Frost Lectures Transcribed for the First Time

James Sitar ’01, a grad student at Boston University, recently unearthed multiple lectures given by Robert Frost at Dartmouth from Rauner. The lectures were part of the mandatory “Great Issues” course. Sitar transcribed the lectures as part of his dissertation. The first transcription to be published is from the lecture “Sometimes It Seems as If.”

In this performance from 1947 that Frost entitled “Sometimes It Seems as If,” he celebrates the ampliative nature—and “extravagance”—of figurative language and poetry. He uses poems by other poets—ranging from Shakespeare and Christopher Smart to Coventry Patmore and Walt Whitman—as well as some of his own to illustrate poetry’s unrivaled power to give voice to the human spirit. Readers will also hear Frost speaking about his life and friends, sharing anecdotes to captivate and entertain his audience. Woven through these stories and lessons exist echoes from Frost‘s essays and notebooks. We see different sides of the most famous American poet: the contemplative, the associative, the defensive, the speculative, the assertive, and the humorous. In performances such as these, we get an accurate portrait of Frost as a poet and person, complete with all of his well-known complexities.

Here are the first few paragraphs of his lecture:

[Frost:] That wasn’t censored. [Laughter] I never see any reviews in advance either (of my books), and I seldom see them afterward.4 [Laughter] I take these things as they come. A scientist lately came out of his laboratory to say some things about science and poetry. As I understand it, he said that “we all ought to follow science; it’s so interesting nowadays, so much more interesting than anything else, but the guide to life would still have to come from … ” (he was afraid) “from religion, poetry, literature.” (And he’d been trying to … don’t quite know how he means. Whether he means by … he wouldn’t of course mean by precepts, would he? Not by precepts.)

There are many precepts in poetry; they always stick in my mind. I’ve lived by them to a certain extent, lived in the spirit of their creed, and found some other strength according to my need. But I wonder if he didn’t mean that it was a kind of general guide in a way to take life. It’s full of precepts, controversial precepts that nobody would dispute. And you learn to have to live with controversial precepts and not dispute them, and you do that by living with poetry. I’ve always made considerable claims for poetry—in my heart I suppose—and made some rather humorous ones with my friends. I had to … or else, you know, or else. [Laughter] But I would claim them in the spirit of poetry.

Now there’s two ways to take the world that are safe. One is as a joke, take it humorously. Learn to take a joke and so learn to take the world by the help of jokes. You’ve got to do that because one knows that from the people he knows. He knows the kind of people who don’t, and how lost they are. Then there’s a still better way—not better, another way—side-by-side with it, perhaps a little—one might claim (if he was claiming a lot for poetry, you know), claim a little higher. But to take poetry right is to take life right.

Read the whole thing.