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The poet Robert Frost had a sense that meaning was to be found neither in the supernatural (God) nor in the intimately psychological (the self), but transcended these distinctions. Maitreyabandhu investigates.
‘The interest, the pastime, was to learn if there had been any divinity shaping my ends and I had been building better than I knew.’
– Robert Frost in the preface to a selection of his poems, 1942
Other people’s confidence can astound me. They often seem to know who they are and what their life consists of; they know what they want and why they want it. They can come up with ready-made opinions about war and global warming. Of course, to meet me, I’m much the same. But if I’m honest with myself, I can’t decide: as life changes – as moods, locations and other people change – I change too. My estimation of myself fluctuates; my self-sense changes depending on who I’m with. Despite nearly thirty years of Buddhist practice I still don’t really know who I am, what life is, or what I really think. Of course I know myself in the everyday sense, but when I look more deeply, the wires of motivation run off into the dark. What I thought was truth turns out to be the skewed thinking of a bad mood; what I’d taken to be aspiration was merely a passing bright idea.
So Robert Frost’s poem ‘A Masque of Reason’ resonates with me. In the poem, when Job meets God in heaven, he says to his wife:
Here’s where I lay aside
My varying opinion of myself
And come to rest in an official verdict.
This must be one of the attractions of God – a dream of perfect objectivity, in which someone can finally tell us: ‘This is what you’re like. This is your true worth. This is what your life has really been about.’
Christianity tends to locate ‘meaning’ outside the self in this way – all true meaning comes from God. The poetry of the seventeenth-century Welsh poet, George Herbert, for instance – whose beautiful plainspoken verse anticipates Frost’s – is a conversation with God. A Herbert poem is a well-swept room in which he meets Divinity (here in the guise of ‘Love’):
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
Herbert’s Yes to divinity, to the presence of God, has been replaced in many parts of the world by our No. The result is an increasing polarity between religious fundamentalism on the one hand and an increasingly strident, dogmatic secularism on the other. In modern liberal democracies many people believe there is no meaning, or else that the only meaning is to be found in ‘me’ – in ‘my’ family, ‘my’ money, ‘my’ career. In a world without meaning the obvious thing to do is to have as much fun as possible before the lights go out.
Frost was born in 1874, and so grew up at a time of increasing religious doubt. The old theistic certainties were dying and God was leaving the world. Frost’s mother, Belle, was a devout Scottish immigrant; his father William – a hard-drinking, volatile disciplinarian – was a skeptic. William Frost died of tuberculosis when Robert was eleven, leaving his wife and children almost destitute. After the funeral was paid for, Belle had just eight dollars left in the bank. In later years Frost described his religious journey as starting with Presbyterianism, then moving on via Unitarianism to following Swedenborg, and finally to ‘nothing’. And yet a good friend in Frost’s last decades said that the poet ‘liked to play down his religious sense of things’. His poetry, throughout his career, maintained a difficult balance between his mother’s faith and his father’s skepticism.
So Frost wants to have it both ways. There’s something teasing about his poetry: an unwillingness to come out and make a definite statement, a dislike of certainties religious and secular. He once wrote in a letter, ‘I had had a lover’s quarrel with the world’ – he meant a quarrel between affirmation and denial.
His poem ‘For Once, Then, Something’, for instance, is about someone looking into a well and seeing only his own reflection ‘Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs’. The poem is about how, when we look at life, what we see is our own egotism reflected back at us. In the poem, this reflection is ‘godlike’, i.e. inherently inflated and self-dramatizing, a church ceiling from which a bearded Creator gazes down through swirls of musical angels and sun-struck cloud. But then one day he seems to see ‘beyond the picture,/Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,/ something more of depths…’ But then it’s gone. The poem ends:
What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then,
The poem refuses to commit: was it ‘Truth’ he saw, or nothing but ‘A pebble of quartz’? All Frost can affirm is his experience that for once there was something. He can’t believe in the certainties of God and yet at the same time he gently satirises the ‘self’ as essentially self-centred and therefore devoid of meaning. Which only leaves us with that nebulous ‘something’. In this poem, as elsewhere, Frost refuses to drift into metaphysics – into speculating about God or No-God. He knows that when we do that, we lose our grip on direct experience and get tangled up in reified abstractions.
