In the Clearing: Continuity and Unity in Frost's Dualism

Article excerpt

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. …