“It is nothing to me who runs the dive…”
In Robert Frost‘s 1936 volume, A Further Range, appears a section archly titled “Ten Mills.” It is a suite of ten short poems—some of them epigrams of a sort—originally published in the April 1936 issue of Poetry magazine. A mill, of course, is one-tenth of a cent (a sense fallen now almost entirely out of use). Which is to say, in this little suite of very brief, and very mischievous, poems, Frost is putting not his proverbial “two-cents” in, but merely one. The last of the “ten mills” is the following poem, which has always struck as by far the most interesting among them. In fact, at times I find it baffling. A bit of lore lies behind the poem, chiefly having to do with its title. But first, the poem itself, which is done up curtly in couplets, each line of which bears four accents (the ratio of accent to syllable is not regular):
“In Divés Dive”
It is late at night and still I am losing,
But still I am steady and unaccusing.
As along as the Declaration guards
My right to be equal in number of cards,
It is nothing to me who runs the dive.
Let’s have a look at another five.
And now for the lore. In the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, Luke 16:19-31, we read the following: (N.B. I highlight the most relevant passage in red bold type, and the rest in color-coded type alone, to point up the correspondences between this Latin, of which I am myself no reader, and the English that follows it): “homo quidam erat dives et induebatur purpura et bysso et epulabatur cotidie splendideet erat quidam mendicus nomine Lazarusqui iacebat ad ianuam eius ulceribus plenus cupiens saturari de micis quae cadebant de mensa divitis sed et canes veniebant et lingebant ulcera eius factum est autem ut moreretur mendicus et portaretur ab angelis in sinum Abrahae mortuus est autem et dives et sepultus est in inferno elevans oculos suos cum esset in tormentis videbat Abraham a longe et Lazarum in sinu eius et ipse clamans dixit pater Abraham miserere mei et mitte Lazarum ut intinguat extremum digiti sui in aqua ut refrigeret linguam meam quia crucior in hac flamma et dixit illi Abraham fili recordare quia recepisti bona in vita tua et Lazarus similiter mala nunc autem hic consolatur tu vero cruciaris et in his omnibus inter nos et vos chasma magnum firmatum est ut hii qui volunt hinc transire ad vos non possint neque inde huc transmeare et ait rogo ergo te pater ut mittas eum in domum patris mei habeo enim quinque fratres ut testetur illis ne et ipsi veniant in locum hunc tormentorum et ait illi Abraham habent Mosen et prophetas audiant illos at ille dixit non pater Abraham sed si quis ex mortuis ierit ad eos paenitentiam agent ait autem illi si Mosen et prophetas non audiunt neque si quis ex mortuis resurrexerit credent.” The King James Bible renders this text as follows (again, the relevant phrases are highlighted as above):
“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he [i.e., Divés] said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him [i.e., Lazarus] to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
In short, by tradition, “Divés” is the name given to “that certain rich man” [homo quidam erat dives] in most commentaries on the parable of the beggar Lazarus; and it is he who runs the “dive” of Frost’s poem. Frost places us, then, in a cheap gambling dive, in the middle of the Great Depression, run by a corrupt rich man bound for Hell. And Frost’s “steady and unaccusing” speaker, the man doing all the “losing,” somehow takes heart from the fact that, so long as “the Declaration guards [his] right to be equal in number of cards,” it is “nothing to [him] who runs the dive.” All he wants is “a look at another five”—five cards, that is, as in a “deal.” The game in question is obviously poker. And the poem is just as obviously allegorical. The “house rules” in this “dive” are, it appears, those of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The general metaphor underlying the poem could not be any clearer:
America is a cheap gambling dive run by corrupt and wealthy men; to be in America is to be in Divés dive.
But what we are to make of this metaphor, how we are to take it? That’s no easy question to answer. Consider a thought experiment, along these lines: Read the poem not as written by Robert Frost, but as written instead, say, by Langston Hughes, in his fellow-traveling Communist days in the 1930s. Hughes might well have written such a poem (and as Frost himself was told in conversation with the poet Sterling Brown, “Divés,” and the parable in which he figures, was a theme touched on in Negro Spirituals, for reasons perfectly obvious). We might then conclude: Well, obviously, Hughes is saying what any poet on the far left during the ’30s might have said: The Declaration, and every other guarantee of ‘equal protection under the law,’ are nothing but ideological shams. The nation had been, was, and always will be—short of a second revolution—one run by, and in the interests of, the wealthy and the corrupt. And anyone who thinks otherwise, as the “unaccusing” gambler in the poem apparently does, is a naïve fool. For who but a fool would ever go into a “dive” run by the likes of Divés and lay a single dollar on the table? Clearly this poem is a clever and wicked satire not merely of America, but of anyone who expected, say, that the “New Deal” (“let’s have a look at another five!”) was anything other than a measure meant to shore up capitalism, by curbing its excesses, so as to save it from committing suicide.
