Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost's Vision of Life: His Pessimism

A Poet-Philosopher
Frost was a great artist, a great poet and not a philosopher. The writings of a poet are largely mood-dictated and we must not, therefore, expect to find in him any systematic and profound philosophy. However, when certain views are expressed repeatedly in one poem after another, one may be excused for taking them as expressive of his considered view of life. From a study of Frost's poetry we know much about his views on Man, God and Nature, and his views are a measure of his sanity and profundity. As Wilfried Gibson tells us, beneath his apparent simplicity and whimsicality, there runs, "the clear stream" of his, "rich and ripe philosophy". Therefore, we would be justified in calling him a poet-philosopher.

Gloomy and Bleak View of Life
Let us acknowledge at the very outset that Frost's view of life is a gloomy one. When Frost came to New England to settle there, the region was in a time of declining prosperity. New England was becoming more and more urban and industrialised, more and more people were migrating to the cities. This depopulation of the countryside generated considerable stress and strain. Deserted farms are frequent in the poetry of Frost. The people were caught up in a grim struggle for existence and the future was uncertain and insecure. It is this background of social and economic disturbance which has conditioned Frost's view of life, and in his, 'book of people' North of Boston, he paints, "the bleakest picture of life to be found in his collected poetry", and the theme of alienation and isolation looms large.
Man: Isolated and Solitary
Robert Frost pictures man as a solitary, lonely figure, isolated and alienated from Nature, from God, and from his fellowmen. He conceives of Nature as soul-less, mechanical and impersonal. Man and Nature are two different principles separated from each other by unsurmountable barriers. Nature may, on some special occasions, show some love or concern for Man, but such occasions are in the nature of a 'favour', and not the general rule. In Two Look at Two, a deer and a buck 'stare' at a man and woman from behind a man-made fence, and that is all. In The Most of It, the magnificent buck that swims across the lake towards man is the most of it that nature can give. It is a terrifying poem, as terrifying as W.B. Yeats' The Second Coming, and it brings out the completeness of man's isolation in his vast and impersonal environment. Such poems make critics like Trilling declare that Frost's view of the human predicament is a terrifying one.
His Hostile Environment
Nature is not only separate and impersonal, it is actually hostile. Man must wage a constant struggle for survival. Nothing in nature seems to be made for man. He is separated from the stars by immense voids, and the contemplation of the starry heavens only brings out his own littleness and insignificance in the scheme of things. The Star-Splitter tells of a farmer who buys a telescope because he believes that the best thing for which we have been placed on this planet is "to see". But the telescope is imperfect, and it splits every star into two or three. The farmer thereupon exclaims: "We have looked and looked, but after all where are we ?" The universe in this poem is depicted as incomprehensible. There are nature's wilderness, the vast desert places, which he must tame and cultivate. Nature is imperfect and chaotic and man must impose order and completeness on it through his "gardening".
Imperfection of Human Life
Human life has always been out of joint, and it will remain so in the future as well. In The Lesson for Today, Frost says, "We can't appraise the time in which we act", but history tells us that something is always wrong and man always suffers frustration and some form of indignity:
There's always something to be sorry for,
A sordid peace or an outrageous war.
Yes, Yes, of course, we have the same convention,
The groundwork of all faith is human woe.
There is no difference between the ancient religious priest and the modern men of science, because both complain of something wrong with the world:
We're rivals in the badness of our case.
Remember, and must keep a solemn face.
The cloister and the observatory saint
Take comfort in about the same complaint
So science and religion really meet.
For Frost, "Our age is like another for the soul", and the lives of individuals, of nations, races and of planets, are full of frustrations and unfulfilled plans. Life is meaningless and incomplete:
There is a limit to our time extension
We are all doomed to our broken off careers.
And so's the nation, so's the total race.
The earth itself liable to fate
Of meaning lessness, being broken off
And hence so many literary tears.
Alienation from God
Man is a lonely and solitary figure in a vast and alien universe. He is also alienated from God his Maker. His reason, his rational self, is the barrier that separates him from God. In the poem, The Bear, rational man is said to act like a bear in a cage in his attempts to understand the mystery of the universe. Man's reason is imperfect, and through reason he cannot understand either the ways of God, or the clear that it is only through faith that man can make himself worthy of the mercy of God.
Suffering Inherent in the Human Lot
In a Trial by Existence he tells us that it is futile to seek for an explanation for the problems and difficulties which face man. The conclusion reached is, "a recognition that suffering is always in terms of what we are, not an alien something hitting us by chance from without, but somehow or other implicit in our very constitution." Human life on this earth is a trial and, therefore, suffering is inherent in the human lot. In another poem, the poet goes to the extent of saying that there is no God at all to listen to human shrieks and cries:
I turned to speak to God
About the world’s despair;
But to make bad matters worse
I found God wasn’t there.
In The Fear of God, he rejects the Christian conception of a just and merciful God and expresses the view that God is arbitrary:
Whose mercy to you rather than to others
Won't bear too critical examination
In short, God in Frost's poetry is either a creature of man's own imagination or so remote from him as to be meaningless.
Is Frost a Pessimist?
Just as there are barriers which separate man from Nature and God, so also there are barriers which separate him from his fellowmen. Isolate and alienated people abound in his poetry. Social alienation results in emotional disturbance causing neurosis, even lunacy. In the Home Burial, there is the hysterical mother driven to the verge of insanity by the dark shadow of their dead child which alienates her from her husband, so that life with him in the same home becomes impossible for her. The Death of Hired Man, Old Man's Winter Night, Acquainted with the Night, Hill Wife, are only a few of the many poems dealing with-solitary, alienated and isolated people. Such lyrics, too many even to be named, bring out fully the darker and bleaker side of Frost's genius. Such views make critics like Randell Jarrell call Frost a pessimist, and another critic to write, "Frost's view of life is austere and tragic; yet his capacity for finding joy is poignantly ever ready. His spirit is torn by dubieties; his best poems offer queries, not affirmations. The salvation he seeks seems hard to come by. It demands great renunciations. His sensibility is deeply marked by the puritan heritage of his ancestors. In many ways he is the counterpart of T.S. Eliot."
