Robert Frost, “On Emerson”
Presented at the 1408th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, October 8, 1958
Transcription of Frost lecture, "On Emerson"
Among the holdings of the Archives of the American Academy is a recording of the 1408th Stated Meeting on October 8, 1958, at which the first Emerson-Thoreau Award was presented to poet and Fellow Robert Frost. In 2019, the Academy arranged for the digitization of the two audio reels containing the recording. A partial transcription of Frost's informal lecture, "On Emerson," appears below, with time stamps for each reel.
[REEL 1 - 15:09]
[Academy President Kirtley Mather]
It gives me great pleasure to report to the Fellows of the Academy and their guests that the committee on the Emerson-Thoreau Award has been very active in the last few weeks and days, and under the chairmanship of Mr. David McCord, this committee has reached a unanimous judgment as to the person upon whom the first award of the Emerson-Thoreau medal should be made. We have great pleasure in having the recipient of this newly-established award with us this evening, and I now call upon the chairman of the committee on the Emerson-Thoreau award, Mr. David McCord.
President Mather, Fellows of the American Academy, and guests: as chairman of the Emerson-Thoreau medal committee, I take great pleasure in asking Mr. Kenneth Murdock to make the presentation, or give the presentation words before the recipient will stand up and be known to you. It's rather difficult to discourage Mr. Robert Frost, so [speaker coughs] I won't try to tell you that it is not he who is sitting there [audience laughter]. But it gives me great pleasure to call upon Mr. Kenneth Murdock, wherever you are, Kenneth; where are you? It's your show.
It's my great privilege to welcome tonight our honored fellow member, Robert Frost. [increase in volume] A Californian by birth, he has lived in this region for more than 60 years, and we are proud—as Amy Lowell said years ago that we should be—of him as a "neighbour of neighbours." We can add to that and say we are proud of him as a friend of friends. The late L. A. G. Strong, the English poet, novelist, and critic, used to tell how when he told his English associates that he was coming to this country to see some of our distinguished literary figures, they greeted the announcement with only polite interest. But when he said his special mission was to see Robert Frost, they burst out with "Give him our love!".
Mr. Frost is always the poet who sticks devotedly to his last, but no single title fits him completely. He has much of the wisdom of the philosopher, but his philosophy always has the special sweep of the poet's vision. He is a humorist, but his humor is enriched with the seriousness of the true comic spirit. He is a wit, and his wit is often tinged with irony, but even in his most stringent satires, it cuts deeper because it's edged with compassion. His use of local material and his amazing skill in shaping the traditional measures of English verse to give them the special accent and music of New England speech, makes him, as he has often been called, the poet laureate of this region.
But to call him a local poet, or his tone homespun, is, as Douglas Bush has pointed out, to be deceived. The homespun garb clothes poetry which dissolves the boundaries of time and place. Justly to define his best work, we must add to his title of poet, that of prophet. He reaches his mark, the fellow poet Mark Van Doren has said, through the door of actuality. He is, in his own phrase, "versed in country things." And he opens our eyes to a new sense of our familiar surroundings. He is, if I may quote on Amy Lowell again, "a singer of country-sides and country-labours, like a hermit thrush deep in a wood whose fresh fire of song burns the whole air to music, and higher up-soars till it seems not one voice but a choir…" We meet Robert Frost in pastures, on the edge of woods, on snowy evenings, beside stone walls, or near a forgotten woodpile. We hear the birds flying about the cellar hole of a burned house, we see the calf too weak to stand, the drumlin woodchuck, and the great buck swimming the lake, pushing the crumpled water up ahead. We are drawn close to the poet by our sense of sharing reality with him. The words as we read or listen seem not to be about things, but to be the things themselves. His best lines live up to Emerson's demand, that all good writing should be "the settlement of the dew on the leaf, of stalactites on the wall of the grotto (I think Mr. Frost would have said 'cave' and not 'grotto') the deposit of flesh from the blood, of woody fibre in the tree from the sap."
But there's more to Mr. Frost's necromancy than his power to evoke a feeling of intimacy with the actual. Making our way with him to town on a snowy evening, waiting in a farmhouse shadowed by tragedy, for a little silver cloud to hit the moon, or joining the little girl and her brother swinging birches, we discover that the farmhouse walls are no longer walls, that the birches reach higher than any New England tree ever has, and that the road to the town stretches far beyond it. Mr. Frost's west-running brook crosses the boundaries of townships and nations. Though he starts in actuality, there is always a further range. Mr. Frost's reality is beyond measurement by maps and clocks, the reality of the questing mind and the open heart. His country things are keys to a world of fuller understanding; of more essential emotional validity than most of us can find in our workaday absorptions in what we are pleased to call the actual.