What’s the use of this thought experiment? To illustrate, among other things, how thoroughly we let knowledge about the author of a poem govern our reading of it—Roland Barthes & Michel Foucault notwithstanding. Most middling readers of Frost simply take it for granted that he couldn’t possibly hold any such views as those just entertained in our little experimental attribution of the poem to (say) Langston Hughes. Surely, they think, there must be something else afoot. Surely no man is altogether a fool to place his faith in the guarantees of the Declaration and the Constitution (with, say, its 14th amendment, making good, at least on paper, Jefferson’s great promise of “equality”). And though it be true that the parable of Lazarus figured in the sorrow songs of the slaves, we find it in a number of English ballads dating back centuries, and from the other side of the Atlantic altogether. Richard Crashaw wrote two quatrains on the theme in his Steps to the Temple. It is a veritable commonplace (though, admittedly, Frost gives it specifically American coordinates).
“Upon Lazarus’ s tears.”
Rich Lazarus! richer in those gems, thy tears,
Than Dives in the robes he wears:
He scorns them now, but O! they’ll suit full well.
With th’ purple he must wear in Hell.
“Dives asks a drop. — Luke xvi. 24.”
A drop, one drop, how sweetly one fair drop
Would tremble on my pearl-tipp’d finger’s top!
My wealth is gone; O! go it where it will,
Spare this one jewel; I’ll be Dives still.
But let’s take ourselves for something more than your middling reader of Frost. And then let’s see what we make of the poem. It raises a number of questions, of course: To what extent is personal prosperity a “gamble” in a nation that considers itself a “democracy”? To what extent should prosperity be a gamble in such a nation? In reading “In Divés Dive,” we do well to bear in mind what Frost says in his 1935 Introduction to E.A. Robinson‘s King Jasper:
The miller’s wife had waited long.
The tea was cold, the fire was dead.
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said.
‘There are no millers any more,’
Was all that she had heard him say.
‘There are no millers any more.’ It might be an edict of the New Deal against processors (as we now dignify them). But no, it is of wider application. It is a sinister jest at the expense of all investors of life or capital. The market shifts and leaves them with a car-barn full of dead trolley cars. At twenty I commit myself to a life of religion. Now, if religion should go out of fashion in twenty-five years, there would I be, forty-five years old, unfitted for anything else and too old to learn anything else. It seems immoral to have to bet on such high things as lives of art, business, or the church. But in effect, we have no alternative. None but an all-wise and all-powerful government could take the responsibility of keeping us out of gambling or of insuring us against loss once we were in.”
Really? This is cold comfort, if we take Frost at his word. I’m not all in for it. There’s more than a little overstatement in the phrasing here: “None but an all-wise and all-powerful government could take the responsibility….” Well, ought a partly-wise and moderately powerful government take due responsibility for ameliorating the larger risks of living and working in a decidedly capitalist economy? And isn’t that what FDR had attempted to do with such institutions as the FDIC an the SEC?
And yet, with “In Divés Dive,” nuances and complexities remain. All manner of queries and provocations hang about it, as if to make good sport of (or with) the reader. Does Jefferson’s old adage have anything to do with “outcomes,” so to speak? Does it have more to do with equality in opportunity than with equality in results? Does it have anything at all to do with “equality” in the “results” of (say) our several hundred million American “gambles” in our several hundred million American lives? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. And for that matter, are “New Deal” policies—don’t forget that terminal line: “Let’s have a look at another five”;—are New Deal policies that aim at marginalizing personal risk warranted by either the Declaration or the Constitution, no matter what value they may have in themselves? And does it even matter whether or not these efforts to marginalize risk, and to protect the weak from the worst abuses of the Capital, have a “constitutional” warrant, or some other sort of authority—say, vested in Jefferson’s immortal words? Indeed it might not matter. Hence our ongoing debate, even unto the autumn of 2009.
