Saturday, 26 January 2013

Robert Frost's influence on my life


Robert Frost is just about my favourite poet - in the sense that he wrote more of my favourite poems than anyone else.

He wrote a lot of superb poems.


I began to engage with his work in 1984, but from the mid 1990s for a decade I read Frost - and everything I could find about Frost (biographies, memoirs, letters, criticism) - with great intensity; it was a spin-off from my fascination with the earlier generation of New England Transcendentalists to whom Frost was an heir, of sorts.

Around the peak of interest I visited the Frost Farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, and stayed in Bethlehem NH where he spent his summers. Frost's presence - or rather his world - was so vivid that it felt like a time-slip.

(The same semi-delirious mood had come-upon me several times the week before wrt. Emerson and Thoreau and their circle in Concord Massachusetts, and Walden Pond early in the morning - it was that kind of vacation.)   


Aside from his literary genius, I now perceive that this interest was driven by the fact that Frost seemed to offer a spiritual path that, I thought, might solve the main problem of life: alienation, driven by ultimate meaninglessness and purposelessness.

Frost was, I think, a Deist (believing in an impersonal God that provided structure) - within which his life was 'poetry' - conceived in a broad way. The creation of poetry, its performance, teaching poetry - and with its ideal 'a life that goes poetically' - I quote from memory - Frost was describing how his wife Eleanor wished this for the Frost family; and how she preferred the early days of the family when the children were young and Frost was unpublished (part-time farming/ teaching in Londonderry, Franconia and visiting England).

This notion was what I aimed for - a life that goes poetically... and I tried to understand whatever that might mean in practice.


This is, more or less, the aim of most artists and many intellectuals in the post religious era - at least since Romanticism in the early 1800s.

What sustains it, in the face of overwhelming forces that tend to destroy the poetry of life? Unfortunately, one necessary component, as exemplified by Frost himself, is selfish pride. 

I am certainly not one of those who regard Frost as an exceptionally bad man - that is a falsehood assiduously cultivated by his embittered official biographer Lawrence Thompson. But Frost got close to living poetically for extended periods by virtue of his pride - which sustained him in the face of opposition; and his selfishness - which sought a suitable niche for his activities and, essentially, saw the rest of the world as organized around that niche.

At any rate, that was the lesson I drew from my extensive examination of Frost and his life.

And Frost got close to achieving his goal because he was a poetic genius, and became recognized as such (but only relatively late in his life, from his forties onward) - so life organized-itself around him; and because his will was strong and his intelligence acute.


So, learning from Frost, the problem of life becomes How To Be A Genius - which is difficult enough - but then in addition there is the matter of How To Become Recognized As A Genius... and that question leads into all kinds of seedy and dishonest shenanigans, which subvert the Genius (if it even exists).

And leads onto what is so common in the arts - which is people scheming to be treated as a Genius, but with no genius whatsoever to back it up  - merely egotism.


In a secular (or Deist) world view, there is a hunger for genius, almost a greed for it; precisely because only the genius can live at the highest level.

For most people, most of the time, all this is little more than a day-dream; yet such a day-dream may be a secret and sustaining thing (for good or ill) - a vital fact of life.

This is a thread which runs through much or even most successful post-romantic art: there are many great artists, writers, thinkers, poets, musicians  (and many more non-great artists) whose work is mostly about-genius; and especially about their own genius, its nature and its relation to the world.

And the reason is that they are post-religious individuals who perceive the meaning and purpose of life as something self-created; and thus their own creative activities become the focus of concern: their sense of life depending on their own activities.


How common this is among intellectuals!

We strive to convince ourselves of our own importance, indeed indispensability; then having finally convinced ourselves of this fact we recognize that if 'everything' (or everything that matters)  depends on our own efforts, then 'everything' will end sooner or later and - anyway - if everything depends on our genius then nothing really matters anyway.

It is a self-subverting activity; to succeed is to fail.


C.S Lewis commented on this when he said that after any particularly effective and well-received Christian apologetics he felt at his worst, most vulnerable, most despairing; because at that moment Christianity felt like it depended critically on the efforts and abilities of CS Lewis - which made Lewis feel that Christianity must be a false and futile kind of thing if it depended on himself for its defence...

In my own feeble way I have noticed exactly the same thing at work in my life, on a daily basis.

If ever I have written something decent on this blog, or had an effective 'evangelical' conversation perhaps; then I first of all feel puffed-up with smugness; then, almost always and quickly, plummet down into the same kind of crash that Lewis described.


Which explains why I could not find anything I wanted to blog about yesterday...


(Reminder: Tomorrow is the Sabbath - so I intend not to blog then.)



Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

C.S Lewis ... after any particularly effective and well-received Christian apologetics ... made Lewis feel that Christianity must be a false and futile kind of thing if it depended on himself for its defence...

I don't think Chesterton would feel like that. Though a genius and a great poet, I think he was really humble, in a childlike way. I re-read chapter 23 of Maisie Ward's biography, and found this marvelous insight in the letter he wrote to his mother the very day of his baptism:
"I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honour and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think, as Cecil did, that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by [the] one fighting form of Christianity."

George Goerlich said...

I think the founding of Christianity itself may help one find defense against that feeling. What started with so few, only 12 apostles, spread through the entire world.

So if what you write contains within it truth, you are speaking on eternity and simply sharing what exists, not creating what is dependent. Any disagreements from others in this respect would not be destructive of your creation, but only a misunderstanding of those who disagree. Hopefully then the truth of your writings spreads and it help others.

Personally I have found your writings very inspiring and helpful.

I think the endless forms of modern entertainment make it hard to listen or even seek truth, but then we all must perish and so face crisis in one way or another. One day the distractions will end.

JRRT Reader said...

"This is a thread which runs through much or even most successful post-romantic art: there are many great artists, writers, thinkers, poets, musicians (and many more non-great artists) whose work is mostly about-genius; and especially about their own genius, its nature and its relation to the world."

Dr. Charlton-I hope you have *not* been subjected to writings of Virginia Woolfe. However, anyone unfortunate enough to have read her literary criticism knows that much of it consists of her proclaiming her own genius, and how it is to be such a genius in a world that doesn't appreciate it. A good deal of Nietzche's philosophy reads the same way. Mere egotism has always been with us, but it is a peculiar brand of self-styled greatness does strike one as fairly recent. An interesting sidenote is that Chateaubriand (Frenchman, for the unfamiliar), one of the first major Romantic writers was a devout Catholic. At least some of the others of that school, like Coleridge, were, too. It would seem that Romanticism in itself might at least not be intrinsically incompatible with Christianity. Indeed, it might be *more so* than 17 and 18th century "Enlightenment" and Rationalism.

On Frost, he is one of my favorite 20th century writers, and I wish I knew his true convictions regarding his faith. I have read conflicting accounts.

Bruce Charlton said...

I have read enough of Virginia Woolf to agree with your evaluation.

Frost was not a Christian, I am sure of that from having read so much of his work, letters, diaries etc. By which I mean he virtually never refers to Christ. What he said about himself was always playful/ evasive and what (non-Christian) critics say about him is not really relevant. When I was an atheist I used to think Frost was a Christian because he talked much about God - I didn't see the difference.

JRRT Reader said...

This is coming late, but I should note that Coleridge was a Christian, though not RC. I was aware of that, but failed to word it correctly.

Apologies all around for any confusion this might have caused.