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Robert Frost: Social and Political Conservative

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By:Peter J. Stanlis | October 10, 2018
Stanlis_08-1992
From the August 1992 issue of Chronicles.

Robert Frost published 11 books of poetry, won four Pulitzer Prizes, established himself as the unofficial poet laureate of the United States, and acquired a national and international literary reputation. Despite his fame as a poet and public speaker, and because of his friendship with such liberal Democrats as Vice-President Henry Wallace and President John F. Kennedy, few Americans are aware that in his social and political philosophy Frost was a highly original conservative thinker. His thought was wholly unsystematic, and lacked the coherence and unity of the abstract systems of speculative philosophers, but it was wholly consistent in adhering to basic social and political conservative principles.

Frost distrusted abstract labels and categories, because he knew that such terms as "revolutionary," "radical," "liberal," "rebel," and "conservative" often provided the basis for ideological theories and rational systems created by the imagination and then identified with "reality." Like Edmund Burke, the poet considered ideology a fictional product of the creative imagination, often utilized as a substitute for revealed religion and historical experience, and the chief source of the delusions that led men to dream that they could establish a Utopian social order. The ideologies of such writers as Rousseau and Marx had no place in Frost's social and political philosophy. In avoiding abstract categories. Frost never referred to himself as a conservative, because he feared that other people's false conceptions of this term would be attributed to him. Two lines summed up his viewpoint on such abstract categories:

I never dared be radical when young

For fear it would make me conservative when old.

These lines express Frost's characteristic prudent temperament and moderation between political extremes; he avoided intellectual disillusionments by refusing initially to commit himself to ideological illusions.

Frost's social and political conservatism was part of his total dualistic philosophy, which assumed that "reality" consisted of two basic elements—matter and spirit, each complex in itself, but made doubly so by their constant and unresolved interactions. He stated that the universe consists of "endless . . . things in pairs ordained to everlasting opposition," and that "the philosopher values himself on the inconsistencies he can contain by main force. They are two ends of a strut that keeps his mind from collapsing." In resolving the dualistic conflict between the one and the many in matter and spirit. Frost believed that all human endeavors sought to reconcile and unify the complexities, paradoxes, ambiguities, and contradictions in man's experience through greater knowledge, understanding, revealed insight, and wisdom. Frost's philosophical dualism drew heavily on the thought of Aristotle and Kant, and was further indebted in many of its complexities and elaborations to the metaphorical language of Emerson, and the work of William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, among others.

Frost rejected as too simple and optimistic the spiritual monism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which explained the problem of evil as merely the absence of good as the sole reality. He also rejected the materialistic monism of Karl Marx, which treated spirit as an illusion and ended in doctrinaire atheism. To Frost human nature itself was a dualistic compound of matter and spirit, or body and soul. He viewed religion, philosophy, science, art, education, politics, and the unfolding history of mankind in organized society as different forms of revelation, perceived by the human mind as metaphors that illuminated what is true, good, and beautiful in life.

Although Frost did not belong to any church, he identified himself as "an Old Testament Christian," in the tradition of St. Augustine. He once stated that he was "less churchy" than T. S. Eliot, but "more religious." He despised religiosity, but he stated that he had "no religious doubts, not about God's existence." His whole object in his poetry, he said, was "to say spirit in terms of matter or matter in terms of spirit," so that his major poems are emotionally charged with a profound piety. He believed certain mysteries always remain, and therefore "something has to be left to God." Contrary to the claims of Joseph Warren Beach, Lawrance Thompson, George W. Nitchie, Marion Montgomery, and Yvor Winters, Frost was not a spiritually alienated man, an indecisive agnostic or "spiritual drifter." These critics fail to understand the dividing line between being noncommittal and uncommitted.