And still harder questions remain. Does Frost “parody” or “cite” the view taken of America in the poem before us here—that is to say, the Langstonian view of it I took in my thought experiment—and then step aside, as if to say: “I’m not giving it a Yea or a Nay—don’t try to fix me there.” Or, could the poem be a kind of playful enigma, tossed out to Frost’s leftist critics—the ones who’d been after him ever since 1928—as if to say: “Here. Deal with this, if you’re so sure you’ve got me pegged as some sort of reactionary.” And must we reach a conclusion as to whether or not Frost expects his readers, of whatever stripe, to regard his “unaccusing” American “gambler,” firm in his faith in the Declaration, as a damn fool? I can hardly read the poem otherwise myself (though I can imagine a reader who might shake his head at me for doing so). For who but an idiot would keep up the gamble “late into the night” in a joint identified for us as “Divés dive”? How much patience, in the face of how much loss, is too much patience in the face of too much loss? Everybody knows that the “House Always Wins” with its credit default swaps—that the “House” always gets its “bailouts,” even as “gamblers” in sub-prime mortgages lose their three-bedroom bungalows on the south side of Chicago, or their ranch-houses in Florida.
What to say by way of conclusion? That Frost, yet again, is “rumpling our brains,” as he liked to put it. He’s messing with us. And I append here two little-known observations Frost made on the subject of capitalism, of which he was well-prepared to be wary. Both are printed in The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (Harvard, 2007). The first is taken from Lawrance Thompson’s otherwise unpublished “Notes on Conversations with Robert Frost.” In it you will find this account of a 21 February 1940 conversation with Frost: “In his ideas on politics he thinks of civilization as giving us a right to indulge our individualities, our eccentricities, even our perversions. A government is like a great breathing monster—giving out greater freedom, liberty, license—and then at times taking it in. A communal state is a taking in. A democracy is a letting out. But even a democracy, in time of war, calls all its liberties in, temporarily, for the communal good. Capital in Wall Street indulges its liberties to the extent of perversion and then is checked.” The second observation dates from a visit Frost made to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1954, to attend the World Congress of Writers. Frost delivered the following remarks in English. They were subsequently translated into Portuguese for publication in the official proceedings of the Congress, Congresso International de Escritores e Encontros Inteletuais (Sau Paulo, 1957). Robert Johnson of the University of Massachusetts then translated them back into English at the request of G. Stanley Koehler of the Department of English at Amherst. The text of Johnson’s translation is held both at Amherst College and at the Jones Library, Amherst. I reprint it here with a few emendations suggested by Barbara Joels of Rutgers University, who (years ago, now) kindly agreed to check-read Johnson’s translation against the original Portuguese. Johnson, in passing his translation along to Koehler, adds in passing that Frost’s remarks “must have left quite a few delegates with mouths ajar.” One can readily see why. Following is the better part of Frost’s speech at the Congress, as refracted through Portuguese and back into English: “Our basic principle—that of Americans I mean—is somewhat complex. But note: John Adams was the man who decided upon our separation from the Old World, Europe. He imagined, for example, that there scarcely existed between us a degree of kinship. Afterward, Tom Paine noted that the war was not so much a war of separation but rather one for liberty and the inspiration of the French Revolution. Now, that man almost had his head chopped off, having escaped because he fled from his prison thanks to a fortunate accident. But our world did not revolt struggling for equality; scarcely anything was done in equality’s name. The great realization, the real consequence of the revolution was the separation, and I should be greatly troubled if we remained separate from Europe—the Old World—without demonstrating some originality to the world. Because I always want to have the hope and satisfaction of knowing that we possess something new and fresh to contribute to the future of humanity. The enthusiasm for equality, for the distribution of land, wealth, and finally the enthusiasm for humanity—that enthusiasm disappeared from our earth, and I can see nothing through the Iron Curtain. The truth of the matter is that everything disappeared with the disappearance of Tom Paine. Another point that we must observe is the following. We must avoid a great danger that threatens us: big capitalism that never remembers to hold back, to restrict itself. It is necessary that big capitalism remain constantly under observation, principally by other countries. The saving grace is that our army never adhered to big capitalism, for, if this were to happen, it would be our end.”
N.B. Frost quotes only a small part of “The Mill” in his Introduction to Robinson’s King Jasper. But the poem as a whole is well worth reprinting here, as a bitter envoy. “The Mill” records two suicides, undertaken out of despair created by the “great progress” of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century—owing, indeed, to what would come to be represented by the Pillsbury Doughboy.
“The Mill” (Edwin Arlington Robinson)
The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
“There are no millers any more,”
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.
Sick with a fear that had no form
She knew that she was there at last;
And in the mill there was a warm
And mealy fragrance of the past.
What else there was would only seem
To say again what he had meant;
And what was hanging from a beam
Would not have heeded where she went.
And if she thought it followed her,
She may have reasoned in the dark
That one way of the few there were
Would hide her and would leave no mark:
Black water, smooth above the weir
Like starry velvet in the night,
Though ruffled once, would soon appear
The same as ever to the sight.