On Science
Bread Loaf School of English, 3 July 1961
Typed transcript, 31 p. Abernethy Manuscripts [Frost] / Tape Transcriptions. Transcribed by India Tressault '80.

Reginald Cook: [Unclear] …following talk and reading by Robert Frost was given at the Bread Loaf School of English, July 3, 1961, and taped by Professor Erie Volkert, a member of the English School faculty.

Robert Frost: …various premeditations I have a week or so before everything that happens, and then I give them all up. I, I, uh, shall I say a speech to you that I said at somebody's birthday the other day [laughter]? Uh, I, made that up the last minute [laughter]. I, I changed it. I had another speech in mind and just as I went I thought, "No,I won't do it. I got to have another one." I said, uh, we, I said, uh, my favorite forms, of literature are English couplets, in our language, couplets, and Irish triads, eh. And I didn't give them an example of couplets. I write some myself. But, uh, I said, uh, for instance, uh, a triad, an Irish triad by a poet whose name I have forgotten. Ought to have it.

Three times when speech is better than silence. First time is when the king needs urging to war, eh. Second time is when there's a good line of poetry to utter. That speech is better than silence. And I gave an example of that. I said At tuba terribili sonita taratantara dixit, See [laughter], So I [unclear], so I sound [unclear] [laughter]. At tuba terribili sonita taratantara dixit, see, it's a good one. Sounds like it doesn't it [laughter]? Then [unclear] you can all understand that. That's an easy line.

Uh, and then I said, the third time is when praise is due, eh, And I said that, that bir—the fellow whose birthday were ce—man whose birthday we were celebrating is, uh, is in saying some awful nice things lately and he deserves praise for. And then I said, "And Harvard deserves some praise for producing him." And, that Harvard dever—dever—deserves some praise for having produced five presidents. Two more than any other college, you see. And, uh, I said it, and some of them right down up to date, right in the hurly-burly of the moment, you know, Two or three of them right there, or three of them, And then I—and the last thing I said was, you know them all. Two terrible Yanks, two Dutchmen, and a Mick [laughter]. That way my speech [laughter]. I, I just ha—I remember those things for a little while after I say 'em [laughter].

Then I was thinking today about, uh, something I'm going to write. Maybe I'd take you into my confidence. I'm going to write a, uh, a play, not called "The Scopes Trial," but the stel—"Telescopes Trial." [Laughter] See, I've always been interested in tr—astronomy. And, uh, it'll be, it'll be a little like "The Scopes Trial," if you know that, Maybe you've seen the play made out of it. Great misrepresentation of everybody. All s—everybody concerned. But I make it all right, set it all right [laughter]. And in the pla—play, I have it come out that we have more, uh, left to guide our lives, how to live, you know, our conduct, tha—from science than we do from mythology. Mythology of the Bible or any other mythology you want, see.

Now that's the way the play'll come out, uh, have, and, the, uh, for instance, I say, I, I'll o—offer it the first things, you see. I s—I was brought up in San Francisco, uh, and I learned, uh, [unclear] from the Chinese there I learned ancestor worship. I became a worshipper of my ancestors. So every morning since then when I got up, I thought, what must I do today to be worthy of my monkey ancestors [laughter]? And, that, you see where that comes out [laughter]. [Unclear] Pick fleas off each other, what do you do, you know [laughter]. Uh, believe they eat the fleas. They say they're very tasty [laughter].

And, then the, the story of the Garden of Eden, and the, and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, see. That's, that's some mythology, isn't it, from, from our point of view. But it's about all the boys. that I've ever taught, see, that are just, they just [unclear] the age I get 'em, they're just coming out of the Garden of Eden. They just, they're just having, uh, a go at the apple, you know. And, and it's a thing I have had to deal with all the time, They have to deal with it. And we have to deal with it decently without bre—talking too much psychology or psychiatry or going to anybody but, you know, at all about it. But it's the whole thing of the, all the books we're reading, all the things we're thinking, have to do with that, that knowledge. And, now I'm not going to talk long but that's just something else I thought of. Eh.

Amo—no—another one you want to hear that I might have talked, talked about. These two things are always passing through my mind. Uh, when I was a little, uh, a young Greek in the high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, uh, I encountered the word "electron," eh. And, uh, I knew that you got it, that the Greeks got—we Greeks got it by rubbing amber, eh. Made sparks come. And that's all I knew about it. That, and, uh, very slight thing, you see, that's come to make the modern world: rubbing amber to get a little, a few sparks that they gave the name to. That's, uh, that has something to do with sun brightness; brightness of the sun.

