During much of the 20th century, Robert Frost was widely regarded as our greatest living poet.  Yet the Frost poems that students used to read in college English classes were those more easily accessible: “Mending Wall,” “Birches,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Typically, the professor would spend a day or two on Frost, superficially noting the quaint, country metaphorical content of these works, and then move on to T.S. Eliot and spend the rest of the semester explicating “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land.”

Thus, students were led to believe that Frost is “easier” than Eliot, less profound, and, therefore, less important.  Indeed, the reverse is true.  To understand and teach “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land,” the professor had merely to read a handful of articles in learned journals, where a few perceptive critics discussed the cinematic structure of these works and noted their heavily ironic contempt for the modern world.  Eliot delivered that cynical message in code; and teachers—with the unacknowledged help of a few critics—acted as decoders for bright-eyed freshmen longing to be world-weary.

No such definitive criticism existed for the works of Robert Frost, in large measure because the poems that didn’t make it into textbooks were often too deep for ordinary Ph.D.’s to fathom without professional guidance.  Peter Stanlis’s new book, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, is that definitive work, the one from which English teachers could have cribbed a year’s worth of lectures to instruct and dazzle their students.

Today, Frost and the philosophers who influenced him are regarded as relics of a repressive society by the deconstructionists, the latest academics to dumb down literary studies and make poetry the servant of ideology.  For this and other reasons, some intelligent readers may come to the Stanlis book skeptically.  Poets are not typically philosophers; and books about their “philosophy” are too often exercises in the making of mountains out of molehills—taking a single poem, a line, a phrase, and attaching an entire philosophical system to its tail.  Frost, however, wrote philosophical poetry, grappling in verse with ontological and epistemological questions that had fascinated him since youth.

Stanlis boldly states his thesis at the beginning of Chapter 1:

My subject is Robert Frost’s philosophy, and my thesis is that dualism provides the whole basis of his total but unsystematic philosophical view of reality . . . Dualism as the basis of Frost’s philosophy is the foremost single element that scholars and literary critics need to consider in any study of his life and thought, including the themes of his poetry.

Frost’s youthful preoccupation with the conflict between philosophical and religious opposites may have grown out of his conversations with his mother, a deeply religious woman worried about her son’s willingness to consider dangerous ideas.  Following Frost’s own ferocious rejection of the belief that a poet’s works can be understood by studying his life, Stanlis touches briefly on this relationship between mother and son without involving his reader too deeply.

By the same token, Stanlis says that you can’t deduce Frost’s dualism merely by reading his poetry.  Consequently, he adopts an eclectic approach to the purpose he hopes to accomplish, viz., persuasive proof that dualism is the key to an understanding of everything about Frost—his poetry, his philosophy, his understanding of God, his social and political views.

In a succeeding chapter, Stanlis quotes Frost himself to show how the poet’s understanding of metaphor reveals his essential dualism:

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

Stanlis might have rested his case there, particularly after quoting a sentence the poet wrote in a 1958 letter to Lawrance Thompson: “I am a dualist.”

However, he goes on to discuss Frost’s confrontation with a variety of conflicting views growing out of philosophy, religion, and aesthetics.  In an early chapter, Stanlis shows how Frost the dualist tackles the theory of evolution.  In fact, the poet managed to resolve the apparent conflict between Darwin and religion when he was a schoolboy.  Thus, in 1892, he wrote: “You say, God made man of mud, and I think God made man of prepared mud.”  And in 1955, at Bread Loaf, he told an audience: “It doesn’t make any great difference to give up saying that God made [man] out of mud.  All you have to say is that God made him out of prepared mud—worked it up from animal life.”

In another chapter, Stanlis highlights a running quarrel with “Three Generations of Huxleys,” whom Frost regarded as monists and ideologues, evangelists for a religion of science that denied the validity of any other claim to truth, whether spiritual, aesthetic, or merely common sense.  In discussing the idea of progress through science, championed so fervently by the Huxleys, Stanlis says,

Frost denied that evolution and the scientific method and technology altered the moral, intellectual, aesthetic, or social nature of man.  The traditional deadly sins, pride, envy, avarice, lust, gluttony and anger, which marked human depravity and spread crime throughout society, were as rampant in modern civilization as they had been in past ages.

In the 1920’s, Frost spoke for a shrinking minority.  By the end of the 20th century, most people would have agreed with him.

In perhaps the most adventurous chapter in the book, Stanlis finds a strong link between Albert Einstein’s view of the universe and Robert Frost’s dualism.  After a careful and convincing analysis of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and his pious sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, Stanlis writes:

Frost’s belief that science was one of the humanities, and not a self-sufficient and independent enterprise, led him to regard Einstein as an ideal example of what a scientist should be.  The great physicist united his work in matter with adherence to the humanities, to the fictional aesthetics of art, and even to a belief in God.

During the course of this book, which is almost 500 pages long, Stanlis exhibits a breadth of knowledge and a depth of understanding that many older scholars have come to believe are extinct, like the passenger pigeon and virginity at marriage.  He discusses Descartes, Lovejoy, contemporary politics, Marx, the Soviet Union, Frost’s love/hate relationship with the Democratic Party, Irving Babbitt, Sir Philip Sidney, fascism, Newton, the Bible, Aristotle, Santayana (under whom Frost studied), William James, the United Nations, God, and Frost’s reputation as the world’s greatest conversationalist.

Unlike many formidable scholarly works, particularly those that deal with philosophical complexities, this study is a joy to read.  It is full of anecdotes and Frost quotes and is rendered in the matter-of-fact language of true scholarship, which seeks to enlighten rather than to impress.  In places, it demands a certain degree of heroism, the will to move on to the next page despite the merciless demands of the subject matter.  But the next page is always worth the effort.

In summary, Peter Stanlis has written a book that meets the highest standards of literary scholarship and criticism.  It has been long in coming.  He published Edmund Burke and the Natural Law in 1955, and it remains one of the best books ever written on Burke, just as this book—published some 52 years later—will be among the best ever written about Robert Frost.  It is an inspiring achievement, entered into out of a fierce personal devotion to his friend rather than a desire for scholarly acclaim.  Stanlis knows full well that the current crop of academics won’t read his book.  Most have never read Frost, in some cases never heard of him; and, if they have, they just couldn’t care less.  Ward Churchill would not and could not read this book.

Like Frost’s poetry, Stanlis’s Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher was written for another time—for a past when the academy was dominated by scholars who knew everything they needed to know about their discipline, which, in literary studies, meant not only the great body of English and American poetry and prose, but also European and American history, Western philosophy, and the best scholarship.  But the book was also written in the hope that, in some improbable future, when the current anti-intellectualism of the academy gives way to good sense and good taste, English professors will again teach Frost in the classroom and will find themselves in need of a good study that tells them what the mystery is all about.  This is it.


[Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, by Peter J. Stanlis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 498 pp., $28.00]