Cherub Scorn
Bread Loaf School of English, 29 June 1959
Typed transcript, 33 p. Abernethy Manuscripts [Frost] / Tape Transcriptions. Transcribed by India Tressault '80.

[Reginald Cook introduces Robert Frost]

Robert Frost: Well, I h—I heard the introduction that time. It was talking right to me, so I can start there. The, it throws me off my intentions a little. But suppose I assume an air of scholarly authority and, uh, start with a subject like this: cherub scorn. Know where you are? Cherub scorn. We don't approve usually, you know, in, in, in my, uh, in my, Lib, intellectual hide-out. Appalachian. Places like that. We don't approve of a noun used as an adjective. But it seems to be necessary there. It's E—Emerson speaking, you know. His, that's the whole of Emerson. Cheru—cherub scorn.

Now, you're all here to ke—catch up with something or keep up with something or get ahead of something, I suppose. And so you've probably heard of the, the, the, I helped found this one, I'm p—I'm told, right now. I helped found this, this whatever it is. But I, I, you've probably heard of the, the new college we're starting up by Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, source of everything, you know. And, I won't go into it too fully, uh, some of us happened to be together, nine of us, and we started voting furiously, see, getting five to four results all the time [laughter], and, and, uh, as we voted this new college gradually took form. Uh, and [unclear] the first novelty in it, you may have heard, is that sometimes we d—t—made a decision on, by the minority vote, see. Sometimes by the majority, sometimes by the minority. And we decided that by lot, see [laughter]. We thought, after using all our brains, we ought to leave something to God [laughter]. And, so a lot of it grew out of that.

And, the, just, it's just, just to, w—word or two about it. The first thing abou—the first slogan, the first, uh, uh, phrase to remember, it was a sch—college that was to be all head and no overhead. See, we were to get along without the foundations at all. We were to go unfounded. And, the next thing was, uh, we were going to have po—no one admitted to it who didn't come with a proposal or a suggestion for the college, for the country, for the world, for life. Come with a s—proposal. See. "I have this to propose," or "Wouldn't it be a good idea to, to think this." No one w—should be admitted.

Then, uh, two or three more things you may have heard. The, the three departments only. It's to be very simple. First, superstition; second, science; and third, gossip [laughter]. I myself, uh, uh, I have teachers for all three [laughter]. I, myself, assume the science one [laughter]. I have some special respect for science that I want to, want it to behave itself, see, I w—I want to take care of science. And, we won't go into this too much ton—la—sometime, perhaps, I'll see you later and tell you more about it.

And, uh, then the teachers that come to it are to be warned of one particular thing: that they must bear with cherubic scorn. We don't want anybody who hasn't a, hasn't a proposal, a suggestion for the school, for the country, for life in general, for the, the world, and for the U.N. Everything like that, you know. And we don't want anybody around that hasn't something like that. But we don't want anybody around who hasn't at, at the age, we, at that—the age, say, of eighteen to twenty-five, or so, right along there, those years, you know, h—h—isn't a case of cherubic scorn.

Now cherubic scorn is the scorn, uh, a y—a, a l—a really eager spirit has for people who are l—older people, the old guard, older people who are lost in the difficulty of betterness. Betterness is hard, you know, and the old guard are, are pe—all people who have given up on it, you know. And, uh, they deserve cherubic scorn. Emersonian scorn. He stayed cherubic all his days; he knew it, eh. He n—he knew that he had the feeling of, of, uh, of contempt for a person that had aged to the point where he'd given up newness, betterness, you know.

And, uh, uh, f—for instance, and now I, I don't have to go into that too much, but I've lived with it. It begins, cherubic scorn begins for the old guard when the old guard gets to be about thirty [laughter], see. No—no—[unclear] you have to stand it. I've lived through it, good many years. And always enjoyed it more or less. I just thought I'd tell you about that, and be a little Emersonian to begin with. You know E—Emerson, uh, uh, that's just that two words is the heart of all the Emerson writing. Cherubic scorn. Surprise subject [laughter].

