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This sermon was delivered by Wesley V. Hromatko, D.Min on March 6, 2005.

The Religious Sensibility of Robert Frost: March 26, 1874 — January 29, 1963

 

by
Wesley V. Hromatko, D.Min

© March 6, 2005

Those of us who watched John Kennedy’s inauguration will not forget poet Robert Frost. He tried to read his new poem “Dedication,” but the light bothered him, and he simply recited “The Gift Outright.”[1] Frost received so many honorary degrees that the hoods collected in a closet. He solved the problem by having them made into quilts.[2] Although he won four Pulitzer Prize’s for poetry[3] and held the post now known as poet laureate,[4] his religion is my topic.

Frost (1874- 1963)[5] had both Unitarian and Universalist relatives. His father William Prescott Frost came from a Universalist family.[6] Frost’s father was a wild young man who sympathized with the south in the Civil War, because the cotton shortage affected mills and economy in his hometown Lawrence, Massachusetts. He tried to enlist in the Confederate army, but the police brought him home. He was the despair of his strict father, a mill foreman.[7] His parents believed in the equality of women and his mother was a leader of the Lawrence suffragettes.[8] Failing in an attempt to enroll in West Point, he entered Harvard. In spite of a wild college career he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.[9] After college he met Frost’s mother Isabelle Moodie, a Scottish immigrant.[10] Raised by her Grandparents she believed that she had second sight.[11] When Frost’s mother first came to America she lived with her Unitarian uncle Thomas Moodie in Columbus, Ohio.[12] He was a banker who and graduate of the University of Edinburgh.[13] William Prescott Frost was principal at a Lewiston Pennsylvania academy where she was teaching. In spite of Frost’s skepticism and her Presbyterianism, Rev. Dr. McLean soon performed their wedding service.[14]

Frosts parents moved to California where William Prescott Frost found a job as a newspaper reporter.[15] Mrs. Frost enjoyed books of UU minister Thomas Starr King. When she didn’t find a Scottish Presbyterian church she liked, they attended King’s former San Francisco congregation for a while.[16] The poet said that his mother changed from Presbyterian to Unitarian through reading Emerson. She continued with Emerson and picked up his interest in the 18th century mystic scientist Immanuel Swedenborg.[17] In an essay "On Emerson" Frost said, "I was brought up in all three of these religions, I suppose. I don't know whether I was baptized in them all. But as you see it was pretty much under the auspices of Emerson." [18]

Emerson admired Swedenborg as a scientist;[19] Swedenborg is one section of Emerson’s essay “Representative Men.” Swedenborg’s idea of “correspondences” is found in Emerson’s Nature. Emerson also admired Swedenborg’s ethics. However, he disagreed with his theology and lack of poetry.[20] Frost like Emerson was also interested in science. Frost’s interest and knowledge of science makes him unusual as a modern poet.[21]

Frost’s mother joined the Swedenborgian church of the New Jerusalem and had Robert baptized, but his father who was a skeptic wouldn’t join. He was active in the Bohemian club, a fraternity of San Francisco fellow journalists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals.[22] Unfortunately, he turned into a mean and violent drunk. With her literary background she said her husband changed into Healthcliff from Wuthering Heights. [23]

His father died from tuberculosis and the Swedenborgian minister, Rev.John Doughty he disliked conducted the service. The body was shipped back to New England and a second funeral was held in Lawrence.[24] Robert went with his family to live there with his Frost grandparents. After his mother’s easygoing style, he was uncomfortable with their proper New England habits.[25] The eleven-year-old Frost attended their Universalist church for morning and evening services.[26] As an adult he kept the Universalist idea that wrong would be punished but all would be saved.[27]

Robert married his high school sweetheart Elinor White. She was descended from Peregrine White, the first child born to the Pilgrims.[28] They were co-valedictorians at Lawrence high school graduation.[29] While in high school Robert discovered Darwin and to his mother’s horror called himself a Freethinker.[30] Elinor’s father had left the Universalist ministry to become a wood worker.[31] She attended Universalist founded St. Lawrence University in New York.[32] She finished college in three years so she could marry him.[33] Frost started Dartmouth but dropped out to teach and work at different odd jobs.[34] Neither Frost nor Elinor belonged to a church, but Rev. John Haynes, the Salem Swedenborian minister, performed the ceremony December, 19, 1895. The service was held in the school where Robert’s mother had her private school and Elinor was a teacher. The Lawrence Swedenborgians met in the same rented downtown office space, and the Frost family also lived there. Robert was also teaching in Salem District 9. There were twelve pupils and he made $24 a month. Elinor’s father, the drop out Universalist minister, was pointedly absent. Most of the guests were Swedenborgians.[35] Frost tried Harvard but dropped out because he thought he had tuberculosis. Frost’s life long bouts with depression may have also figured in his decision. His grandfather bought a farm for him in Derry, NH.[36] Although he complained about his grandfather all his life, Grandfather Frost left Robert the farm and an annuity that helped support him for twenty years.[37]

