Reflections on Robert Frost's 'The Black Cottage'

Peter J. Stanlis

Editor’s note: Caxtonian Stanlis is working on the final chapter of a book on the intellectual life of Robert Frost. The book goes beyond biographical, analytical literary, and comparative criticism. and employs the history-of-ideas method of description and analysis. The book promises to be one of the most important studies of Robert Frost’s basic beliefs ever published. The following essay is a foretaste of what we shall read when Stanlis’ book is published.


or the past seven years a small group of literary critics and scholars, who are devoted to Robert Frost, has met annually in September to discuss informally some aspect of his life, thought, and poetry. This past year the group met on September 21-22 at the University of New Hampshire and at the poet’s farm in Derry. The poem that preoccupied the group on that occasion was “The Black Cottage.”

During a lengthy discussion, which was based on the assumptions of analytical literary criticism, many excellent insights were presented regarding the structure, the form, and the narrative technique of the poem and its subject: the functional setting of the remote black cottage in rural New England, so like a hermit’s refuge from a corrupt world. Much perceptive comment was also offered on the language, imagery, characters, and thematic content of the poem.

But since the poem includes Frost’s unconventional interpretation of the Civil War and his acceptance of a political principle upon which the colonial war of independence was launched and upon which the American republic was possibly founded, a reader might well question whether the limited conventional literary criticism is adequate for a full and valid understanding of the poem. The problem of interpretation is further complicated, more indirectly, since “The Black Cottage” includes references to Frost’s beliefs regarding the very positive nature and creative contribution of New England Puritanism to the development of American society and culture.

Frost himself believed that there were occasions when readers should not limit themselves strictly to the internal elements in a poem. He warned against the “danger of too much analysis,” but he wished readers to perceive the “ultimate meanings” of a poem. He believed that the “ultimate refinement” is “to know how to take a hint when there is one and not to take a hint when none is intended.” Through tasteful and judicious “feats of association” enforced by knowledge, a reader can “go beyond any symbolism” to experience “the pleasure of ulteriority.” In the preface to “The Death of the Hired Man” he wrote: “I am always glad to give my poems every extraneous help possible.” In “On Taking Poetry” he said: “You can almost say in a poem that you see in it the place where it begins to be ulterior... where it carries you on somewhere.” In “The Black Cottage” there are several places where it carries readers beyond the intrinsic texture established by its metaphorical language.

A good initial step toward perceiving the rich implications of “The Black Cottage” is to compare its theme and language with those of such poems and prose statements as “The Gift Outright” and Frost’s commencement address at Oberlin College (June 8, 1937), entitled “What Became of New England?"

Some additional insights may also be gleaned from “The Generations of Men,” “America is Hard to See,” and “On Taking Poetry,” as well as from other poems and prose statements on subjects that reflect Frost’s organic view of American culture. Beyond such comparative criticism, however, a more fruitful reading of the poem may be obtained using a history-of-ideas approach that can adduce Frost’s beliefs about the Civil War, the conflicting views over Jefferson’s principle regarding the equality of man, and the New England Augustinian Puritanism embodied in the minister-narrator and the Civil War widow.

The reader may best begin by noting Frost’s essential understanding of the Civil War and how that is reflected in “The Black Cottage.” In his “Sermon,” delivered in Rabbi Victor Reichert’s Temple in Cincinnati (October 10, 1946), Frost noted how far the Civil War transcended the regional and partisan secular differences between the Confederacy and the Union. “...Beyond the wisdom that clashed there­ — the two wisdoms that clashed there — was something of God.” To truly “see America,” he insisted, “is this wisdom beyond wisdom,” which constitutes Frost’s very definition of religion. To him there was “something of God” in colonial America and in the founding of the republic, which later manifested itself in the great crisis of the Civil War. In essence, Frost believed that, beyond the conventional view of the political and racial issues of that great struggle, there was a religious conflict.

This conflict is well expressed in two passages in which the minister describes the war widow’s beliefs about the Civil War:

One wasn’t long in learning that she thought
Whatever else the Civil War was for,
It wasn’t just to keep the States together,
Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both.

The Puritan widow’s serene confidence that her covenant with God provided her with the gift of grace, and enabled her to perceive as “self evident” that the races of mankind are somehow equal in the sight of God, their Creator:

White was the only race she ever knew,
Black she had scarcely seen and yellow never.
But how could they be made so very unlike
By the same hand working in the same stuff?
She had supposed the war decided that.

It was but a simple step in logic from the war widow’s belief in the spiritual equality of the races to her acceptance of Jefferson’s principle that all men are created equal in their legal and political rights as later instituted by the American system of constitutional law. In light of the Civil War and the issue of slavery, Frost himself refined upon Jefferson by adding “free” to “equal.” He thereby complicated the whole subject by introducing an apparent contradiction, like that supposed to exist between justice and mercy, which requires of human nature the most profound ethical understanding of how the respective claims of self-interest and social benevolence can be resolved into an harmonious national unity. To Frost, as to the widow in the poem, such conflicts are not merely to logomachies; they are ultimately ethical, and they are based upon religious faith.

