The Natural History of Frost’s Poetics
N.B.: I’m likely not learned enough to make the following arguments, which I offer here “on spec.” Henry will tell me where I err.
On October 8, 1919, Robert Frost wrote to Katherine Lee Bates, a family friend, professor of English at Wellesley College, and author of the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” (the lines first appeared as a poem, titled simply “America,” in 1895). Frost had been arranging for a series of talks on “vocal reality,” one of which was to be given at Wellesley on October 31:
Do you get excited about all the nonsense that is being said about free rhythms? Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature.
The “free rhythms” in question are those of what Frost, in 1913 and 1914, had been calling the “sounds of sense.” As here, in a July 4, 1913 letter to John Bartlett: “The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist.” Frost offers up a number of examples of the “abstract vitality of our speech,” “abstract” because the sounds he has in mind may be abstracted from, withdrawn from, the words that embody them. He explains, again in a letter to Bartlett: “Suppose Henry Horne says something offensive to a young lady named Rita when her brother Charles is by to protect her. Can you hear the two different tones in which she says their respective names, ‘Henry Horne! Charles!’ I can hear it better than I can say it.” A simple exercise shows how the tones are independent of, and may be abstracted from, the vowels and consonants of the words that convey them. Substitute “Paul Ryan!” for “Henry Horne!” and “Krugman!” for “Charles!” The sounds remain, every bit as clearly marked. That they are language-independent, and so abstractable from English, is also easy to show: “Satoshi Torada! Koji!” works every bit as well for a young lady named Yasuyo to whom Satoshi Torada has said something offensive.
Frost puts the matter another way in a 1915 letter to Walter Prichard Eaton, at the time an eminent drama critic:
All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book. I dont say to make them, mind you, but to catch them. No one makes them or adds to them. They are always there—living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were.
“Real cave things” that “were before words were,” “living in the cave of the mouth”: the anthropological nuances are intentional, and they take us back to the letter to Bates: “Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature” (italics added). Frost is sketching out nothing less than the natural history of his poetics, and therefore also of his poetry. Pound understood that the slogan “make it new” meant also “re-new it”; hence his recourse to literary traditions, and to poetry, centuries old and continents apart. Frost went him one better to make poetry new, and also to renew it: he went all the way back to the cave, to sounds that were before words were. The sounds we hear in “Henry Horne!” and “Charles!” could be made with a homo habilis, early Palaeolithic grunt-snarl (say) and a cry (beseeching in all but words). During the Palaeolithic (to carry my point forward, playfully) “human nature” arose out of “nature”: homo sapiens sapiens supervened upon homo habilis (and its other antecedents), and, in the Upper Palaeolithic, what we properly call “culture” made its advent (cave paintings, quasi-religious ritual, ceramics, and so on). Free rhythms (of whatever kind) as disorderly as nature were made orderly in culture (and in agriculture).
The analogical way Frost goes about his business in the 1919 letter to Bates anticipates what he says in his 1935 “Letter” to The Amherst Student: “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” As Frost elsewhere says, “this is no literary mysticism.” In fact, it is sound Darwinism—of a sort anyway. Consider certain remarks Richard Dawkins makes toward the end of The Selfish Gene:
It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other … The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to simulate the future in imagination—
Say, in novels, poetry, legal codes, monetary policy, treaties, what have you—
could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination [into such things as monotheism, American exceptionalism, and the idea that taxes on capital gains are an abomination]. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
“Something that has no place in nature”: altruism, for example—or art, poetic art included. This is what Frost has in mind in speaking of nature supervening upon and “exceeding” itself in and through us: out of “suggestions of form,” we get “form,” in a strictly cultural sense; out of (untamed) “free rhythms,” we get “meter.” Blind replicators (molecules called DNA) account for homo sapiens well enough, but not (say) for “humanity,” and certainly not for any possible “conspiracy of doves.” And this notwithstanding the weak attempts, by some evolutionary psychologists, to account for “altruism” in Darwinian ways—tribal and contingent altruism, yes, but not pure, disinterested altruism of the kind Dawkins has in mind.† For this great desideratum to come into being, nature must exceed itself in us. Note that the movement is from the bottom up: nothing at all about this supervention need be supernatural. We have to do with cranes, not skyhooks, as the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett likes to say.