In accepting the moral law of Moses in the Decalogue, Frost made justice paramount to mercy both between God and man and for man in civil society. This meant that in his social and political philosophy he resolved the conflicts in what he called "the justice-mercy contradiction" in favor of justice. Mercy had an important place in his philosophy, but it was subordinated to justice. From this position Frost was highly critical of socialists and liberals and those he dubbed "New Testament sapheads," Christians who sentimentalized Christ's Sermon on the Mount and made mercy supreme over justice, not only in religion, through belief in universal salvation, but in every aspect of man's secular life through politics and in society. To Frost such Christians were really Rousseauists and did not know it. They believed in the natural goodness of man, ignored original sin, and under the impact of the ever-increasing secularization of modern life they invariably became sentimental humanitarians in their social and political beliefs and actions.

Like Aristotle in The Politics and like Edmund Burke throughout his political philosophy, Frost assumed that man is by his innate nature a social animal. Unlike Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx, who assumed that organized civil society is "artificial," Frost believed that life in society is "natural," and therefore the normal state of human existence. Frost was not a primitivist, and he never made an antithesis between "nature" and society. The membership of persons in civil society was to him not a matter of personal choice or arbitrary will, not a voluntary and revocable contractual relationship, but rather a biological and moral necessity and the result of a complex and extended historical inheritance. Men are born into their society without their consent, and the essential elements in their continued relationships with the basic institutions and laws of organized society are also beyond voluntary choices.

Frost was certainly aware of the great importance of the ancient Greco-Roman classical civilization and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition in forming Western society and culture, including American society. He even traced the American commitment to democratic government back to ancient Athens:

Ours is a very ancient political growth, beginning at one end of the Mediterranean Sea, and coming westward—tried in Athens, tried in Italy, tried in England, tried in France, coming westward all the way to us. A very long growth, a growth through trial and error. . . . Put a marker where the growth begins, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and there's never been a glimmer of democracy south of there.

But unlike the religious and aristocratic European-based conservatism of T. S. Eliot and other literary traditionalists. Frost's social and political conservatism was derived directly from his reverence for the American Republic and its Constitution. He refined upon Aristotle and Burke's principle that civil society is "natural" by adding his own original and distinctly American belief in individual personal liberty. His poetry and prose expresses a characteristically American sensibility, a conservative synthesis of faith in individuals and people at large with a belief in self-government under constitutional law and limited power in government.

In society the constant problem was how to resolve the ambiguity between the necessary claims of institutions upon individuals, for duties to be performed, and the conflicting claims of each person to be as free and independent as possible within social customs and laws. Wherever moral or legal authority external to the individual existed, this perpetual ambiguity needed to be resolved. Frost believed there was always some uncertainty regarding each individual's membership in the institutional life of his community. The claims of personal self-interest and social benevolence were subject to perpetual adjustments, but since living together in society was "natural," some final identity of interests between individuals and institutions required that men work together "whether they work together or apart." The great aim of polities was to transcend conflicts between individuals and classes by reconciling their differences and achieving harmony. In the conflicts between political means and social ends, the great and final objective to Frost was to preserve the maximum freedom of each individual from the arbitrary or unconstitutional power of the state.

Frost perceived that a great loss in individual freedom in American society was the result of the serious imbalance that had developed by the early 20th century between rural and urban life, with more and more people living in metropolitan centers. The poet called himself "very much a country man," and did not like to see the city pitted against the country, since both were valuable aspects of civil society and supplemented each other. But an urbanized economy rests largely upon the researches of science, inventions, the interdependence of technology, assembly-line industrialization, the division of labor, credit, monetary exchange, commerce and finance, and these create a depersonalized society that destroys community life and makes economic and personal freedom depend more and more upon government, rather than upon the self-reliance fostered by rural life. For a socially healthy America, Frost contended, "What we want is the largest possible number of citizens who can take care of themselves. What we need is character." To Frost there was no question that the greatest degree of self-reliance, love of freedom, reflective leisure, and integrity of character is found in rural life. The need of being versed in country things is one of the grand themes in Frost's poetry. Country life is not an escape from the demands of urban society, as some critics of Frost claimed, but a way of developing the intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and social capability of free individuals. There is nothing antisocial or anarchical in Frost's ideal of self-reliant individualism. The unrestrained growth of industrialism, and the constant shift from rural living to urban life, and the urbanization of rural life itself, was to Frost one of the great social tragedies of 20th-century America.

