From the newly published Notebooks of Robert Frost edited by Robert Faggen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) comes this diss on Yeats:

WBY says… the artist has a choice of seven poses. One of them
he must assume. Don’t believe it children. There is such a thing
as sincerity. It is hard to define, but it is probably nothing more
than your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead
selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusions. Any belief
you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an
illusion. Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trouts nose….
W.B.Y. and G. S. anta. are two false souls.

There’s a lot more to this than ancient literary gossip. And I think it tells more about Frost than about Yeats, or George Santayana (whose call for a “philosophical poem,” that would extend beyond the world of isolated facts which Santayana found so unsatisfactory in Whitman, Frost came to reject during his short time at Harvard, where Santayana was then teaching.) Frost may seem the naturalistic realist, the almost anti-intellectual deflator of idealist balloons. But if you look carefully at that notebook entry, his ideas about “Sincerity” and “Reality” start to look more nuanced.

Sincerity for Frost is not simply “being yourself.” No such ordinary event, it happens “miraculously.” The self who breaks through the “succession of dead selves” is not a set identity or a state so much as an action, discernable precisely because of its kinetic movement: “liveliness.” And illusion is not wrong because it fails to measure up to some eternal Platonic ideal, but simply because it happens not to work.

Frost’s definition of reality is the most cunning of all. “The cold feeling on the trouts nose” is hardly the whole river. That elusive speckled creature, that beautiful sliver of bio-mass, confers reality upon the world around it. Not in the sense of that idealist philosopher Yeats so admired, Bishop Berkeley, who believed esse es percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” No, Frost’s claim resembles William James’ belief that “the human contribution cannot be weeded out,” though I guess Frost would include trout along with humans. This means that our perceptions animate the world, and give it truth, and yet we still run into impasses: that rock is still there and if you kick it, your foot will hurt.

It may seem a little pedantic to pick apart what reads like a straightforward statement. But that’s the thing about Frost. He tends to stipple his sincerity with an undercurrent of insinuation. That’s one reason I love giving his poem “Hyla Brook” to students. Here it is:

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Last semester, we looked at this poem in a writing workshop at Washington College. As soon as I finished reading the last line aloud, one student exclaimed, “That’s so true! We love the things we love for what they are!” So I had to become Mephistopheles. The poem is more complex than simple praise, isn’t it? I pointed out the sneaky allusion to Tennyson’s “The Brook.” Some of the students talked about the strange, allegorical references to reading and writing. Maybe most importantly, one of them asked, isn’t it weird that Frost praises “things for what they are” when the whole time he’s described the disappearance of the brook?

And yet I think that student was still right to admire the last line, and to feel its sincerity. The poem radically questions what a thing really is. At the same time, the center holds. Those “who remember long” do have a power to confer reality. Frost’s affective thrust maintains its force, even against the way his undercurrents went.

Originally Published: February 8th, 2007

Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...