And then not many years afterwards in a change of fortunes, I was, uh, working in the mills, in the dynamo room.And I was handling magnets and electricity in various forms. I han—I worked on the dynamos. And the dynamo is a whirling ma—is whirling magnets, you know. I saw them. And, uh, there's a brush on the whirling magnets to pick up the sparks, eh. And I didn't go too deeply in it because I wasn't, I was—that wasn't my future. But how fa—it was very fascinating. I knew the magnets, I knew that from my Greek days, that they came from Magnesia, th—that's a part where the, where the f—earliest magnets were found. See, my Greek. And that little slight thing, you see, a little bit of f—Magnesia, a little bit of s—metal from Magnesia, a little spark from, that you got by rubbing amber and that looked like just a plaything for children, see. Look at what it's become!

And I was thinking that, I, I knew another slight thing that has stayed unused all these years. I rem—I remember seeing in a, uh, uh, in, under a tall dome a, a pendulum swinging back and forward, north and south, see, swinging back and forward, so long and tall, and so sort of almost detached from the earth that it fell behind the movement of the earth, see. Just a little bit, just enough to be something in the next fif—five hundred years, you know, You know what they're going to do in the end? They're going to, they're going to find s—uh, f—some way of leaving something behind while the world whirls under it, to get more force than they've ever had in the world before. See. The world's going to go whirling under something. They'll probably fasten it to the moon [laughter]. Well leave that there now. Ow! [Laughter]

But out of little things like that, you know, the future comes. It's coming out of that, I'm sure. I don't say how. But out of that little lea—something that is left behind by the world and the whir—that terrible, mighty world whirling at that terrible rate is gonna, is a perpetual motion, you know, forever, and you can go on multiplying all of you until this, as they say, there's only, till there's only standing room.

All right. Then, I'll just read because I read with no connection. I joke about science. I'm not joking about that at all that I'm saying. But I, I've said a lot of half-fooling things. People misunderstand me sometimes. They think I'm anti-scientist. Isn't it interesting that, uh, th—that in an editorial I read today about, uh, Hemingway's death, that they said that, th—made it a kind of a di—a dispute, the editor made a dispute about him, whether he was or he wasn't, you know, great or important, I guess. But the—one of the ideas was that he was anti-intellectual. Uh huh [laughter]. Whatever that means. One way to be intellectual is to be awful, just the way he was, you know, I thought, you know, to go for things, you know, unsparing. But he, it seems they think that's un—unintellectual to be a little rough-spoken or something. He was a g—let's, what all these, what is intellectualism? [Unclear]

Now shall I get just for the fun of it, uh, one sci—science one?

[Reads "Why Wait for Science?"]

[Laughter] I wrote that years, I wrote that years ago and the, the curious thing in that is that there's quite a, quite a theory going around now about how life began here by impregnation from, from meteoric impregnation. You know that's one of the fl—flourishing ones. And that's quite an idea, a—and you know, a—a—and you know what's going on two or three times a year? We, we get an awful dose of meteorites, you know, trying to impreg the earth, impregnate the ea—[laughter] the ea—the earth, earth with something better than we are. Don't you see that? See how fu—much fun there is in science. And how much fun there is in everything else.

All right. [Unclear] Another, uh, I'll settle down and be serious in a few minutes. The, uh, uh,

A theory—

Like these I'm saying,

[Reads "Etherealizing"]

[Laughter and applause]

Then let me just run away from all that and go back to, take, uh, I just, I'm not going to say a little poem I picked up. I found a little poem I must have written back in the Boy's Will days when I was very young and I haven't got it quite in my mind and I haven't it with me. It's only seven or eight lines long. And, but it so unmistakably sounds with the sound of that book, you know, You can tell if you've got an ear, you know. And, and the, and the attitudes toward life is so concentrate in that little thing; how it ever escaped me. It's kicking around, old sheet of paper. Worth $1,000 [laughter].

You know, that's one of the funny facts of existence: that, uh, uh, a little poem like that of mine that I gave to a friend, uh, he sold it at auction at a, at a fair they had out in Chicago, a church affair for Poetry Magazine, I suppose you might call it, and [laughter], and it sold for about $600—a little sheet. And, and that wasn't as good as this one [laughter]. Some old thing that I left around. And then the person that bought it put it up the next year and, and he gave it, and it sold for $1,000. S—so I know what the prices are [laughter]. And that was all church affair, though, where people pay more than they ought to, you know, on purpose [laughter]. So you can't go by it [unclear].

Well, let me just begin, uh, with, uh, let read two or three little ones back there, put us way back there where we belong and not, uh, not all this fresh business. This is autumn time. 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 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.

And then, uh, then here's one about farming.

