Being Let In On Symbols
Bread Loaf School of English, 25 June 1953
Typed transcript, 32 p. Abernethy Manuscripts [Frost] / Tape Transcriptions. Transcribed by India Tressault '80.

??: The following is a talk and reading by Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf School of English, June 25, 1953. Mr. Frost was introduced by Director Cook of the English School. He talked on "Being Let In on Symbols," and the recording was made by Professor Volkert, Director of Drama, Middlebury College, and a member of the Bread Loaf School of English staff.

[Reginald Cook introduces Robert Frost]

Robert Frost: The welcoming has been done so I don't have to do that. Seventh time you've done it for me. A good many, many times I've been here. More than twenty, I guess. Don't you think? Ever count them? And as for all these things about my expression and my communication: I'm, I seem to have been the last person to have thought of them [laughter]. All pretty uncalculated on my part. I must speak up, mustn't I? I haven't a machine to help me tonight. Remember [unclear] about here.

I, uh, what I had on my mind to s—talk about a few minutes, before I began to read to you, read the poems I've read so often, was, uh, a word, another word that people have been using a great deal and using too much for me, away beyond my, beyond my love for it—it's the word symbol, symbolism. I was shocked a little while ago, uh, to have a, a young grandchild of mine, uh, told by a college teacher that when she got the hang of the college teacher's symbolism she would do better [laughter]. And that scared me because, uh, I had a—always thought everybody was supposed to get the hang of everybody's symbolism or else we couldn't communicate. Because all we're doing is communicating with each other in, with double terms. We t—say one thing to mean that and another besides, another plus. Always do, always have, Bible and everywhere else. Parable is a story that means what it says and something besides. And the something besides is the, uh, according to, uh, the New Testament, the something beside is the more important of the two. It's that that the non-elect are supposed to miss [laughter] and so not get to Heaven. St. Mark says so and somebody else says so. It occurs twice in the New Testament. But these things are said this way so as to leave the wrong people out [laughter]. That sounds, uh, I love that because it sounds so undemocratic [laughter]. And that's not because I'm a snob, either, but I just love to be shocked, I think, don't you [laughter]? I like to come right up against something like that.

Now, uh, ther— the confusion, the trouble in our time in, uh, with teachers and students all the way comes from two thi—the misunderstanding, uh, uh, the confusion about two things. One thing is the ordinary thing, is to be, have been let in on somebody's symbols. Let in on them. Initiated into them. And that you think is what's going on mainly in the colleges. People are there to get let in on so and so's symbols, and also somebody else's symbols. And, uh, that is something I hadn't thought about until I had grown up to the present age. I just grown up to that. I always supposed I was good at symbols without being let in on them. I'm always annoyed when a word baffles me. I, I been bothered about one for the last week. Somebody brought it up: log-rolling. We all know the n—the s—uh, the symbol, uh, that that stands for, the political log-rolling. We use it. But where did it come from? Uh, I s—always think I can get at anything like that, [unclear]. Uh, let's leave that a minute.

I see a frustum, a frustum, pronounce it in English, a frustum. And I have the word "frustrate," see. And because I'm kind of a free and easy person, I like to think I can get those together but I can't. I think I'm j—just figurative enough to make a connection there, but I didn't notice the spelling when I was younger. See, frust—I wish it were frustrum, frustum, f-r-u-s-t-r-u-m, but it isn't. It's just frustum. And that means in Latin a, a bit, a piece. And I wish, i—it's a piece of a cone, eh. And I wish it was a frustrated cone [laughter]! [Unclear]. That's my fig—that's my figurativeness.

But now take this log-rolling. I've puzzled over it and puzzled over it till I got something out of it. I wonder what you make of it? See, that's the fun of it. I never see a wor—I hardly ever come across a word, and a fresh word to me w—in, uh, in poetry but that I begin, I, I, I do something to it as I go. I'm a slow reader, for that reason. I don't stop there but there's a s—deliberate speed, [unclear] the words that way as I go. Always was. Take it in a, in a thing like this. Are you good at it or have you been let in on it? It's only if you're good at it that I'm talking to you. If you haven't been, I don't want you to be let in on any figures I ever made. Don't want any teacher to let you in on me [laughter]. If you can't get in, if you're not good at it, you can't, uh, uh, so that I could say to you, say to you, uh, uh, needn't say to you, "do you get it?" Eh. Just same as, uh, when I crack a, crack a joke, if I ever crack one. Serious question. Uh, but when I crack a joke I hate to say, "do you get it?" [Laughter] Hate worse to have somebody nearby say, "he means…" [Laughter]