We welcome tonight a man who, he has told us, long ago stood where two roads diverged, and chose to take the one less traveled by. That road—the poet's and the prophet's—has led him far. We rejoice that it has led him this evening to this house. "We love the things we love for what they are," he has said. Our greeting to him tonight and our token for him is a sign of our affection, our admiration, and our gratitude. It is our way of telling him that we love him for what he is...
…before I speak… first, in advance.
Mr. Frost wants to know whether he's going to get it before he speaks or afterward [audience laughter], and our trust in him as well as our admiration is indicated by the fact that I am going to present the medal to him before he speaks. [audience applause]
This beautiful bronze medal was designed by one of the fellows of the Academy, Mr. Rudolf Ruzicka, and…
Is he here?
He's here tonight, and I am sure that he would be very happy indeed as he observes me passing this medal to you. On the reverse of the medal are two quotations, one from Emerson…
Don't tell them which.
No? And the other from Thoreau. [audience laughter]
See if they can tell which is which. Change it on them.
One is from Emerson and one is from Thoreau. The quotations are as follows: "I have several times shown the proprietor the shortest way out of his wood-lot." And the other one: "Art is the path of the creator to his work." Robert Frost, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Council and fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I confer upon you the first award of the Academy's Emerson-Thoreau medal. We present it to you with admiration. To you: beloved poet and clear-eyed prophet. [audience applause]
All that admiration for me [pause] I'm glad of. I am here out of admiration partly for Emerson and Thoreau. I'm… Naturally on a proud occasion like this I would like to make myself as much of an Emersonian as I connect myself with Emerson. And I can go a long way; I shan't take too much time. But you'd be interested to know that right in my pocket I have a little first edition of Emerson's poetry, the very first that was published in England, just as my first book was published in England. These two go together. The book was given me years ago on account of that connection, that we… both Emerson and I were first published in England by Fred Melcher, the great book man, who spread books all over the world. You might, some of you might like to see this pretty thing. I'm not a collector, but I'm very proud to own that.
Now, let me tell you more about my connection with Emerson. I suppose I've always thought that of the… that if I… that I'd like to name, the … now and then, the four greatest Americans: and one of them was George Washington, another was… the great general, let me put it that way; another was Thomas Jefferson, the great political thinker; another one was Lincoln, the martyr and the savior; and the fourth—and these all these names I pick out because they've gone round the world, see: they're not just local names, are they? And the fourth one is Ralph Waldo Emerson. And his name has gone everywhere. Partly to, you know, in philosophic dispute, religious dispute.
It's a distress to some of my friends that I, that I have been accused of being an Emersonian, that is to say, a cheerful Monist. Do you see what that means, that's a terrible thing, a cheerful Monist. Somebody who thinks that the Devil himself… Emerson quotes Burns as saying to the Devil himself "Would thou take a thought and mend?" That there is no evil, really; the Devil can get over it. And that's a distress to some of my friends. You can be a kind of a melancholy dualist, you know, to be sound. But soundness isn't of the essence, is it?
Now, when I… my religion, my own religion has a strange history. My mother was a Presbyterian. My father was for three hundred years here, see we're old family on that side, but my mother came fresh from Scotland a Presbyterian. But in the days when she was young it was smart, I suppose—smart today you know to be reading St. John Perse, say, or T. S. Eliot. Or me. No, leave me out, not smart [laughter]; ‘cause I'm just you know the country boy. But St. John Perse, let's say. And in her day I suppose it was smart to be reading Poe and Emerson. She, young thing, and Emerson turned her into a Unitarian [laughter]. And then I was born pretty near that time, and so I started I guess a kind of a Presbyterian-Unitarian: see I was transitional, but it was Emersonian, you see. Then my mother read on in Emerson, into the "Representative Men" ‘til she got to the mystic Swedenborg, and she became a Swedenborgian. And I was brought up in all three of those religions, I suppose. You know I don't know whether I was baptized every time or not. [laughter]
But anyway, but all of it was Emersonian, you see, very Emersonian. And then phrases of his began to come in on me. He says something of Swedenborg—in that, in that essay on the mystic, that is better than anything than Swedenborg said, one of the fine things he said—he quoted, he said that Swedenborg had the idea that in the highest heaven nothing is arrived at by dispute (the second-highest becomes parliamentary). [laughter] [inaudible] Then, I remember about language, I think some of my first thinking about my own language, the language I wanted to express myself in, was with Emerson. He says of Montaine somewhere "Cut these sentences and they bleed." Remember? Fine, yeah. I have never had a desire to follow anybody: I am not submissive enough. But that kind of talk was it, you know.
