175: On Memorial Day, Recalling a “Lover’s Quarrel With the World”

The words carved in stone on poet Robert Frost’s gravestone echo the romantic rage his readers felt so viscerally in poems like “Birches,” “Fire and Ice” and “Death of the Hired Man.”

    But I’ve been thinking, over the past week, that “lovers quarrel” describes the way many clergy — and many more parishioners — approached this Memorial Day.
    “What can I say in the service? I can’t wrap myself in the flag. My heart’s broken, you know? Honestly, broken for the men, the women, the children we’ve lost in these years of war — on both sides. But I don’t want to get into that,” said a longtime friend as he planned services for this past Sunday in his church in a rural part of New England. “I’m speechless, I guess, and yet we’ve got to spend an hour together. I’ll figure something out.”
    To a greater — or a lesser extent — I suspect that thousands of clergy across the U.S. felt this way. And, polls would suggest (as well as conversations I’ve had with many readers) that millions of Americans felt that way, as well, as they sat in pews or folding chairs on Sunday.
    What do we say?

    We have a lover’s quarrel with the world, at this moment.

    So, today, I’m going to share with you the remarks President John F. Kennedy offered about Robert Frost’s life. Looking back, the occasion was bittersweet. Frost and Kennedy had shared a famous, long-distance friendship, but the poet was fading during JFK’s presidency and died in January 1963.
    By that fall, Amherst College was breaking ground for a Robert Frost Library. Thousands of students, friends and alumni gathered in late October that year — just a matter of weeks before JFK’s own fateful visit to Dallas.
    This wasn’t exactly a formal eulogy, delivered at a funeral for Frost. But that day at Amherst was a memorial tribute to the poet and, now looking back on it, seems to have been shrouded in a season of national loss.

Here’s what Kennedy had to say at Amherst about the poet who had meant so much to him:

    The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad.
    We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman to find 10 million jobs in the next two years, to govern our relations –- a country which lived in isolation for 150 years, and is now suddenly the leader of the free world –- to govern our relations with over 100 countries, to govern those relations with success so that the balance of power remains strong on the side of freedom, to make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom. All this requires the best of all of us.
    Therefore, I am proud to come to this college whose graduates have recognized this obligation and to say to those who are now here that the need is endless, and I am confident that you will respond.

Robert Frost said:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

    I hope that road will not be the less traveled by, and I hope your commitment to the Great Republic’s interest in the years to come will be worthy of your long inheritance since your beginning.
    This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians as well as by others, and even by poets, for Robert Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.
    In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments.
    But today this college and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension. In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power — or power uses us.

    Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.
    “I have been,” he wrote, “one acquainted with the night.” And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

    The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.
    If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
    If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. … In free society, art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society –- in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

    I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
    I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.

    Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:

Take human nature altogether since time began.
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of 1 percent at the very least.
Our hold on the planet wouldn’t have so increased.

    Because of Mr Frost’s life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased.

AND so ended JFK’s haunting tribute to a prophet in troubling times. Please, tell us what you’re thinking on Memorial Day. Click on the “Comment” link at the bottom of this story or Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
    PLEASE, Come Back throughout this week for more reflections on the crucial spiritual question: “How will I be remembered?”

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