One day when we lived in New England Marilyn and I drove off to Derry, N.H. to see the farm where he had written so many of his poems in the first ten years of this century. The tour guide provided many interesting details about the farm and Frost's life. The stonewall he had written about was there[38] and the pasture he had mowed.[39] The house and barn were there. His daughter Lesley provided the details in restoring the inside of the house.[40] The tour guide said the kitchen was papered with a copy of the red wallpaper he and Elinor had ordered from Sears. Late at night after the children were in bed he used to write his poems.[41] He put a board across the arms of a wooden Morris chair for a desk. He had bought it in 1897 while at college.[42]

Frost wasn't much of a farmer when his mind was on poetry and he would milk the cow at midnight.[43] However, Frost did well with chickens before when he was recovering from a fever that interrupted Harvard.[44] In 1905he almost lost the farm and had to teach at a nearby academy[45] He began the pattern of writing and teaching that he was to follow all his life.[46] He later sold the farm and moved to England where his first books were published.[47] Long after he was a successful professor he kept up a lifelong pattern of buying New England farms.[48]

After their first child died in 1900 Elinor Frost couldn’t believe in God. There are echoes of their experience in “Home Burial.” She gradually grew more skeptical. Frost for a while tended to agree. With “Stars” from the 1900 A Boy’s Will we find the comment, “There is no oversight of human affairs.”[49] At the farm using the ideas of William James in the Will to Believe he grew more theistic.[50] William James regularly attended Harvard chapel during its Unitarian period.[51]Mrs. William James according to the 1897-98 annual report of the First Parish Cambridge held pew # 261. He was also inspired by the French Philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1911) said evolution was a creative constructive process. Poets could rise above a sterile scientism, and find a right relationship to what he called the Source. Frost reflected Bergson’s ideas He used a stream metaphor in “Hyla Brook,” and “West Running Brook” among others.[52] The change in Frost, however, did not apply to his wife. He wrote in 1920 that Elinor…

has just come out flat-footed against God conceived either as the fourth person seen with Shadrack, Meshack, and Tobedwego [sic] in the fiery furnace or without help by the Virgin Mary. How about as a Shelleyan principal or spirit coeternal with the rock part of creation, I ask. Nonsense and you know it’s nonsense Rob Frost; only you’re afraid you’ll have bad luck or lose your standing in the community if you speak your mind.” [sic][53]

The sap, however, that March was running in the Sugar Bush and Frost was busy. Day dreaming, he had drilled a hole clear through a maple. As Elinor became more skeptical he developed his own religious ideas. His religious views gradually grew more positive.[54]

Although he had attended the Swedenborgian Sunday school and was married by a Swedenborgian minister he dropped out by 1923. Nevertheless, he kept some ideas from the church. He wrote,

What is my philosophy? That is hard to say. I was brought up a Swedenborgian. I am not a Swedenborgian now. But there is a good deal of it that's left with me. I am a mystic. I believe in symbols. I believe in change and in changing symbols. Yet that does not take me away from the kindly contact of human beings. No, it brings me closer to them."[55]

When Frost’s wife Elinor died in 1938 her memorial service was held at the Amherst College chapel.[56] The service depended on the minister’s schedule. The minister was Sidney Snow. Snow was a president of Meadville/Lombard, our Chicago seminary where his picture hangs in the Curtis Room. Frost said he was going to ask Snow “… to read a poem or two that she liked and some not too religious verses from the Bible.” [57] Frost certainly sounded like a Unitarian Universalist.

In the words of one of his own poems, Frost was “One Acquainted with the Night.”He suffered many personal emotional storms and his sister eventually died in a mental hospital.[58] His reputation suffered after his wife’s death, because he worried that he was a bad man. He felt responsible for the deaths and illness in his family.[59] His first son Eliott died of cholera at four.[60]One daughter died two days after being born.[61] Marjorie died of childbed fever although they took her to the Mayo Clinic.[62] In spite of all of his efforts his son Carol took his own life.[63]

After these deaths Frost wrote two short verse plays dealing with Job and Jonah. They aren’t as well known as many of his other poems and critics often dismiss them. The first was The 43rd Chapter of Job, A Masque of Reason (1943). Frost had struggled with the problem of evil before. His earlier poem “Design” is a challenge to those who currently favor the theory of intelligent design. Frost concludes in the Masque of Reason that we live in an irrational world. We don’t get what we deserve.[64] In it he mentions

"The kind of Unitarian
Who having by elimination got
From many gods to Three, and Three to One,
Thinks why not taper off to none at all." [65]

Frost himself never did quite taper off religion altogether, however.