Now you aren't here to listen to me talk this way. I just thought I'd o—open something for you think of, think of while I'm reading to you [laughter]. Uh. Isn't it, isn't it strange that you've read that "Uriel" poem so many times and never stopped there as the very heart of it all, and the heart of all Emerson. Cherubic scorn. Uh. Isn't it strange. All the courses you've had, everything in, in Emerson. I just want, I want to show you a little cherubic scorn of my own, that it's… You see, uh, along comes a new idea t—like communism and, with each cherubic scorn. I lived through all that, uh, l—lived through all that in the early twenties at Amherst College. I was just surrounded by young people who scorned my, scorned me for not seeing this new hope, you know. The whole, the whole school was full of them. It was a new hope to them. And it was very attractive in some of them. Some of them went, gave it up, they're old guard now. Worse than I am [laughter].

Right. The, uh.., I have a long poem, uh, that I shan't read you tonight. It'll be in m—my next book. It's a good deal about, uh, flight. Flight. And, uh, it's the reason why I'm going to take the th—uh, the, the second, second department, science department in m—in this new college. It's all, you know, you're listenin' to, so—listenin' to realities and, uh, the, uh, it begins with my visit when I was young—I shan't read the poem to you—to, uh, at Kitty Hawk, long before the Wright Brothers were there. And it ends with its dawning on me that all science—that I used to think was dimos—domestic science only—see, took some time for me to get over that—domestic science, the scie—it's our hold on the planet, see. It's domestic. And it's been that all the time. And it might look as if it was going to be, uh, go—going to be a kind of interplanetary tourism next, you know. And, uh, th—that question is up.

But it dawned on me at that point that all, the whole, the great enterprise of, of life, of the world, the great enterprise of our race, is penetration into matter, deeper and deeper. Eh. Carry the spirit deeper into th—into matter. And though it looks like something different out into space, that's, uh, that's just deeper into matter. Just a material penetration of the spirit, of the ethereal into the material. Put it that way: in—of the m—th—and that that, that is our destiny. That's why science is the, is our, is our greatness. It's got with our penetration into the material.

[Reads and rereads "Kitty Hawk."]

And that's just the same if you're writing a, a, a Doctor's thesis, see. You're risking spirit in substantiation. And usually the spirit gets lost [laughter]. But it's, you've got to take the risk. Sometimes it doesn't, you know. And that's, that's, that's science. Sometimes it fails, sometimes, sometimes in the byproducts of science we lose the spirit entirely. But, but not in, not in, not in the act of, of scientific penetration, deeper, deeper, deeper; further, further, further. "[We] cannot look out far./ [We] cannot look in deep." But, as far as we can and as deep as we can. As far out as we can, still into matter, further into matter. I just, that outlines the, a poem that I won't read you. I quoted a part of it, the part of it I want you to hear.

[Rereads "Kitty Hawk"]

Now we leave, leave that [unclear]. And go to, uh, suppose I begin with something I have in my head. Uh, uh, s—some off-hand ones. Uh, we, I joke about science, and we all do. This is, this is a real field day for comics, uh, for comic strip teasing, you know, everybody can make his own comic strip, that is to say. And, one like this I, I ma—I made.

[Reads first two stanzas of "Lines Written in Dejection on the Eve of Great Success"]

[Laughter] S—no—no—now you'd think that, you know, that I was bothered by science and things like that, but we're all, we, we have a right to tease those people till they really get somewhere. Why don't they go? I notice that Mr. Killian was warning us not to get too excited about getting into space, telling the President that, that w—that we better tend to some other things, too. L—licking the Russians, I believe he meant. Better l—lick the Russians than go, than, uh, explore the moon.

Uh, let's see, then, uh, see one of the things you have in my school, i—in the gossip col—in the gossip department, is to learn to distinguish between a vice and a propensity [laughter]. It's quite necessary. And, uh, to do that, now you take the prope—take this is a sh—a propensity, jealousy's a propensity, it isn't a vice. And this, this is one, I don't know the name of this one. The, "The Objection to Being Stepped On." That's a propensity, too. You ought not to mind that if you're a good liberal, you know. But you do. You can't help it. Uh, uh,

[Reads "The Objection to Being Stepped On"]

[Laughter] And that has all to do with this question of back and forward. You have to be reminded that the Hungarian revolution that occurred just before my time that I heard a lot about when I was young was all fought nearly with farm tools. The poor peasants. With pitchforks and flails and anything they could lay hands on. Weapons go one w—go to tools, and tools to to w—weapons. You know, it's back and forward. That's what that poem's about. It's deeper than you think [laughter].

