March 1st, 2014

More Frostian thoughts: on being alive in difficult times

[Bumped up.]

I’ve been reading another book about Robert Frost, and I keep coming across fascinating tidbits.

For example, the following is taken from a letter Frost wrote to the Amherst student newspaper in 1935, and it gives some perspective:

…you will often hear it said that the age of the world we live in is particularly bad. I am impatient of such talk. We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world’s history. [Matthew] Arnold claimed the honor for the age before this. Wordsworth claimed it for the last but one…I say they claimed the honor for their ages. They claimed it rather for themselves. It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God…Whatever progress may be taken to mean, it can’t mean making the world any easier a place in which to save your soul—or if you dislike hearing your soul mentioned in open meeting, say your decency, your integrity.

That’s what I mean about the complexity of Frost’s thought.

Frost, as I’ve written before, was a student of many disciplines in addition to literature and poetry: ancient history, botany, science, and philosophy, to name just a few. Early in his life he had read the works of William James and they remained of importance in his own thinking. The Frost book that gives the above quote from Frost also presents this one by James, from an essay entitled “Is Life Worth Living?” in a book called The Will to Believe:

If you surrender to the nightmare view and crown the evil edifice by your own suicide, you have indeed made a picture totally black. Pessimism, completed by your act, is true beyond a doubt, as far as your world goes…But suppose, on the other hand, that instead of giving way to the nightmare view you cling to it that this world is not the ultimatum…Suppose, however thickly evils crowd upon you, that your unconquerable subjectivity proves to be their match, and that you find a more wonderful joy than any passive pleasure can bring in trusting ever in the larger whole. Have you not now made life worth living on these terms? What sort of a thing would life really be with your qualities ready for a tussle with it, if it only brought fair weather and gave these higher faculties of yours no scope?

Frost wrestled with depression for much of his very long life, and his life contained enough objective sorrow to have felled any man. But he resisted mightily, and I think on balance he won his war against it.

14 Responses to “More Frostian thoughts: on being alive in difficult times”

  1. Doom Says:


    Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Though, given that, in my view, heaven is at the end of either, I don’t… sweat things too much. Still, I do prep.

    As for pessimism? Optimism? Both are a fools errands for which I don’t have the time. Hey, hand me that case of bullets… no, the beans, I think, actually. Yeah. Thanks. I’ll just keep a pulse on what I am doing and if any… obstructions are looming or actively at work, deal with or avoid those as I may.

    Still, when it is your government which believes it has you surrounded, and is actively seeking to subdue you, it is dark. If America falls, that is it. Just facts.

  2. Sergey Says:

    Very moving and inspirational post. Especially now, when Putin launched a war of aggression against Ukraine which will turn a nightmare for all parties involved.

  3. T Says:

    Regarding “difficult times”:

    The following paragraph appears in a response to “Beverly” in your Obamacare job-quitting thread. It seems appropriate to re-post it here:

    (Tangentially) this is a small revelation of one of the blessings that Western civilization and Western economies have provided; a heretofore unimaginable access to an absolute surfeit of goods across all economic levels which make our lives easier. . .

    The point being that we see turbulent times as difficult, and while they might be, in the past such turbulence was really about continuing to be alive. Put in that perspective, our difficulties here in the U.S. are mostly a mote of dust in the eye of the universe.

    Now the Ukrainians et. al. would disagree and they would have a right to. Their difficult times have once again been reduced to whether they will be enslaved or even alive tomorrow.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    Of course this world is the highest. Something as simple as death transcends it.

    The Left can rule over a billion slaves, but they cannot stop the equality of Left from taking them.

  5. Jamie Irons Says:


    Excellent essay.

    There’s a small typo (I think). Didn’t you mean to write “Is Life Worth Living” as the title for James’s essay?

    By the way, a superb book related to your themes here is Thomas Howard’s “Chance or the Dance.” I can’t remember how I learned of it — might have been here!

    Jamie Irons

  6. Cornhead Says:

    Neo, You are a gem!

  7. Ann Says:

    “Life Is Worth Living” was the title of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s very popular TV show in the 1950s. Wonder if Frost was a fan?

  8. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    The percentage of humanity held in bondage to, in whatever form, tyrannies that deny the individual’s “unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” would I think, be an excellent barometer of the particular degree to which an age qualifies as ‘the worst of times”.

    Focusing upon the water in the glass, rather than to the proportion of water the glass may hold… is the way to fully appreciate what joy is available from moment to moment.

    This reminds me of an old zen tale that I’ve always liked; a monk is chased by a tiger to a cliff’s edge and is only moments away from being seized by the tiger. A vine leads over the edge and grabbing it, the monk lowers himself down the vine. Safely below the cliff’s edge, he breathes a sigh of relief and then notices to his side a perfect strawberry on a bush. Only to then feel the vine starting to quickly part from the cliff. Knowing that he is but moments away from falling to his death, he reaches out, plucks the strawberry and pops it into his mouth…savoring to the full the bliss of flavor that explodes in his mouth.

    The point of course, isn’t to deny that circumstances may not be dire but to fully enjoy from moment to moment, all that life offers.

  9. George Pal Says:

    Presumptive claims of the ‘worst of times’ for any particular generation/epoch may be driven by personality, depression, narcissism, or whatever, but that’s not to say Jeremiahs are always hyperbolic and always wrong. Then too, when the boy repeatedly cried out dire straits (WOLF!) he was eventually right.

  10. T Says:

    Geoffrey Britain,

    Focusing upon the water in the glass, rather than to the proportion of water the glass may hold… is the way to fully appreciate what joy is available from moment to moment.

    Yes. The question always asked is half empty or half full, but there is another alternative. Perhaps the glass is just the wrong size.

    I read a report about a teacher (I think it was a commenter on this site) who gave out Starburst candies and with a few left over, indiscriminately gave them to various students. He was amazed at how the kids did not revel in the fact that they now had three Starbursts which they didn’t have before, but rather were envious of those few children who got four instead of three.

    Half empty? Half Full? Or the wrong sized glass?

  11. MissJean Says:

    Nothing to add to the commentary except to thank you for recommending the Burnshaw biography – it’s a good read so far. I was “sidetracked” a bit by Lathem’s edition of Frost’s complete collection of poetry.

  12. G Joubert Says:

    Why did Cain slay Abel?

  13. waitforit Says:

    G. Joubert, that’s a mighty fine way of looking at it: Cain slew Abel because he was jealous of Abel’s knowledge and conduct. So ever has the inner man made war against hedonism and the nations against law.

    Frost was extraordinary in that his intellect found that the extraordinary challenge against faith in his time, which was much much greater than in ours, met such an internal and intellectual resistance. Against an onslaught of Darwinism, Freudianism and Marxism, he was, I suspect, unimpressed. His superior mind, which knew language, a gift given by God to man, protected him from the “science” of his age, a science we all now know to be incredibly simplistic and prejudiced.

    No wonder that depression bothered him, alone against the academic constellation he maintained what the Word suggests and cannot be proved.

    It is hard to read his words and not feel the Word.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    Obviously Abel was a rotting stinking Republican Kulak that needed to be taught a lesson.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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