The poet's strong emphasis upon rural life included a sense of local community as necessary for a healthy civic order. He believed that the social and political freedom of Americans depended upon "the land," conceived as the cultural and constitutionally incorporated geographical area lying between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and between Canada and Mexico: "What gives us our freedom is having a territorial basis, belonging to the land." The legally incorporated land that constituted the United States did not so much belong to the American people as they belonged to the land. Frost's conception of the United States as a nation was that it was a territorial democracy, not merely a democracy based upon population or the will of a numerical majority. It followed that there was no such thing as "the people" apart from its geographical-cultural-legal-political character. A nation is more than merely numbers of individuals counted by the head and living within a geographical area. As a nation the "people" is the product of its total historical inheritance, which gives it a unique social character. The unwritten constitution of the American people was in its total social inheritance, which to Frost was even more important than its written legal and political Constitution.

Frost was well aware that there are serious weaknesses in all forms of government, including democracy. But he loved and preferred "the liberal ease of democracy," because "democracy with all its faults is the world's best bet till the people's virtue all leaches out of them." He distinguished between the French revolutionary Jacobin type of "democracy" and the American constitutional democracy of representative republican government. The French democracy was essentially egalitarian and leveled out all individual and class differences; American democracy was centered in liberty, not in equality, and placed strong limitations on the legal and political power of the state, through divided and balanced powers between the states and the federal government, in order to provide the maximum freedom to persons and local authorities. Frost rejected the egalitarian theory of popular absolute sovereignty, with its modern slogan "one man, one vote." When Carl Sandburg published what Frost called his "New Deal-Fair Deal" propaganda poem, "The People, Yes," Frost responded that his view of American democracy would say "The People, yes, and the People, no." His faith in the people under democratic government included an awareness of their weaknesses as well as their strengths and virtues. He rejected popular sovereignty based only upon numbers in favor of a corporate conception of sovereignty and representation, which included the original constitutional federalism of the Founding Fathers, with strictly defined limitations on federal power; territorial democracy for election to the federal Senate; population for election to the lower House; and the electoral college for election of the President.

Frost identified his party politics by calling himself, at various times, "a Madisonian-Washingtonian-Jeffersonian Democrat," or "a Grover Cleveland Democrat," or "an Old Line Democrat." What kind of Democrat was Frost? hi his poem "Build Soil—A Political Pastoral," the chief character clearly speaks for the poet:

I was brought up

A state-rights free-trade Democrat. What's that?

An inconsistency.

Once when Frost was accused by a New Deal Democrat of being politically inconsistent or "mixed-up," he replied: "No, I'm not mixed up, I'm well mixed." He noted that the political mixture in his party politics began at birth, when he was named after the Confederate general, Robert Lee Frost. He added: "You know, I inherited my status as a State-rights Democrat from my father—maybe my grandfather. I've never outgrown it." Whether mixed-up or well mixed, Frost certainly was one of the most original and unstereotyped Democrats that the Democratic Party ever had.

The wide-ranging class and nationality groups that comprised the Democratic Party certainly suited the poet's intense individualism. As a party man Frost was very much like Will Rogers, who once quipped: "I'm a Democrat. I don't belong to any organized party." Similarly, Frost once said: "Being a Democrat is like being a woman; you can always change your mind." He then added: "There are more different ways of being a Democrat than of being a Republican." Frost made this remark in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a middle-aged couple, conservative. Republican, Harvard friends, after the husband had expressed his amazement that Frost identified himself as a Democrat. The wife had listened intently to the poet's statement, and then responded vehemently: "You're right, Mr. Frost, there's only one kind of Republican," pointing to her husband, "and there he sits!" Frost enjoyed telling this story to a group of the faculty at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, during the summer of 1961, in the presence of Donald Davidson, a Southern Jeffersonian Democrat. Davidson then asked Frost: "What kind of Democrat are you? Democrat with a capital 'D,' or with a lower case 'd'?" Frost answered: "I'm a G-D Democrat." The "G-D," he went on to say, stood for "Godawful-Disgruntled," and that he had been a "G-D" Democrat since 1896, when Grover Cleveland's second term of office ended.