I’ve so far spoken of the natural history of Frost’s poetics; that is what we see in the letters and essays I’ve quoted, but it is also something more—something Dennett has been trying to get at, as here, in a talk delivered ex tempore at a conference sponsored by Edge.org in 2013: namely, the de-Darwinizing, over time, and after the advent of culture, of human enterprises the early history of which may readily be accounted for in strictly Darwinian terms:
I am now thinking about culture and its role in creating the human mind as a process, which begins very Darwinian and becomes less Darwinian as time goes by. This is the de-Darwinizing of cultural change in the world. Our ancestors, at the very early days of proto-language and language,
—that is, in the days “before words were,” and shortly thereafter—
were pretty clueless and they were not adopting language because they could see what it was good for; it was a sort of invasion. But once they had these words, this gave them competences they didn’t have before and they began to be able to do things that they couldn’t do before.
—such as make songs, poems, writing systems, religions, political parties, war as a matter of principle, or whatever.
Their brains became structured in ways that brains never were structured before.
“In us nature [reached] its height of form and through us [exceeded] itself” by means of “competences” latent in a language we experienced first as merely “invasive.”
Now, if you look at it this way, then . . . it means that I can still cling to one of my favorite ideas—the idea of a meme—and say where the meme’s eye point of view really works, and really when it is needed is in the early days. The best example of memes are words. Words are memes that can be pronounced; that’s their genus and species. Words came into existence not because they were invented, and languages came into existence not because they were designed by intelligent human designers. But [words and languages] are brilliantly designed and they’re designed by cultural evolution in the same way that a bird’s wing and the eye of the eagle are designed by genetic evolution. You can’t explain human competence all in terms of genetic evolution. You need cultural evolution as well, and that cultural evolution is profoundly Darwinian in the early days. And as time has passed, it has become more and more non-Darwinian.
Again: “Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature,” a realm entirely subject—as the cultural one, over time, is not—to Darwinian explanations. “Cave sounds” and “free rhythms,” with all their irregularities, made, and still make, a kind of crossing: into meter, into culture, into “form” in the strong sense, as “suggested” by forms of a natural kind. Frost’s poetics occupies precisely that point, it might be said, where nature supervenes itself into culture. And isn’t this the nub of every debate?—to what degree, whether, when, and how, “human nature” rises out of “nature.” Because it did and does.
I find Frost wondering about such matters in “The Aim Was Song,” collected in New Hampshire (1923), the first of Frost’s books to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1924):
Before man came to blow it right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.
Man came to tell it what was wrong:
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard—the aim was song.
And listen—how it ought to go!
He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough for north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.
By measure. It was word and note,
The wind the wind had meant to be—
A little through the lips and throat.
The aim was song—the wind could see.
This is one way nature “exceeds itself,” through us, in form. This lyric brings us to the place where nature “evolves” into culture, where chaos resolves itself through human agency (now, a de-Darwinizing process) into something “created” and orderly. The wind is articulated or “measured” out in speech, and not only into speech, but “song”—poetry. In “The Ax Helve” Frost similarly suggests that an artisan crafting a wooden helve merely “expresses” the native curves of its grain. Together these poems imply that form of the kind that most interests us is latent in nature, suggested by it, until we bring it out and refine it, discover what can be made of it and done with it.
A similar movement up out of the “suggestions” of creative form in nature leads quite naturally, in “Putting in the Seed,” collected first in Mountain Interval (1916), through agriculture to a re-description of the procreative marriage that superintends the farm (“How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed … ”), even as the demotic diction of the octet gives rise to the more elevated diction (and ambitions) of the sestet (as Richard Poirier points out in The Performing Self): here, certainly, is a poem (of husbandry) wherein “nature” is assumed to exceed itself in and through us.
That these poems sometimes further suggest that form somehow aspires to be brought out may reflect Frost’s interest in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, and the concept developed therein of élan vital, or his interest in Lucretius (very much on display in such poems as “Too Anxious For Rivers” and “Accidentally on Purpose,” to name only two).†† But I’ll not go into that question here, except to point out a slight equivocation in the terms Frost uses in his “Letter” to The Amherst Student. I have spoken of nature supervening itself. Frost speaks instead of an excession: “Nature exceeds itself.” There’s nothing necessarily supra- about this. But Frost also speaks of Nature reaching in us its height of form, allowing for two not identical but not incompatible ideas: an excession and an elevation. Frost hedges things such that he allows for, but never insists on, a (quasi-teleological) idea of an evolutionary consummation.
