Robert Frost in the Petri Dish
If you’re a science teacher, looking for a way to wake up your students, try Robert Frost (1874–1963). He was a poet, a teacher, and, for many years, a farmer—had a deep interest in science and nature, and both appear frequently in his poems. For students in science class, poetry itself is a surprise. The rhythm and rhymes stick in students’ heads, helping them remember what they’ve learned. Some teachers have reported that when they saw students years later, the only thing they remembered was the day the teacher used a poem as an introduction in class.
Frost was the son of a hard-drinking, atheist father. His mother was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish scientist who later devoted himself to religion—and the free spirit of inquiry. Although most of us associate Frost with New England, he spent much of his childhood in California. When he was 11, his father died and his mother moved the family to Massachusetts. After high school he attended both Dartmouth and Harvard, but never graduated. On his way to becoming a successful poet, he worked in a factory, raised chickens, cared for his orchards, taught high school, married, and had six children. As he became better known as a writer, he taught at Amherst College and, in the summers, at the Breadloaf School of English of Middlebury College.
Throughout his life, Frost was drawn to science. As a boy, he sold magazine subscriptions to earn a telescope. He subscribed to Scientific American. When he taught at Amherst, he knew Nobelist Niels Bohr and wrote a poem (“For Once, Then Something”) about his atomic wave and particle theories. He was profoundly interested in atomic structure and wrote some minor poems about that as well (“The Secret Sits” and “Version”). He found Darwin’s writing on evolution fascinating—it's chronicled in the academic book Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin (2001).
It’s possible the scientists he knew influenced some of his most famous poems, including “Fire and Ice.” Harlow Shapley, a well-known Harvard astronomer, reported that Frost had asked him on two separate occasions the most likely ways in which the world could end. Shapley told him of two possibilities: the sun could grow into a giant red star and incinerate the Earth, or the Earth could veer away from the sun, triggering a permanent ice age. Some time later, Frost wrote “Fire and Ice”:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Of course, the poem is about considerably more than destruction. Still, in a time when the Earth is threatened by the two specters of nuclear annihilation and global warming —which, ironically, might trigger an ice age if the polar ice caps melt and put the Gulf Stream out of business—“Fire and Ice” is an interesting place to start off the subject in science class.
Another of his poems, “The Star-splitter,” tells the story of a man who burns down his house in order to get the fire insurance. His goal? To buy a telescope:
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our places among the infinities.
About the telescope he said:
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest things that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.”
In the poem we see the speaker and his friend looking through the scope, amateur astronomers:
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
Astronomy rears its head in “Fireflies in the Garden,” a short poem:
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.
The poem raises a cluster of science questions. What do fireflies do in order to make their flickering shine? What purpose does it serve? Why do stars shine? What are they made of? How far into the universe do they go on?
As a farmer, Frost was also close to the land, and he knew the facts of botany and biology. They often appear in his poems. One good example is “Goodbye, and Keep Cold.” In this, he admonishes an apple orchard to stay safe over the winter. He acknowledges the pests that could harm it:
I don’t want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don’t want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don’t want it budded by grouse.
More importantly, he writes:
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
“How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”
He acknowledges fact, such as the natural enemies of trees. But again, he takes into account the mysteries of the universe, the things that people simply can’t control. He humanizes both the science of trees and the science of humans.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night,
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.
In “Birches,” he speaks of the hazards to another tree:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. ...
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground ...
Like science itself, Frost’s nature poetry is filled with discoveries. Like the best research, Frost’s poems take us beyond the facts to look at their implications. The orchard is not merely an orchard. It is something that starts us wondering about our places among the infinities.
Karen Glenn is a poet and freelance writer in Colorado. She has been the editor of several classroom literary magazines for Scholastic, the educational publisher, as well as the writer for Parade Magazine’s newspaper-in-education program and the judge of its annual nationwide teen poetry contest. She has worked as a...