity of Western civilization, in the tested moral traditions of the Judeo-Christian religion, in classical liberal education, in the philosophical thought of such thinkers as Aristotle, Kant, Burke, and William James, and especially in the political philosophy of the founding fathers of the American republic. In his reverence for the American constitutional system, Frost was a strict constructionist.

Frost’s strong opposition to Marxists and New Deal liberals appears in A Further Range (1936). His political conservatism, subtly muted in earlier poems, is starkly evident in his harsh treatment of the kind of sensibility and social consciousness behind New Deal programs that aimed at solving the problems of the Great Depression. A Further Range provoked scorn on the American political Left. Granville Hicks, Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, Richard P. Blackmur, and other Marxist and liberal critics heaped scorn on him for refusing to write poetry that supported revolutionary social and economic change. Frost’s response, “It is not the business of the poet to cry reform,” flew in the face of what many of his peers believed.

Frost not only refused to write propaganda, he satirized the very premises of New Deal programs. He showed contempt for Roosevelt’s “brain trust,” calling it “the guild of social planners.” He attacked New Deal egalitarianism as a violation of justice between men in favor of mass mercy for the poor. He feared that egalitarianism would result in “a homogenized society,” that compulsory benevolence would weaken and possibly destroy individual freedom. Frost clearly opposed everything and everybody that made persons rely more than was necessary upon somebody or something other than their own resources, integrity, and courage.

Frost’s conservative religious, moral, and political convictions are most evident in his poems “The Death of the Hired Man,” “A Masque of Reason,” and “A Masque of Mercy,” which explore the complex issues in what he called “the justice-mercy contradiction.” In “The Black Cottage,” Frost celebrated the ancient and recurring truths embedded in custom and tradition. He satirized the self-righteous spirit and social sensibility of modern collectivism in “A Considerable Speck.” He described the archetypal American ideological revolutionary in “A Case for Jefferson.” In “Build Soil: A Political Pastoral,” Frost not only attacked the farm policies of the New Deal, but extended poetry’s pastoral tradition into politics. “To a Thinker” is at once an ironic portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a philosophical probing of the genius for willful self-deception of all politicians ambitious to play God. “A Lone Striker” is a criticism of industrial regimentation and an assertion of individual freedom and integrity. “New Hampshire” and “The Lesson for Today” are reflective poems on his general philosophy. “New Hampshire” celebrates individual self-sufficiency and pride in provincial and rural life and manners. “The Lesson for Today,” in imitation of Horace, shows how the nature of man remains basically the same throughout history, so that “One age is like another for the soul,” contrary to the ideology of progress.

In all of these poems, the subjects and themes are means to Frost’s artistic ends. His poems on politics are not merely “vehicles of grievances” against the centralized state. Politics was for him simply a metaphor through which he dealt with far greater issues of culture and philosophy, such as the nature of man, the moral order of society, individual freedom and self-fulfillment, and the justice and mercy that transcend politics in the great “griefs” that afflict humanity.

Further Reading
  • Frost, Robert Lee. Selected Poems. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1938.
  • ———. Selected Poems. Edited by Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1949.
  • Lentricchia, Frank. Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscape of Self. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975.
  • Lynen, John F. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.
  • Stanlis, Peter J. Robert Frost: The Individual and Society. Rockford, Ill.: Rockford College Press, 1973.
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