And then he says things like this, of the country people of New Hampshire—by the way, you know, he didn't like the New Hampshire people. Forty percent of them were state rights' Democrats who sympathized with the South in the war. In one place he says—and this amused me, I always liked—he said (my people were of those; they were really pretty bad) but he said of them "The man… The God that made New Hampshire taunted the lofty land with little men," because they were on the Southern side, that was. Forty percent of them were on the Southern side, and mine among them.
Then if you'll let me go on being reminiscent. Amy Lowell said to me one day: "I've left New Hampshire; I've given up my place in Dublin." I said: "What's the matter?" She said: "Can't stand the people." And I quoted that to her, what Emerson says. Said: "Yes, little men." And I said: "But what do you have against them?" She said: "Read your own books and find out." [audience laughter] That was my north of Boston…
But early in it I don't know just when I came on things like this: "Yet wouldst thou learn (I think it goes like this) wouldst thou learn our ancient speech, these the masters that can teach." (These are the New Hampshire farmers, the country people.) "These the masters that can ("Monadnock," it's called, it's in "Monadnock," I'm pretty sure) "these the masters that can teach. Fourscore and a hundred words all their vocal muse affords" (they only got a vocabulary of a hundred words). "Yet they turn them in a fashion past the statesman's art and passion. (I think the way that goes; I'm doing this out of old memories.) Yet they turn them in a fashion (we'll just leave it that way). Rude poets of the tavern hearth ("hurth" he pronounced it) squandering your unquoted mirth, that keeps the ground and never soars, while Jake retorts and Reuben roars." [audience laughter] And then he says: "Scoff of yeoman, strong and stark, goes like bullet to the mark, while Jake… no… and the solid curse and jeer never balk the waiting ear, the solid curse and jeer."
Well now, that was, that had more influence in my life than you'd think, just that kind of talk about it. I remember riding, following a man, riding out with him whenever I could get onto his wagon, that was carrying shooks to the city (shooks are boxes that haven't been set up), they were going to some shoe shop or something like that. But I hung on his talk because though it was about a hundred words, it was like this. I began to have the desire for that. The danger of that is just dialectical picturesqueness, you know. But he doesn't mean that, you see. This hardness, this "solid curse and jeer." See, I was always in favor of cursing, because that's one of the beautiful figures of speech, you see, it's one of the good ones. They used to try to get us out of that, they said it shows too limited a vocabulary. [audience laughter] But limited vocalubary [sic] doesn't matter, Emerson says, you see, a hundred words is all you need to do the whole business!
But then to go further, you know, I've lingered… if a poet, if a writer, writes both prose and verse, novels and poems, or essays and poems, he always becomes a poet for me. And I run into people who say "of course you don't mean the great Emerson you speak of, or you don't mean as a poet." But that's just what I do mean: in prose or verse, the phrasing is just the same, you know, that's what he is. "Cut these sentences and they bleed."
I remember thinking of them this way, too, years ago, that there is a way of saying every sentence that's different, though the sentences all look short and about the same. See they're alive to the ear. And that had something to do with my career. I remember telling John Erskine about that, trying to make him see that this page that looks like all one size of sentence, and might be monotonous: it says itself every way. Your voice, you're never at a loss in reading it aloud, about the way to say it, the tone. The living sentence.
Then of course I took an interest with all Boston with—I don't mean, I took the interest that all Boston took in it when it was new—the "Brahma," in the "Brahma poem," and puzzled over it, and had written a little introductory essay about teaching, looking up things in poems. Whether you can look them up, you know, while you're reading it, or whether you need to be prepared beforehand or whether you need to have had it [pause] been prepared beforehand [sic] by unconsciously an experience, you see. I never want, I hate footnotes. And so I avoided… I've told a story about how I avoided looking up "The strong gods pine for my abode, and pine in vain the sacred Seven; But thou, meek lover of the good! Find me, and turn thy back on heaven."
