Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Sometimes It Seems As If": A Talk by Robert Frost October 23, 1947

Frost gave this talk at Dartmouth College as part of the Great Issues series, a mandatory course for seniors that used weekly guest lectures to explore important current events of politics, science, and the arts. Transcribed, annotated and introduced by James Sitar, the talk appeared In Literary Imagination Volume 10 Number 1 2008, published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC).

[To take poetry right is] another way to take life right. And that means not to stick too hard to any particular precept. Suppose I said for instance certain ones--they're always rattling around in my mind. Suppose I said this one: the great problem is to know "how to o'errule" . . .

How to o'errrules the harsh divorce
That parts things natural from divine.

See the precept in that is that you must remember it's hard to

o'errule the harsh divorce
That parts things natural from divine.

And for the duration of the piece--if you're accustomed to poetry--you lend yourself to that and weep. And then, you know, you may believe something opposite, or nearly opposite; you may entertain, not believe, but you may be willing to entertain . . . from Walt Whitman, who said there was no divorce between things natural and divine. He said it right out: "the soul is the body, the body is the soul."


Well, then might I say this just to show what anyone means by the extravagance of the spirit? I go on with extravagance of that kind. There are a great many of them; poetry is full of them. It's the place of them. And maybe if you call everything poetry, that is an extravagance of the spirit. That's what I should say Walt Whitman's is, there when he talks abotu defeat as if it was a good as victory. You konw, I don't act . . . I know I don't act, and neither did Mr Meiklejohn (ever that I knew, I have known him a long time), never did he ever act as if he liked to lose a tennis game. I've seen him play a lot of tennis; he was very good at it. And you [?ride] him for all he's worth, but he was always talking about not coveting the game at all. But that's all right, you know, you have to know how to take it. [Laughter]

This is an amusing one that I came across in an old thirteenth-century story about Saint Francis. That's Salimbene telling on him in the next generation (little gossip). He was a good Franciscan, was Salimbene, but he was given to gossip, and he was not only at God always, the way a person might be if her were a philosopher. Principles, you know. But he said that Saint Francis came into the refectory one day and saw quite a table spread, good things to eat. And he said, "oh no no no no," he said, "you know that isn't what you're fed by! You know, it's fed by the spirit, aren't we?" And they said, 'well what would you have?" "Well a sprig of lettuce," he said, "and a glass of water, you know, that ought to be enough for anybody." And the next day that's what there was: a sprig of lettuce and a glass of water. And he said, "you musn't take the extravagances of a saint too seriously." [Laughter] Whether that's true or not, it shows what I mean by the extravagances.

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