His second verse play The Masque of Mercy (1945) retells the story of Jonah. There is a dialogue with St. Paul. Frost says Paul was “…the fellow who theologized Christ almost out of Christianity.” Critics thought this play was less successful because it was more topical. The central idea in the play is in the last line, “Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.”[66]

The poet said that he approached Christianity through Jerusalem.[67] One of Frost’s friends was a Cincinnati Reform Rabbi, Dr. Victor E. Reichart. In 1946 Frost spoke at his Temple on the first day of Tabernacles. In 1959 he appeared in a televised celebration of Hanukah at the Touro Synagogue in New Port Rhode Island. Frost greatly admired Unitarian poet Henry W. Longfellow[68] who had written about its cemetery.[69]

Although his UU background isn't mentioned you will find one hymn in our new hymnbook with Frost's lyrics, "Oh, Give Us Pleasure in the Flowers Today."[70] Unitarian Universalists have other definite connections with him. He was a friend of Tufts professor and poet John Holmes.[71] Frost's publisher and friend for years was Frederick Melcher[72] for whom our Melcher book award is named.[73]

The poet wasn’t a literal believer.[74] He said Jesus challenged tradition; he believed Jesus wanted people to think.[75] The only time he prayed was to recite the Lord’s Prayer at public events to be polite.[76] He saw the biblical stories as metaphor.[77] While he appreciated Darwin, he did not care for the conclusions Huxley and others drew. He thought of science and religion metaphorically describing an underlying reality.[78]

He was serious about his religion but not solemn. It is hard to know exactly what he thought about immortality. He did leave us an interesting piece of advice. “…you ought to live so’s [sic] if there isn’t anything, it will be an awful shame.”[79]

Frost like many Unitarian Universalists wasn't a joiner. When Frost died, however, his daughter Lesley asked the King’s Chapel minister Palfrey Perkins to conduct a service for family and others close to him in Harvard’s Appleton Chapel. He was a Unitarian minister that her father knew and liked.[80] Perkins’s son Arthur was a member of the Petersham congregation I served in Massachusetts. The public service was held at Johnson Chapel, Amherst College. An Ohio Methodist Bishop and friend, Henry Hobson, said that those who thought Frost lacked religion confused religion with traditional belief. Frost was not orthodox, but he was religious.[81]

The values he expressed in his poems resonate well with us. When the religious path diverges in the wood like Frost's protagonist we have chosen the path "less traveled by."[82] We like to raise questions and think, as did the farmer in his poem "Mending Wall."[83] Most of us are uncomfortable with people walling each other out. Our world has too many divisions, too many unnecessary fences between people who should be good neighbors. Frost seems to belong with us

 

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[1] Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 412-415.

[2]Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Frost, The later Years1938-1963 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 214-215;422.

[3] Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Robert Frost, The later Years1938-1963 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 110.

[4]Phillip L. Gerber, “Robert Frost,” Encyclopaedia 2005 Ultimate Reference DVD.

[5]“Robert Frost,” Kathleen Kuiper,et.al., Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature (Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster,1995), p. 439

[6] Lawrence Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915 (NY, Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966),p. 51.

[7]Ibid., p. 2

[8]Ibid., 49.

[9] Ibid., p. 2.

[10]Ibid., 11.

[11]Ibid., 5.

[12] Ibid., 11.

[13] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[14] Ibid.,4-5;484-5.

[15] Ibid., 6f.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17]He was the son of a Swedish bishop and theologian and was educated at the University of Uppsala. He worked with mining and metallurgy for 30 years. He had many other scientific interests and founded the first Swedish scientific journal. He anticipated modern atomic theory and the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system. He tried to demonstrate the immortality of the soul through physiology. As the result of a series of dreams and visions, however, in 1745 he abandoned science for theology. He believed in one loving God that was the power in all creation. What people call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are love, wisdom, and action. His one God is not divided into three persons. One God does three things. For him Jesus overcame evil and accepting the divine truth saves us. [“Swedenborg,” Encyclopedia Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. Swedenborg’s followers started a church known as The New Church in 18th century London. It was based on his books. The first American group dates from 1792.“New Church,” Encyclopedia Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

[18]Robert Frost, "On Emerson" in Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Milton R. Kronvitz & Stephen E. Whicher (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1962) p. 12.