Well you see there's a lot you need to know about that. And did I go to look it up? No, I disdained to do that; I'd just let it wait til it looked itself up. Years and years afterward I could tell you about everything in it but one line, there's still one line that I'm waiting to have open up to me [light audience laughter]. No, no lectures on it. Then, the greatest thing of all about him—and I don't say this word "great" very often about anybody; I don't go scattering the word round—the greatest thing of all, were his… what he gives you through verse after verse, and things, the meaning of the word "freedom." You see, it's a cheapened word: we say "the land of the free and home of the brave" in a mocking way, farmers do and Americans do, following foreigners as usual in style, dress, and thought.
And [pause] let me… he says of God, in one place, this I came on when I was young, this little quatrain, it's not a perfect quatrain, but it's got two lines in it; he says "God who worketh high"… (no, I won't, I'll leave that part out), "God would take the sun of the sky… God would take the sun out of the sky [sic] ere freedom out of a man." That's the hell of him: that you can't take freedom out of him. And you don't have to wait for him to act; we hang around waiting for the Russians to feel that way. Just forget it, they'll take care of that by and by, you know; people can't be kept from this thing. God would as soon get that clear: "take the sun out of the sky [sic] ere freedom out of a man."
And when I… freedom has meant so many things to me. I remember once with a Harvard professor—a friend of mine, no longer living—I remember his saying to me gently, "You agree that truth makes you free?" And I said to him "No, it don't." I said to him, "It might make you free, but if it's my truth, it'll ‘bind you slave to me'… so look out." [light audience laughter] And that's the doctrine that I know. Emerson would agree with me, in that the truth will bind you slave to somebody. For instance, a very nice woman we all admire has just been saying that the truth of unionism in labor, see, will set you free, that you've all got to join the union. There's no freedom outside of joining the union. And you know that just binds you slave to the union, that's all; that's me and Emerson talking.
And, the… I've thought of freedom many ways. It all started, I think, with that thing, "God would take the sun out of the skies ere freedom out of man." Many years… one time I was thinking that it was nothing but departure: setting forth, you know, leaving things behind, just departure. Brave originality, not originality, even just bravery, daring, see. And it always… you're only free when you're one jump ahead of the formal laws, like the automobiles or the planes, and things. This is radical talk. There was never anyone so subversive as Emerson; the terrible upsetter.
I go further than that, step by step. I was thinking the other day: I was confronted with Steinbeck writing a short book on labor troubles, and I met the explanation for the whole of the trouble, the labor trouble, was that the men on the production line don't see any meaning in their lives. Now the ultimate thing in freedom is that you've got to, you must, it's laid on you, you mut quit or fight if you don't see meaning in what you're doing. That's the freedom that I value most. For instance, if you're writing a doctor's thesis and you seem to have got a mock subject, you know, so many of ‘em get, and if in the middle of it you feel it doesn't mean enough, you ought to quit. And it's heroic to quit. So, I've known two or three cases of it: they lost with their relatives and their friends by quitting, and this one of them quit, one of them said to me, "I'm in for philosophy, and I've come to a philosophy department—never mind where—and I can't find any philosophy in it. And it doesn't mean a thing to me." And I said then, "Why don't you quit?", and he said "Well, I hate...", he said the American stock thing "I hate to be a quitter." And I said, "the Bible says ‘Quit ye, like men'." [audience laughter] And he said, "Where would I go?", and I said, "Oh, Patagonia, Kamchatka, anywhere." Just light out, you know. Get somewhere where it means something to you. The meaning is the sacred thing: fight the police, if you have to, hate ‘em, you know, if you get meaning out of doing that. Let ‘em batter ya. Get yourself punch drunk fighting the police, if it gives more meaning to your life than being on the production line, and doing what other people… the slave thing. The slave is the one that doesn't have to see any meaning in what he's doing: that's all a slave is, he's lost it all.
That is what I want to say most about Emerson, that the cheap, the kind of cheap flag talk, you know—"the land of the free and the home of the brave"—that's very fine you know, but it's all cheapened and made fun of. But he's deepened and deepened that for me, the idea of freedom. The thought of it, he wouldn't know what I was talking about, in labor unions and strikes and fights. I'm what they call conservative, very, not subversive at all, you can tell by the way I talk. [light audience laughter] But, the point is that [pause] the worst radical in the world, if he's turned radical to get more meaning out of his life, that's all right with me. I'm with anybody that's seeking a life that has meaning. And you can say the same all round.