Well, the log-rolling. [Unclear] Leave that. The frustum. See, I, I went wrong on that. But the log-rolling, I think I got to the bottom of it today, thinking about it. You know we have what they call spelling bees and, uh, uh, spelling bee, sewing bee. And, uh, you know what those are. People get together and sew together for the church or something, and, uh, s—get together for a, for a game for amusement. And there used to be, uh, uh, a, uh, house-raising bee when everybody turned out and put the frame of a building up together and they used to, this is way before the time of, my time, that's why, why the figure's sort of lost but I can't rest until I get back to where it came from. Uh, there, there were bees like that in clearing the land. Everybody turned out and log-rolled together. And burned the logs, eh. They got it, what they call a burn, got a good burn, but the thing that, the, the thing was done in company in a, in a bee that way, and all helping each other with heavy work, just as they think they do in Washington now, you know [laughter]. I'm sure of that. [Unclear]

And I wouldn't be writing poetry or [unclear] a poem unless I thought I was some good at it. When I, when I was very young, and, uh, on, uh, uh, in Boston one day, I, uh, in a bookstore, I flipped open, uh, a square-shaped, thin book and this's what I read: I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
And I bought the book and walked home twenty-five miles just on those. 'Cause I thought, you know, every one of those, every one of 'em I got, I got instantly. Nobody had to tell me about them. And the, and the meaning of the, of the poem itself, though it was entirely strange to me, entirely strange. I always thought of my seeking goodness, see. This is called "The Hound of Heaven," and this is goodness chasing me, running me down. See, that was a new one to me. But I got it. Uh, that's Francis Thompson.

Now the other thing. Uh, the, uh, it says in, in another place in the Bible. It says, "Though you understand mysteries." See, mysteries. Very interesting to me that the word "mysteries" occurs so much. In the Corinthians, that is. He was talking to the people of Corinth, Paul was. And the people of Corinth were all fooling with ancient mysteries, Eleusinian and things like that. The—they a—all those cities were full of it, uh, and, uh, uh, the, the word, the word keeps occurring so that you wonder if there isn't black magic alluded to. And it is something like that. Ancient rites and things. And they're all the kind you wouldn't know, you wouldn't be able to guess unless you were initiated, unless you've been to graduate school [laughter]. Uh, you, no matter how good you are at, at that sort of thing. Uh, how you fancy yourself as quick in, in, in taking it. You, you, you can't do much with, with mysteries, uh, the real, the real mysteries. And that's so with some people's poetry. They want it to be mysterious. And if they want it to be, if they've got some secrets, let 'em keep 'em [laughter].

If I, uh, uh, it's a fair field, see, it's a fair field, that's what poetry is, a fair field for people that have come up from Mother Goose, you know, and its figurativeness, into the general figurativeness of grown-up people, that's all. And the poetry is the height of it. That's why poetry is the liberal art, see.

Oh, take, take Mr. Einstein right now on his birthday. He's up against it. Seventy-five years old and he has a little formula, a little equation. Four terms, you might call it. One term is zero. And, uh, he, uh, says, there it is. And he's sure that's it. But he can't solve it [laughter].

So then what's he do? He turns to poetry and tries to tell us. I think he never said for himself, I think people said for them, that he, his was a mystery that only twelve people were in on, and the rest of us couldn't expect to be good at it.

But he doesn't want to leave it so. He wants us—he wants us—he wants to say things that, uh, that people like us can understand. And so what does he say? He says, uh, in desperation, says, "I'm in the same fix that Newton was in, uh, when he had to invent a new mathematics. He invented one and I can't seem to." [Laughter] You know, touching. [Unclear] Metaphor. It is a analogy. And, uh, then he says, "I have sometimes wondered if I got away on the wrong assumption." See, this is in his letter to the Christian Science Monitor, of all places [laughter]. [Unclear] and, pathetic, touching. Some people are angry at him for having attempted what he has attempted, uh, like Prometheus, you know, they seem to resent him. But no, it's touching, uh, dramatic and tragic, almost.

