Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity

Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity

Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity

Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity

Synopsis

Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity examines Frost's ethical positioning as a poet in the age of modernism. The argument is that Frost constructs his poetry with deliberate formal ambiguity, withholding clear resolutions from the reader. Therefore, the poem itself functions as metaphor, inviting the reader into a participation in constructing meaning. Furthermore, the ambiguity of ethical positioning was intrinsic to Frost himself. Nonetheless, by holding his poetry up to several traditional ethical views -- Rationalist, Theological, Existentialist, Deotological, and Social Ethics -- one may define a congruent ethical pattern in both the poetry and the person.

Excerpt

The earliest sustained study of Frost's ethics appeared in George W. Nitchie's Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost (1962). Nitchie's study held, and continues to hold, value primarily for locating axiological truths about human nature discerned by humanity's engagement with nature. But Nitchie also detected a trait of Frost's ethics that is central to his study: “My immediate point is simply that Frost tends to shy away from explicit statements of a theory of nature, or of man's relationship with nature. And this is interesting because, paradoxically or not, one of the cardinal errors according to Frost's scheme of values is going against nature or natural processes; at least, man does so at his peril.” In fact, Frost not only “shies away” from explicit ethical statements, he adamantly refuses to reduce his poetry to such. His poetic world is rich with implication, and devoid of direct pronouncement unless surrounded by undercutting ironies. Ambiguity shapes the common denominator.

Subsequent to Nitchie, several studies, most notably Dorothy Judd Hall's Robert Frost: Contours of Belief(1984) and Edward Ingebretsen's Robert Frost's Star in a Stone Boat: A Grammar of Belief (1994), have pursued Frost's ethical thinking through religious avenues. While religious beliefs and issues suffuse Frost's poetry, Frost's presentation of them is often contradictory and ambivalent. Religious and biblical influences are patently clear, as both Hall and Ingebretsen demonstrate. Their influence upon Frost's ethics is at best partial.

As one follows Frost's ethical thinking through his body of prose and poetry, a conflicted and often confusing world unfolds. Some apparently overt claims are shaded in context by tones of cynicism or skepticism. Values he apparently lauded in his work are violated freely in his life. Ideals he longed for are often crushed under a bitter sense of a reality that erected barriers as tense as taut barbed wire. Consequently, the important questions to ask about Frost's ethics are whether any systematic patterns emerge; what influ-

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