Now the difficulty with Emerson, this is the height of him, the nobility of him, this idea of freedom, and that it's meant so much to me in my thinking. But then, now it's amusing to me that I'm bothered by him, problem we were talking about last night up in Manchester. He thinks this, he carries this quitting that I played with in this boy. Oh, I ought to tell you: I went to Brazil for the government, and I found him down there. He'd gone, at my suggestion. [audience laughter] And the last I knew, I thought I'd done him harm; I found him down there (it worried me, you know). But I had a card from him this year (this two or three years gone by), and he was at San Juan Fernandez, the Robinson Crusoe island, and he was on his way to Easter Island, and after that he was going back to restore two universities in Chile. That's what he said on the card, "to restore two universities." He's a very learned boy, all full of languages and things like that. [audience laughter] And I hadn't done him any harm.
But now this idea of quitting, you see, is one of the great problems that the psychiatrists can't help us about. Emerson says, "Give all to Love." Everything: friendship, everything. Family, everything. Money, position, everything. Give it all to love. But, you know, be ready for dying, you know. And then he says, ("Heartily," is it?) "Heartily know, when half-gods go, the one you have loved, the gods arrive." And as I watched that in life… I went down, I saw a little book years ago, by a girl poet, a book of poems named, called "Half Gods," and it was all on that theme of getting over a love and going on to better loves. And as I've watched that in life, I see, I could say, "Verily know, when half-gods go, the quarter-gods arrive. And when the quarter-gods go, the eighth-gods…", because, you know, it's geometric progression, it's lesser gods.
So this quitting thing is so, is one of those great, great problems. The greatest problem in the world maybe is how to get from an attachment to an attraction. [light audience laughter] By what grace of what, you know, and it's there. Emerson does it with the cheerful way, just says that it's half-gods go, the gods arrive. But that's too cheerful; it's too uncertain, that is. That's done a lot of harm. I saw it quoted in "Loyalty in a Time Like This," an article in the Harper's Magazine two or three years ago, "Loyalty in a time like this." And you felt like saying, "Loyalty in any time is the same thing; there's no ‘time like this' about it." But this was so as to make it easy to become a communist, how you manage it. It quoted Emerson and it quoted two or three other philosophers that were just as wrong-headed.
Then again we leave that there. One more thing about Emerson that interests me very much: his Unitarianism, his one God. I think it's because—this without prejudice to anybody's religion—I think it's because he doesn't like stories, and if you have the imagination that enjoys stories, it runs into, it begins to descend into human interest when the god is tripled, you know. You've got a pretty little scandal story, and all that, you see, and the top off, a little superstition. You can't do anything with people… if anyone's an agnostic, he's no use to me at all. The basic thing in humanity is some sort of superstition made decent by and trimmed up by philosophy, [light audience laughter] and topped off you know with a pretty scandal story.
But I think he was lacking there, that he was a little too abstract. It's not… I remember Edmund Gosse years ago—I was always on the defensive about Emerson, always hated anybody said the kind of thing I'm saying right now about his shortcomings [audience laughter]—but he, Edmund Gosse had an article in the magazines many, many years ago called "Has America Produced a Poet?" And he dismissed them all, one by one. And he said, what I was pleased to hear him say, that Emerson came the nearest it, but he couldn't really conduct a poem, he said (the word was used, "conduct"). And they forget all that nowadays: nobody conducts a poem [light audience laughter]; that is, it's got to come out, go somewhere, you know. Come out like it's a little story, it's got to have that. It can't just be a texture, a poetical texture that you don't make pants or skirts out of: you've gotta make something out of it. And I think the only poem, the poem that Gosse quoted, Edmund Gosse, was, "Musketaquit, a goblin strong, Of shards and flints makes jewels gay; They lose their grief who hear his song, And where he winds is the day of day. So forth and brighter fares my song… my theme, - Who drinks it…" ("my stream" I guess he calls it), "so forth and brighter fares my stream, who drinks it shall not thirst again; No darkness stains its equal gleam, And ages fall in it like rain, feed it like rain," you see, "fall in it like rain." And he granted that was pretty near a poem. [light audience laughter] (‘Tis, you know, it's a fine poem.)