Then, for this sort of place up here. Uh, this sort of lap of, this little town is almost a l—a lap in the mountains. Uh.

[Reads "Birthplace"]

That's one I never read before. I thought I'd look around a little tonight. See.

The—then another one that I have read many times. And, I, I often read this the same as you'd sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" when you get through with an occasion. Uh. This is called "The Gift Outright." Uh, it doesn't sing like "The Star-Spangled Banner," I didn't mean that. And I'm not comparing it to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

[Reads "The Gift Outright."]

The—then another. Here's one I haven't read much. Uh, "A Young Birch." Uh, this is a harder one to read.

[Reads "A Young Birch"]

And, that's away down late among them. Let's take something way back early. Uh, "To The Thawing Wind." This's what we waited for in the spring when, in the old days when we were shut in on the farm. "To The Thawing Wind."

Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate'er you do tonight,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit's crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
[Uh, r—[unclear]
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o'er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
[Uh,] Turn [me] out of [doors].

I s—I s—there's a line I can't say there, the last of it. You can look it up [laughter].

Here's another, another country one. Uh, I don't know how I put that word in there that last word, I wasn't [unclear] [laughter] [unclear]. Mo—this one's called "Mowing."

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about [the,] the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the [v—]swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

You know, I often think in these poems, uh, that one line in them, nearly every one of them, one line in them has something to do with my own philosophy of art. Not "philosophy" but philosophy of art. You take that line there, doesn't it, of course. "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." Uh, the, the doting on things, gloating on things, just dwelling on, dwelling on things. Not getting up things, not exaggerating things, not whooping things up, but just dwelling on them.

And…what else I have here. Here's a, here's a California one. A memory of California, uh, San Francisco, the climate of San Francisco. Uh... "A Peck of Gold," this is called. Child's, this is a child's one, really.

[Reads "A Peck of Gold"]

[Laughter] You see, I, I didn't say beforehand that I was changed from saying that when, when I got east. I lear—uh, in, in the east I found everybody saying, "We all must eat our peck of dirt." I was a Californian. [Unclear]

Here's another, uh, California one.

[Starts to read "Once by the Pacific"]

I can't see you. It's getting dark, isn't it. Isn't there any light? Doc? Just a little light. I don't want to see—talk in the dark. [RC in background, inaudible] That's it. That's better.

RC: You still want this?

RF: What?

RC: Want this?

RF: I don't need that. Uh, I can have it off and on. Summertime I need it.

This one is called, "Once By The Pacific." This is out at the Cliff House Beach when I was young, bef—I left there when I was very young, but I, it's one evening when I felt as if I was alone out there. I probably wasn't. Probably my parents were somewhere near.

[Reads "Once By the Pacific"]

May be true what I have heard. [Unclear]

Then some, some of the ones that, uh, uh, I mustn't just try to get away from those that I been reading. I got to say this one to you. "Provide, Provide." Wait a second. That isn't what I'm gonna say, uh.

[Reads "Triple Bronze"]

[Laughter] Some more politics. Uh.

And…"To start the world of old..." Uh, this is called "It Is Almost The Year Two Thousand," you've noticed.

[Reads "It's Almost the Year Two Thousand" followed by "The Secret Sits"]

Then I have some more like that, haven't I, that are going to be in the new book. The one, uh, fg—like this one.

[Reads "Forgive, O Lord…"]

[Laughter and applause] I, I, saw, uh, Aldous Huxley s—uh, s—speaking about dubious human existence, you know, our dubious position in the universe, dubious, isn't it, terrible. [Unclear] We must all feel that way or you wouldn't be, uh, released in a laugh about that, you know. What is it, what is it?

