Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
At This Late Date: A Reply to Robert Frost, by Esther Cameron
[In 1944 the poet and anthologist Louis Untermeyer, an assimilated Jew, urged his friend Robert Frost to put his poetic genius in the service of the struggle against fascism. On August 12, 1944, Frost responded with an almost 200-line blank verse letter explaining why he felt such involvement was inconsistent with his role as a poet. I thought about this exchange in late in 2001, after the 9/11 attack, and imagined Untermeyer, now in the World of Truth, replying.]
It is over fifty years
since our exchange about the poet’s duty,
if any, to respond to what’s afoot
on the historic scene. The Second World
War, in that case. A war with certain nations
who were engaged in killing off my cousins
and anybody else they had no use for.
Our countrymen at first had been reluctant
to join the fight. The First World War had been
so horrible, so pointless, we’d concluded
that any war was something to stay out of,
and we stayed out, until bombed into it.
The country then responded, as it had to.
Men were called up and factories were converted
to making weapons. Journalists and actors
picked up the drum. And even serious artists—
the term I guess means those who take themselves
seriously—felt drafted to compose
something that would contribute to the struggle.
But you—the greatest poet of our time—
you stayed above the battle. When I begged you
to leave, for once, your vigil of detachment,
you answered me with a long blank-verse letter,
justifying yourself. I saw that I
had overstepped one of those fences friends
seem to need to keep up, as well as neighbors,
and I accepted your position, as
a part of what you were, and we stayed friends.
I let your word of silence be the last word.
I couldn’t, of course, have forced you into speech,
and I felt awe before the greater poet—
it feels presumptuous even to apply
the term “poet” to both of us. I was
just an anthologist. Although I couldn’t
resist the chance to sneak myself and Jean
into the great anthologies I gathered,
I knew my place, at bottom—and knew yours.
You won your point; and on their front, the Allies
won the war. The fascists were defeated.
And I can’t even say it was no thanks
to you, whose sturdy verses may have served
as shelter from the blasts of cosmic madness
to many souls; helped men rained round by bullets
to keep in mind New England’s quiet hills
under the sane, remote, noncombatant stars.
Whereas Millay—what did she give by writing
shrill propaganda, tearing up her art
as primitive women tear their clothes and cheeks?
Nothing that lasted, certainly. And likely
even the gesture, at the time, appeared
like mere hysterics. Folks stop listening
when song becomes a screech.
At any rate,
things seemed to have worked out, in ‘45.
We had our peace, then, for awhile, although
the mechanism of combat, in our souls
as well as in the economy, proceeded
to throw the image of another foe
upon the screen for bravery to tilt at,
even if it did turn out to be a windmill.
Our poets thought themselves well out of that.
We had protestors, bards who like Millay
thought earnestness excused them for bad art
and lack of intellectual clarity.
And we had those who went on making verses,
good verses maybe, calling on your spirit,
whereby it was increasingly assumed,
as beyond question, that a poem has
no civic mission and is draft-exempt.
Around us we saw equity eroding,
the culture that had made us what we were
being gradually leached away, replaced
by predatory lures that learned to play on,
and magnify, the worst traits of the worst.
But still we made this none of our affair.
And at the same time, on the edge of vision
a new and ancient enemy of freedom
was gathering strength. We did not give the warning.
We had disclaimed the poet’s ancient claim
to the prophetic soul. Could we have seen
more clearly than the rest? If we had felt
a people’s destiny laid on our shoulders,
would it have weighted us to sink down deep
enough to see the roots of things to come?
I hear your reasons—oh, I hear them still.
You didn’t want “to sing and cheer young men
into dangers you could not get hurt in.”
You didn’t want to praise the likes of Stalin,
to bless the necessary compromises
by which a nation gets things done in war.
But was that, Robert, what was asked of you?
Is it not the commission of the poet—
a standing order, not from government—
just to be open to what’s going on,
to take the shock into one’s constitution,
and, facing one’s own danger as a poet,
work out some form to hold it? Yeats once said
it takes a greater courage to descend
into one’s own depths, than to die in battle.
That goes too far, but there is something in it.
“Aw, come on off your cosmic politics,”
you wrote. That kind of joke cannot be answered
by someone like myself, with little wit,
but it’s what Dante called il gran rifiuto.
Well, and since I seem to be assuming,
despite myself, the stance of wrathful prophet,
I’ll mention one more thing. You wrote to me:
“I know what’s 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.”
And later on you came back to the subject:
“The best part of my friendship for your race
Is that I thought of it as lost in ours,
And the long time it’s taken me to see
It was in part at least a race apart.
And even the part that is a race apart
I sympathize with. Give them back I say
All Palestine. No race without a country
Can be a nation. I take sides with all
Who want a platform they can call their own
To speak their language from—a platform country.”
But still you felt it wasn’t your department
to speak on our behalf.
I should have quoted
Donne to you. I should have said: the war
is not about the Jews as persons only,
not about us as a nation only.
It is about the honor of the nations,
it is about the hope of right, not might,
ruling the world, it is about the future
of human consciousness and human conscience,
the good I always thought we meant by God.
It is about a promise never kept
so far; but, so far, not quite thrown away.
You could have said that better, Robert Frost.
You could have helped us see what we were doing,
you could have warned us, then, of peacetime dangers
that undermined what we had fought to save.
And now the world must play that play again,
with good and evil still more intermingled,
more intricately, lovingly entwined.
What subtle skill of soul could thread this maze
perhaps you could have shown us, if you’d wished to.
I let the matter drop. The war had taken
enough from me, without your friendship too.
And then I feared to stir you into anger,
make matters worse. I wrote no poems either,
those years. I was too personally involved,
afraid that it would sound like special pleading.
Perhaps I should have tried it anyway.
Although I had no more than middling talent
perhaps I would have found a certain greatness
in grappling with the impossible. The prophets—
were they such geniuses? God gave them words
to tell the truth. They told it without quibbling,
and probably (one hopes) did not engage
in contests as to who’s the greater prophet.
I answer you at this late date because
these questions, these regrets have haunted me
into the afterworld, have given me
no peace in death. And how now, Robert Frost?
You must sense that the fire of burning books
would scorch our souls. In the name of all that’s human
my ghost commands you, ghost, to walk and speak,
appear to all you’ve influenced and tell them
that you were wrong.
Jean Starr Untermeyer, a few of whose poems appear in Untermeyer’s anthology Modern American Poetry/ Modern British Poetry (1950 edition), which also contains a few poems by Louis Untermeyer.
The reference is to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Make Bright the Arrows (1940), which critics including Untermeyer considered to be artistically weak.
In Canto II of the Inferno, Dante portrays the doom of those souls who were “neither for good nor evil but for themselves.” The most prominent among them is described as “he who made the great refusal (il gran rifiuto).”