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.

 

 

 

 

 

Lover’s Quarrel

This was the title of the July 16 sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of mercy, you call us and we ignore your whisper, listening to the voices of this world. You call us and we choose a different path, following our own devices. You call us to be the body of Christ, to collectively proclaim your justice and love. God of grace, open our ears and our hearts to your wisdom and ways. Help us to receive your forgiveness, and by your Spirit, show grace to a broken world. Call on us, again, O God, to serve you and your people.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV):

  • “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
    to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
    that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
    What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
    To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
    so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
    For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.”

Luke 5:27-32 (NRSV):

  • “After. . . [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
  • Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Sermon (extracts):

“This is the place where the good news of Jesus Christ should be preached to all people. It is the preacher’s job to make sense of the complexities within scripture- to lift out what is challenging, troubling, even, and then reveal the ultimate truth of the story, which is that God’s love is always at the center, even if it seems buried in the shadows of a dark text.”

“It seems to me this preaching gig is . . . more of a dialogue that should engage all of our hearts with God’s word. Like you, I have thoughts, questions, reactions to what God says and what it means for us today.”

“I come here, too, because, despite how comfortable I am, I still need to hear the good news of the Gospel. But good news is not always comfort. I need the Gospel to give me a framework for how to think about and serve a world where affliction is rampant, and the news we hear and read about is often not good. The Gospel should surprise us, challenge all of our assumptions, and help us make meaning, find purpose, and push past cynicism. That’s what is good about the Gospel. [This] church with Open Doors and an Open Future exists not to come down on anyone, but to be a community where we explore the nuances of being followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st century and beyond.”

“The two passages, side by side, from Isaiah and Luke, seem to convey a relatively similar message, though they are separated by hundreds of years in their history.

“Isaiah speaks a word of judgment to certain scribes, who have written laws that continue to oppress the poor, the widows and the orphans, and protect the established members of society. Isaiah’s Israel was a kinship society where money was not exchanged. Widows and orphans were those who didn’t fit neatly into extended, patriarchal families that cared for one another, so finding resources to house and feed them when their husbands or parents died, either did not exist or were scarce. Laws to carve out space for them in an ordered world, were the only way they would thrive. The words Isaiah uses against these scribes are harsh, but fairly straightforward, and common among the prophets- they describe what the eventual consequences will be for behavior that continues as it is in the present. The Common English Translation says [this Isaiah passage] like this:

  • “What will you do when disaster comes from far away? To whom will you flee for help; where will you stash your wealth? How will you avoid crouching among the prisoners and falling among the slain?”

“In the reading from Luke, the overall message is somewhat the same: calling sinners to repentance. But, if we pay close attention, there is a slight twist. In the story it says that, after recruiting Levi, a tax collector, Jesus joins him at his house to have dinner with Levi’s former colleagues- the other tax collectors. In first century Israel, tax collectors were despised because they would defraud the poor, and pilfer money for themselves, while aiding the harsh Roman Empire. The Pharisees, who were strictly religious, Jewish leaders, began to whisper to the disciples behind Jesus’ back, complaining that Jesus was hanging out with these sinners who mistreated the poor. Jesus must have overheard them talking, and in what seems like a rather loaded comment Jesus says, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”

“It occurs to me that Jesus was probably calling both the tax collectors and the Pharisees sinners, because there really are no righteous people in this story. The so-called righteous folks were finger-wagging Pharisees who could not see beyond the surface of what Jesus was doing. Jesus’ method was a different way of being a prophet, one that sought to build a relationship with those whose moral compass had failed them, to try and change their minds. But, so convinced were the Pharisees in their interpretation of Jewish law, they could not imagine eating and conversing with sinners like Levi and his friends.”

“In the same way, if we approach scripture, using either of these passages or others, as a way to prove our own side of the argument we will always be in opposition with someone, afflicting them with our righteousness, and never making any headway in finding what good God might be doing right in front of us. Scripture should not be used as a method to prove  one’s point about a subject, but a way for the good news of the Gospel to surprise even our own well held assumptions about justice.”

“William Sloane Coffin, a well known social justice preacher who died not that long ago,. claimed he had a Lover’s Quarrel with America, and preached often about patriotism. In his mind there were “three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones,” he wrote, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”[2]

“God is the lover, and we are the beloved. That is the first and most important truth we can hold on to- you might even say it’s the comforting part of this sermon. But, the word quarrel implies that this love is a two-way street. God doesn’t love us inconsequentially, or deny us love as a consequence. There is a relationship between lover and beloved, one that has expectations on both sides. And if we are God’s people, as Coffin says, we are a reflection of this lover’s quarrel- this is the kind of relationship we are to have with the world. To love it is to engage it, to be affected by it, to care for it.’

‘What I think is important for us as Christians, though, is that the quarrel is not about winning or losing an argument- it’s a quarrel that spurs us toward working on our relationships, our place in the world in relationship to all people, and making sure that they are good, and honest, and, eventually, whole.”

