Three Robert Frost ‘Puzzles’
(part 2: “One Step Backward Taken”)
One Step Backward Taken is the perfect subject for our present chaotic state of affairs (this edition of the Frigate sailed in Fall of 2020). The poem shows up in Robert Frost’s eighth collection: The Steeple Bush which, in every way—tone, subject matter, message, even style—was different from his previous work. “Inferior,” some of his critics would say; and I can see their point. Frost was in his 70’s when The Steeple Bush was published, and some of the poems seem somewhat labored, cerebral and “rhymie”; this one included (or are the couplets intended to quicken the pace and heighten the intensity of the world collapsing around him? I can’t make up my mind about that). If the poetics of his eighth collection seem a little strained, it might just be because, at this stage in his life, the ‘message’ was more important to him. That seems true of almost all the poems of The Steeple Bush.
But…what is the message?—that is the question. What precisely was the Backward Step? The subject has generated a great deal of discussion. Read it through and see what you think…
One Step Backward Taken
Not only sands and gravels Were once more on their travels But gulping muddy gallons Great boulders off their balance Bumped heads together dully And started down the gully, Whole capes caked off in slices. I felt my standpoint shaken In the universal crisis. But with one step backward taken I saved myself from going. A world torn loose went by me, Then the rain stopped and the blowing And the sun came out to dry me.
As you surely already know, Frost loved to stay with the “concrete” object of each poem’s focus, all the way to the very end, leaving only subtle hints, tiny slips of clues, that he might be launching into something deeper and more spiritual. With almost all of his works, he could easily insist: “the poem is simply about the “thing”. That “road not taken”, for example, or those lovely “woods” that snowy evening; that “wall” in serious need of “mending”; or that game he used to play atop the “birches” as a boy.
But, in spite of the subtlety, the clues are there! We see them and we know that he is “launching” into something deeper. That’s what makes each poem so delightful. He lets us “discover” it on our own and that makes us feel good about ourselves. How thoughtful of him! How generous! It’s so much better than just blatantly “telling” us! Don’t you think?
As for this particular poem, Frost did once tell his biographer, Elizabeth Shipley Sergeant, what “concrete thing” inspired it. She quotes him here:
“I got the idea when, from a train window in Arizona, I watched a violent storm in an arroyo. Just as a car drove onto a bridge over this dry riverbed, an avalanche of water from the height above flooded under it. The car backed off barely one second before the bridge was carried away.” 1
Our New Hampshire man had just witnessed his first Southwestern flash-flood! Later when he put it to the poem, it turned out to be a marvelous description.
But that is not the “meaning”, and the “meaning” is what we are looking for. The hints of a deeper meaning are obvious enough: not just “cliffs” but “whole capes” are being “sliced away” by the deluge. It’s the poet’s “standpoint” that is in danger, not just the physical ground beneath him. The “crisis” is a “universal” one too. And it is not just a caving “gully” that his “backward step” has saved him from, but a “world torn loose” and rushing past him.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
Ms Sergeant puts it well here: “The poet-speaker, with his subtlety, puts up a wonderful bluff…describing visually a dramatic escape from a crisis in nature, a terrifying flood that nearly sweeps him away, while all the time he is talking about landslides in his thinking.” 2
There are plenty of possibilities as to what the endangered “thinking” was. Back when he was only twenty, living in Virginia, he was devastated by the breakup of his engagement to Elinor. On his journey home that day, after the painful encounter, he made his way to the very edge of the Dismal Swamp Canal with the thought of throwing himself in and ending it all. But somehow, there at the very brink, he took a “backward step” and aren’t we glad he did? He might have had that memory in mind as, decades later, he wrote this piece. 3 (By the way, Elinor eventually did say ‘yes’: his only bride for 43 years. When “the backward step” is wisely taken, good things come!)
There was another time in his life—while teaching at Amherst College—when he felt his “standpoint” slipping away. For four long years, a great, bitter rift had widened between himself, the College President, Alexander Meiklejohn, and a hugely popular professor in the college named Stark Young. Frost thought Meiklejohn “unprincipled”, his discipline “chaotic”; his leanings “immoral, undemocratic and atheistic”. And as for Stark Young, the popular professor, after years of observation, Frost considered him “evil”: “a corrupting influence” upon the students, destroying their morals and filling their minds with “treason”. He had actually urged Meiklejohn to fire the man. By 1920—he was now 46—the tension was at a boiling point! And that’s when Frost took a “backward step”; tendered a resignation that saved him from being “swept” even further into a situation that, most assuredly, was destroying him emotionally. Later he marveled that he had put up with it so long.
