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Frost, Freud, Nietzsche, Mencken, and “Mending Wall”

September 25, 2010

Cover, 1985 edition (University of Wisconsin Press)

Richard Poirier writes in A World Elsewhere (1966): “The classic American writers try through style temporarily to free the hero (and the reader) from systems, to free them from the pressures of time, biology, economics, and from the social forces which are ultimately the undoing of American heroes and quite often of their creators.” In a later book, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977), Poirier essentially excepts Frost from the writers described here, and with that exception I concur. Frost developed a style that could accommodate him to the “social forces” of which he was in some sense an “effect.” He developed a style that could integrate, or establish correspondence between, the imaginative “world” he created and the “real” or “given” world he found himself inhabiting—both as a man and more particularly as a professional poet writing in America in the early decades of the 20th century. He felt no need to find a world elsewhere. Frost struck a compromise between the claims of “difference” and of “correspondence,” as he liked to put it. I take quite seriously his remark in a 1936 talk at the Bread Loaf School of English: “I am so made that I accept almost anything that exists, that really is going—I accept going concerns and I expect everyone to do the same.” Frost’s conservatism (and I don’t speak here of the political sort) finds its roots in sentiments such as these.

Frost’s writing accommodates potentially intransigent, even counter-cultural dispositions while at the same time maintaining an altogether sociable surface. Frost seems to be thinking of this aspect of his work when he writes to Louis Untermeyer in 1917:

Louis Untermeyer, date of photograph unknown. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious.” This dubiety—I hesitate to say “duplicity”—held a certain fascination for Frost, and I find it symbolized (if I may say so) throughout his work. It reappears, for example, in the dialectic of “conformity” and “formity” he speaks of in a 1934 letter to his daughter Lesley, which is another way to frame the opposition of “formulaic” to “unformulaic” writing. I find it yet again in his parable of Martin Luther in the introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson‘s King Jasper (1935). Surprised, excited, and a little troubled by his sense of his own difference, Luther represents, for Frost, the struggle between heresy (formity) and congregation (conformity), or between the “unformulaic” and the “formulaic.” The same struggle obtains between “going concerns” (formulae) and the innovations or heresies that we are always building into them.

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking a cigar that was a cigar, 1914.

I am reminded, here, of a passage in Freud‘s Civilization and Its Discontents. The analogy may at first seem unlikely, but Frost and Freud are, I think, confronting similar questions about human experience, and about the motives of creative artists. Freud writes:

The hermit turns his back on the world and will have no truck with it. But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out on this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion.

Cover of "Civilization and Its Discontents" (in the W.W. Norton edition of 2005).

Frost makes a similar point in “The Constant Symbol” when he acknowledges the necessity of our accession to “the harsher discipline from without,” or when, in the introduction to King Jasper, he warns against the willful and “anxious” cultivation of personal “difference” on the part of creative artists (or religious thinkers). Such remarks are echoed often in Frost’s work. One thinks, for example, of his essay “Caveat Poeta”: “The conventions have to be locked horns with somewhere,” he says. And his acknowledgement of worldly coercions unmistakably recalls the psychology and philosophy of William James, not simply of Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents. For when Frost and James welcome rather than attempt to refine away the “crudity,” “rawness” and imperfection of the world—to adopt the terms they sometimes use—clearly they reject the alternative that Freud names only to dismiss: “to re-create the world,” building up in its stead “another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated.” In its context, the passage from Freud presents an example of the artistic impulse in extremis; it follows a discussion of the satisfactions, through fantasy and illusion, that works of art afford. As Freud explains, creative art is in part a process of “making oneself independent of the external world by seeking satisfaction in internal, psychical processes.” It is crucial to recall that the “external world,” as Freud earlier points out, includes the sphere of social relations, not simply, or perhaps even chiefly, the pressures of what we call Nature.

The page from "Civilization in the United States" on which the passage by Brooks falls.

