Thursday, April 22, 2010

`I Prefer My Essay in Narrative Form'

In 1958, by which time he was a great poet but better-known for his role as a folksy, homespun poet, Robert Frost contributed a list of “Five Favorite Books” to the Chicago Tribune “Magazine of Books.” Other contributors included Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Hemingway and Carl Sandburg (a real folksy, homespun poet). Frost said the “books that have meant to most to me in my lifetime” were:

The Old Testament, The Odyssey, The Poems of Catullus, Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John L. Stevens.

I take this information from the invaluable Collected Prose of Robert Frost (2007) edited by Mark Richardson. The proper title of the last book cited by Frost is Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and the author’s proper name is John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852). John L. Stevens (1820-1895) was the U.S. Department of State minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii who tried to overthrow that nation.

I cite Frost’s list not to gloat over his slips of the pen but to report something more intriguing in Richardson’s annotations. He quotes an account given by Lawrence Thompson, the poet’s official biographer, of a 1946 conversation they had on the subject of “great books” (which Richardson calls a “fetish of the 1940s”). Frost complains that such lists are composed mostly of books in translation, and who “wanted to soak in a `bath’ of translators for four [undergraduate] years.” Richardson quotes Thompson saying:

“He would give his students four books to buy – not to read now, but at their leisure: Emerson’s Poems, Thoreau’s Walden, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and St. Thomas’s Summa.”

A list, to be sure, both predictable and unexpected, admirable and curious. One is never certain with Frost what is self-revelation and what is performance. He’s a poet one would never bother with if so many of his poems weren’t so good. I trust I’m not alone in finding Emerson’s poems (like Thoreau’s) mostly unreadable. Even the essays are often compromised by Unitarian gassiness but in them reside some of the finest sentences ever crafted in English. Thoreau’s presence is no surprise, though one wishes Frost had chosen the journals. In a 1936 contribution to Books We Like, also collected by Richardson, Frost puts Walden third on his list of favorite books (Emerson’s Essays and Poems is tenth), and writes:

Walden has something of the same fascination [as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, second on his list]. Crusoe was cast away; Thoreau was self-cast away. Both found themselves sufficient. No prose writer has ever been more fortunate in subject than these two. I prefer my essay in narrative form. In Walden I get it and always near the height of poetry.”

I love that: “I prefer my essay in narrative form,” as he preferred his own poems. Darwin’s volume corresponds to Stephens’ two-volume work on the other list. It’s also better written, though I haven’t read Incidents of Travel since 1976 when a friend and I got interested in the literature of New World exploration. It too is a sort of “essay in narrative form.”

The stunning inclusion, of course, is the Summa Theologica. It’s like learning that Kay Ryan prizes Kierkegaard. Perhaps Richardson or another Frost scholar can tell us: Did Frost actually read the Summa? When? Does it show up anywhere else in Frost’s work or life? Or is his mention just another Yankee put-on?


Mark said...

Mr. Kurp,

I do find evidence that RF read the "Summa" & had something to say about it indicating he understood it fairly well. He briefly speaks of Aquinas in the "Notebooks":

"Aquinas takes a Greek {Aristotle} to rationalize the New Testament. Spinoza takes the Greeks to rationalize the Old Testament. Einstein picks up some Spinoza to sanctify his science." (p.488 of the Notebooks.) N.B.: brackets {} in this case indicate a word added by RF above the line of the passage in question; he was specifying which Greek he meant.

Now, whether RF is accurate or not is another question. A brief search through an English translation of the "Summa" indicates that Aquinas drew on Plato, Aristotle, and several other Greeks. However, it does seem that Aquinas accorded Aristotle the status of a kind of umpire in all those arcane debates he took up.

I should note that RF quite possibly read Aquinas, at least in part, in Latin, by which I mean he was able to. We know him to have read Lucretius in Latin, e.g.

I do not know exactly when RF read the "Summa."

I will look further into the matter & if anything turns up, I'll let you know.

Best, Mark

Dave Lull said...

