Weak Creatures of Clay

Robert Frost’s home in Shaftsbury, VT.
Photo by Beth Ben-Avraham, ©2020 All Rights Reserved.

Have you ever admired a person and then learned about something they said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do, that caused you to examine your feelings about them? It’s happened to me on more than one occasion. Often, quite often, my gods turn out to have feet of clay. I’m left with a question: When this happens, what do I do about it?

I have enjoyed Robert Frost’s poetry for many years. He is, hands down, my favorite American poet. Whenever my wife and I are in Vermont, we make a point of visiting Frost’s grave in the First Congregational Church cemetery in Bennington. We’ve also visited his home in Shaftsbury, Vermont, the place where he was living in 1922 when he wrote: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In May 1923, Frost wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer, the American poet and anthologist: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Etc. is my best bid for remembrance.”

Another letter Frost wrote to Untermeyer, though, is problematic for me. It’s dated August 12, 1944; it’s a reply to one that he had received earlier from Untermeyer. Untermeyer had asked Frost to join him and other writers working to oppose fascism. At the time, Untermeyer was serving as Senior Editor of Publications in the Office of War Information. The background of his request, and Frost’s response, are documented in The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, published by Untermeyer in 1963 [Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.]

I first learned about the letter from an article written by the American-Israeli poet and publisher Esther Cameron. Her piece, titled “At This Late Date: A Reply to Robert Frost,” appeared in the July 28, 2019 edition of online magazine Sasson.

I don’t have a copy of Untermeyer’s original letter to Frost. I have only his comments about it in his book. The book does, however, contain Frost’s letter. I want to examine a bit more closely Untermeyer’s request, and the reasons Frost gives him for not joining him in his work at the Office of War Information.

When the Second World War came, Untermeyer says:

[W]ith a horror of dictatorships, I left my Adirondack farm to join the Office of War Information as Senior Editor of Publications. Working with other writers opposing fascism, I tried to get Robert to participate. I was hurt when he stood ‘above the battle’; the issues involved seemed to me so catastrophic that they would prevent Robert from remaining aloof.

Louis Untermeyer. The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer.

Untermeyer’s request was simple enough: Join us in our fight. Other artists, Woody Guthrie, for example, used their talents in the fight against fascism. Guthrie made his position crystal clear.

Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, seated, facing front, playing a guitar that has a sticker attached reading: This Machine Kills Fascists. Photo by Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun.

As a matter of related interest, the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was on the other side of the issue. He employed his titanic talent in attacking the allies in their fight against fascism. He publicized his position in a series of broadcasts he delivered on Rome Radio. In one titled “England,” which he gave March 15, 1942, Pound stated, speaking of the English: “You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-jewed the Jew.”

Before getting into Frost’s reasons for denying Untermeyer’s request, I want first to say something about the letter’s form. It is written in blank verse—metered, but unrhymed, in this case iambic pentameter. Here are the opening lines:

I’d rather there had been no war at all
Than have you cross with me because of it.
I know whats wrong: the war is more or less
About the Jews and as such you believe
I ought to want to take some part in it.

Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, ltr. dtd. August 12, 1944.

Untermeyer describes Frost’s response as a “letter-poem.” One has to admire Frost’s craft. Here, however, in response to a heartfelt plea from a friend, it seems to be out of place. To me, it smacks of pride a bit, a desire to show one’s cleverness, a failure to appreciate Untermeyer’s pain.

In my reading of Frost’s letter, he advances four reasons for his denying Untermeyer’s request.

  1. He cannot serve actively in the Armed Forces, and he’s not the kind of man to be a “hero at the rear.” He’s unable to ask others to do what he himself cannot do.
  2. He’s not a writer, by which he means a crafter of prose. He was “never any good at routine writing.” Calling himself a writer, he says, sounds pretentious to him.
  3. He says that he would feel embarrassed writing propaganda in which he had to mix in praise for what he describes as a “grotesque assortment of allies.” He seems especially troubled about doing this concerning “the communistic Soviets!”
  4. He feels that his engaging in such work would be useless. “Nothing I do can matter,” he says. “I make verse in rhyme and meter.”

Near the end of the “letter,” he writes: “Aw come on off your cosmic politics.” Then he adds, “I trust the explanations given you here / You only—no one else—will satisfy you.” He closes by telling Untermeyer that he [Frost] has “An idea for one more anthology” and “I’d take a hand in it if you would let me.”

Frost’s first letter to Untermeyer was dated March 22, 1915, his last one April 14, 1962. These two men were friends, long-time friends, and their relationship survived this disagreement. Untermeyer was hurt by Frost’s decision but reconciled himself to it. He writes, “I should have understood the logic of his refusal to write propaganda.”

At the end of Untermeyer’s collection of his letters from Frost, he tells us about their last meeting. Frost underwent surgery in December 1962. Untermeyer visited him in the hospital on January 22. They talked for over an hour. “Robert did most of the talking,” he says. One of the things they spoke of was a state-sponsored trip that Frost made to the USSR and of his meeting Khrushchev. “A great man,” Frost said of the Russian Premier, “and a great country.” At this point, their old disagreement floats to the surface, but now it looked and felt different. “How about your earlier opinion,” Untermeyer asked, and quoted from Frost’s 1944 letter. Frost replied that the two countries, the US and the USSR, would have to have a reconciliation. In his opinion, the USSR was moving towards capitalism; and the US was moving towards socialism. At the end of their conversation, Frost told his old friend that in the spring, he’d be getting another prize at a reception in England. He asked Untermeyer not to tell anyone and told him he had to promise to go along. “Don’t forget—this spring,” he said.

A week later, Untermeyer got a call at three in the morning, telling him that Frost had died. He wrote an obituary for the Associated Press for the man he had known and whose work he had admired and published for almost half a century. On April 12, 1967, over four years after Frost’s death, Untermeyer delivered a talk entitled “Robert Frost: A Backward Look” at Augsburg College (now University). “To talk about Robert Frost is still not easy for me,” he said. “He was my oldest, longest, and dearest friend.”

“My dearest friend.” So, where am I? If Untermeyer could reconcile himself to Frost’s decision, who am I, a mere mortal living so many years after these events, knowing neither man personally, to condemn Frost? Besides, maybe it’s time for me to get used to the idea that my mortal gods, all of them, have clay feet.

Mankind, fleet of life, like tree leaves, weak creatures of clay, unsubstantial as shadows, wingless, ephemeral, wretched, mortal and dreamlike.

Aristophanes. Birds, l. 685.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

2 thoughts

  1. Acknowledging at last that I won’t live forever, I have started the latest 7-year-long page-a-day “Daf Yomi” of Babylonian Talmud put on by the Orthodox Union. From page 25, side b: The Torah was not given to ministering angels…as we might say today, let’s not set unrealistically high goals. Robert Frost, whose better-known poems I love to quote, may have declined to fight fascism, but at least he didn’t positively support it, as you mention Ezra Pound did.

    Liked by 1 person

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