In the Clearing: continuity and unity in Frost's dualism.

Author:Stanlis, Peter J.
Position:Robert Frost
 
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One of the most significant revelations into Robert Frost's philosophical dualism of mind or spirit and of matter as the basis of all reality is the insight that emerges when his essay "On Emerson" (delivered in 1958) is read in conjunction with his remarks in "The Future of Man" symposium (1959), and both of these prose works together are perceived as prelude to the poet's climactic case for dualism in his final volume of poetry, In the Clearing. "On Emerson" was published in Daedalus (Fall of 1959); the "Future of Man" remained in several manuscript forms beyond 1959; and Frost's final collection of poetry was published at age eighty-eight, on his birthday, March 26, 1962, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Yet it is also noteworthy that the continuity regarding Frost's dualism revealed in these works was advanced almost twenty years earlier in a conversation with some Middlebury College students in the poet's cabin near Bread Loaf, Vermont, in his strong criticism of Emerson's idealistic monism. (1) Indeed, the years 1958-1959 and 1962 mark the climactic culmination of Frost's lifelong criticism of both the spiritual form of monism, which denies the reality of matter, and the materialistic form, which denies the reality of the spirit. On the positive side these years reveal his conscious strong endorsement of a dualism that recognizes that both spirit and matter are implicated in the perception of all reality. In "On Emerson" he once more rejected the incredibly optimistic idealism in Emerson's monism. In "The Future of Man" he rebuffed Sir Julian Huxley's monism of matter. Finally, in In the Clearing, for the first time he extended his dualism by combining it with the uniquely creative power of the human psyche, through its interactions with matter, beyond religion and the arts into the physical sciences and the historical development of man through civil society. When read in conjunction, these three works reveal the continuity and unity in Frost's dualism during the final decade of his life.

It is important to note that "On Emerson" was delivered as a speech to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, on the occasion of Frost's receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1958, and that he therefore deliberately sought "to make myself as much an Emersonian as I can." Thus his talk begins as an expression of his great admiration of Emerson as a poet whose unique skill captured the tones of voice in actual colloquial speech, and whose ideas inspired in Frost "troubled thoughts about freedom." But regarding Emerson's moral philosophy, he identified the New England transcendentalist as "a cheerful Monist, for whom evil does not exist, or if it does exist, needn't last forever." The poet noted also that "Emerson quotes Burns as speaking to the Devil as if he could mend his ways." Frost then concluded: "A melancholy dualism is the only soundness." (2) He also reviewed his own "strange history" regarding his thoughts on good and evil, by way of his mother's changes in religion through Emerson, and he observed: "There is such a thing as getting too transcended. There are limits." These were almost the exact words Frost used to the Middlebury students in his cabin in July 1941.

Frost then stated his explicit dualistic objections to Emerson's idealistic monism: "And probably Emerson was too Platonic about evil. It was a mere To Un Ov [that which is not], a mere non-existence that could be disposed of like the butt of a cigarette." Emerson's line "Unit and Universe are round" provoked Frost to say: "Ideally in thought only is a circle round. In practice, in nature, the circle becomes an oval. As a circle it has one center--Good. As an oval it has two centers--Good and Evil. Thence Monism versus Dualism." (3) Frost revered what Emerson called "the higher law of the mind," but to him that did not mean that matter in nature should be denigrated as Evil, and that moral idealism should be made into an absolute Good. As idealistic monists, Plato and Emerson (and possibly Bishop George Berkeley) made ethical Good as absolute in theory, but to Frost as a dualist, in practice, in the daily life of man in society, good and evil were both present, and often mixed together. To disregard or minimize evil in human nature, to underestimate its power, could result in allowing it to be triumphant. During the 1920s, that was a vital point made by Sidney Cox in observing Frost's dualism: it was the poet's perception of man in his metaphor as a swinger of birches, between idealism and realism, that "he is constantly bringing himself down to earth." For the poet, dualism was the only practical philosophy for man in society.