As if in confirmation of Freud’s thesis about the motives of the creative artist, Van Wyck Brooks writes, in his contribution to Harold Stearns’ Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans: “It is in the nature of the artist to live, not in the world of which he is an effect, but in the world of which he is the cause, the world of his own creation.” Given Frost’s way of thinking about these matters, it is quite as if, over against Brooks, he affirms Freud’s “reality principle”: a mechanism of socialization whereby the vagaries of the single person are subordinated to the coercions of social realities. “We must be preserved from becoming egregious,” Frost writes in “The Constant Symbol,” well aware that “egregious” means, etymologically, apart from the flock (it is the antonym, at its root, of “gregarious”). And this is, after all, what the “fear of man” (as Frost terms it) accomplishes as it keeps in check the private and potentially anti-social energies of eccentricity, and finally of insanity itself. Here is the passage in full from the introduction to King Jasper: “There is such a thing as being too willing to be different. And what shall we say to people who are not only willing but anxious? What assurance have they that their difference is not insane, eccentric, abortive, unintelligible? Two fears should follow us through life. There is the fear that we shan’t prove worthy in the eyes of someone who knows us at least as well as we know ourselves. That is the fear of God. And there is the fear of Man—the fear that men won’t understand us and we shall be cut off from them.”

Daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (1856).

When saying such things, adopting such postures, Frost sets himself off more clearly than anywhere else in his writings from Emerson and Thoreau—his debts to them, and love of them, notwithstanding. I have in mind this passage from the “Higher Laws” chapter in Walden, for example: “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.” And this, from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance“: “I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

William James

Judged by the standards Frost sets in the introduction to King Jasper, both Transcendentalists are guilty as charged: “There is such a thing as being too willing to be different. And what shall we say to people who are not only willing but anxious? What assurance have they that their difference is not insane, eccentric, abortive, unintelligible?” But of course Frost was no Transcendentalist. He was what so passing-strangley followed from New England Transcendentalism, after Darwin, after the Civil War, after German philosophy meant Nietzsche instead of Kant: a Jamesian pragmatist. Frost laid a (characteristically qualified) line between himself and Emerson in a late essay, “On Emerson” (1959): “I have friends it bothers when I am accused of being Emer­sonian, that is, a cheerful Monist, for whom evil does not exist, or if it does exist, needn’t last forever. Emerson quotes Burns as speaking to the Devil as if he could mend his ways. A melan­choly dualism is the only soundness. The question is is sound­ness of the essence.” Well, is it? It would appear to have been “of the essence” in 1935, when he penned the preface to King Jasper. Frost hedges his bets in the long run, as any pragmatist will. He’s a provisionalist.

In short, Frost’s little eulogy on the “fear of man” impresses upon us (or would) the truth of Freud’s observation: “Whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out on this path [of re-creating the world] . . . will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion.”

All differences between them allowed, I’m pointing to an almost mythological pattern underlying both Frost’s and Freud’s work. Namely, the mythology of a fundamental antagonism, which drives individuals and large social entities alike, between “inner” desire and “outer” discipline and form, or between “difference” and “correspondence”—to borrow terms perhaps more congenial to Frost. (Analogous to this basic antagonism is the Nietzschean antagonism of “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” tendencies, which, largely through H.L. Mencken‘s agency, came to color Van Wyck Brooks’s cultural and aesthetic criticism in the 1910s.) We find in Frost none of Freud’s mythopoeic imagery of Eros and Ananke, which might, for my purposes here, be re-named the gods of Formity and Conformity. But as a model of socialization and social development, this passage from Frost’s essay on “The Future of Man” (1959) has curiously Freudian implications, and in fact probably depends on a model related to Freud’s description of the psyche, which by the 1950s had achieved its currency even in popular culture:

The great challenge, the eternal challenge, is that of man’s bursting energy and originality to his own governance. His speed and his traffic police. We become an organized society only as we tell off some of our number to be law-givers and law-enforcers, a blend of general and lawyer, to hold fast the line and turn the rest of us loose for scientists, philosophers, and poets to make the break-through, the revolution, if we can for refreshment.

The theme is familiar from the introduction to King Jasper. Once again the fear of man—figured here as a fear of “law-enforcement”—keeps eccentricity and wilfulness within socially acceptable bounds, and functions in us as a kind of generalized superego. At the same time, the periodic eruption of these potentially destructive forces in a “bursting originality”—rising up, so to speak, from a social unconscious—keeps the social contract from becoming too repressive. The poet’s role is in this sense egoistic: he balances and reconciles contrary impulses toward conformity (the office of the superego) and toward irrationality and eccentricity (the office of the id, if I must hold to a quaint Freudian vocabulary).