Uh, then, then one that isn't so funny as that, or so deep as that. Uh, uh, gets you down to thinking of elementary things, whether w—w—w—see, I spoke of the, uh, the older people that get lost in the difficulty of attaining oneness and pureness and, and all that sort of thing, and how, w—on what terms they give it up. What i—that's what they call philosophy, I suppose. Something like that. That's what they call wisdom, and, uh. But one of the dreams, of course, is that there's some sort of an element—hydrogen or something—that is, is the one thing we could all be, you know, that there's some oneness somewhere. And, uh, i—far as you get, there is none. The amoeba, you think of, and the amoeba you l—while you're looking at it it's, needs a psychiatrist. It's troub—got something another person going on inside of it [laughter]. See, it's a self-con—barely containing itself. There's a doubleness right there. It's, uh, uh, uh, uh. Well this, then this little couplet I made once, from looking at a lump of iron that was supposed to be perfectly pure, and meant the oneness we w—could all attain. And the purity. And I said,

[Reads "From Iron"]

And the, she—the, the lump of iron, the purest iron, is at once tools and weapons, as in that other poem I told you about, see. It's tools, and weapons, right while you're looking at it. Both the things. Everything's like that.

Then I'll read you a longer one. I didn't say the other one I was going to say, did I? Uh, just for the, turning on a different note. Uh, "Provide, Provide."

[Reads "Provide, Provide"]

Uh, uh, it's funny, isn't it, how prophetic poetry is. I wasn't thinking of any m—uh, uh, American beauty from Hollywood marrying into Monaco when I wrote that. It was long before that [laughter]. "If need be,"

If need be occupy a throne
Where nobody can call you crone.

[Reads "Desert Places"]

There's one I shan't read you called "On the Heart's Beginning to Cloud the Mind." 0—one line in it is, it's taken out to be the title. "On the heart's beginning to cloud the mind." Little bit of psychology.

And… Uh, I like to look in for something I haven't written... Here's one. No. I'm fussy.

[Reads "Acquainted With the Night"]

All for the tune. [Unclear] is everything.

Uh, wait, I saw one here... This is a harder one. I may want to say this twice to you, it's short.

[Reads "Design"]

See, that hasn't any tune at all. That's the new way to write [laughter]. See, that's, that's gettin', uh, that's, uh, getting all the resonance out of it that you can get out. Uh. Um. There's plenty of tune to that "Provide, Provide," you see. And you…

I guess I'll read you p—uh, uh, one that I've read so many times that you, and, but you'll let me read it again. It's called "The Witch of Coös." And, if I can find it. [Turning pages] Hmmm. Uh... This i—, "The Witch of Coös."

[Starts to read "The Witch of Coös,"]

No, I can't read that. I haven't, I'm not sure enough of… I came without something.

Once when the snow of the year was beginning to fall,
We stopped by a mountain pasture to say, "Whose colt?"
A little Morgan had one forefoot on the wall,
The other curled at his breast. He dipped his head
And snorted [to] us. And then he had to bolt.
We heard the miniature thunder where he fled,
And we saw him, or thought we saw him, dim and gray,
Like a shadow against the curtain of falling flakes.
"I think the little fellow's afraid of the snow.
He isn't winter-broken. It isn't play
With the little fellow at all. He's running away.
I doubt if even his mother could tell him, 'Sakes,
It's only weather.' He'd think she didn't know!
Where is his mother? He can't be out alone."
And now he comes again with [a] clatter of stone,
And mounts his tail that isn't hair up straight.
He shudders his coat as if to throw off flies.
"Whoever it is that leaves him out so late,
When [everything else has] gone to stall and bin,
Ought to be told to bring him in."

And, then, uh, uh, this is called "One More Brevity."

The, uh, I got a poem somewhere about couplets, and how couplets symbolize metaphor. They're the pairing that, that deeper down in is the pairing of thought that is the metaphor. And, I, I o—if you watch me you can see in particular places a—how much I enjoy a pair of rhymes. I'm getting the couplet right in the matter of the long poem. The couplet is my game just the same as a metaphor is my game. The couplet is the symbol of the metaphor. I just found that out, same as I found out about… Emerson. It's funny how long you live with a thing before it dawns on you what it all is. Cherub scorn. Uh,

[Reads "One More Brevity"]