It is very likely that, provided it is well explicated, the following passage, introduced by the minister’s account of the widow’s sacrifice of her husband in the Civil War, contains perhaps the most important theme in “The Black Cottage”:

Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal ....

That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so,
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.

The poem fails to disclose the identity of the “fellow” who decided “the easy way” that Jefferson’s principle “simply isn’t true.” To identify the allusion and to understand the importance of his denial, it is necessary to scrutinize Frost’s personal beliefs. That course alone can disclose the full significance of this vital passage.

Fortunately, Frost has identified, beyond cavil, the man who denied Jefferson’s ”hard mystery.” Some 30 years after he wrote “The Black Cottage,” around 1907 (but published in 1914.), he said: “In 1897 I was sitting in a class in college when I heard a man spend quite the part of an hour making fun of the expression that we were all born free and equal. So easy to dismiss ....

“You can get disillusionment of a phrase such as fearing God and equality. And then you can form a religion like George Santayana. He lets you see that there is nothing but illusion, and it can be just as well one kind as another ....”

The full significance of Frost’s allusion to Santayana as the “fellow” who satirized Jefferson’s principle becomes apparent when it is also recalled that for at least 50 years the poet had a running, albeit intermittent, battle with his former teacher regarding New England Puritanism and its influence on American society. This epical battle was of special importance in the development of Frost’s intellectual life. Even as an undergraduate, the poet was not intimidated by Santayana’s great reputation as a profound philosopher. His commencement address in 1937 was a powerful rebuttal of Santayana’s The Last Puritan (1936). Moreover, for years, as Lawrance Thompson has recorded, Frost frequently criticized the philosopher: “’Santayana is the enemy of my spirit,’ Frost said repeatedly to LT and others.” (Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph 1915-1938, p. 691).

In his commencement address, Frost did not merely identify Santayana as Jefferson’s critic; he castigated him harshly for his attacks on New England Puritanism and American society, arraigning him particularly for his failure to understand how Puritanism maintained “the renewal of words” and therefore “the renewal of meaning” in such phrases as a “god-fearing man” and man’s “equality.” This was one of Frost’s grand themes in his Norton lectures at Harvard. In his commencement address, he noted that just as poetry involved “the renewal of words,” and “the making of words mean again what they meant,” so too, “the thing that New England gave most to America was... a stubborn clinging to meanings: to purify words until they mean again what they should mean. Puritanism had that meaning entirely; a purifying of words and a renewal of words and a renewal of meaning. That’s what brought them to America and that’s what kept them believing ....” In sharp contrast to Puritanism, Santayana’s “disillusionment” was the result of “a theory that meanings go out of things,” because “when the meaning goes out of anything, as happens, forms crumble.”

The allusion to Santayana as the total antithesis of the war widow raises an important question: how is it that an intellectually brilliant and sophisticated philosopher, with a powerful, rational mind, failed so utterly to comprehend the great truth in Jefferson’s principle, whereas the simple Puritan war widow, with no intellectual qualifications, understood and accepted the “hard mystery” that Frost believed ”will trouble us a thousand years” as one of “the truths we keep coming back and back to.” A full answer to this question goes to the heart of “The Black Cottage” as well as to much in the intellectual life of Frost. It involves his criticism of the separation of the moral virtues, rooted in religion, from the intellectual virtues so esteemed in secular thought. As Frost once put it: “an ounce of faith is worth a ton of theology.” Frost’s sympathetic portraits of the latitudinarian minister and the tradition- oriented war widow as 19th-Century representatives of New England’s revised Puritan tradition in religion and culture reflect his own Old Testament and Augustinian Christianity, in which belief precedes both reason and knowledge. Santayana made his own rational understanding the measure of his belief or disbelief. Conversely, like the war widow, Frost believed in Jefferson’s principle in order to understand it; he did not make his rational understanding the measure of his belief. “The Black Cottage” is one of his most profound expressions of the “seat to faith assigned,” of the strength of the “man of prayer” and the “woman of faith” in understanding on moral grounds what such self-styled “intellectuals” as George Santayana cannot comprehend. His defense of the moral virtues as superior to rational brilliance frequently led critics to charge Frost with being “anti-intellectual,” even though his own mental powers and knowledge were far superior to those of his critics.

Although “The Black Cottage” is not a personal religious poem, such as Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” it is rooted in Frost’s belief that religious faith is the ultimate basis of man’s secular convictions about human nature and society, and is the fount of the forces that give shape to events in history. Perceived in terms of the history of ideas, the poem is multifaceted in ways that extend far beyond these reflections.

Peter Stanlis and Robert Frost

Peter Stanlis (l) and Robert Frost look at a copy of From Snow to Snow, November 13, 1962, at the University of Detroit. Frost had inscribed the book for Stanlis on New Year’s Eve, in Boston, 1940. From the collection of Peter Stanlis, through whose courtesy it is used.

Robert Frost at Bread Loft

Robert Frost at Bread Loft, 1956. Photo by and from the collection of Peter Stanlis, through whose courtesy it is used.

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