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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Robert Frost’s “Sacramental Poetry”

My children attend Robert Frost Middle School and I drive by their school often, providing me constant reason to call to mind the great American poet. America has a very thoughtful piece just up examining his faith and its impact on his poetry. It’s a splendid article filled with nuggets like this:

The poet cannot easily be placed on the religious spectrum, nor can his lifelong quarrels with God be easily categorized. But any reader of Frost’s poems or observer of his public statements will know that he thought deeply about theological matters, and he wondered aloud about the relations between human beings and God. In 1947 he described himself in a letter to an old friend, G. R. Elliott, as “an orthodox Old Testament, original Christian,” but he claimed that his approach to the New Testament “is rather through Jerusalem than through Rome or Canterbury.” [Frost wrote] sacramental poetry of a high order. It is beautiful and true, but it is also complicated, even thorny. The faith of Robert Frost was nothing straightforward. He was not a simple Christian, but his faith was real, it was profound, and pointed readers in directions where they might find solace as well as understanding, where they would find their beliefs challenged, where they find answers as well as questions.

Jay Parini, the article’s author, also includes insight on Frost’s parents and their religious journeys.

Frost’s mother, Isabelle Moody Frost, was a Scot, and she was a devout follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a Christian mystic who began life as a scientist and, on Easter Day 1774, began to experience visions. One of his most important ideas was that of correspondence. That is, he believed that a relation existed between the material and spiritual worlds. Every aspect of nature revealed some aspect of divine providence. He preached the union of faith and charity in a Christian’s life, arguing that both were necessary for salvation. Mrs. Frost took her young son to a church founded on Swedenborg’s principles, and he absorbed a mystical sense of the world, an understanding of the universe that was founded on the idea that everything we see is a foretaste of things to come and that one must listen for the voice of God in unusual places, such as the wind in the trees or the ripples of lake water against the shore.
It should be noted that Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, was a severe skeptic and a Harvard-educated journalist who worked on a newspaper in San Francisco, where Frost was born. William Frost had no time for religion, and young Robert would have had his father’s voice in his head long after the elder Frost’s death, when his son was only 11. One certainly hears a wry note of skepticism in Frost’s poetry. It is there in his wonderful sonnet, “Design,” which is a meditation on St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that the design of the universe was itself an argument for God’s existence. “What but design of darkness to appall,” Frost wrote, noting that everywhere in nature one found aberrations, difficulties, harsh things. The sonnet is very dark indeed, and it remains the centerpiece in a bleak array of poems that reflect the poet in a somber mood. Reading poems like “Desert Places,” “Acquainted With the Night” or “The Most of It,” one can hardly doubt that Frost plumbed the deepest levels of depression.

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