And that p—that puzzles so many teachers and so many students they don't know, you know, what, they're seeking something more than the mere, what seems to be the, uh, people say to me right out, "I know what you mean, but, uh, just what's eating you?" [Laughter] Uh, see, that's, and so I, I've put that in verse, way, way back. I saw it quoted yesterday. Uh, it's called "Revelation." This brings God into it again. We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
See. You could say that about any poem you write. Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out,
See. We still want to be found. ['Tis,] 'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
Does seem a pity, doesn't it? They don't get it. You say that, you feel that so much. You measure them, you're testing people. It's like examination all the time. Who gets it, who doesn't, and how far do you have to go with them and, and how far will you go with them, how far can you go with them. But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
Uh, that's an ol—old, long, long, long, fif—seventy years ago I wrote that. Sixty years ago, sixty years, long since sixty, nearly seventy. Take that again. "We,… We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.
'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end,
We speak the literal do inspire
The understanding of a friend.
We have to be so darn literal about it. But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
This's same question of why God came to, came to, had us, a son, down this, in this neighborhood. He had to try to come from behind. And then, often times when you come from behind to tell, tell about it, you're, you haven't made it any better.

Let's go back to… this, this one, 'nother o—young one that I wrote. [Out,] Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question "Whither?"
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
[To,] To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
That's one of the early ones, too.

Now shall I read one old-timer like "Mending Wall"? And maybe one sassy one to end up.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall… [Laughter] See my trying to make believe I'm reading it [laughter].

Someth[ ] there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun.
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit [o—uh, have the rabbit] out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
[Uh,] We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under [the] pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors?" Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone [sa—uh,] savage armed.

Not an old stone savage, an old-stone savage, paleolithic, that means, you see. Uh,

…like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

You know, I've read that so often, and I don't feel s—I sort of lost the right way to say "Good fences make good neighbors." See, there's a special way to say it I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to've gone down. Say it two different ways there. That's what it's all about.

All right, then. Uh, uh, this is "Departmental."

[Reads "Departmental"]

[Laughter and applause]

Do you want to say what it'll be? Doc? [Unclear]

RC: How about "Away!"

RF: What?

RC: "Away!" or "Choose Something Like a Star."

RF: Which one?

RC: "Choose Something Like a Star."

RF: Or a little one? "Choose Something Like a Star."

All right, uh,

[Reads "Choose Something Like a Star" followed by "In a Disused Graveyard"]

…One of the odd things is to hear some of my friends say that "Stopping By Woods" is a death poem. Of course 't'ain't [laughter]. Eh, 't'ain't tainted. Uh, uh, but this is a death poem that, uh, uh, Doc wants me to say.

[Reads "Away!"]

All right. Good night. That's all. [Applause]

…I feel like just, like asking you now but you can't tell me, you see, what are you here for, to, to hear me read poems, or see me read poems [laughter]. Or to, to hear if I have anything, uh, naughty to say [laughter]. Something wicked about education or something, you know. And this b—uh, I'm the greatest living authority on education. That's why I keep founding new colleges [laughter]. [Unclear] But it is interesting to me. I've heard it said that, that, uh, that I never, that I say the same—everybody knows what I'm going to say. See, you knew I was going to say all that about this new college, you see, I knew you did. But they always know what I'm going to say. Probably they mean by that that they always know what my bias will be, see, what my politics will be or something like that. You can tell I'm going to vote for next, probably. Probably you can, probably you can't. And you c—and, uh, when you, uh, you, you, y—you could probably find out if you listened long enough, that my great, second greatest admiration is, uh, is from, uh, ma—Madison. Madison, see, so you want to no—you heard that before probably. I'm always wondering if you think I know—you know what I'm going to say next, And this, uh... [unclear].

Isn't it beautiful, you know, to think that, uh,

[Reads excerpt from "Berrying" by Ralph Waldo Emerson]

See, now I never got away from that in my life, that earth is a, is a, is "truculent with force and fraud." The force is you mo—is the fist and the mouth is the fraud, see. And when the lawyers have stopped talking with fraud, and when you get sick of hearing the mouth going, you know, the fraud going, why then you go to war with a fist. That's what Emerson meant by that. See, he was no pacifist. "Truculent with force and fraud." And, and, but he thinks he got out of it by picking blackberries [RF laughs] [laughter]. Called 'em "Ethiope's find." Silly old abolitionist [laughter]. Wonderful world. That's what I, uh, w—you see, that's my turn, be my, my turn to try to find out from you [unclear] whether you wanted to, whether I just, you know what I'm going to say so no use in my saying I'd better get to reading so you can see me read, All right, good night [laughter]. I'll never know [applause].