Then he says, uh, uh, going way, way, way back in the thinking of the world. He says, "I'm not sure but the worl—universe is made of jelly or sand." That. About the continuity, discontinuity or continuity and that's come all the way down with the philosophers to him. And he says it in those simple, nice terms. Jelly or sand. Discontinuous.

Then he says another one, rather pretty one. Says, "Here I am asked to describe the universe." Nobody asked him but himself but it's n—nice he said it [laughter]. And uh, I, "It's as if," he says, "it's as if I was given two bones and asked to describe a megatherium." Pretty. Um, but you see, again, all the things like that, all the things, everywhere you go, uh, down, slight, trivia, plain.

Now, now the one, take the one about the jelly and the sand. That has a long, long history. That's a very deep, deep consideration. And, uh, but its rights to, it's the place to get hold of it right there, you can start there and go back to the, to the Greeks with it. It's just as well pick 'em up anywhere, if you're good at it. If you're no good at it, you're out. Uh, better go to college [laughter].

Then, uh, now let me show you something that's hopeless for you. Say, uh, I, I, uh, I'm, I. People came to Yucatan. Spaniards came to Yucatan. And they found what looked like a cross to them there, a cross, and their minds picked that right up as something they were already let in on. Religious symbol. But they were wrong. See, they thought St. Thomas or somebody must have been there. They were wrong, he hadn't been. Nobody had been there. And it was another symbol, that's all. You might have guessed. I think anyone good at it might have thought probably of the four winds or the four directions or something like that, you know. You might have gone to work on it that way. Altogether different. Ours is a long story that we've all been let in on by religious education. That's one thing.

But now I, uh, for the fun of it, I'll take you to Tibet. That's where all the mysteries are. If you meet anybody that's full of a new mystery, he's just been to Tibet. He's been reading some of the poets you know, he's been to Tibet [laughter]. Sanskrit or any of that. And, uh, here you know how it a—how it all is. You, can you handle these? I, I offer them to you, to you because you can't. I've been let in on them. Uh, they, uh, there are thr—three things called the three poisons, that keep us from attain—attaining Nirvana and so getting out of the round of existence. Three things known as the poisons. Uh, and, uh, the round of existence. You have to be careful about that. In translation it's often translated the "wheel of existence." Wheel isn't good, see. That's been chucked. It's, it's the round of existence. And, uh, but you want to get out of that, you see. Your object's to get out of that. It keeps going round till you get dizzy, you see, being born into so many different things. The things you can be born into, you know, are, are a—angels, human beings, animals, uh, Purgatorians, Titans, and, uh, yi—[unclear]. See, that's all. And angels, uh, you, e—e—even when you are an angel you haven't got out.

You can still be going round and round in that. And the three poisons that keep you out are the pig—know what pig means?—and the, uh, cock and the snake. Make anything of them? Probably not. In Chesterton's poem, you know, it says, I think it says, uh, There was a young wife of Antigua, How does it go? Who [spa—]said to her spouse, "What a pig you are." You know. He answered, "My queen,
Is it manners you mean,
Or do you refer to my figua?"
[Laughter] Does it mean gluttonous or it mean fattenous? It doesn't mean that in, in my religion, in my new-found religion. Uh, uh, it, uh, you'll have to guess hard. You wouldn't get it. Anybody make anything of it? Want to tell me? No, it just means ignorance. See? You're not in on it. You'd have to be told that [laughter]. The pig is a very bright animal in my un—understanding.

Now the cock means ambition, desire, and cockiness. I guess we get a little there, but it may have to do more with desire than anything else, And appetite, ambition, all that.

And the snake? You've got to—you know what your snake means. Some of my, my, my, uh, uh, rather immediate ancestors were called Copperheads. And, Civil War history. And we know what that means, what the little copperhead is, what the snake-in-the-grass is. That isn't what it is at all [laughter]. It's anger, just anger. [Unclear] But those are the three poisons that keep you from be—becoming the only nothing that's something. [Laughter].

