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Frost's "sensible conversation" with Hazlitt.

Although William Hazlitt's Table-Talk (1821) and Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819) were staples of the teacher Robert Frost's assignments at Amherst College (Lawrence Thompson, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph 1915-1938 [NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970], p. 603), the idea that Hazlitt's writing was an influence on Frost's writing has not attracted the attention of scholars. Even Robert S. Newdick, who hinted that Frost's prose style had "the tone and manner, to borrow Hazlitt's phrasing of his own ideal style, 'of lively, sensible conversation,'" failed to follow through on his insight ("Robert Frost's Other Harmony." Sewanee Review [Summer 1940]: 48: 411).

Instances of affinity and influence are not lacking, however. In A Boy's Will (1913), for example, the poem "The Tuft of Flowers" tells a story of the poet's coming upon some blossoms spared by an early morning reaper who has worked the field by himself: "The mower in the dew had loved them thus, / By leaving them to flourish, not for us, / Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him, / But from sheer morning gladness at the brim" (Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, ed. Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson [NY: Library of America, 1995]: 31). The metaphors in these lines--the explicit "mower" and the submerged "quaffing"--recall Hazlitt's essay "On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth": "we quaff the cup of life with eager thirst without draining it, and joy and hope seem ever mantling to the brim," for "objects press around us," Hazlitt explains, "filling the mind with their magnitude and with the throng of desires that wait upon them, so that there is no room for the thoughts of death" (Selected Essays of William Hazlitt 1778-1830, ed. Geoffrey Keynes [London: Nonesuch, 1934]: 312-13). While Frost does not bring his thoughts of death to the surface of this poem, it is natural to think that the very act of mowing and harvesting might call them forth in anyone mindful of the employment of scythes and sickles in Western art and poetry, especially, perhaps, in the case--as in Frost--of one harvesting in a field by himself, not to mention the familiar figure for death. A different way in which Hazlitt may have influenced Frost occurs in an anecdote Hazlitt repeats in "On Thought and Action":

Abraham Tucker relates of a friend of his, an old special pleader, that once coming out of his chambers in the Temple with him to take a walk, he hesitated at the bottom of the stairs which way to go--proposed different directions, to Charing-Cross, to St. Paul's--found some objection to them all, and at last turned back for want of a casting motive to incline the scale. Tucker gives this as an instance of professional indecision, or of that temper of mind which having been long used to weigh the reasons for things with scrupulous exactness, could not come to any conclusion at all on the spur of the occasion, or without some grave distinction to justify its choice (Table Talk or Original Essays [London: J. M. Dent, 1908]: 101-02).

For Tucker's friend substitute Frost's speaker and you have the situation Frost takes up in "The Road Not Taken" (1915), in which Frost playfully chides his friend (Edward Thomas) for his habit of vacillating before choosing the "right" path for their morning walk. For "calculation is usually no part in the first step in any walk," Frost tells us (Selected Prose of Robert Frost, ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem [NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966]: 25). Incidentally, in the same essay--"On Thought and Action"--Hazlitt praises the English hero Oliver Cromwell for his "cautious daring" (106), prefiguring the moral Thomas Gray draws in "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes"--"Be with caution bold"--which Frost was fond of quoting ("'For Glory and for Use,'" Gettysburg Review 7 [Winter 1994]: 92).

My last case involves Hazlitt's account, in his "Lecture on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth," of the genius of Sir Francis Bacon, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist.

[Bacon] views objects from the greatest height, and his reflections acquire a sublimity in proportion to their profundity, as in deep wells of water we see the sparkling of the highest fixed stars. The chain of thought reaches to the centre, and ascends the brightest heaven of invention. Reason in him works like an instinct: and his slightest suggestions carry the force of conviction. His opinions are judicial. His induction of particulars is alike wonderful for learning and vivacity, for curiosity and dignity, and an all-pervading intellect binds the whole together in a graceful and pleasing form. His style is equally sharp and sweet, flowing and pithy, condensed and expansive, expressing volume in a sentence, or amplifying a single thought into pages of rich, glowing, and delightful eloquence" (Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe [London and Toronto: Dent, 1930-34], 6: 327-28).

Here is how Frost applies Hazlitt's explanation of Bacon's genius to the more mundane situation dramatized in "For Once, Then, Something" (1920):
   Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
   Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
   Deeper down in the well than where the water
   Gives me back in a shining surface picture
   Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
   Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
   Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
   I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
   Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
   Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.
   Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
   One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
   Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
   Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
   Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
   (Poems, 208)

Frost is of course well-aware of the dangers posed by self-absorbed narcissism, but that's not the thought that comes into his mind at the moment. His interest lies somewhere else: what might the "whiteness" he has perceived teach him. If Frost's attention was attracted to the idea that Bacon's reason worked like an instinct (suggestions and opinions that are judicial, carrying the force of convictions) in a style that is "sharp and sweet, flowing and pithy, condensed and expansive," he would also have admired Hazlitt's own easy movement from a consideration of Bacon's own views and "reflections" to the trope of stars seen in their reflection at the bottom of a well, hinting at harmony or even consilience. Frost's "For Once, Then, Something" also works reflectively as a poem deriving from the speaker's personal experience of having perceived a reflection of light from some object--some "thing"--resting at the bottom of the well. The important thing is that he is convinced that what he has seen is not in any way a limited or limiting self-reflection. It might even be said that the "whiteness" he has glimpsed "witnesses," from some perspective, something real, something that is grander even than Bacon's power of thought. But Hazlitt's "highest fixed stars" do come into play elsewhere in Frost's scheme of things. In "Choose Something Like a Star" (1943), his advice to those vexed by considerations and confusions is to "choose something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid" (Poems, 365).

George Monteiro, Brown University
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Title Annotation:Robert Frost and William Hazlitt
Author:Monteiro, George
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
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