He marveled too, that he had ever even considered giving up his love of poetry for the shallow halls of academia. 4 There is actually the case to be made that it was not the faculty feud, but all of liberal academia itself, that might have been the “flood” that he had “stepped back” from.
And then there are those who call this an “anti-war poem”; incorrectly I believe, though certainly understandable. It is a tempting theory, since it was written in 1946. The war was certainly a “universal crisis”: a “world torn loose” and swept away!
Purveyors of this view have often been unkind. They see the poem as “cold”, “selfish”, with a message along the lines of “thank goodness I didn’t have to go”.5 With all the world being swept into the chaos and insanity of war, the poet takes a “backward step” toward personal peace and safety.
Those who offer this interpretation will point to the poet’s pacifism. But they are actually wrong about that. It is true that Frost was a pacifist in his earliest years; in the wake of World War I that is, and how many millions of Americans joined him in that position in the wake of World War I? And right at the brink of the Second World War, Robert Frost wasn’t sure that America should involve herself once again in yet another European conflict. Again: like millions of Americans! But—oh!—Adolf Hitler had a knack for resolving that debate; have you noticed? And that is exactly what happened to Robert Frost.
I love discussing the “real” Robert Frost on this issue. Even in his aversion to war, he was always, in fact, an outspoken nationalist: pro-American, all the way. “The more I love my country, the less I see it’s faults, and I am not ashamed to say it,” he once announced during a speech at the Library of Congress. 6
And he was not, at all, what we would now call a “globalist”. In New York one day—it was April of 1961—Frost spoke at the centennial celebration of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. After mentioning Tagore’s fervent nationalism, he added: “I’m a terrible nationalist myself. And I can’t see how one can be an “internationalist” unless there are nations to be “inter” with.” 7 (I love it!)
On his 85th birthday, someone asked him if he had a “wish for the world”. “For the world?” he replied. “No. I’m too small for that, but for my country? My chief wish is for it to win at every turn in anything it does.” 8 Needless to say, that certainly would have included the war to eradicate Hitler.
Speaking of which, from the moment the Second World War began, Robert Frost had not a shred of his old pacifism left in him. As early as 1941, in a letter to his friend, Luis Untermeyer, Frost actually insisted that America should fight the war against Hitler alone! He didn’t trust the Europeans and the way they’d handled the First World War. And he didn’t, at all, like our alliance with the communists. He was also concerned that the “right kind of democracy” should follow in the war’s wake. And so: “I have decided that we should take over everybody’s quarrel with Hitler and fight the war out with American forces alone.” 9
As you can see, in spite of the poem’s neat “fit” with the “universal crisis” of World War II, it doesn’t fit the real Robert Frost.
Well, speculations are always fun, but perhaps we should let the poet keep his underlying crisis to himself. We have enough crises of our own to deal with; don’t we? We really don’t need his.
This much we know: Robert Frost’s “One Step Backward Taken” is very much like “The Road Not Taken”: the lonely choice—never popular; but always wise—to step back from the chaos and insanity of this world, in whatever form that might be found. And if that doesn’t strike a chord today, I don’t know what will!
Well…”step back” to what? Oh, that is the question! Back to what we’ve always had and never should have left. Back to the mainstays: our faith, our courage, our hope, our love for one another, our trust in the only Sovereign God who, with a Word, called order out of chaos in the first place. And that makes this one very relevant piece of poetry today, because America needs that “one step backward”, now more than ever before.
Next up: one last Robert Frost “puzzle”: “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers“. Who on earth is that woman in the poem? Check it out. And be careful! There is a lot of foolish drivel on the internet about it. Drop me a ‘chat’ and give me your opinion on it. See you then!
- Elizabeth Shipley Sergeant, Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1960, p. 381.
- ibid. p. 382.
- Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1966, p. 173-181.
- Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1970, p. 120-121.
- George W. Nitchie, Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Duke University Press, Durham N.C. 1960, p. 143
- Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Later Years, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1976, p. 77.
- ibid. p. 421.
- ibid. p. 265
- ibid. p. 389.