From the time of Woodrow Wilson until his death in 1963, Frost continued to despair of the Democratic Party much as a father might despair of a wayward child. He believed that beginning with Wilson the Democratic Party in particular and the modern world in general became infatuated with sentimental international pacifism, partly in reaction to World War I, but also based on the belief in the natural goodness and social benevolence of man. Frost's comment on the tragic fate of Wilson, written in 1928, is highly revealing of the illusion he perceived in Wilson's international pacifist politics:

It's a sad story—one of the saddest in history. . . . I weaken now at the thought of him fallen with a crash almost Napoleonic. He had calibre, he saw as vastly as anyone that ever lived. He was a great something, if it was only a great mistake. And he wasn't merely his own mistake. He was the whole world's mistake . . . as much the whole world's as was Napoleon or Alexander. Some might think his failure was in missing a mark that someone to come after him will hit, but I suspect it was worse than that: he missed a mark that wasn't there in nature or in human nature.

According to Frost, the same conflict between freedom and external authority that was at the core of each individual person's relationship to society also applied to each particular nation's relationship with the world. Therefore, he vehemently opposed the idea that the legal and political sovereignty of the United States, and its legitimate self-interest, should be sacrificed to any international power, including Wilson's League of Nations. The noble cause of world peace did not justify the loss of national sovereignty.

In 1920, right after James Cox was nominated by the Democrats for the presidency. Frost stated his opposition to Cox for following Wilson's international polities, and hoped that Harding would be elected, provided he was anti-international. Frost distinguished between national isolationism and imperialist intervention in the internal affairs or conflicts of other nations, and in "Build Soil—A Political Pastoral," he clearly made national self-interest paramount to any international "one world" organization:

My friends all know I'm interpersonal.

But long before I'm interpersonal

Away 'way down inside I'm personal.

Just so before we're international

We're national and act as nationals.

Twenty-six years later, in a letter to President John F. Kennedy (24 July 1962), Frost reiterated his conviction that national self-interest is primary in all international relations: "This is the way we are one world . . . of independent nations interdependent—the separateness of the parts as important as the connection of the parts." Frost believed that delegates to any international organization, such as the League of Nations or United Nations, acted as nationals in the self-interest of their respective countries, and not, as Wilson, Cox, and internationalists assumed, by an abstract code of morality and justice that transcended nationalism.

Frost's belief that we love the things we love for what they are, from our familiarity with them, made him highly critical of those Americans who ignored their local and national loyalties while seeking to embrace an abstract love for the whole world: "We think the word 'provincial' is a shameful word here in America. But . . . you can't be universal without being provincial, can you? It's like trying to embrace the wind." Throughout his life the poet remained profoundly skeptical that any meaningful or practical and effective love and loyalty could be practiced by any individual beyond nationalism, for mankind in the abstract. Sovereignty began in the conscience of each individual, and extended to his local community and finally to his country, but not to a remote and abstract humanity:

The question for every man and every nation is to be clear about where the first answerability lies. Are we as individuals to be answerable first only to others or to ourselves and some ideal beyond ourselves? Is the United States to be answerable first to the United Nations or to its own concept of what is right?

Frost's skepticism toward Wilson's League of Nations was extended to the United Nations after World War II.

In 1957, when Sweden gave a huge rock of pure iron ore to the United Nations, to build into its center in New York, as a symbol of nature's strength and humanity's unity. Frost was invited "to write a poem celebrating the ideal of the interdependence of the nations." He rejected the prescribed theme, and noted that iron could indeed be used to strengthen the United Nations building, but that it could also be used for weapons of war, which was historically the way with human nature and nations. He then wrote a couplet that expressed his own belief:

Nature within her inmost self divides

To trouble men with having to take sides.

