After mentioning Robert Frost to a friend in an e-mail, I found myself reading him tonight. Frost is like Lamb and Hazlitt: he never disappoints one. I confess to liking what Lionel Trilling called the “dark” Frost (confirming that Frost was not an avuncular old man sitting around a pot-bellied stove and dishing out bromides). Frost is one of those poets who does not lie about the human condition–yet he is one, when all is over, who must be seen as somewhat of an optimist. Certainly, his poetry comes to terms with our living in a diminished world, the realization that the world will never really give us what we want: an affirmation for our existence, a supporting cry from the heavens, nature to nudge us with love.
In any case, tonight I was stuck as never before by a few lines in “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” I can’t think of a poem that better portrays the loneliness of aging. It is an unpitying look, but, more so, it is an accurate look. The old man is alone. It is cold outside and dark. The frost is on the window panes. He can hear sounds from outside: “like the roar / Of trees and cracks of branches. . . .” The log in the stove “shifted with a jolt” and startled the old man. Here the lines that for some reason moved me tonight:
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
The poem is full of heartbreaking loneliness, though there is no indication that the old man is especially aware of his plight. We sense his mind is failing a little. We sense too, perhaps more than we’d like, the singular man at his end, the universe dark and cold, no help out there in the dark, no justice. And Frost, resigned to the world, does not speak of fairness. He does not pout at the hard truth. It’s true: “One aged man–one man–can’t keep a house / . . .or if he can, / It’s thus he does it of a winter’s night.” The old man keeps the house the best he can. One knows tomorrow night will be the same. If we asked the old man about his plight, I suppose he might say what another hard-pressed character says in Frost’s “A Servant to Servants”: “I s’pose I’ve go to go the road I’m going: / Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?”
Donald Hall writes of how Frost hated to be alone, how he would not let a visitor leave, and if the visitor insisted on leaving, Frost would walk the visitor to his destination. We tend to forget that Frost was alone for a long time. His wife died in 1938 (he’d live until 1963). He had a son who committed suicide. One daughter died in childbirth and another was institutionalized for mental problems. Frost is not, of course, the “man” in his poems, but what man is like the man in his imagination? Like another great American poet, Wallace Stevens–though in different ways–Frost imposed an order upon the world, striving to establish the “momentary stay against confusion.”This is what Frost called a poem: “A momentary stay against confusion.”
But what I think of most when I read “An Old Man’s Winter Night” are the last days of Samuel Johnson, the sick old man, all alone, that thing he dreaded most of all finally coming to claim him. I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t erase the image of the old man that Boswell gives us of the last time the two men met. They are in a carriage. The vehicle stops so that Johnson can exit and walk to his house. He asks Boswell to go with him. Boswell can’t. Boswell does not know it’s the last time he will see Johnson. And then Johnson, knowing he is going home to an empty and cheerless house, going to a bed in which his pain (he is very ill) and anxiety will not allow him to sleep,”steps away with a pathetic briskness.” Nonetheless it is a courageous leave taking, and though one is proud of Johnson, one winces too.
There is a lot in life to make us wince, but Johnson avers that to whine about it would be self-indulgent cant. That life is hard was to Johnson axiomatic. One didn’t complain. When times were good, one expressed gratitude. Oh, Johnson knew without peradventure that better than any king’s throne was a stool in a tavern and that no pleasure could equal a man’s being alone with a pretty woman in a post chaise. A good drink and a pretty woman: they are hard to beat.
How does a man keep a house on a winter’s night? How does a man keep a life? How does a man do anything? He does it the best he can. I think Johnson would have agreed. Johnson, as did Becker, asks the simple question: “Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, / Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?” Of course each of us must. Johnson advises us, as does Becker, not to attempt to obtain the mercies of the skies; that is, to make sense of things, to gain privileged reward from natural law. One must, instead, try to have faith in something beyond humanity, a faith that, even if one will never know what it is, each person furnishes some part of the great scheme of the universe. I am sure most of members of the Ernest Becker Foundation can remember the last sentence in Denial of Death: “The most that any one of us can do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering, so to speak, to the life force.”
I don’t know the following is relevant to what precedes it, but it might be important for us members of the EBF to remember something Becker said in his deathbed interview with Sam Keen. I don’t know, have no idea really, possess no data at all, but I’d guess that most members of the EBF are atheists. We should note, whether we agree with him or not, what Becker says to Keen a few days before Becker dies. Keen says, “Your personal philosophy of life seems to be a Stoic kind of heroism.” Well, I suspect few of Beckerians have any problem with Keen’s summing here. You might, however, if you haven’t read Becker’s response to Keen’s comment, be surprised at what Becker says: “Yes, though I would add the qualification that I believe in God.”
Both Becker and Johnson know that when the world is shed of all illusion, when things stand revealed for what they are, the only consolation available is a faith in something higher than humankind that redeems life, though neither man’s mind, and neither can ours, can encompass this Force that they thought, regardless of the impossibility of ever understanding it, life could be said to have a purpose.