Peter J. Stanlis quotes Sidney Cox in an article ("In the Clearing: continuity and unity in Frost's dualism," Humanitas, Spring, 2005):

'Cox recorded that in his philosophical thinking Frost did not rely on modern "commentators and systematizers"; instead, he went "always to the original finders and makers: the physicist Bohr for information about the behavior of electrons, Gibbon for his large and daring look and his innocent give-away facts, Mayan explorers, Latin and Medieval Latin poets, Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle, Prescott for the conquistadors, Aquinas for a specimen of the way theologians think."'

Mark said...

The more I think about RF's recommendation that students read Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" & St. Thomas Aquinas, the more sense it makes. The first book is empirical and inductive. The second depends on appeals to authority, tradition, and proceeds by deductive logic. So, there you have it: the two poles of thinking, and also the great difference between modern and pre-modern styles of thought.

By the way, here is RF in a 7/28/1955 talk at Bread Loaf. He refers to the recent trip he'd made to The World Congress of Writers in Sao Paulo:

"The Italian [writer* I met] I didn't like very well Didn't like his style. Very brilliant. But he had a formula for combining––to save the world from American materialism––combining Marxism and the Roman church. Amazing person. That's not new. Didn't astonish me enough. You see, you change your emphasis from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Saint Augustine. Enough of that casuistry." (Qtd. in Reginald Cook's "Robert Frost: A Living Voice," page 103.)

*Italian writer unidentified.

Best, Mark

Dave Lull said...

NYU's Fales Library and Special Collections houses Robert Frost's library, which includes at least one book of the writings of Thomas Aquinas and one book about him (thanks for the tip, Mark):

Author: Thomas, Aquinas, Saint, 1225?-1274.

Uniform title: Selections. English. 1945

Title: Basic writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas / Edited and annotated, with an introduction, by Anton C. Pegis.

Publisher/Date: New York : Random House, [1945]

Description: 2 v. ;  24 cm.

Note: "First printing." Note

Bibliography: v. 2, p. 1123-1129.

Contents: I. God and the order of creation: Summa theologica, parti (complete)--II. Man and the conduct of life: Summa contra gentiles (III, chapters 1-113) Summa theologica, first-second part of the second part.

Subject (LCSH): Theology -- History -- Middle Ages, 600-1500.

Other author/title: Pegis, Anton Charles, 1905-, ed.

Related name: Frost, Robert, 1874-1963, former owner.


Author: Maritain, Jacques, 1882-1973.

Title: The angelic doctor; the life and thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Jacques Maritain ... translated by J.F. Scanlan.

Publisher/Date: New York : L. MacVeagh, the Dial Press; Toronto : Longmans, Green & Co., 1931.

Description: xviii p., 2 l., 23-300

Subject (LCSH): Thomas, Aquinas, Saint, 1225?-1274. Subject (LCSH) Scholasticism.

Other author/title: Scanlan, James Fr, tr.

Related name: Frost, Robert, 1874-1963, former owner.

Ian Wolcott said...

Flannery O'Connor, I think it was, claimed to read Aquinas 'for pleasure' in bed at night. No comment.

Dave Lull said...

Robert Frost in a letter to Louis Untermeyer:

"I stayed with intelligent priests in San Antonio and had good talk with them on subjects most Protestants never heard of. Last year I was concerned with the sin accidie. This year it is the idea in the two-word phrase felix culpa.[*] It could be turned against me personally and I am willing it should be: I am less and less on the defensive. I am not concerned with my own deserts. But I like the phrase dwelt on largely as with Thomas Aquinas and in a little poem I dont believe you have in your books . . . . Oh I should say its about Adam's felix culp in eating the apple— felix because by it Mary became Queen of Heaven. I have to smile at the easy way the church has of saying deeply. I am safe from all its moonshine however significant I can make it seem to myself. I havent a chance of salvation— and as a matter of fact neither have you nor anybody else. Whatever is ahead of us it will undoubtedly be something different with the same name. Felix culpa— that is only the good of evil born in Emerson . . . ."

The letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer
New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston [1963]
Page 327

*Mr Untermeyer's footnote: "[Happy fault]"

See also: