Part 1: “The Secret Sits”
Volumes have been written about Robert Frost and his wonderful work, but much of it, I would say, unnecessarily so. Most of his nine volumes of poems need no “expert” to explain them; no “guru” to decipher or interpret. It was never his intention to be an obscurantist; and that explains why his rise to popularity took so long, I’m sure, as the publishing world kept fawning and swooning over “The Wasteland” and, after that, Finnegan’s Wake. (Did you know, by the way, that T. S. Eliot published his “Wasteland” with fifty footnotes of his own contriving, in hopes that they “might elucidate the difficulties of the poem”. 1 ) What agents and critics and publishers could not “comprehend” about Robert Frost was why he would want to be so “comprehensible”!
It took a Londoner, David Nutt–bless the man; Frost’s very first publisher, in 1913–to recognize what millions of Americans would much later grow to love: Frost knew how to truly “converse” in formal, traditional rhymes and rhythms like no one else had ever done! He speaks it so easily and naturally that we lose sight of the rhyme; we barely hear the rhythm. Which, surely, was what the traditional forms had been longing to accomplish down through the ages. There is a sense in which Frost is the only one who did it.
I recommend the complete collection, edited by Edward Connery Lathem 2. Get a copy—you won’t regret it—and just turn to any page. You’ll have no trouble enjoying what you find.
That being said, there are occasional puzzling pieces, that show up here and there on his pages; pieces I’ve always wanted to decipher, and surely I’m not the only one. I thought I would choose just three and give them a try. And yes, I did have to run to the “experts” and the “gurus” for these.
The Secret Sits
We dance round in a ring and suppose
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
Surely you expected this one, if ever you’ve read it before. I remember puzzling over it myself, in my high school years.
Some have suggested that Frost was pondering Immanuel Kant’s profound “Ding an sich”—“the Thing in itself”. 3 The concept argues that man enjoys his “perception” of things; he can observe the “appearances” of things in his world, but “the Thing in itself” is there—within it…or behind it or…well…there!—and that is where reality lies, and that is what eludes Mankind.
We “dance round” it and “suppose” what it might be. But Something else really “knows”.
According to this view: man is “locked out” and prevented from knowing the ultimate reality behind what he sees and observes; pitifully restricted to his own sensory perception and human apprehension. Ask any quantum physicist who has spent time looking for the ultimate “center” of things, and he’ll tell you that he agrees. We are like “the people along the sand,” in another of Frost’s poems, who “look at the sea all day”…
“They cannot look out far. They cannot look in deep.” 4
I’ve not found any record of Frost diving into Kant, though it’s certainly likely that he did, as he taught his classes at Amherst College or the Bread Loaf School; or even as he followed his own philosophical quest. He seems to have read almost all of William James’ religious studies, and liked them. James often cited Kant, though frequently disparagingly.
Two much more likely sources, however, behind this strange couplet, are his own Puritan heritage and his mother’s Christian faith; both of which had lasting impact, and both of which he deeply respected all his life.
Isabelle Frost would often rescue Robbie from her husband’s abuses and hold him tight and whisper to him of God’s love for him, assuring him of God’s protection, even during times of suffering. 5 After her husband’s thankful demise, she taught her children a reverence for the Scriptures. At the end of every supper, Robbie and Jeanie would hear her powerful, dramatic narration of one of the major stories of the Bible.6 The children were probably expected to commit such stories to memory and be ready, themselves, to recount them.
As a result, for the rest of his days, Frost remained a Theist; he was drawn to the argument of Intelligent Design and had developed an early disdain for theories of evolution.
He also knew and read his Bible well, and it just may be that, on that particular day—the day of the birth of this poem—he had turned to 1 Samuel 16: 7…
“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord God looks at the heart.”
Or was it, perhaps, this marvelous thing, in Deuteronomy 29:29?
“The secret things belong to God, but those revealed belong to us.”
Robert Frost’s official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, doesn’t hesitate to name the “Secret in the middle”: it is God…
“Throughout his life, Frost constantly scoffed at the notions of social planners who believed that imperfection could be legislated out of existence. For him, there was only one ‘salve’, and it was the same ‘Secret’ who sat in the middle and knew: God. But only one who, like Frost, had ‘climbed the tree our Lord to see’ would know that.” 7
Quite frankly, Immanuel Kant, a faithful Christian himself, as I see it, would have no disagreement with that.
You can study up for the next “sail”! Part 2: “One Step Backward Taken”.
See you then.
- The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, New York, 1963, p. 70.
- The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, ed. Edward Connery Latham, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1979.
- The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, Nancy Lewis Tuten, John Zubizaretta, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2001, p. 219.
- “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”, 1936. ibid. 2, p. 301.
- Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1970, Introduction, p. xiii.
- Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1966, p. 20.
- Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Later Years, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1966, p. 94. Citation: “climbed a tree…” etc. “Sycamore” 1942, ibid. 2, p. 331. Note: George Nitchie in his work, Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost, also insists that the “Secret” is God. Duke University Press, Durham N.C., 1960, p. 49.