At Harvard, Irving Babbitt had espoused a dualism akin to Frost's since the beginning of the century. Babbitt often commented on Emerson and liked some of his thought, including his critique of scientism, but was critical of Emerson's ethereal and romantic leanings. In his first book, Literature and the American College (1908), Babbitt complained about Emerson's "disquieting vagueness and lack of grip in dealing with particulars." For Babbitt, man must, if he is to keep his sanity, "maintain the nicest balance between unity and plurality." Not much later Babbitt's intellectual ally Paul Elmer More published "Definitions of Dualism," philosophical reflections on the "two elements of our being": a unifying power and the multiplicity of impulse. (4)

Toward the end of his essay "On Emerson," Frost anticipated the main thesis and very language he used in "Kitty Hawk" and in his theme of dualism throughout much of In the Clearing:

Emerson was a Unitarian because he was too rational to be superstitious and too little a story teller and lover of stories to like gossip and pretty scandal. Nothing very religious can be done for people lacking in superstition. They usually end up abominable agnostics. It takes superstition and the prettiest scandal story of all to make a good Trinitarian. It is the first step in the descent of the spirit into the material-human at the risk of the spirit. (5) According to Frost, only a good Trinitarian could understand and accept the virgin birth of Christ and the doctrine of the Incarnation. Toward the end of his life, although Frost showed an increasing awareness and concern about the conflicts between spirit and matter, he also extended their unity by exploring the harmony between them in religious orthodoxy. In "On Emerson" he defended spirit in supernatural revealed religion against the rationalism that usually ends up producing "abominable agnostics"; and in "The Future of Man" symposium he attacked the self-sufficient rationalism of Sir Julian Huxley, for exalting agnosticism or atheism in defense of absolute matter against any belief in spirit. In such poems as "Skeptic," "Astrometaphysical," "Why Wait for Science," and "Some Science Fiction," he expressed his own skepticism about the absolute claims of scientific metaphysics rooted in a monism of matter.

In the first of three recorded or edited versions of "The Future of Man" symposium (1959), Frost accepted the challenge to prophesy about mankind's future destiny within evolutionary and historical time. His response was in terms of what he perceived as human originality and creative power, of what he called the "energy and daring" shown in establishing law and order in the recorded life of mankind. Within temporal history, the great dynastic issues that confront the dominant world political powers in every era, "like the one between Persia and Greece, Rome and Carthage, Christendom and Islam," and in contemporary times between the United States and Soviet Russia, result in some form of resolution. Beyond history, evolution presents a different kind of question. The great unresolved evolutionary problem for human nature as a biological species is "are we going to be another kind of people?" Frost denied that there would be an evolutionary development "from us to superman," because "our self-consciousness is terminal--there is nothing beyond us." The evolutionary metaphor, "the tree of life ... has reached its growth." The poet prophesized that the dualism that has characterized the past evolutionary experience of mankind would continue to be permanent and paramount in the life of the human species:

It will go on blossoming and having its seasons--I'd give it another hundred or two hundred million years. Make that anything you please. It'll go on leaving out and blossoming into successions of the doubleness, I foresee, just like the doubleness of the sexes. There'll be two parties always to it, some way.... The tree ... in itself has all the doubleness I see, good and evil, two sexes.... (6) To Frost, the dualism of spirit and matter, of the two sexes, and of good and evil, was built right into the evolutionary process. What he called "the challenge ... between man's originality and his law and order," which determined both historical changes and the course of evolution in man, is rooted in the creative power in the mind or spirit of man as a species, as part of his dualistic nature.

In the second or originally unpublished version of "The Future of Man" symposium, Frost paid special tribute to science as "the most formidable" power in man's future challenges. But then he added a very significant qualification: "But philosophy has been formidable too." He made it clear that the most formidable element in philosophy was dualism. A third force shaping man's future destiny is government, because it has ultimate control over the practical uses of science in the social order and because rulers determine which philosophical beliefs will be applied in practice. The challenge that science poses is what modern government is going to do with the latest discoveries, inventions, technologies, and advances of scientists. Frost observed that the swift progress in scientific knowledge and theory creates serious problems for governments: "It...

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