"A Poet and a National Symbol"

by James Reston

                                                                                          Article in The New York Times 
                                                                                                   October 27, 1957
Frost became a familiar figure in Washington, D. C.  
in the late 1950's culminating with his appointment 
as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress 
during the Eisenhower Administration.
Every time Robert Frost comes to town the Washington Monument stands up a little straighter. The old gentleman was here this week just when everybody was down in the dumps about the Russians, but he was full of bounce and confidence.

The beauty of life, said he, looking out on the golden maples on R Street, lies in struggle and change and taking tough decisions. When he heard people complaining about the Russians and the Sputnik and the endless standoff with Moscow, he said he had trouble suppressing a mocking frivolity.

"We ought to enjoy a standoff," he remarked. "Let it stand and deepen in meaning. Let's not be hasty about showdowns. Let's be patient and confident in our country."

At eighty-three, Mr. Frost is still full of poetry and plans, still wandering about the world talking to kids about what it means to be an American, still taking long walks through the Northern woods, and still urging everybody to talk up and be sassy.

He is against everything and everybody that want people to rely on somebody else. He is against the United Nations. He is against the welfare state. He is against conformity and easy slogans and Madison Avenue, and he hasn't seen a President he liked since Grover Cleveland.

"I keep reading about old Grover, and after sixty years I have to admit there were one or two things that could be said against him; but I concede it reluctantly. As Mencken said, Cleveland got on in politics, not by knuckling to politicians but scorning and defying them. He didn't go around spouting McGuffy Reader slogans or wanting to be liked. "

The United Nations, disturbed by Mr. Frost's opposition, suggested to him recently that he might like to write a poem celebrating the ideal of the interdependence of the nations. Sweden had given the U. N. a huge chunk of solid iron, and somebody thought that this should be built into the U. N. building as a symbol of nature's strength and unity.

Frost was not interested. Iron, he said, could be used to strengthen the U. N. building, or it could be used for weapons of war. That was the way with nature, he said: always confronting mankind with decisions. So he rejected the invitation with a couplet :

His pet project at the moment is to band together all men and women who want to stamp out "togetherness." The glory of America, he says, has been its pioneers, who celebrated "separateness" and who were not always seeking protection. "There is," he remarks, "no protection without direction."

Mr. Frost is still a physical phenomenon. There is a comfortable, shaggy look about him but great physical and mental power. He has a pair of shoulders like a Notre Dame tackle, a shock of disobedient white hair, and a vast solidity, like a great natural object.
 
His idea, one gathers, is that America should act in the face of the Communist challenge as a great man would act. It should not be dismayed. It should not be boastful. It should be calm and watchful and industrious. It should avoid pretension and sham. It should say clearly and calmly what it means and do what it says it will do.

"The question for every man and every nation," he says, "is to be clear about where the first answerability lies. Are we as individuals to be answerable first only to others or to ourselves and some ideal beyond ourselves? Is the United States to be answerable first to the United Nations or to its own concept of what is right?"

Once we get this straight, he believes, the United States will be less entranced and preoccupied with the Soviet world, more self-reliant, more prepared psychologically for the endless struggle of existence.
Transition and change do not bother him. He is pleased with Dean Inge's reminder that when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, Adam was heard to remark, no doubt by a reporter of the Times, "We sure are living in a period of transition. "

" All life," he says, "is cellular. We live by the breaking down of cells and the building up of new cells. Change is constant and unavoidable. That is the way it is with human beings and with nations, so why deplore it?"

To Mr. Frost most of the political pronouncements of the day are just "corn-meal mush," put out by politicians who think their "first answerability" is to what will get them re-elected, instead of what is right and true.

But he isn't worried.
 
"I stand here at the window and try to figure out whether American men or women swing their arms more freely. There cannot be much to fear in a country where there are so many right faces going by. I keep asking myself where they all come from, and I keep thinking that maybe God was just making them up new around the next corner. "


 
Back to The Frost Free Library

"To go straight home, we wouldn't keep him, would we?"