I concede that my use of Freud’s familiar tripartite description of psychic structure in this connection is unusual. But the analogy helps us see that Frost regarded the writing of poetry as a means for integrating and managing conflicting impulses not only within the poet but within society as a whole, considered as a kind of super-agent. He seemed to regard social and individual development as analogous and interlocked: that is to say, both individual and social agents must reconcile anxiously competitive tendencies toward difference and correspondence. In this respect Frost’s thinking is in fact very close to Freud’s, as when the latter writes in Civilization and its Discontents: “The analogy between the process of civilization and the path of individual development may be extended in an important respect. It can be asserted that the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds.” This communal superego is/are the “traffic police” of which Frost rather light-heartedly (but seriously) speaks in “The Future of Man.” Freud goes on to explain an “important point of agreement between the cultural and the individual super-ego”: “the former, just like the latter, sets up strict ideal demands, disobedience to which is visited with `fear of conscience.'” This “fear of conscience” corresponds to Frost’s “fear of man,” which regulates dissent and eccentricity within the social and individual bodies alike: “There is such a thing as being too willing to be different,” Frost says, again. And notice that within this broad scheme, poetic form fulfills, for Frost, an essentially repressive function: just as social “correspondence” is a check against dangerous, potentially “insane” tendencies toward difference, form in poetry monitors and keeps in check insubordinate energies within the poet himself.

H.L.Mencken (1880–1956)

Frost sketches a considerably more congenial picture of “organized society” than does Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents. That is to say, Frost places less emphasis on the discontents that follow from our inclinations to govern ourselves. “The Future of Man” balances the more pessimistic account of difference and its effects given earlier in the introduction to King Jasper. Here, heretics like Martin Luther are “refreshing” rather than susceptible to “insanity” and social isolation. Frost’s own sympathies shift slightly, as, in the later essay, he ranges poets among the “law-breakers” rather than among the agents of “correspondence”—the agents of Apollo. This is as close as he comes in sympathy to the idea, propounded by Van Wyck Brooks, that the “creative spirit” is essentially “skeptical,” radically individualistic and “disruptive”—in other words, “Dionysian.” (Frost remarked late in life: “I’m less and less for systems and system-building in my old age. I’m afraid of too much structure.”) And it is as close as he comes in spirit to Mencken’s Nietzschean views, as expressed, for example, in the sixth series of Prejudices (1927), where Mencken describes the repressive consequences of conformity: “The democrat with a yearning to shine before his fellows must not only repress all the common varieties of natural sin; he must also repress many of the varieties of natural decency. His impulse to tell the truth as he sees it, to speak his mind freely, to be his own man, comes into early and painful collision with the democratic dogma that such things are not nice—that the most worthy and laudable citizen is that one who is most like the rest. In youth, as every one knows, this dogma is frequently challenged, and sometimes with great asperity, but the rebellion, taking one case with another, is not of long duration.” He concludes with a charming aphorism: “The campus Nietzsche, at thirty, begins to feel the suction of Rotary.”

In any case, “The Future of Man” gives full social significance to Frost’s central dialectic of “formity” (“bursting originality”) and “conformity” (“governance”). And to round things out, I’d call attention more to the consistency than to the differing emphases of “The Future of Man” and the introduction to King Jasper. In both essays Frost attends to the capacity of poetry—or more precisely to the capacity of the general human desires and dispositions that poetry embodies—either to promote or to undermine social integration. And on balance, the entire course of his “conformist” career—and, following Frost’s lead, I do not use the word pejoratively—suggests that his sympathies essentially lie more with the promotion of correspondence and sociality, more with the Apollonians than with the Dionysians.

The better to bring these points home, I turn to Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions of conformity and formity. The speaker of that poem allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring, which yearly destroy the wall separating his property from his neighbor’s: “Spring is the mischief in me,” he says. This alliance at first has the effect of setting the speaker against the basic conservatism of his neighbor beyond the hill, who, as everybody knows, never “goes behind his father’s saying”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, that goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repair. So if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless also set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place: “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” he wryly says to the stones. Here, in fact, the speaker is rather like those of Frost’s earlier poems “Rose Pogonias” and “October,” each of whom, in imagination at least, attempts to arrest the naturally entropic and destructive forces of nature in the hope of achieving a momentary stay against confusion.

From the first American edition (Holt, 1915). Click on the image for a larger view.

In “Rose Pogonias,” for example, we read:

We raised a simple prayer
Before we left the spot,
That in the general mowing
That place might be forgot;
Or if not all so favored,
Obtain such grace of hours,
That none should mow the grass there
While so confused with flowers.

And then in “October”:

From the first American edition (Holt, 1915). Click on the image for a larger view.

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!

The happy irony of “Mending Wall” is this: the speaker in this case allies himself with the destructive energies of nature, not against them as in “Rose Pogonias” and “October”; but at the same time he ritually initiates the wall-building exercise that so inefficiently resists and contains those same energies. The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-underminer—it is, after all, the “frozen-ground-swell,” whose proper name is “frost,” that does it—at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies. I would point out further that his impatience with his neighbor’s aphoristic turn of mind is significantly (and playfully) qualified by the admonitory aphorism he himself devises and twice repeats, clearly delighted at having thought of it himself: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he says in a tone that by the poem’s end almost acquires an air of finger-wagging, country pedantry. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

From the first American edition (Holt, 1915).

At last, then, we have alternative aphorisms about walls and fences, and the truth of the matter resides in the “gap” between them that this famously mischievous poem opens up. In this way “Mending Wall” at once acknowledges the limitations of walls (and aphorisms) and also their seductions and value. As has often been pointed out, this dual theme is embodied even in the movement of the blank verse lines of “Mending Wall,” which subtly play both within and against the metrical and structural impositions of the iambic pentameter line. When his speaker has in view the energies that disturb walls and boundaries, Frost’s prosody vagrantly resists the regularities of his metrical contract:

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.

Enjambment and metrical variations—trochaic feet for iambic ones, spondaic and pyrrhic substitutions, and so on—contribute subtly to the theme of these lines. It is exactly as Pope would have it. How better to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered? At such times Frost’s blank verse recalls “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” where Wordsworth describes those “hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild” in equally unruly “lines” of his own.

In any case, here—as at a number of moments in “Mending Wall”—metrical and rhythmical patterns work in a kind of loosely running counterpoint characterized more by “formity” than by “conformity,” as Frost might say. By contrast, when Frost imagines the reconstruction of the wall as the two men labor, the rhythm and metre of his lines coincide quite exactly:

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 go.

Here, end-stopped lines are the rule: grammatical and rhetorical units more or less confine themselves to their prescribed ten-syllable boundaries. And there is little or no rhythmical variation against the basic iambic grid, which reasserts itself in these lines rather as the wall itself is “reasserted.” I might cite other such examples of Frost’s metrical dexterity in this poem, but these two suffice to suggest how tightly integrated in “Mending Wall” are form and theme.

In sum, the speaker of the poem exhibits, both in his manner and in his action, a certain flexibility. He unsettles walls that he also always repairs; he is at once Apollonian and Dionysian. Once again—as in the introduction to King Jasper and “The Future of Man”—Frost’s conservative and rebellious tendencies are perfectly balanced, just as the “intransigent” and “accommodating” tendencies of the speaker of “Good Hours” (the lyric that closes his second book, North of Boston) are metrically and thematically balanced. I’d also regard “Mending Wall” in light of what Frost says in his 1934 letter to Lesley. The “neighbor beyond the hill” is all on the side of “conformity,” the speaker of the poem (at least by his own account) all on the side of “formity.” Frost himself—and here we should perhaps distinguish him from his speaker—stands at the dialectical intersection of these two opposed terms, for as he says in “The Constant Symbol” about the “disciplines” from “within” and from “without”: “He who knows not both knows neither.”

I’d say generally, then, that Frost honors his contract with the “superego” (to recur again to that quaint lexicon) but not at the cost of exacerbating its repressions. His “speed” and his “traffic police” remain in constant and indecisive engagement. The reader can therefore discern in his poetry and prose a specifically modernist (even perhaps Freudian) parable about the necessity of balancing the imperatives of sociality and discipline against the imperatives of difference and insubordination. And as Richard Poirier has pointed out, a crucial theme in such poems as “The Witch of Coös” and “Home Burial” is how the confinements of a “home”—often symbolized in Frost’s writing by the lesser confinements of poetic form—can, when unrelieved by expressions of extravagance, induce frustrations that shade off even into insanity: the constrictions of form must be relieved by extravagance, while extravagance must be controlled and managed by form. Clearly, the alternative positions Frost takes in “The Future of Man” and in the introduction to King Jasper correspond to the two poles of this dialectic—to the dangers of excessive conformity and to the dangers of excessive extravagance.

N.B. This entry is adapted, with fresh material for The Era of Casual Fridays, from a longer, now mouldering, work of mine.

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