Now I, I, I'm just enough, uh, so made that when I look at a thing like, uh, we'll say, uh, when I think, want, want to bring in a poem about the Coronation you'd say, uh, uh, I remember, Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I've been to Lon—
I pronounce "been" to rhyme with "queen," and, 'cause I've just been to London, eh. Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I have been to London to see the queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you see there?
I didn't see anything that I mightn't have seen
[if I stayed at home, but wha—but I might have seen]if I stayed home and saw a little mouse run under a chair.
And if I wasn't good at that I'd better not have been brought up on Mother Goose. And you wonder how deep those things go [unclear]. I've been to, I've been to [unclear], I've been to the, uh, Colorado Canyon, what'd I see there? I saw, I been to Niagara Falls, and what did I see there? I saw a lot of water com—falling, and I, just what I've seen fall—coming out of the faucet many, many times [laughter]. And so on.

The thing is, there's no story written that has any value at all, however f—straightforward it looks and, and, uh, free from doubleness, double entendre, and duplicity and double play, that, that i—i—that you'd value at all if it didn't have intimations of something more special than itself.

It almost always, it, when it's like that it comes under the head of synecdoche, a part, uh, of a hem of a garment, part for the whole, the hem of a garment, touch the hem of a gar ment for the whole garment. And that, that's what [unclear], that's what it's about all the time.

And, the only difference, my only quarrel with anybody, is that they seem to think, that this, that there's, uh, must be something beautiful in having it so that you have to be told. And I hate to be told [laughter]. After all these years I'm sorry when I'm caught unready for somebody's figure of speech, somebody's metaphor. And it runs right through [unclear]. The s—the symbol will do for it all. But metaphor, parable, allegory, synecdoche, are all the same thing.

I remember, uh, people, h—uh, some of the narrower people, very good in their subject, narrow people in the classics. They had an idea that there were eight or ten different kinds of figures. Uh, and that, that's one of the things I think that helped kill Latin as a general subject because all the figures are one figure. It's a live, live thing that keeps the, the, for the mind, uh, [unclear] or it's not rising to poetry. That's two things about it: good at it or let in on it. Now I, let me say this about my Latin. I had a lot of Latin and I never was good at it. See, I don't call it I was good at it. I can read what I read before rather easily [laughter]. And I worked at and got in on, worked in on. But as for a new, a new stretch of poetry, it's I'm not, you know, I'm, don't have a good time with it. But I'm not, not fast enough with it.

Am I, I read you, for the fun of it, for, there's a slip of paper that's going to my Christmas, I have a Christmas poem every year. And it hasn't been sent out, this year, my Christmas poem. And, uh, it's partly, it's mostly because I'm lazy, uh, but I have to find a better reason that that, of course, to present to the world. So I've had a little slip printed to put into it, uh, and this's what the printed slip says: "This Christmas poem though not isolationist is so dangerously near isolationist, it was thought better to, not to send it, or to send it out for Independence Day instead of Christmas." [Laughter]

…see the next figure I'm playing with there? [Unclear] The de—the devil of it is it's getting nearer [unclear] [laughter]. [Unclear] something awful [unclear].

Well now, here's uh, the, the, aw—th—after talking this serious way, the way I do, half, you know, it's, uh, half fooling about it but somewhat serious, I'm always afraid that for the first poem or two I read afterward everybody's, uh, uh, straining, will be straining too much. 'Tisn't like that. The first, the surface meaning, the anecdote, the parable, the surface meaning that, has got to be good and got to be sufficient in itself. Uh, if you don't want anymore you can leave it at that. Suppose I try one that's got a great deal of that in it. Some of them are, got more, some less. This is called "The White-Tailed Hornet." In blank verse it is.

[Reads "The White-Tailed Hornet"]

…one of the best I have known in my time, and both of them forsook poetry to do something for the next election. They thought one good election and the world would be saved. They tried three or four, see, [unclear] [laughter]. And this is about them. It's called "The Lost Follower." And, uh, it's really r—you can see it's anything but condescending.

[Reads "The Lost Follower" followed by "Not Quite Social" and "The Witch of Coös"]

I saw an amusing, you know, one of my great, old friends just got a book out now on the, on the Soviet state. And it amused me. I saw him with his mother. Came in and said, "My book's just out, Mother, on Rush—Soviet state. I expect to be shot within two weeks." I said, "Yes, we shoot at people in America for getting out books. They ought to be shot for getting out any book." He hasn't been shot. The book's been advertised in a big way, I notice, in the Tribune. Amusing idea that we shoot people for publishing books. They ought to [unclear] be shot [unclear], especially if they reverse [unclear]. That's an old joke. [Unclear] a joke.