In any case, art is not necessarily opposed to nature. It may complete a “nature” from which it genetically derives. Frost imagines in “The Aim Was Song” an art that nature makes—an art that is itself somehow genetically natural.‡ Our human additions of “word and note” to the wind only realize what all along had been its latent “aim,” its aspiration, just as (to take another example) the song of birds awaited completion in the added “oversound” of human song in “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.” Frost is best remembered for poems suggesting that the forms we impose on the natural world are ephemeral and inherently insecure: the natural world, so-called, almost always reclaims the orders, domestic and otherwise, that we establish on it, as is clear from “The Birthplace,” “Directive,” “Storm Fear,” and a host of other poems. But Frost also liked, if only rarely, to tell the alternative story of “The Aim Was Song.” The latter poem argues that form, measure and order are not conditions enforced temporarily upon a chaotic, inhuman and indifferent nature. “Form” and “measure”—and through them the making of poetry—symbolize instead gestures that affiliate us with the deeper rhythms and aspirations of a “nature” with which ideally, these poems imply, we are in harmony, and which find completion only through our efforts.
In his remarks about poetics, or, in the “Letter” to The Amherst Student, about “sanity” and the whole of the human endeavour—for that is what he has in view: “any small man-made figure of order and concentration” set over against a “background” of “hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos”;—in such remarks as these, I submit, Frost makes a claim of the kind Dawkins and Dennett make. Darwinism can account for much of what we see, do, think and are, but not for all of it. Once grant us language, once “embody” “cave sounds” in words and sentences that relay them—once start relaying these into song, poetry, philosophy, and argument—and strictly Darwinian explanations begin to break down, just as they do when we consider the moment when, for homo sapiens, language ceased to be a kind of “invasion,” as Dennett puts it, and was seized on to do things it wasn’t “designed” to do but nonetheless could do. Frost was as Darwinian a thinker as one might point to among modern poets. But he saw—whether by reading Bergson, Jean-Henri Fabre, or William James—that the Darwinian vocabulary was not a final one, or anyway needn’t be. He saw what the more sophisticated of contemporary Darwinians are now saying about the de-Darwinization of cultural evolution. To say that Frost understood that no vocabulary, no taxonomy, with which we might describe ourselves and the word we inhabit, is or can be “final” is also to say that he was a pragmatist, an anti-foundationalist, a thinker of William James’s, John Dewey’s, and Richard Rorty’s company.
One more poem before concluding the matter at hand: “Design,” which has everything to do with what Dennett means when he points out that words and languages are “brilliantly designed and they’re designed by cultural evolution in the same way that a bird’s wing and the eye of the eagle are designed by genetic evolution. You can’t explain human competence all in terms of genetic evolution. You need cultural evolution as well.” I’ll not say much about “Design” here, other than to note that, even as it concerns “design,” it is itself a highly designed thing. Frost tightens up one of the tightest forms in English poetry (the Petrarchan sonnet) by allowing himself only three rhymes, nearly exhausting thereby the possibilities for “cloth” rhymes (there’s no sloth in the making of this sonnet). But I want chiefly to register the Dennettian point that, if we may not speak of the natural world as a “designed” thing, this hardly means that the world is bereft of design: we have our designs on it and in it; we make do; we make poems; we blow vortex rings of smoke. And if “design” (in the “argument from design” sense) isn’t a prime mover, as clearly it is not, then design is, once “nature reaches its height of form in us and through us exceeds itself,” what might be called a second mover. Nature may not have been “aiming at song,” but once nature stumbled, in us, upon language, we took aim and made song out of suggestions of form. And in that sense, now, we may rightly speak, quasi-teleologically, of the world not having a single end or purpose, but of acquiring various ends and purposes—say, through a Dawkinsian “conspiracy of doves” the better to palliate what’s “dark” and “chaotic” in us, and in the world we find ourselves (existentially) cast into out of the rolling clouds of nature.‡‡ One way to do this is through the making of form, whether in a Petrarchan sonnet, an Elizabeth Warren administration, International Non-Proliferation Treaties, binding protocols on climate change, or by dialing up Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” as the credits roll in the final episode of Breaking Bad, the better to perfect, in design and theme, a television series about a man who spends five seasons dying. There we have an example of a “competency” discovered in a rock & roll song that was already good enough on its own, but which has now been somehow enhanced. Vince Gilligan and company have added to Badfinger‘s old hit a five-season over-song; and so good were their designs that I, at any rate, license myself to say: to do that to “Baby Blue” was why they came. I will never hear it the same way again.