I went t—

This is called "A Tuft—" "The Tuft of Flowers." I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

Now just let me say to those that don't know me: that was my job when I was young, to turn the grass after the mower. We called it "just turning it." It [unclear] scattered it a little to the sun. He mowed it in the dew and I, and I scattered it to be dried. I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been—alone,
"As all must be," I said within my heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown [ ]
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.
Uh, I get, said that right, uh, But as I said it, swift there passed—I got that wrong, didn't I. Uh, "As all must be," I said within my heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of [flower,] flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
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.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, [I—]I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
"Men work together," I told him from the heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."
And you see the part of that has something to do with everything I ever wrote, just, just, uh, um, put in there: The mower in the dew had loved them thus
By leaving them to flourish, not for us
Not to show to anybody, uh, Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
Just because he liked them. And that's the whole of the story.

Then, uh, back… Here's an odd little one back in those days, 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,] that in the end
We [s—uh, we] speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
Uh, and that's in the, But so with all, [uh,] 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.
And you see that's why you, why I'm here, to tell you what the poems mean. That's what that's saying, really, that. Back in those lonely days.

Uh, then, oh, this is another Octo—no, I'm not going to stay in that book. I'm going to the next book, uh, the end of the next book. See. Mmmm. I think I'm not seeing those quite clear enough. See if these help a little. Ahah. "Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day—" no, I don't like that [laughter]. Say some things. Uh, say more modern, uh,

[Reads "One More Brevity"]

Then some of the little ones, uh, for the children. I've got some children down here of my own. This, I have to say, they would, they, I—I'd g—get in trouble if I didn't say some of the little poems. Uh,

[Reads "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"]

You know, uh, ju—just to r—ramble around a little more, uh, uh, you know how, how easy it is to get poems wrong. Uh, we've just been saying down at my house an old thing that I've said a good many times by an old poet of a great n—number of a hundred years ago, and just see what you make of it. I know my [mind has] power to know all things,
Yet [she is ignorant, uh,] she is blind and ignorant in all:
[I,] I know I'm one of Nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.
I know my life's a pain, and but a span;
I know my sense is mocked in ev'rything:
And to conclude, I know myself a man,
Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.
Now, now what might you think from that, taken all, just, uh, is that, what is that? Is that agnosticism? Does he, doesn't know "nawthing," does he [laughter]. Except that life's pain, span. You know, but you couldn't make a greater mistake than to think that. You probably need to read some more of the poem. Those two lines are taken o—those two little stanzas are taken out and made of [unclear] known all over the world, fa—and, uh, uh, but the rest of the poem would show you that, that it's very religious. What fills up the, what fills up the not knowing is, is what, is believing. It's [unclear] most intensely religious poem, least agnostic thing you ever heard. And yet it sounds that—awful, doesn't it, that way? Uh, and it's meant to. I like it sound that, that way.

…Uh, take, uh, to say, say that. I know my [mind has] power to know all things,
Yet she is blind and ignorant in all:
I know I'm [na—]one of Nature's little kings.
[And,] Yet to the least and vilest [things] am thrall.
See. Uh, and, uh, I know my life's a pain, and but a span;
I know my sense is rock'd in ev'rything:
And to conclude, I know myself a man,
Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.
You know where the, the only word that lifts that into the rest of it is the word "proud." See. 'Cause he, he's [unclear]. Pride is, is faith. [Unclear] Very religious. Our most religious time in the world's history. Davies, his name is. And y—and an—any poem out of the context, uh, to, with a part taken out of the contec—might be like that. Taken out of context of a man's life, you know. But I, what I—other things you've said, many, many thing, many moods, sometime seeming very inconsistent. [Unclear] like that.

Now I mustn't keep you too long, so I must, must get around here. You see, take… Here are two, tho that it, that, see how these go together. This is called "A Soldier." Uh,

[Reads "A Soldier"]

Now that's one kind of ta—way of taking life, about war or peace. And, then, here's one I don't know as well, uh,

[Reads "Design"]

Do you want to hear that twice, see how bad it is [laughter]?

[Re-reads "Design"]

The, then shall I, oh, just ra—at random. Uh, th—this is a sort of a political one.

[Reads "Triple Bronze"]

Th—then… And I guess I'll, shall I have time to read one longish one? Yes, I've got, I'll read "The Black Cottage"—uh, no, no I won't. This light right.

[Reads "The Witch of Coös"]

Then I'll just, not finish off on that. Let's see some prettier thing than that. The… um… No, I'm going to say another harsh one, if I can find it. No, no I'm? not. I'll change my mind there.

[Reads "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep"]

That's about the telescope and the microscope. You didn't know till I told you, you see [laughter].

And then, uh, uh, I wanted to say one more. "There is a singer everyone has heard,/Loud—" [unclear]. No, [unclear], let's see. Let's put this one in.

