Award Date

5-1-2014

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English

Department

English

First Committee Member

Donald Revell

Second Committee Member

Richard Harp

Third Committee Member

Christopher Decker

Fourth Committee Member

Stephen G. Brown

Fifth Committee Member

Jay Coughtry

Number of Pages

216

Abstract

It is no coincidence that Robert Frost draws on the European/American aphoristic wisdom tradition. From the fables of Aesop, to the esotericism of pre-Socratic Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Empedocles, to the works of moralists like Blaise Pascal and Michel De Montaigne, to Erasmus, Frederick Nietzsche and others, Robert Frost weaves diverse wisdom into his work. He does not, however, as much take verbatim the words or sentiments of those who inspire him. Rather he adapts the spirit of their thoughts for his own purposes. Why and how does he do this? What are those purposes, and their subsequent implications?

Frost's poetry lends itself to aphoristic and proverbial statement. That being understood, I believe that the role of such proverbial statements is first and foremost to reveal and examine the character of those involved in the poems in which such phrases appear. Examination is not always positive, but is always enlightening. Also, through such statements, Frost reveals a great deal about why he uses aphorisms and proverbs in the first place. By such, I mean more than just his love of classical learning. His love of order and the beauty order can bring forth in the face of chaos also plays into his fondness for aphorisms. So does an ever present attention born of his need to break away from constraint.

Along with thoroughly reviewing the relevant literature on my topic, I begin my study with an overview of what is broadly meant by the wisdom tradition. In this, I include such things as adages, aphorisms and proverbs. I also discuss how they are customarily employed, that is to say, how Robert Frost might have been used to hearing them employed by those around him. My goal in doing so is to show Robert Frost's placement in terms of the wisdom tradition, and therefore to make his adaptations of it, and/or deviations from it clearer and more impactful to my readers.

Within my study I move from the ancient to the modern. I begin with the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers accompanied, where fruitful, by the fables of Aesop. I believe that the philosophy of Pythagoras, particularly the Pythagorean mysteries with their accompanying aphorisms, is highly applicable to many Robert Frost poems, such as “Mending Wall,” and “Directive.” Many of his essays, such as “The Figure A Poem Makes,” show the same ideas. The theories of Empedocles likewise illuminate many Frost poems, simultaneously revealing much about the figures in each poem. Such revelations occur whether the figures are human or natural, and also whether the poetic landscape created for them is man-made or natural. Although Robert Frost was a self-styled Dualist, philosophically, he still found much of use in the writings of the Monist Pre-Socratics because of their application of aphorisms to help explain their world and how one should live in it. Such an outlook rings through the heart of many of Frost's best poems.

Robert Frost was predominantly a classicist. Nevertheless, he was open-minded enough and hungry enough for new wisdom to explore that the works of thinkers like Blaise Pascal, Michel De Montaigne, Erasmus, Frederick Nietzsche and others inevitably influenced the characters and landscape of his poems. I do not believe that any such modern influence was in conflict with the classicism Frost valued so highly. Instead I believe Frost took these other influences and adapted them to circumstances he deemed appropriate.

Keywords

American poetry; Aphorisms and apothegms in literature; Frost, Robert,--1874-1963; Wisdom in literature

Disciplines

American Literature | History | Philosophy

Language

English


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