An Analysis of Robert Frost’s Poem, “The Lesson for Today”

When I heard the July 16 sermon, “Lover’s Quarrel,” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church that was discussed in a prior post, I did not get the point of its title: “Lovers’ Quarrel.” It is not a common phrase for me. After subsequently reading and reflecting on the sermon, I concluded that God loves us and, therefore, sometimes has to quarrel with us when we stray. The same is true for human lovers.

The sermon says the phrase “lover’s quarrel” came from Rev. William Sloane Coffin while briefly mentioning that it originally came from an unnamed poem by Robert Frost, all as discussed in that prior post.

Although I had heard of Robert Frost, I did not know the title or content of the referenced poem. When I found and read (several times) the lengthy poem—“The Lesson for Today”–in which the phrase appears–I was still bewildered. Only after letting the poem lie untouched for several days, doing some research about the poem and then re-reading it again several times did I come to the following analysis or interpretation.

This poem was first read by Frost on June 20, 1941, at Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society and then published in 1942 in a collection of poems, A Witness Tree, which was  awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1943. This poem, therefore, was written during the start of what later became known as World War II and after several unfortunate tragedies had occurred in Frost’s personal life– his daughter Marjorie’s death in 1934, his wife’s death in 1938 and his son Caro’s suicide in 1940.

 

These historical and personal circumstances, I believe, are the referents for the poem’s first line talking about “this uncertain age in which we dwell . . . as dark as I hear the sages tell.” But “If” precedes this statement and immediately suggests that the poet is wondering about the nature of the age in which he and others are living.

Frost or the fictional “first person” then engages in an imagined conversation with the “Master of the Palace School,” who is the Blessed Alcuin of York and who, circa 770, established schools to copy and preserve ancient manuscripts.  Alcuin’s doctrine of memento mori (remember that you have to die), which Frost says he holds, was part of medieval Christian theory and practice of reflecting on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly goods and pursuits.

Frost or the fictional first person imagines that Alcuin tells the paladins (the twelve legendary peers or knightly champions in attendance on Charlemagne) in his class,”the lesson for today is how to be unhappy yet polite.” (Emphasis added; the title of the poem.)

The first person in the poem also reflects on mortality. “There is a limit to our time extension, We all are doomed to broken-off careers, and so’s the nation, so’s the total race. The earth itself is liable to the  fate Of meaninglessly being broken off.”

One of the consequences of mortality is modesty about what anyone can know about the time in which he or she lives. Says Frost, “You [Alcuin] would not think you knew enough to judge  The age when full upon  you. . . . We can’t appraise the time in which we act. But for the folly of it, let’s pretend We know enough to know it for adverse. . . . There’s always something to be sorry for, A sordid peace or an outrageous war.”

Frost or the fictional first person also tells us that he has read Alcuin’s “Epitaph,” which is not quoted in the poem, but which reads as follows:

  • “Here, I beg thee, pause for a while, traveler,
    And ponder my words in thy heart,
    That thou mayest understand thy fate in my shadow:
    The form of thy body will be changed as was mine.
    What thou art now, famous in the world, I have been, traveler,
    And what I now am, thou wilt be in the future.
    I was wont to seek the joys of the world in vain desire:
    Now I am ashes and dust, and food for worms.
    Remember therefore to take better care of thy soul
    Than of thy body, because that survives, and this perishes.
    Why dost thou look for possessions? Thou see’st in what a little cavern
    This tomb holds me: Thine will be equally small.
    Why art thou eager to deck in Tyrian purple thy body
    Which soon in the dust the hungry worm will devour?
    As flowers perish when comes the menacing wind,
    So also thy flesh and all thy glory perish.
    Give me, I beg thee, O reader, a return for this poem,
    And pray: ‘Grant, O Christ, forgiveness to thy servant.’
    I implore thee, let no hand profane the holy rights of this tomb,
    Until the angelic trumpet announces from Heaven high:
    ‘Thou who liest in the tomb, rise from the dust of the earth,
    The Mighty Judge appears to countless thousands.’
    My name was Alcuin, and wisdom was always dear to me.
    Pour out prayers for me when thou quietly readest this inscription.”

Frost ends the poem with the following: “And were an epitaph to be my story I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In other words, Frost found a lot to dislike about the world in which he lived, but which nevertheless he loved. The poem, however, to my reading, has no Christian or other religious references or meaning. (Emphases added.)

This analysis or interpretation, it should be noted, was provided by this blogger who is not a student of literature and who had not read many poems by Frost or others. Therefore, I solicited the following comments from a friend, Nancy Welch Barnby, who has degrees in English literature (Grinnell College, B.A. and University of California (Berkeley), M.A.) plus years of teaching English, for her greater qualifications for such an analysis. The following are her comments on this poem.

  • “One should never assume that the speaker is the poet himself.  Of course, the poem no doubt mirrors many of Frost’s own views, but the final view here is essentially conservative, opining that no ideology (liberalism) can solve the problems of any era (ours or Alcuin’s).  Frost himself was more liberal.”
  • “Overall, I think what Frost is saying is that in no era can any ideology solve every problem.  Political systems can neither assuage our disappointments in life nor save us from death (or save our souls).  That’s the human condition in any era.
  • The final line is set up as the speaker’s epitaph, but note that it is starkly set apart from the rest of the poem for its lack of rhyme (to say nothing of the fact that it’s the last line and emphasized by the colon).  The speaker claims the epitaph as his own, but the poem as a whole underscores the idea that such is the human condition (always has been, always will be).  In essence, we all have a lover’s quarrel with the world.  We love the delights of living, but are frustrated by the sorrows we face (such as death and war, which you reference, or today the political realities of DACA, racial prejudice — well, too many to name).  Also note that the speaker is still addressing Alcuin at the end, which again joins the two ages in terms of man’s essential problem in living on earth.”
  • “This line references the idea that nothing really changes in the way man lives in the world: ‘But these are universals, not confined To any one time, place, or human kind . . .’ Another such line follows: ‘One age is like another for the soul.’”

Conclusion

Other comments on this poem or the sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church are invited.

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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