[A—a—]All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane [in w—]in empty rooms.
What kept [him from g—uh, uh,]
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
[Tha—]That brought him to that [empty] room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having [s—]scared the cellar under him
[By clomp—clomping—]clomping [there], he scared it once again
[By] clomping off—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of [ ] branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
[A light he was where now, uh, uh,]
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
[Uh,] A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon—such as she was,
So late-arising—to the broken moon,
As better than the sun in any case[Th—uh,]
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the [walls] to keep;
And slept. The log [that shifted once, uh, with a,] that shifted with a [jar]
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
[But,] And [e—]eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can't keep a house,
A [home], a countryside, or if he [c—does],
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

Uh, I'd like a little farewell singing [unclear].

[Reads "Tree At My Window"]

Two or three little ones like that and then I'll s… Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, that's too hard.

[Reads "Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks in Length"]

[Reads "The Most Of It"]

[Inaudible] Say one or two mere recent ones, sort of, uh, the offhand ones. Uh, let's see, this one, uh, uh, "The Objection to Being Stepped On." [Laughter]

[Reads "The Objection To Being Stepped On"]

And then, let's see. Oh, then this terrible one, uh. I—th—this I never would print, I think, but it's, I can say it to you confidentially. [Laughter] Uh, th—Them two panacea guys— See, you get 'em? [Laughter] Them two panacea guys
Getting economics wise
Bid mankind homogenize
So the cream no more could rise.
Am I simply telling lies?
No, they did it in a dream
On which Stalin rose supreme.
[Who—]And who said he wasn't cream?
[Laughter] There could be more to that, couldn't [laughter].And then, little couplets kicking round. Uh, let's see, uh, It is from having stood contrasted— See, this is always coming up, this is just passing thing. You all know this que—how to settle this yourself. It is from having stood contrasted
That good and bad so long have lasted.
That's [unclear]. The, the, the introduction of evil is, uh, quite a different, uh, question. [Unclear] Then, uh, [singing]

[Reads "The Secret Sits"]

[Laughter] Blind, we're blind and ignorant and [unclear].

And then, then, uh, you must be quiet if I say this one to you. Don—don't say a word, will you? [Unclear] Use your self-control. They always want to, uh, something about it that releases something in, in, in wicked people [laughter]. Gives them, gives away. It's, uh, it's a prayer, in couplet. Promise me now. Not s—not a murmur, not a murmur. W—uh,

[Reads "Forgive, O Lord…"]

Quiet, see. Thank you [applause].

This, the, this's another prayer. Like a prayer, too. Only [unclear] myself, uh, as, as if I spoke to a star up there at the end of the room, you know,

[Reads "Choose Something Like A Star"]

You can get something far enough away like a star, you know, or like some poet, li—some mo—ancient poet, and think about it and k—take your mind off voting [laughter].

I—I just, I go over to, to finish up the Great Issue course at Dartmouth where they all, studied all year, all of them, every one in the senior class, has studied all year, how to get ready to vote once in four years. Uh, and, uh, and they, they tangle themselves all up, oh, the way I have, too, just the same, you know, [Unclear] every day's paper, sways me this way and that. You know, uh, in the, in the, when a new President comes in like this, every appointment that he makes is as if he hit me first on one side of the head, and then on the other side of the head [laughter]. This way, I go this way [unclear]. I know so much about 'em all. But far away is Catullus. Uh, we don't know, let the doom… Some Latin.

All right. Anybody want to talk about anything? Want to ask me for, something more, poem or…

??: [In background, unclear]

RF: No, no, that isn't fair. I never do that here, but I just,.. [unclear]. This, uh, let's see. One, one more little one. You want a familiar one like this, uh, um, uh, Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn [th—]them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this [wi—]with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Do you want to hear, uh, another dark w—one, not by me? Religious one? You see I just sai—I said that [unclear] I may start out sometime, do all, one evening a—m—poems I remember. I think I will. Of other people. Some day I'd like to recite to you, all, I, I know it by heart, I found the other night, a—all of Browning's "Protus." Do you know, you go look at and see what I carry [laughter]. [Unclear] I'd like to say it to you. Not tonight. And, uh, but here's the dark one for you. [I—]In either mood, to bless or curse
God bringeth forth the breath of man
No angel sire, no mother nurse
W—can change the work that God began
One spirit shall be like a star
He so delight to honor one
The other spirit he shall mar
None man do what God hath done.
I didn't write that. That's some more, that's fatalism, isn't it, just right, out-and-out. You don't, don't believe it, do you? You think you can do that, Psychiatrists can do something about it. [Unclear] All right. Good night. [Applause]