But the pages are full of them, I could go on with them. I would disdain for any occasion to load up with these things to talk to you about—these are the very fiber I'm made of, these lines. Sometimes a little inaccurate, they alter with me, and I don't fumble them just to prove to you that I didn't look them up last night. [audience laughter] Know many of them. An amusing one begins like this: "I, Alphonso, live and learn, seeing Nature go astern. Things deteriorate in kind: lemon grow to pith and rind" (I think he says, and so on), "I, Alphonso," says everything is going backward, evoluting [sic] backward. Goes on to the regret that human beings are multiplying, too many people; that's what some people worry about now. This is Emerson worrying about, they all ought, nine out of ten ought to be killed. [light audience laughter] Emerson's saying that, you know. I have friends who think that too; I have one who worries a great deal, lies awake about it. [audience laughter]
Well, if I… I think I've established my claim to a relationship with Emerson, you see. And I'm very, it would please my mother [sound of slapping on medal box], you know, to know that I was connected with Emerson by this thing I have here. She was very Emersonian, and passed out of that to this strange Swedenborgian thing. Just the opposite from Emerson, really: yards and yards of slow reading [light audience laughter] without any, you know, rather, without any spice of raciness or poeticalness [sic]. Once in a while a gleam like that, I don't know how Emerson found it, he must have read some of it; it was read quite a lot in those days. The James brothers, both the Jameses were brought up in Swedenborgianism, and William Dean Howells was, and reverted to it, rather, the last of it, in his old age, came back to it. That never… always interesting, interesting, but difficult reading.
Now I suppose I've been quoted in various ways; do you want to hear a poem or two? [audience applause]. I know a few of mine, too. [audience laughter]. I could say some of Emerson's; I never learned any poem on purpose, the whole of it, all my life, but I sometimes find I know a whole poem. I could probably say all of Uriel to you. I ought to say this, in a piece of mine, I speak of that without naming it. Oh, it's like this: "Evil will" (this is Emerson again), "‘In vain produced, all rays return; Evil will bless, and ice will burn.'" (It's fun, isn't it?) [light audience laughter] "‘Evil will bless, and ice will burn… In vain produced, all rays return…'"; you'd think he was talking modern science, you know, the universe. Unit and universe, he says—he says this right out in that same poem—"Unit and universe are round…". Took a lot of mathematics and a lot of science and a lot of time since he arrived at that idea, that the universe is round. I don't believe it, [audience laughter] I'm skeptical about that. It'll be some other shape ‘fore you know it. [audience laughter]. You know, the ideal form at rest is the circle, but just soon as you introduce action into it, it becomes an oval. [pause] Isn't that interesting… that's one of the… all things that are trying to go round in a circle make an oval, but the ideal form that they're thinking of, or the Platonic ideal is a circle. I wonder why: I wonder how it got, probably the world got started going round in nice circles but then pretty soon it acted as if it had two suns instead of one… been drinking. Something like drink: that's what drink does to you too. [light audience laughter]
Well now, [light tapping sound] my own things… I have to take a little minute to shift gear. Anybody want to say what, shall I say little things, say some of the short ones, pretty ones. Ones that, take one like the one that they've been talking a good deal about, I say that one first.
[distant voice from offstage]
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" [audience murmuring]
["Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"]
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And we won't talk about Emerson anymore, and the ideals of art and everything. See, see, one of the beautiful things about Emerson's things, they're so gnomic, G-N-O-M-E-I-C [sic] (I spelled it wrong), that gnomic gift, and it's so brilliant, it is; there's so many, so many quotable lines. How anybody can think he wasn't a poet—that he's just an essayist—that was in the wrong, there.
Then another one:
["Tree at My Window"]
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and swept,
And if you've seen me [pause] when I slept…
(Oh, I've said that wrong; I guess I've forgotten that, have I?)
But tree, I've seen thee—you—taken and tossed…
But tree, I have seen you, taken and tossed,
And if you've seen me when I slept,
You've seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner weather.
And then, a very new one, a little one, like, goes like this—It's called "Away, Away"; it's from this thing in this song, "I'm bound away", you know [microphone sound]
[1:06:05 End of Reel 1]
[REEL 2 - 00:01]
[Most of poem lost in tape transfer]
With what I learn
From having died.
That's a new one. [audience laughter and applause]
And then, someone was saying, you never know what they try to set to music nowadays; it beats me. [light audience laughter]
This one is called "The Gift Outright," this is blank verse. A short history of the Revolutionary War. A few lines, not very many. "The land was ours before we were the land's." That's the whole story, really; I ought to stop there.
