Some Thoughts From Robert Frost

Editor’s Note: Frost ‘96 delivered this commencement address in 1955, though it is definitely of more interest for those entering their first or last year of Dartmouth and still have time to change. For those about to begin their education and for those about to finish theirs. Was there ever a more subtly dark take on education? And can one ever truly finish their education? Finish growing into their life?

This is a rounding out for you, and a rounding out is the main part of it. You’re rounding out four years. I’m rounding out something like sixty-three, isn’t it? But it is a real rounding out for me. I’m one of the original members of the Outing Club— me and Ledyard. You don’t know it, and I shouldn’t tell it perhaps, but I go every year, once a year, to touch Ledyard’s monument down there, as the patron saint of freshmen who run away. And I ran away because I was more interested in education than anybody in the College at that time.

I thought I’d say to you just a few words about that, and so as to lead up to two or three poems of my own. I usually am permitted to say a poem or two—am expected to. I’ll make them short and easy for you to listen to.

But you came to college bringing with you something to go on with—that was the idea from my point of view: something to go on with. And you brought it with an instinct, I hope, to keep it—not to have it taken away from you, not to have it tkaen away from you, not to be bamboozled out of it or scared out of it by any fancy teachers. I’ve known teachers with a real hanker for ravishing innocence. They like to tell you things that will disturb you.

Robert Frost '96

Robert Frost ’96

Now, I think the College itself has given you one thing of importance I’d like to speak of. It’s given you, slowly, gradually, the means to deal with that sort of thing, not only in college but the rest of your life. The formula would be something like this: always politely accept the other man’s premises. Don’t contradict anybody. It’s contentious and ill natured. Accept the premises—take it up where it’s given you and then show ’em what you can make of it. You’ve been broadened and enlarged to where you can listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

You came from the “Bible belt,” let’s say. You were confronted with the facts of evolution. It was supposed to disturb you about your God. But you found a way to say—either with presence of mind, wittily, or slowly with meditation—you found the way to say, “Sure, God probably didn’t make man out of mud. But He made him out of prepared mud.” You still had your God, you see.

You were a Bostonian and you had been brought up to worship the cod. To you the cod was sacred and her eggs precious. You were confronted with facts of waste in nature. One cod egg is all that survives of a million. And you said—what did you say? You found something to say, surely. You said, “Perhaps those other eggs were necessary in order to make the ocean a proper broth for the one to grow up in. No waste; just expense.” And so on.

I myself have been bothered by certain things. I’ve been bothered by rapid reading. All my teaching days I’ve heard rapid reading advocated as if it were something to attain to. Yes, sure; accept the premises, always, as a gentleman. Rapid reading—I’m one of the rapidest of readers. I look on all the reading you do in college—ten times as much a year as I do in ten years, and I’m a reader—I look on it as simply scansion. You’re simply looking the books over to see whether you want to read ’em, later. It comes to that; and accepting it that way. The word’s gone forth, you happen to know probably, that the rapid reading is going to be played down in the educational world. But it can be regarded as simple scansion.

What you’re doing as a rapid reader is saying, per paragraph, per paragraph, “Yeah, I know” (two words you see in it) — “Yeah, that about ‘togetherness’” “Yeah.” And, paragraph by paragraph you know that that’s what it would say if you read it all. And you can do that by the chapter—the chapter titles. You say, “Yeah,” you know, “I know what that chapter would be.” You can go further than that: “I can tell by the spine of the book.” Very rapid reader.

Always fall in with what you’re asked to accept, you know; fall in with it—and turn it your way. Expression like “divine right.”—Divine right? yes,—if you let me make what I want of it: the answerability of the ruler, of the leader; the first answerability to himself. That’s his divine right. First answerability to his highest in himself, to his God.

Then one more that I’d just like to speak of—you run on to these things all the time. I live on them. I’m going to tell you that every single one of my poems is probably one of these adaptations that I’ve made. I’ve taken whatever you give me and made it what I want it to be. That’s what every one of the poems is. I look over them. They are no arguments. I’ve never contradicted anybody. My object in life has been to hold my own with whatever’s going—not against, but with—to hold my own. To come through college holding my own so that I won’t be made over beyond recognition by my family and my home town, if I ever go back to it. It’s a poor sort of person, it seems to me, that delights in thinking, “I have had four years that have transformed me into somebody my own mother won’t know.” Saint Paul had one conversion. Let’s leave it to Saint Paul. Don’t get converted. Stay.

This one turns up, too—another expression. They say, “If eventually, why not now?” I say, “Yeah,” but also, “if eventually, why now?”

You’ve got to handle these things. You’ve got to have something to say to the Sphinx. You see, that’s all. And you’ve been, I’m pretty sure—you’ve come more and more to value yourself on being able to handle whatever turns up.

What would you say to this one? (You probably haven’t encountered it. I have lately.) We hired a Swede to come over here and pass an expert’s opinion on our form of government. And after he passed his judgment on it, we invited him back and gave him another honorary degree, just like this. (Never mind his name—we won’t go into names—maybe I’ve forgotten it.) But, anyway, did you hear what his judgment was? That our form of government is a conspiracy against the common man.