The independence of nations was primary to Frost; their interdependences were secondary, because nations, like individuals, needed to be free to pursue their own destiny.

In an interview with Frost in 1957, James Reston summarized his negative conservative social and political views: "He is against everything and everybody that want people to rely on somebody else. He is against the United Nations. He is against the welfare state. He is against conformity and easy slogans and Madison Avenue, and he hasn't seen a President he liked since Grover Cleveland." In 1959 Louis Untermeyer, Frost's lifelong Marxist friend, also summarized what the poet most disliked, but added what he insisted upon:

He is still against One World, World Federation, Universal Brotherhood, Unity, the breaking down of barriers in the interest of Oneness; he is unalterably against One anything. You may quote him to the effect that "Something there is that does not love a wall," but you can be sure that he much prefers the opposed quotation that "good fences make good neighbors." He insists upon Nature's divisions and differences; in art, as in nature, we want all the differences we can get. In society, too. We want people and nations to maintain their differences—even at the risk of trouble, even at the risk of fighting one another.

Frost did more than pay lip service to individual freedom; he loved personal freedom, for himself and other men and nations, with an intense and constant passion, and he refused to sacrifice any part of his independence and self-reliance for the promises of security by politicians or ideologues, whether national or international.

Within a few months after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, the New Deal social welfare programs he initiated in order to solve the economic problems of the Depression convinced Frost that the Democratic Party had fallen into the hands of liberal and socialist ideologues whose conception of human nature, society, and politics was totally contrary to his own philosophy. Frost rejected the whole premise on which a centrally planned economy and regulated society was based, because he believed its assumptions violated individual liberty and the constitutional limits placed upon political power. The numerous alphabetical agencies instituted by Roosevelt's self-styled "brain trust," administered by a rapidly growing federal bureaucracy that was neither elected by the people nor responsible to them, resulted in a swift and enormous growth in arbitrary federal power. This growth was justified legally by appeals to "the general welfare" and interstate commerce clauses in the Constitution. With New Deal liberals. Frost noted, "the test is always how we treat the poor." The liberals violated justice to individuals in favor of mass mercy to the poor. According to Frost, mercy was but another name for socialism.

The constant intrusion of the federal government into the private lives and institutions of Americans, to force equality of condition on everyone, was to Frost the great evil of New Deal domestic politics, and the chief source of moral corruption in society. The welfare state could not save men from their inherent limitations and failures; it could only intensify their weaknesses by making them slavish wards of the state. Shortly after Roosevelt's death, when someone suggested that America needed a political Messiah to solve its economic and social problems, Frost wrote: "How can any one fail to see we have one and of the Messianic race, namely Karl Marx. And I'm not joking. F. D. R. came as near being one as I suspect a Democracy can feel the illusion of." To the poet the greatest internal danger to the United States during the 1930's was not its failure to solve the economic problems of the Depression, but the New Deal revolution in government, which destroyed many constitutional limits upon federal power and moved the nation toward a permanent egalitarian and collectivist society.

Although the external forms in the constitutional division of sovereign power between the states and federal government were maintained, the arbitrary powers usurped by the federal government destroyed the balance of power at the expense of the states, and weakened the independence of institutions and individuals. The New Deal revolutionized the whole system of taxation: instead of taxing to meet the necessary expenses of government, new government programs were multiplied in order to justify great increases in income taxes. Thus not only the economy, but every aspect of American life came under the power of federal regulatory agencies. Frost's fear that the movement of all power toward centralization in Washington would endanger corporate and private freedom was confirmed when Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court, and again when he violated the two-term tradition for Presidents and ran for office four times.

