The Poet as Conservative

By McDonald, W. Wesley | The American Conservative, February 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Poet as Conservative

McDonald, W. Wesley, The American Conservative

The Poet as Conservative [Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, Peter J. Stanlis, ISI, 400 pages]

By W. Wesleg McDonald

ALTHOUGH ROBERT FROST was one of the most popular poets of the 20th century, he remains something of an enigma. His official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, plainly disliked him and presented a cruel, lonely, and angry misanthrope. More sympathetic biographies have appeared since this act of "deliberate character assassination,'' as Stanlis describes it, but the adverse image created by Thompson persists.

Moreover, even Frost's admirers have paid insufficient attention to the philosophy that informed his work. The purpose of this extensive and detailed study is both to rescue the poet from his detractors and to provide a profound analysis of the unifying ideas that underpinned his work.

My earliest recollection of the fourtime Pulitzer Prize winner was at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. On that bitter, blustery January day, Frost struggled vainly to read his poem, "Dedication," composed especially for the occasion. Blinded by the intense glare of the snow-reflected sun, he eventually gave up and instead recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.

As a rabid 14-year-old Republican, I presumed Frost was a liberal Democrat Of course, my opinion had nothing to do with what he said on that memorable day. Yet Frost, though an ardent Democrat, was no liberal. No president since Grover Cleveland had pleased him. He defended localism, custom, prescriptive institutions, individual self-reliance, and social hierarchy against the collectivizing and centralizing orientation of the Roosevelt administration. He was fond of Edmund Burke and harshly critical of progressivism, utilitarianism, Social Darwinism, and every kind of collectivist ideology. As he wrote in his poem "Build Soil-A Political Pastoral," he was a "states-rights free-trade Democrat," a predilection, he observed elsewhere, inherited from his father and grandfather. Such Democrats today have gone the way of the dodo.

Peter Stanlis met Frost in 1939 at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English in Ripon, Vermont. Their relationship continued for 23 years, and Stanlis came to know Frost as a mentor and friend. In this book, Stanlis draws liberally from their frequent conversations. In 1941, the young student promised his teacher that he would write a book about his poetry and philosophical beliefs. Little did Stanlis suspect that it would take 60 years to fulfill his promise.

Frost was inadvertently responsible for the long delay. Stanlis mentioned to his professor Louis I. Bredvold of the University of Michigan that he had heard Frost praise Burke. A widely published Burke scholar, Brevold persuaded Stanlis to write his dissertation on Burke. A revised version of Stanlis's work was published as Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958), a seminal book, now in its fourth edition, that has substantially influenced Burke scholarship.

Stanlis rejected studies of Burke that had depicted him as a conservative utilitarian. He argued that Burke's thought was rooted firmly in the Classic Natural Law tradition, "in practical politics," Stanlis said elsewhere, "this counter-revolutionary interpretation of Burke became the basis for the conservative movement in modern American politics, first advanced by Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind (1953), until it was subverted by the self-styled neo-conservatives."

For decades, Stanlis's work on Burke distracted him from his promise to Frost For 13 years he published and edited a journal, Studies in Burke and His Time. He also wrote 23 articles, edited or wrote seven books on Burke, and co-authored an annotated bibliography of everything written by and about Burke. He remains the foremost living Burke scholar. "It is incongruous," he admits, "that Frost's high praise of Burke's politics in the 1940s should have resulted in my commitment to so much scholarship on Burke that it led me to consistently postpone my promise to Frost that I would write a book on his art and philosophical beliefs. …

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