When I first started reading Frost I wasn’t especially impressed – homely narratives about repairing fences or swinging from birch trees didn’t seem especially ‘poetic’, or even meaningful. But as I read, the poems seemed to mean all sorts of things – even contradictory things – at the same time, like figures in a dream. On one level Frost’s poems are apple-pie stories of rural New Hampshire; on another they are about everything. They manage to be both specific and universal – ‘like some valley cheese, local, but prized everywhere’, as W.H. Auden put it.
Frost’s poems are about living in the world, about doing stuff. He was not a religious poet – and yet he wouldn’t repudiate religion. He wouldn’t say ‘No’ outright to the idea of divinity, even while he couldn’t quite say ‘Yes’. He knew that in writing a poem you can discover meanings you didn’t know you were capable of. He knows you can find a meaning that, as he wrote in the preface I’ve quoted at the top of this article, ‘it might seem absurd to have had in advance, but it would be all right to accept from fate after the fact.’ When I interviewed the poet Glyn Maxwell for a poetryEast event at the London Buddhist Centre he told me his poems were more religious than he was. The same could be said about Frost.
One notebook entry of Frost’s reads, ‘There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but it is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.’ This gets to the heart of Frost’s poetry: ‘highest liveliness’ is only achieved by the sloughing off a ‘succession of dead selves’. For Frost the self is something our understanding never fully apprehends. The real self – whatever that is – is always on the other side of some sort of barrier, only ever experienced partially, indirectly. The ‘highest liveliness’, which for Herbert would have been God, is for Frost buried deep within oneself, inaccessible, but refracted, hinted at in a million details of life.
Frost felt that in writing poetry the poet is given access to ‘the real, the deepest and sincerest bias of his will: the divinity shaping his ends’.1 It is in this sense that a poet ‘builds better than he knows’. This ‘sincerest self’ has to be divined, just as the will of God had to be divined for Herbert – it is uncanny, occult, mysteriously hidden inside all our actions (including our thoughts). It is not the man or woman who sits down to write.
For Herbert, then, the source of Truth, Beauty and Goodness is from above: God. For Frost, on the other hand, meaning is discovered below or beyond the poet’s everyday sense of themselves. Both these metaphors are on to something, but neither should be taken literally. One of the reasons that Frost won’t deny the religious sense must be because the meaning he discovered in writing a poem seemed inherent – a meaning he had uncovered, not a meaning he had constructed.
Frost’s poetry struggles again and again with the question: do we or do we not live in a meaningful universe? Many of his greatest poems portray the human being as a meaning-making machine in the midst of a meaningless universe:
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
(‘The Most Of It’)
But this is not the whole story. Frost believed that ‘religion and science, including scientific theories such as Darwin’s evolution, were two different metaphorical ways of perceiving the same reality’.2 There’s even a poem, a wonderful poem called ‘West-Running Brook’, that (metaphorically) explores just that.
The sense that the source of meaning is neither impersonal and supernatural (God) nor intimate and psychological (me) but that it somehow transcends those distinctions, seems to me highly evocative and intuitively right. The notion that my motivations lie ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ or ‘below’ my everyday consciousness chimes with my experience. Of course I’m aware that for Buddhism there’s no such thing as a really existing self or soul. But my experience is that there is such a thing as inherent meaning. This meaning feels both intimate and personal, and, at the same time, universal – as if there is a kind of consciousness in which the personal and the universal are no longer at odds.
