October 18th, 2016

Frost, poetry, and politics: “A Case for Jefferson”

Well, it may not really be poetry—even though it’s a poem by a master of poetry: Robert Frost. It’s more in the vein of light verse, which Frost sometimes also wrote.

The treatment is light, that is. Not the subject matter:

A CASE FOR JEFFERSON

Harrison loves my country too,
But wants it all made over new.
He’s Freudian Viennese by night.
By day he’s Marxian Muscovite.
It isn’t because he’s Russian Jew.
He’s Puritan Yankee through and through.
He dotes on Saturday pork and beans.
But his mind is hardly out of his teens:
With him the love of country means
Blowing it all to smithereens
And having it all made over new.

By the way, the “Russian Jew” reference in the poem is not, IMHO, anti-Semitic. Frost is suggesting that “Harrison” (not ordinarily a Jewish name) doesn’t even have the excuse for his radicalism of being a Jew in Russia, subject to the pressures and ethos there. Harrison’s “Puritan Yankee through and through.”

More background on the poem and Frost’s politics:

Frost held that not traditional religion and culture, but revolutionary Marxism and reforming liberalism were the true opiates of the people. Marxists and secular liberals rejected or were often agnostic about God, but they deified the party or the state; they rejected the traditional religious concept of heaven, but they believed in an eventual heaven on earth. They rejected religion and much in Western culture as superstition, but were themselves superstitiously addicted by the idea of progress through science and revolutionary ideology. What Frost called “the sweep to collectivism in our time,” which characterized the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, could destroy the principle of limited political power even in America, through the growth of the federal bureaucracy under the New Deal. Frost attributed the political wisdom of dividing and balancing political power against itself to the religious orthodoxy of the Founding Fathers. They knew that only God had or should have absolute power, and their religion taught them that the moral and intellectual weaknesses of man required putting bounds to political power. When modern politicians play God they invariably promise far more than they can achieve as men, and the gap between their promises and their achievements is filled by the abstract slogans and dialectics of ideological propaganda. The language of revolutionists and reformers is characterized by the jargon of rationalized deceit. In a letter to Bernard De Voto in 1936 Frost wrote: “The great politicians are having their fun with us. They’ve picked up just enough of the New Republic and Nation jargon to seem original to the simple.” In 1939, in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost said: “More than once I should have lost my soul to radicalism if it had been the originality it was mistaken for by its young converts.”

I knew absolutely nothing of Frost’s politics when I began to admire his poetry, and nothing of them when I started this blog and designed the photograph at the top, which features Frost’s collected works as the book with the dark cover above the Churchill biography.

“A Case for Jefferon” was first published in 1947, but I can’t find anything that says when it might have been written, although obviously it was prior to that. Frost later disavowed it as “dated,” (although he wasn’t able to see the future—the late 60s—in which it became undated again), and thought it was bad as a poem.

Well, as I said, it’s not really a poem. It’s a ditty, a verse—but unfortunately, it’s not dated. I’m not sure it ever will be, because the strains in human thought it was describing seem to have a certain staying power.

[ADDENDUM: Some commenters have wondered why it’s called “A Case for Jefferson.” I’m not sure, but I found this:

To Thomas Jefferson, such would indeed be a case of democracy gone wrong…

[Frost is quoted as having said to Reginald Cook]: “I said to a person high up in the government lately, I said “As long as all my educated friends and Mrs. Roosevelt think that socialism is inevitable and can’t be avoided and has got to come that way, why don’t you and I hurry it up and get it over with? It couldn’t last…I wouldn’t favor that policy.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.]

12 Responses to “Frost, poetry, and politics: “A Case for Jefferson””

  1. sdferr Says:

    Is Frost winking at us in his choice of title? At least, the title seems a bit perplexing, insofar as Jefferson (notably) among the founders was one of the quickest to embrace novelty as a good or as a potential with promise to good.

    So arises the question whether “for Jefferson” is either on the one hand intended to indicate a positive contrast to the reductio ad absurdum presented in the body of the poem, or, on the other, a simple irony meant to prick at us with a milder and accidentally happier representative form of that reductio?

  2. Michael in Pennsylvania Says:

    Thank you for the essay and link, Neo. I’m going to read the entire essay.

    I always wondered about the header image at the top of your blog. Now, I know!

    The theological nature of Marxism – as a secular replacement for traditional religion(s) – is the focus of Alain Besancon’s book “The Falsification of the Good.

  3. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    @sdferr – I had the same thought, but I also consider his alternatives. “Washington” is now strongly associated as a place. Madison is less of an incantation (unless one comes from Virginia). Adams might work. Franklin was a founder but not a president, might give off an association of “scientist,” which doesn’t fit the poem, and as a Deist might have seemed just a touch suspect.

    And yes, he may be going so deep as to be suggesting “A case for Jefferson to consider, illustrating the possible bad outcomes of his admiration for revolution.”

  4. sdferr Says:

    Openly, Assistant Village Idiot, no consideration of any alternative (to Jefferson) happened to come to me. Whether that’s on account of my own habit to take the poets as knowing what it is they are about, and, so to assume that they are choosing with sufficient perfection as to be far beyond my own capacities to choose for them, or on account of some other thing? I dunno. But I didn’t. My problem then is to figure out what it is that they are choosing.

    Still, Jefferson seems like as good a fit as I can conjure, once I start to think any alternatives over. I mean, failed farmer or not, Jefferson was of an agrarian bent. Franklin: too urban as to that. Association with science I’d not take as a black mark, in contradistinction to any and all associations with scientism. And Jefferson was powerfully poetic too — in his own way — what with the soaring words of his political rhetoric; in addition, a southerner and no Puritan of any sort.

    Patrick Henry, maybe? But I dunno, I just don’t have the capacity thataway. And besides, first I’d still have to know what Frost is up to, and I’m not there yet.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Please see the ADDENDUM I just added at the end of the post.

  6. Dennis Says:

    “Frost attributed the political wisdom of dividing and balancing political power against itself to the religious orthodoxy of the Founding Fathers. They knew that only God had or should have absolute power, and their religion taught them that the moral and intellectual weaknesses of man required putting bounds to political power.”

    Before the left hijacked the education system, the connection between the freedoms and progress of Western Civilization and traditional Western religion, AKA as Christianity, was widely recognized. The state of Israel has demonstrated that modern Judaism is also compatible with the freedoms of Western civilization. While the Hindus didn’t originate those forms of government they have made great progress in their own modern society.

  7. sdferr Says:

    It may be error on my part to place too great a weight upon the possibility that Frost is being ironical in his title. However, there is something of paradox which ineluctably attaches to Jefferson, and from this situation, I feel, we’re all bound to a small peril when we cite or consider his name. Leastwise, we can consider it.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    sdferr:

    With Frost, things were rarely completely straightforward, obvious, or simple (although people often thought they were). He often has double or triple meanings, which contain opposites, contradictions,and ironies.

    Very complex thinker.

  9. OM Says:

    Neo:

    Any thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature (poetry)?

  10. neo-neocon Says:

    OM:

    Yes.

    I might even write a post about it. But the very short version is that I think it’s absurd, but I think quite a few of the Nobel Prizes for Literature have been absurd, so it’s just absurd in a different way.

    And I like Bob Dylan. But great literature? Nope.

    If you’re going to give a songwriter a Nobel for literature, give it to Leonard Cohen.

  11. OM Says:

    Neo:

    Andrew Klavan’s opening spot today made the point regarding the depths in Milton’s Paradise Lost (fall of Satan) and “It aint me babe” as an example. But I’m not familiar with much of Dylan’s work.

  12. Never Yet Melted » “A Case For Jefferson” Says:

    […] tip to neo-neocon via […]

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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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