Despite his strong opposition to the New Deal (which he called "the New Deal," in Scottish dialect "the New Devil"), Frost stayed within the Democratic Party, and vowed he would continue a Democrat even if he had "to push everyone else out of the party but Carter Class." He was convinced that he could do more good as a critic of the socialist heresies within his party than as an outsider. His attacks on New Deal economic planning were based upon the same assumptions that strict constitutional limits were necessary on any centralized authority that had always characterized his social and political philosophy. Roosevelt's domestic program, like Woodrow Wilson's international pacifism, violated the freedom of individuals and institutions by making compulsory benevolence the basis of peace, harmony, and equality among classes, just as international pacifism claimed to do among nations. Both violated legitimate self-interest as the true source of human actions, and were based upon a false theory of human nature.

Frost's opposition to New Deal liberalism came to a head in A Further Range (1936), in a series of satirical poems "aimed at the heads of our easy despairers of the republic and of parliamentary forms of government. I encounter too many such," the poet noted, "and my indignation mounts till it overflows in rhyme." In "Departmental" he satirized the depersonalized actions of federal bureaucrats and the "brain trust." Frost believed these New Deal supervisors were infatuated with the Soviet Russian Five Year Plan as a model for social change in America, and he called them "the guild of social planners." "A Roadside Stand" portrays such planners as "greedy good-doers, beneficent-beasts of prey," swarming over the lives of Americans, destroying their moral character, self-reliance, and integrity, by corrupting them with welfare-state bounties, which they would come to regard as entitlements and abstract "rights." "Build Soil—A Political Pastoral" was inspired by the New Deal farm policies, which Frost believed treated farmers as having "sub-marginal minds." "Provide, Provide" satirizes paternalism in government. "To a Thinker," primarily a satire on Roosevelt, also probes the larger problem of all men whose genius for self-deception makes them ambitious to play God.

Frost perceived the New Deal, at heart Henry Wallace's "century of the common man," as part of "the sweep toward collectivism in our time. In "A Considerable Speck" he attacked its humanitarian type of compulsory benevolence:

I have none of the tenderer-than-thou

Collectivistic regimenting love

With which the modern world is being swept.

To the poet the New Deal was a calculating, sentimental, hypocritical, and egalitarian regime, aiming to create "a homogenized society," a regimented collective of people "all pigging together" in an undifferentiated mass, in which the cream of human nature would not be allowed to rise to the top. He confessed that he found it "harder to bear the benevolence than the despotism" of New Deal politicians in their effort to create a Utopian welfare state. He commented ironically on the indifference of New Deal liberals toward the destruction of constitutional limited government in favor of a centralized collective system: "You know how liberals are. You know how they were about the Russian revolution . . . You can pack the Supreme Court for all of them. Nothing is crucial."

Even before A Further Range provoked a declaration of war against Frost by the entire American political left, early in the 1930's Granville Hicks and F. O. Matthiessen, Marxist literary critics at Harvard University, and such liberals as Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson, had attacked him for failing to write poems in support of the proletarian class struggle. The self-styled "intellectuals" of the left, a loose coalition of Marxists, socialists, Freudians, journalists, and academic liberals, ardently supported the New Deal, and heaped scorn on Frost's conservative social and political philosophy. During the summer of 1936 A Further Range was attacked in reviews by Horace Gregory in The New Republic, by R. P. Blackmur in The Nation, by Newton Arvin in Partisan Review, by Rolfe Humphries in New Masses, and by other Marxists and liberals in literary journals. The ultimate charge against Frost was that he was "a reactionary" and "a counter-revolutionary," and he was judged a second-rate poet because he refused to use his art as a means to their partisan political ends. Frost had always condemned such a theory of art as mere propaganda, as "mad glad stuff," and he argued that "it is not the business of the poet to cry for reform." He rejected the ideology of these New Deal defenders because he doubted that the problems of poverty, crime, war, ignorance, disease, and human misery ever have final or absolute solutions through political actions by government. His faith was in a free society, functioning strictly under constitutional law, making maximum use of individual initiative and motivated by self-interest. In this faith Frost was one of the most ardent defenders of the American Republic as established originally by its Founding Fathers.

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