Well, let's think about something else, uh. Amusing to watch his politics, drive him, his, his family belongs to Harvard by rights, and he has lots and lots of money, and so does the family. And he's got mad at Harvard for some reason, and now, they, his son is going to another college entirely, breaking with it, all about this, all about this thing [unclear]. You know, I don't know what his thinking is, but somebody's losing some money [laughter].

"Two roads—" uh, say some of the old lyrics to you. 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 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 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.
Let's see.

[Reads "Desert Places"]

Now I ought to say w—[unclear], uh, for the young people here, uh, that's mean [unclear]. Shall I say the one about, 'bout a Morgan horse? Uh. This, this one, this is one of the very, very double ones, you know, that I mean [unclear] on this. This is, this, this was written [unclear] one of the two in this, in this "Lost Follower" one that I just read to you, and though it sounds far, far away from it, [unclear] the Morgan horse,

[Reads "The Runaway"]

You see th—just for the fun of it I really, uh, I, I was asked to give a poem to this college magazine by one of the people in "The Lost Follower" and I gave him that poem because it was about him. I didn't tell him that. [Unclear] 'round about years afterwards. Somebody else told [unclear]. Uh [unclear], him and me.

Then, uh, see, uh, [unclear] here's another one for the, child-like one. I don't believe I have many like that. Here's one about California, where I, where I was born in, uh, on, on a rainy morning. The, uh, uh, i—in New England, you know, we say, uh, we all must eat our peck of dirt [unclear]. We all must eat our peck of dirt. When you drop a buttered—slice of bread butter side down, you know, you get dirt on the butter, but you eat, eat it just the same and just say we all eat, we all have to eat our peck of dirt [laughter]. That's what they call philosophy [laughter]. Well, out in California it's different. It's in New England they say dirt; out in California it's something else. This is my memory of California.

[Reads "A Peck of Gold"]

Now, now you can see that you, that's over the, it's for the summer that's over your head, you see, you, [unclear] but it, it's, uh, it, it, it means this, you know. When anybody s—uh, I, I, lately have been, I thank the Doctor, not mention it when he introduced me. It, it gets mentioned that I just had an honorary degree, or I just got some more money or something [laughter] I've had, everywhere I've been that's been mentioned that I got some more money [unclear]. Then I have to defend myself, I feel ashamed [unclear] some more money [unclear] I say, "Well, we all must eat our peck of gold." [Laughter] [unclear]

This, uh, I'll lea—leave that subject. This, uh, Pacific, only one or two poems about the Pacific. Here's another kind of poem about the Pacific. Uh, th—called, this one's called "Once By The Pacific."

[Reads "Once By the Pacific"]

That was written before either of the wars, either of the big wars, so it didn't [unclear], there's nothing personal about it.

Then… All right, don't want you to ask me why I didn't read such-and-such. What should I… you tell me if there's anything I've omitted.

RC: I'd like to hear "Come In," Mr. Frost.

RF: "Come In." [Unclear] one of our favorite birds up here is in this poem. [Unclear] I got introduced, [unclear] Doc Cook, uh, I might introduce him as the fellow beyond the fresh [unclear] poem. It's his special poem.

[Reads "Come In"]

I've always, I, I've been told by a bird man, somebody who knows all about birds, that birds never shift their perch at night and I have felt corrected somewhat. I'd made a generalization out of having made birds shift and be—having distressed myself [unclear]. One of the amusing things was I used to walk in the night along a thatched roof, a very old thatched roof that came clear down, uh, from way up, came down to my shoulders. And I used to scare the birds out of there in the night, they l—they lived in that, in the thatch. Do you know, you ever seen 'em? And I'd scare 'em out. It bothered me a lot 'cause I didn't know where they went, whether they roosted on the ground the rest of the night. And I was in distress myself but I was sorrier to distress the birds. Uh, that's always been with me, the notion of what becomes of a bird that is scared off its perch. That just that line, the only thing I don't get credit for.