["The Gift Outright"]
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
See that's without prejudice to either side. It just had to be, you know. Somebody making an anthology lately in England of American, recent American poetry, he put that in for England in the frontispiece [light audience laughter], so I was confronted with it when I was over there this time and ‘twas rather amusing. I said to them, that "We fell off first, and all your colonies one by one were destined to fall off afterward." "Yes," someone said to me, "just like apples, you fell off green." [audience laughter]
Then, let's see. Now a little longer one, and then perhaps you've had enough. This is rather recent one too. Should I read one of the old ones, you know, like "The Mending Wall," or something. Should I do that? [inaudible over audience vocalizations] Yeah, that's a pretty old one; everybody's tired of it, maybe. But that was amusing in England too; I'll tell you something about that. But this is a real country situation: just every year, my neighbor let me know—I say in the poem I let him know—but that's poetic, that's, you know, objectivity, turning it around. And we restored the wall, there was a regular spring, one of the regular spring works (plural), one of the spring works, we exchanged works and so on.
["The Mending Wall"]
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
(As everybody knows everywhere)
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.
The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we work.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, [in slight accent] "Good fences make good neighbors."
[light audience laughter]
But in… a rather noted novelist over in England who very, makes his… who is very concerned with novels about how to get from an attachment to an attraction—I won't name him. I don't read him, but I know that's what he's doing. But he sat opposite me at the table, and he said, we were all talking about how difficult it is to make each other understand, you see, what ambiguity there is in everything, and you know. He said, [slight accent] "The most difficult thing I've ever found in literature, saw, to get the meaning of, was your saying that ‘Good fences make good neighbors'." And I said, "Well don't blame me for it; it's very ancient—I think it's in the Panchatantra." And he hadn't read the Panchatantra, and neither had I. [audience laughter] but it's extraordinary, and I didn't of course, it's a very, very ancient thing (I don't know how ancient), "Good fences make good neighbors." You'd think that anybody couldn't help seeing that. [light audience laughter] There's something the matter with him.
Then you say, will you?
Robert, say "My Objection…"
"My Objection to Being Stepped On."
Yeah, do I know that? Yeah. It ought to be "The Objection to Being Stepped On"; I have changed that. [audience laughter] It's "the objection," it's more general than that. Let's see…
["The Objection to Being Stepped On"]
At the end of the row
I stepped on the toe [volume drop]
Of an unemployed hoe.
It rose in offense
And struck me a blow
In the seat of my sense.
It wasn't to blame
But I called it a name.
And I must say [pause] the blow…
[interjection] No let's see… [chuckles] what's the matter? That's just what I was afraid of. [light audience laughter] Oh…
And I must say it dealt
Me a blow that I felt
Like a malice prepense.
See, see…I'll begin again.
At the end of the row
I stepped on the toe
Of an unemployed hoe.
It rose in offense
And struck me a blow
In the seat of my sense.
It wasn't to blame
But I called it a name.
And I must say it dealt
Me a blow that I felt
Like a malice prepense.
I may be a fool,
But was there a rule
The weapon should be
Turned into a tool?
And what do we see?
The first tool I step on
Turned into a weapon.
Say any one, Robert, any one.
Yes. Do “The Two Roads”… do “The Road Not Taken.”
Yeah, another kind… another one again. See, David McCord put those two things on the thing to see if I’d know who wrote them. [light audience laughter] That’s college habits, you know, to see if you can identify passages. I identified them all right. [light audience laughter]
This one... [pause]
[“The Road Not Taken”]
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And then this one about the woodchuck that you mentioned. I’ll plunge into the, into one stanza alone, I’ll leave out one stanza. This is a woodchuck speaking. [light audience laughter] This woodchuck says, “My own strategic…”—this is supposed to be a smug poem, so I started as smug as I can turn it on, see. It’s a love poem, and a smug poem.
["A Drumlin Woodchuck"]
My own strategic retreat Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.
[audience laughter and applause]
See, that’s the wrong politics for the last fifty years.[audience laughter] That explains my position: see, I’m a Democrat, you notice, but I’ve been unhappy ever since 1896. [light audience laughter] But it’s been very stimulating, see, I’ve written a lot of things about it. All indirect, you know: they can’t put me anywhere, in jail or anything like that. It’s been all my own.