You’ve been enlarged and broadened to where you can listen to anything without getting mad. So have I. But I have to have something to say to that, sooner or later—on the spur of the moment, to show my wit, or at leisure, you know, to show my ability at reasoning, my reasoning powers. Well, the answer to that is that that’s what it was intended to be. It was intended to be a conspiracy against the common man. Let him make himself uncommon. He wasn’t to be put in the saddle. And so on. Now I conclude that.

This is an emotional occasion to me. Mr. Dickey has made it an emotional occasion, very much of an emotion, such as has seldom happened to me in my life. I’ve been in and out of Dartmouth all these many years and known the presidents—no one so intimately as I’ve known Mr. Dickey. Part of what I’m saying to you springs from what he’s been saying. He spoke very sternly to you; splendidly, with splendid sternness.

What I ask of you is the same: Have you got enlarged a little bit? Have you broaded a little bit in these years, as you might have outside? (I don’t know, maybe more so in college than out.) Have you got where you can take care of yourself in the conflicts of thought—in the stresses of thought, not conflicts, stresses. I’d rather hold my own with anybody than hold my own against anybody—with him. That makes a polite evening—and polite class, a better class than any other.

Shall I say you a poem or two? And you can maybe guess what I was doing in the poems, after what I’ve said. Suppose I say to you one called “Mending Wall”—countrified poem. And shall I tell you beforehand what I was dealing with in it? I’d heard that life was cellular, in the body and outside the body. Nobody’d ever put it in so many words, but I kept hearing something that made me see that life was cellular. (Even the Communists have cells.) All life is cellular, that’s all the poem says. It didn’t say that when I was writing it; it didn’t say it until long afterward. It’s of the nature of mythology to be wiser than philosophy, because it says things in stories before it says them in abstractions. All mythology’s like that. The Greeks’ mythology covered everything we’ve ever thought in philosophy, but covered it in stories. And the abstraction emerges even with the man that makes the stories.

[Mr. Frost recited “Mending Wall”.]

See, that all about life being cellular. I didn’t think of that ’til years after I wrote it. And you may be sure it is—walls going down and walls coming up, between nations and inside your own body. In seven years, you know, you’re a different person, though you don’t notice it.
Then, little one—two more—little one, again. This is called “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

[Mr. Frost said “Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening.”]

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Now everybody suspected that there was something in that line, “But I have promises to keep.” You see. And they pursued me about that, and so I’ve decided to have a meaning for it. Finally, a committee waited on me about it. I said, “Promises may be divided into two kinds: those I make for myself, and those my ancestors made for me known as the social contract.” See, that’s a way out of that.

Then, two more—one another little one. I’d like to say one to you that I wrote when I was about your age—just about the time (’95 or 6 along there) just when I should have been graduating, you know, instead of now.

I saw you all I suppose, pretty much—’tis but yesterday, isn’t it, we were in the G.I.—had you all where I could talk to you—about Tom Paine I talked about to you there. I didn’t get any great answer out of you. You didn’t get angry enough.

This one is called—it’s better without the name. It’s about our American Revolution. I’ve met many who though the British were to blame, and I’ve met a few Americans who thought the Americans were to blame. Well, it doesn’t matter. Accept the premises. Anybody’s premise is all right. Nobody was to blame. All it was the beginning of the end of colonialism. No animus on my part. “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” It’s all summed up in that, you see.

[Mr. Frost recited “The Gift Outright.”]

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

That poem’s twenty-five or thirty or forty years old. It isn’t just got up for the occasion of all this talk about the end of colonialism. Ours was the beginning of the end of colonialism, and that poem makes the point that ours was the beginning of the end of colonialism.

Then, one more. You know you hear about retreat and you hear about escape. When people talk about escape, I want to talk about retreat. Just that way it’s pretty near the same thing, but just my shade of difference. This is the last one. This is called “Birches.”

[Extended applause after “Birches.”]

Shall I say one absurd one in parting? Somebody congratulated me the other night on getting through an occasion without every reciting this one. It’s hard—it’s a sort of temptation to sort of break it up, you know, break up the meeting. One of the things that you suspect the academic world of is overpowering, overwhelming departmentalism, you know— passing-the-buckism, whatever you call it. But now I’ve never suffered from that at all. That’s why I ran away and all that. I’ve just kept dodging round—just the same as I ran away, I dodged—and I’ve never got caught at the departmentalism, never suffered from it. But you’d think I had from this poem. This is an agony. Shows where agonies come from, you know, from nowhere. The less there is to them, the stronger they can be.

I’ll emphasize the rhyme and meter in this for the fun of it. Of course you’ve heard me do it, some of you have. This is about an ant I met in Key West. It’s not a New England poem at all, I like to say that disclaimer. It’s got nothing to do with college or my having suffered form departmentalism, but it’s just very objective.

[Mr. Frost then said “Departmental.”]

And remember for me, will you, the one thing, that you’ve reached the place where you can listen to what anybody says and, you know, just pull it your way with one little, nice pull. That’s what makes life.

This set piece to the Review‘s Homecoming coverage was written by Robert Frost.