God of Our Yankees: The Evolution of God in Robert Frost

Article excerpt

Introduction

Coming to England to talk about Frost's poetry qualifies as a gesture that is both imitative and historic considering that Robert Frost moved to England--bringing his wife and four young children--in hope of launching his career as a poet. As is easily confirmed by published documents and his several biographers, Frost had not been able to find a publisher in America (Walsh 1988). Leaving New England in 1912, Frost hoped that England, with its long tradition of lyric poetry, might hold more promise for an unknown American poet seeking appreciative readers. As readers now know well, Frost's fortunes did turn in England where he met with immediate success first in finding a publisher and then in being well received.

Frost's praise, both then and now, would come sometimes but only sometimes from famous poets; far more numerous is his wide audience of general readers attracted first of all by his subject matter, partly because it seems so approachable and down to earth. When Frost comes to mind--and he does when people think of American poets of the twentieth century--country themes tend to be most easily associated with his name. But alongside those homely concerns, Frost includes a consistent preoccupation with matters that are easily classified as philosophical or even metaphysical (Stanlis 2007). During Frost's lifetime, a span approaching ninety years, his critics cited the fact that people who liked Robert Frost did not know anything about poetry, intimating that such success detracted from the poet's art or his legitimacy. In that context, the remarks that follow will point out how Frost presented "God" in his work, an analysis that demonstrates both the continuity of his concern with serious inquiry as well as the probing quality of the poet's protracted interest in philosophical questions.

Given the explicit character of this investigation, Frost's language yields the data or raw material. An obvious approach required an initial search and record of exactly where and how Frost uses the word "God." Because Frost's literary production spans an unusually long career, the method suggests that there will be many instances of use of the word. From that straightforward exercise, a pattern emerges, which is quite simply that Frost does not often use the name of God or even the word "god," lower case, in his lyric poems. In his ten volumes of poetry Frost rarely uses the word "God" or even "god" more than a few times per book.

In fact, Frost's use of the word "God" (or "god") changes in its overtones across his poetic production. Yet instances occur enough to allow both for comparison and for the identification of general patterns that suggest categories of meaning. For example, this inventory shows that in early works Frost makes it his business to "locate" God, so to speak, referring to him as "afar" in the poem "Revelation," or the equally unoriginal location "God above" in the lyric "A Prayer in Spring." In fact, the personified God shows up in one of the earliest poems Frost ever wrote "My Butterfly," where the poet does not quite sound like himself. Yet he addresses the butterfly (and not God) with the words, "God let thee flutter." In another early poem Frost acknowledges that God can actually do things, so to speak.

In a pattern that becomes a formula, "God" plus "verb," we find "God makes," "God limns," "God speaks," and "God has taken" all occurring in just one poem, "Trial by Existence" in the collection A Boy's Will. Published in April 1913 in England, that book was Frost's first collection published anywhere; it would later be his second volume published in the United States in April 1915. But even with language that can almost be called formulaic, Frost never uses "God" in a context that sounds like a conventional prayer. (Butterflies, for example, do not appear in prayers thought of as traditional.)

After that first volume Frost continued writing blank verse that sounded like effortless and ordinary speech. …