And then… let’s see what else we think of. [pause] Just this thing right now you’re, we’re all thinking about. Whether it’s possible to have one world. And I have many thoughts about it; I’ve talked about them in various ways. One of them is that we had a Tower of Babel, and ancient Tower of Babel that split us all up into conflicting languages, you know. And now we got the “Tower of Anti-Babel” down in New York to put us all together into one language again. So I addressed the English department where I am, “Let us join together in the English department to see that the one language is English, so my poetry won’t have to be translated anymore.” [audience laughter] It’s very selfish. [light audience laughter]
In other respects, down there in the UN, they have a lump of iron given to them by the King of Sweden, I think, of purest iron, 90% pure. Very pure, the purest of all there is. Wonderful. And they surely, it’s got a room of its own, a meditation room, the ground floor. You can go in there and meditate any time you want, two chairs, I think [light audience laughter], two, maybe three, [chuckles] and you go in there and meditate unity, see. They think they got something in that iron, see, unity. And it’s not any purer than it ought to be, but pure enough. [light audience laughter] But the very idea of it, you know, it’s just what I was talking about in that little “Objection of Being Stepped On”; when you’re looking at that iron, you’re looking at both tools and weapons at once, you know; ‘t ain’t one. And so I wrote that. They asked, or hinted that they wanted a poem, and I wrote this for them, I said:
Nature within her inmost self divides
To trouble men with having to take sides.
And they’re not going to use it; they said I’d written better poems than that. [audience laughter] Were very nice about it, they said I’d written better, nice ones.
Let me just finish up with this one, see if this doesn't amuse you. This more, a little longer, and very recent, and about my ways with dogs, and stars, and things like that.
["One More Brevity"]
I opened the door so my last look
Should be taken outside a house and book.
Before I gave up seeing and slept,
I said I would see how Sirius kept
His watchdog eye on what remained
To be gone into, if not explained.
But scarcely was my door ajar,
When, past the leg I thrust for bar,
Pushed in to be my problem guest,
Not a heavenly dog made manifest,
But an earthly dog of the carriage breed,
Who, having failed of the modern speed,
Now asked asylum, and I was stirred
To be the one so dog-preferred.
He dumped himself like a bag of bones.
He sighed himself a couple of groans,
And, head to tail, then firmly curled,
Like swearing off on the traffic world.
I set him water. I set him food.
He rolled an eye with gratitude,
Or merely manners, it may have been,
But never so much as lifted chin.
His hard tail loudly smacked the floor,
As if beseeching me, "Please, no more;
I can't explain, tonight at least."
His brow was perceptibly trouble-creased.
So I spoke in terms of adoption, thus:
"Gusty, old boy, Dalmatian Gus,
You're right, there's nothing to discuss.
Don't try to tell me what's on your mind,
The sorrow of having been left behind
Or the sorrow of having run away.
All that can wait for the light of day.
Meanwhile feel obligation-free;
Nobody has to confide in me."
‘Twas too one-sided a dialogue,
And I wasn't sure I was talking Dog. [audience laughter]
I gave up, baffled, but all the same,
In fancy, I ratified his name;
Gusty, Dalmatian Gus, that is,
And started shaping my life to his,
Sharing his miles of exercise
And finding him in his right supplies.
Next morning as soon as I was about,
He was at the door to be let out.
As much as to say, "I have paid my call.
You mustn't feel hurt if now I'm all
For getting back somewhere, or further on."
I opened the door, and he was gone.
I was to taste in little the grief
That comes of dogs' lives being so brief.
Only a fraction of ours, at most,
He might have been the dream of a ghost,
In spite of the way his tail had smacked
My floor, so hard and matter-of-fact.
And things have been going so strangely since,
I wouldn't be too hard to convince,
I might even claim he was Sirius.
Think of presuming to call him Gus! [light audience laughter]
The star itself, heaven's brightest star,
Not a meteorite but an avatar,
Who had made this overnight descent
To show by deeds he didn't resent
My having depended on him so long,
And yet done nothing about it in song.
A symbol was all he could hope to convey,
An intimation, a shot of ray,
A meaning I was supposed to seek,
And finding, wasn't supposed to speak.
Thank you, Robert Frost, Emerson-Thoreau medalist.
You are all invited to participate in some further brief relaxations and some, I trust, pleasant beverages, if you will drift upon our adjournment along the hallway and down into or toward the dining room.
And now I declare that the one thousand, four hundred and eighth Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is dissolved.
[21:14 recording ends]