[19] Barry C. Halterman, “Swedenborg's Influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1883),”
http://www.swedenborg.ca/swedenborg/swedenborgs_influence/r_emerson.htm

[20] Barry C. Halterman, “Swedenborg's Influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1883),”
http://www.swedenborg.ca/swedenborg/swedenborgs_influence/r_emerson.htm

[21] Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 444.

[22] Thompson, Early Years, p. 12.

[23] Ibid., p. 10-11.

[24]Lawrence Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915 (NY,Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 45.

[25] Ibid., p. 50.

[26] Ibid., p. 51.

[27] Ibid., p. 52.

[28]Jean Gould, Robert Frost: The Aim Was Song (N.Y.: Dodd Mead & Company, 1964), p. 39.

[29]Ibid., p. 42.

[30]Lawrence Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915 (NY, Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 118f.

[31]Jean Gould, Robert Frost: The Aim Was Song (N.Y.: Dodd Mead & Company, 1964), p. 39.

[32]Ibid., p. 42.

[33]Ibid., p. 65.

[34] Lawrence Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915 (NY, Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 147 f and “Robert Frost,” Encyclopaedia Britannica 2005 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

[35]Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915 (NY,Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 208-213.

[36]Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 65- 71.

[37] Ibid., p. xviii.

[38]Emilie C. Harting, A Literary Tour Guide to the United States: Northeast (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1978), p. 129.

[39]Gould, p. 78.

[40]Ibid., p. 126.

[41]Ibid., p. 127.

[42]Harting, p. 212.

[43]Ibid., pp. 126-7.

[44]Gould, pp. 73-4.

[45]Ibid., p. 82.

[46]Ibid., p. 83.

[47] Thompson, v 1, 390f.

[48]Harting, p. 212.

[49]Robert Frost, “To Louis Untermeyer, 21 March 1920, Franconia,” Selected Letters of Robert Frost, ed. Lawrance Thompson (NY, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1964) 244.

[50]Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915 (NY,Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 290-7.

[51] Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, briefer version (New York: George Braziller, Publisher, 1954), 269.

[52]Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 109f.

[53]Robert Frost, “To Louis Untermeyer, 21 March 1920, Franconia,” Selected Letters of Robert Frost, ed. Lawrance Thompson (NY, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1964) 244.

[54]Robert Frost, “To Louis Untermeyer, 21 March 1920, Franconia,” Selected Letters of Robert Frost ed. Lawrence Thompson (NY, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1964) 244-245.

[55]Barry C. Halterman, Swedenborg's Influence on Robert Frost, Poet (1874-1963)
http://www.swedenborg.ca/swedenborg/swedenborgs_influence/r_frost.htm 2/21/05.

[56]Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph,1915-1938 (NY,Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 502.

[57]Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph,1915-1938 (NY,Chicago, & San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 500.

[58] Lawrance Thompson, Selected Letters of Robert Frost (NY, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964),p.x.

[59] Ibid.,p.xi.

[60] Ibid., p. li.

[61] Ibid., p. liii.

[62] Ibid., p. 409.

[63] Ibid., p. 491.

[64] Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 349-52.

[65]Robert Frost, “A Masque of Mercy”

[66]Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 357-9.

[67]Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Robert Frost, The later Years1938-1963 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976),151.

[68]Frank Schulman, This Day in Unitarian Universalist History (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004), 36.

[69] Kathleen Morrison, Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle (NY: Holt Rineheart and Winston, 1974), 73:72.

[70]Mark L. Belletini, et. al. Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA,1993), p. 64.

[71]Gould, Aim, 274-280. Mark L. Belletini, et. al. Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA,1993),11.

[72]Gould, Aim, 177-8, 244, and 261.

[73]Bredna Wong, Unitarian Universalist Association Directory 1994 Edition (Boston: UUA, 1994), p. 11.

[74] Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999),417.

[75]Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Robert Frost, The later Years1938-1963 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 443.

[76]Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Robert Frost, The later Years1938-1963 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 402.

[77] Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999),417.

[78] Jay Parini, Robert Frost, A Life (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 250.

[79]Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick, Robert Frost, The later Years1938-1963 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 443.

[80]Kathleen Morrison, Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle (NY: Holt Rineheart and Winston,1974), p. 132.

[81]Ibid.,p. 133.

[82]Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken" in The Oxford Book of American Verse, ed. F.0. Matthiessen (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 557.

[83]Ibid., p. 547 f.

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