Being a Buddhist seems to me to be a way of getting closer to the meaning my life is trying to live out, its deeper pattern. This meaning has nothing much to do with my likes and dislikes, my ideas about who I am. And yet I see hints of it everywhere – especially when I’m on retreat and my senses are less city-fatigued and screen-blind. At those moments I can see, in some half-conscious way, that I’ve been groping towards some ‘divinity shaping my ends’, as if I had been building better than I knew.
For much of our lives we are groping our way quite blindly, following hunches that may be either intrinsic to what I’m calling our deeper pattern, or else merely adventitious. Initially I trained as a nurse in Coventry. I thought I wanted to help people. But I left nursing to go to art school. On my first day of life-drawing I remember feeling that, finally, my life was on track. Later, when I arrived at the London Buddhist Centre on my bicycle, the sense of ‘divinity’ was stronger than ever – before the teacher finished introducing the meditation, I knew I was a Buddhist and always had been. And years later I started writing poetry. Looking back, it’s as though the meaning my life is wanting to live out – a meaning ‘it might seem absurd to have had in advance’ – might be something to do with beauty and the desire to help people. But as in poetry so in life: it’s never helpful to be too conscious about the deeper mythic pattern of one’s life. As Frost put it, ‘A poet doesn’t want to know too much, not while he’s writing anyway. The knowing can come later.’3
This sense that our life is trying to express some deeper meaning – expressed even in apparently trivial matters – a meaning we can only half-grasp and even then only after the event, is not something I can prove or even point at. It’s a sense. And of course we often get this sense mixed up with more everyday hunches, hints and urges – romantic day-dreaming, fame fantasies, fate. It’s not that. For most of us, the work is to distinguish, intuitively, between ‘some divinity shaping our ends’ and the imposter, the poser, the succession of dead selves.
To grasp what Frost is getting at when he talks of ‘some divinity shaping our ends’ requires a kind of faith. One has to take it suggestively. Even the writing of poetry requires faith – you have to have faith that the sentence-sound that’s just come into your head, or the sight of people standing on a platform, contains something mysterious and meaningful that wants, indeed needs, to be said. Frost wrote, ‘The person who gets close to poetry, he is going to know more about the word belief than anybody else knows, even in religion nowadays’. He talks about a ‘literary-belief’, for instance, where the writer has to trust in the ‘thing-to-come, which is ‘more felt than known’.4
Meaning begins with a hunch, a kind of gut instinct; it needs to be translated into words and concepts, into something you can say. But something is always lost in translation. Perhaps the best ‘translation’ of our wordless sense of meaning is poetry, because poetry (at its rare best) points beyond words. Largely what I experience in my life is a ‘succession of dead selves’: the things I think I know, the stories I tell myself, the postures I adopt. And when it comes to writing poetry, it’s hard to know if I’m Frankenstein trying to animate a ‘dead self’ or if I’m in touch with – I’m tempted to say ‘channelling’ – some divinity.
What has all this got to do with confidence, mine or other people’s? Well, Frost gives me faith that mostly what I experience is a succession of dead selves that can’t be trusted, aren’t worthy of confidence – dead selves that mislead: over-used narratives, sob stories, practised opinions. He gives me faith that sometimes I can discover a more authentic, sincere self; a self which is not, paradoxically, myself – a ‘self’ that is always on the other side of a divide, below or beyond the habit of being me. That deeper self has to be discovered, winnowed from a succession of dead selves. And sometimes when I write a poem or meditate or talk to a friend or simply look at a row of trees I seem to find a – what? – a ‘sincerest self’ (as Frost would have it), ‘some divinity shaping my ends’? Neither is quite right. I can only say it is something. But when I try to appropriate that something – it’s already gone. ■
1. Mark Richardson in ‘Frost’s Poetics of Control’,
The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Chapter 9, p. 197.
2. Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life (Henry Holt and Company, 1999), p. 250.
3. Parini, p. 302.
4. Parini, p. 266.