Finally, a perhaps not so whimsical suggestion: the acquisition of purposes I just spoke of, and the transmission of these down the generations, may provide the complement to Darwinism that the Lamarckians (in their anti-mechanicalism) always felt the need for.
≈ ≈ ≈
† For a treatment of the relation between “tribal,” contingent altruism, and what Dawkins calls “pure altruism,” see Joshua D. Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (New York: Penguin, 2013). You can hear (and see) Greene summarize such arguments as he there makes at Edge.org. He concludes his talk with remarks that seem to me in accord with Dawkin’s idea that “pure altrusim” cannot be found in nature, nor accounted for by Darwinian algorithms alone; and in accord also with Dennett’s suggestion that “cultural evolution” (or, say, development) is, over time, increasingly less susceptible to strictly Darwinian explanations. Evolution by natural selection, on Greene’s account, explains fairly well our moral “intuitions” or “instincts,” but not such moral thinking as is now often called for (e.g., a conspiracy of doves that is both counter-intuitive and counter-instinctual):
To bring this all full circle—two kinds of problems, two kinds of thinking. We’ve got individuals getting together as groups—me versus us—and there we want to trust those gut reactions, we want to trust the gut reactions that say, “Be nice, be cooperative, put your money into the pool, and help the group out,” and we’re pretty good at that. When it comes to us versus them—to distrusting people who are different from us, who are members of other racial groups or ethnic groups, when it comes to helping people who really could benefit enormously from our resources but who don’t have a kind of personal connection to us, us versus them, their interests versus our interests, or their interests versus my interests, or their values versus my values—our instincts may not be so reliable; that’s when we need to shift into manual mode.
There is a philosophy that accords with this, and that philosophy has a terrible name; it’s known as utilitarianism. The idea behind utilitarianism is that what really matters is the quality of people’s lives—people’s suffering, people’s happiness—how their experience ultimately goes. The other idea is that we should be impartial; it essentially incorporates the Golden Rule. It says that one person’s well-being is not ultimately any more important than anybody else’s. You put those two ideas together, and what you basically get is a solution—a philosophical solution to the problems of the modern world, which is: Our global philosophy should be that we should try to make the world as happy as possible. But this has a lot of counterintuitive implications, and philosophers have spent the last century going through all of the ways in which this seems to get things wrong.
Maybe a discussion for another time is: Should we trust those instincts that tell us that we shouldn’t be going for the greater good? Is the problem with our instincts or is the problem with the philosophy? What I argue is that our moral instincts are not as reliable as we think, and that when our instincts work against the greater good, we should put them aside at least as much as we can. If we want to have a global philosophy—one that we could always sign onto, regardless of which moral tribes we’re coming from—it’s going to require us to do things that don’t necessarily feel right in our hearts. Either it’s asking too much of us, or it feels like it’s asking us to do things that are wrong—to betray certain ideals, but that’s the price that we’ll have to pay if we want to have a kind of common currency; if we want to have a philosophy that we can all live by.
‡ This is an old topic in English literature. In The Winter’s Tale, the King of Bohemia (Polixenes) debates the point with Perdita in a sort of philosophical set-piece. Perdita grows only “natural” flowers in her garden, disdaining the “streaked gillyvors” that horticulturalists impiously make by processes of grafting. People call these flowers “nature’s bastards,” she says, and of that kind her “rustic garden’s barren”: “For I have heard it said / There is an art which in their piedness shares / With great creating nature.” To this position, the King makes the classic reply:
Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art,
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. . . This is an art
Which does not mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature. (4.iv.82-96).
†† Virginia Smith—a professor of chemistry and an astute reader of Frost—lately pointed out to me that “The Aim Was Song” doesn’t merely reflect Lucretian habits of thought; it derives (quite clearly) from a particular passage in Book V of De Rerum Natura, which concerns, among other things, the advent, or succession, of culture (and agriculture) out of nature (I highlight the lines having to do with music and song). Here’s the passage in the 1951 prose translation of R. E. Latham (published by Penguin):
For the sowing and grafting of plants the first model was provided by creative nature herself. Berries and acorns, lying below the trees from which they had fallen, were seen to put forth a swarm of shoots in due season. From the same source men learnt to engraft slips in branches and to plant young saplings in the soil of their fields. After that they tried one type of cultivation after another in their treasured plot. They saw the wild fruits grow mild in the ground with cosseting and humoring. Day by day they kept forcing the woodland to creep further up the hillside, surrendering the lower reaches to village. Over hill and plain they extended meadowland, reservoirs, watercourses, cornland and laughing vineyards, with the distinctive strip of grey-green olives running between, rippling over hump and hollow and along the level ground. So the countryside assumed its present aspect of varied beauty, interspersed with luscious orchards and marked out by encircling hedges of luxuriant trees. Men learnt to mimic with their mouths the trilling notes of birds long before they were able to enchant the ear by joining together in tuneful song. It was the whistling of the breeze through hollow reeds that first taught countryfolk to blow through hollow hemlock stalks. After that, by slow degrees, they learnt those plaintive melodies that flow from the flute at the touch of the player’s fingers, melodies that took shape far from the busy highways, amid groves and glades and thickets in the solitudes where the shepherd spends his sunlit leisure.
Following is the same passage, in the verse translation of William Ellery Leonard (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921), archived now at Project Gutenberg (again, with the lines concerning music and song highlighted):
—————————But nature herself,
Mother of things, was the first seed-sower
And primal grafter; since the berries and acorns,
Dropping from off the trees, would there beneath
Put forth in season swarms of little shoots;
Hence too men’s fondness for ingrafting slips
Upon the boughs and setting out in holes
The young shrubs o’er the fields. Then would they try
Ever new modes of tilling their loved crofts,
And mark they would how earth improved the taste
Of the wild fruits by fond and fostering care.
And day by day they’d force the woods to move
Still higher up the mountain, and to yield
The place below for tilth, that there they might,
On plains and uplands, have their meadow-plats,
Cisterns and runnels, crops of standing grain,
And happy vineyards, and that all along
O’er hillocks, intervales, and plains might run
The silvery-green belt of olive-trees,
Marking the plotted landscape; even as now
Thou seest so marked with varied loveliness
All the terrain which men adorn and plant
With rows of goodly fruit-trees and hedge round
With thriving shrubberies sown.
———————-But by the mouth
To imitate the liquid notes of birds
Was earlier far ‘mongst men than power to make,
By measured song, melodious verse and give
Delight to ears. And whistlings of the wind
Athrough the hollows of the reeds first taught
The peasantry to blow into the stalks
Of hollow hemlock-herb. Then bit by bit
They learned sweet plainings, such as pipe out-pours,
Beaten by finger-tips of singing men,
When heard through unpathed groves and forest deeps
And woodsy meadows, through the untrod haunts
Of shepherd folk and spots divinely still.
Thus time draws forward each and everything
Little by little unto the midst of men,
And reason uplifts it to the shores of light.
‡‡ As for the earth’s having acquired purposes, and even “direction,” at least in a limited sense, it’s interesting to re-consider a strange and seldom-discussed poem: “Riders,” collected first in Frost’s 1928 volume West-Running Brook:
The surest thing there is is we are riders,
And though none too successful at it, guiders,
Through everything presented, land and tide
And now the very air, of what we ride.
What is this talked-of mystery of birth
But being mounted bareback on the earth?
We can just see the infant up astride,
His small fist buried in the bushy hide.
There is our wildest mount—a headless horse.
But though it runs unbridled off its course,
And all our blandishments would seem defied,
We have ideas yet that we haven’t tried.
N.B.: For discussion, within these pages, of other poems by Frost, and of his poetry and poetics, click here.