Frost's Realism: His Sanity
There is no doubt that Frost takes a 'twilight' view of man and his existence on this earth, but we cannot agree with those who call him a pessimist merely for this reason. True pessimism implies a will not to live, a view that it would have been better not to have been born at all. Even Thomas Hardy is truly pessimistic only in his last novel, Jude the Obscure, where Father Time first hangs his little brothers and sisters and then himself commits suicide, because he feels that life is not worth living, that the earth is already too over-crowded, and it would have been better by far for them not to have been born at all. We do not find any such nihilistic views in Frost. Only, he is not one of those blind optimistic who shut their eyes to harsh reality and sing:
God is in His Heaven
All is right with the world.
Rather, he is a realist who focuses attention on the Evil, Wickedness and suffering that there is, for, "if a way to the better there be", it implies a good look at the worst. The essential truth about human existence must be faced and understood, for such understanding is essential for any possible improvement and reform. He is a sane and balanced philosopher, a man of mature wisdom, who uses his poetry as, "a vehicle for his inquiries into the nature and meaning of life."
Ways of Ameliorating Human Lot
No, Frost is not a pessimist. He is a realist, and an ameliorist. He studies the human predicament, examines its different facets, and then suggests ways and means by which human lot can be improved and bettered. First, he suggests that we must respect the 'otherness' of other individuals, and not try to impose ourselves upon anybody. Distances must be maintained. In Mending Wall, he teaches us that "Good fences make good neighbours", and the moral of the Build Soil is, "keep off each other and keep each other off". Amicable human relationship is possible only in this way. Loneliness and alienation may be the subject of his inquiry in many a poem, but this does not mean that he admires isolation, and dislikes democracy and brotherhood. Rather, he advocates the Aristotelian golden mean between self-centredness and self-love, and society and companionship. A man must try to under­stand his fellow men and love and sympathy would follow upon such understanding. Healthy social life is possible only in this way. In a way his pre-occupation with the theme of alienation may be taken as a psychological expression of his intensely felt need for human society. Lawrence Thompson agrees with this view and says, "His poems closely represent the confrontation of fear, lostness, alienation, not so much for purposes of shuddering as for purposes of overcoming fright, first through individual, and then through social, ingenuity, courage, daring and action."
Secondly, he advocates devotion to work which in his view is necessary to make life bearable. Nature is imperfect and chaotic, and man must seek to perfect and order it through a constant process of 'gardening'. "Fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows", and one must do one's duty under all circumstances. The woods may be 'lovely and deep', but their enchantment must not make one forget that,
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
True virtue is in the doing, not in what is done. In the Trail by Existence, he suggests, that, "the greatest reward of daring the struggle is still to dare". The true purpose of life is to test the heroism of the human soul. Therefore, one must struggle and dare and suffer the uttermost on earth, for only in this way can man deserve the bliss of heaven, and the mercy of God.
Thirdly, he advocates that Man must have faith in God. The mystery of life and the ways of God cannot be understood through reason. His salvation lies in absolute Faith. While on earth do your duty with sincerity and devotion and with Faith in the divine, and then most certainly God would assuage the cruelty and injustice of man's lot on this earth. He tells us in the Masque of Mercy:
I can see that the uncertainty
In which we act is a severity
A cruelty, amounting to injustice
That nothing but God's mercy can assuage.
Man can be saved only by God's mercy, which man receives for having laboured under grave injustice, and despite the many 'barriers', and limitations which have been imposed upon him, and which he must struggle all his life to overthrow. This is the only way to man's salvation, for it he does not labour thus his limitations would not admit of any salvation. To Frost, God is still one who cares for man, "and will save him, no matter how many times or how completely he has failed."
Fourthly, it should be remembered that in postulating a soulless and mechanistic universe, he is merely echoing the teaching of modern science. Nature is pure matter and man has a soul or spirit. Frost repeatedly asserts the superiority of man over nature. Man can impose his willover the chaotic world of nature and order and complete it. Man is superior to the lower creatures and other objects of nature. In the Tree at My Window, he tells us that the tree is concerned only with, 'outer whether' and a concern for 'inner whether' is possible only for man. In the White Tailed Hornet, he deplores our habit of instituting downward comparisons as a result of which "our worship, honour, consciousness", have long since gone to the dogs under the table. In the Accidently on Purpose, he writes:
Grant me intention, purpose and design
That is near enough for me to the divine.
Frost's Sanity: His Message
In short, Frost is a wise poet-philosopher who advocates not a rejection of life, but an acceptance of it with all its limitation. He loves the world and life in it, even though he often finds faults with it, quarrels with it as a lover often does with the women he loves. His quarrel with the world is a, 'lover's quarrel'. In Birches he tells us, "Earth is the right place for love". He does not regard the universe as chaotic, though he is conscious of its many imperfections. He does not shut his eyes to the hardness of man's lot, but suggests ways and means for its amelioration. His message to his fellow-men is to have,
.... Courage in the heart
To overcome the fear in the soul.
And go ahead to any accomplishment.
Action, determined and fearless, in the living present; is considered by Frost as essential for human salvation.

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