“If we look back to Isaiah, I think this is what the prophet is getting at. Isaiah was conveying a lover’s quarrel; God’s frustration with the people of Israel was out of love for them, love for those they were leaving behind, and the relationships that were all suffering because of it. God’s quarrel was, and is about justice. And justice, in the biblical sense, is a social concept.“

“As professor Rolf Jacobson writes, ‘It has to do with the order of society and how that order shapes or fails to shape human relationships with one another. A society that is ‘more just’ is one in which the social order allows life to thrive… A society that is ‘less just’ is one in which the social order prevents life from thriving to a greater degree.’”[3]

“As we read these difficult texts we know justice is sought after, but what we often fail to see is that relationships are at the core of God’s work to bring it about. Love and relationships are the way to a justly ordered society where all people thrive, even when it comes through laws, or policy decisions.”

“It’s why Jesus sat and ate with sinners and, at the same time, corrected the righteousness of the Pharisees. ‘None of you is right,’ he seemed to say, ‘until you are willing to break bread together, to love one another, even in the midst of your quarrel.’ God’s justice does not come about by denigrating one side or the other. It may necessitate consequences and correction, but God’s justice is always, ultimately, loving, relational, and restorative in its approach and culmination.”

“There are maybe some who will hear what I just said and think this sounds like a good idea, but that in the end it is naive, it’s idealist- there is not one lens we can use to view the world that will help us all settle our quarrels and bring about justice, especially one as emotionally driven as love.”

“Maybe it is naive. But, if we can’t be idealists in church, where can we be? We have a God who died to show us how far love was willing to go. To be sure, there is a time and place for data and quantitative research, which can also help solve problem,… but we come to this place to imagine that with God all things are possible- that the affliction of the world will not win out, that God’s justice will eventually inhabit all of our hearts, and the world will begin to turn.”

“Until that day comes we return here to be reminded of the good news. We have a framework we are creating here, for a world that is coming into being out there. We are making meaning here, and dialoging here, so that we can lovingly quarrel with the world. And we also come here to remember that, while we are likely neither the tax collector nor the Pharisee, God is still lovingly quarreling with us. And that is a good thing to remember, especially for those of us who think we have a lot of this justice stuff figured out.”

“In general, there are any number of ways we can approach issues of injustice. Being good citizens, giving away money or time, using a good filter for investments, reading and staying up-to-date on all that is happening in the world, checking our privilege. I think I’ve done most of these things, myself, and while it is important work, I have to say that none of them has ever left me feeling remarkably hopeful about the state of justice in our world. And without hope, what is the motivator to continue in our pursuit?”

“In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, author and speaker Parker Palmer writes this, ‘If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken… What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.’”[4]

“Herein lies what we do here, particularly related to justice. All of us have the capacity to have our hearts broken, especially if we are paying attention to the world. But, it all depends on how they break. Will we be overwhelmed, apathetic, angry, or cynical? Or will we come here, and find ways to move forward in hope?”

“Here’s the thing- our hearts will break if we love the world as God loves the world. And there are a number of ways to handle it. But, in this place we have a way for them to break open and create new life. When we come here, we are not doing it alone. We have the hope and the call of one who loves us and is quarreling alongside of us, who is working to restore relationships. And we trust in the promise, that there will be a day when two sides understand each other, when we are all fully known, and quarrels will ultimately cease.”

“This is why we come. This is why I am a minister. Not to afflict the comfortable. Maybe to comfort the afflicted. But, always, always, to engage in God’s love and quarrel with the world- one that challenges assumptions, that builds a framework of meaning and purpose and hope, and constantly, little by little moves us toward justice. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The phrase “lovers’ quarrel,” I guess, had been kicking around in the back of my mind, when what should have been its obvious meaning suddenly dawned on me. Two lovers care for each other’s best interests, but do not agree on everything. Occasionally one conveys truth to the other that the other resists. As a result, they have quarrels or disagreements, not wars or fisticuffs or worse, and in the best of times they seek to resolve their quarrels through conversations and reasoning.

This too is the nature of the quarrels that God has with us His people.

===================================

[1] The bulletin and a video recording of the service along with the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Coffin, Credo, at 84 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004)(extracts of sermons and other writings). In an aside Rev. Brouwer noted that the “lover’s quarrel” phrase had come from an earlier unnamed poem by Robert Frost that will be discussed in another blog post.

[3] Jacobson, “The Lord is a God of Justice (Isaiah 30:18): The Prophetic Insistence on Justice in Social  Context,” 30 Word and World 125 (2010).

[4] Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (Jossey-Bass 2014.)

Baccalaureate Sunday

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster           Presbyterian Church

June 1st was Baccalaureate Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to celebrate the university and high school graduations of some of our members.[1]

The Sermon

The sermon, “What’s Next for Me?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen was primarily addressed to the new graduates, but its message had meaning for everyone. He emphasized “the metaphor of journey, or pilgrimage, to understand Christian life.”

“The next steps you take on your pilgrimage through life do not have to be definitive. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead. Some will be delightful surprises; others, painful disappointments.”

Hart-Andersen, using his own life as an example, said, “Only after multiple false starts did I finally begin to pay attention to the nagging sense that God had other ideas for my life. It was, for me a matter of feeling ‘at home.’ That became a test for me: did I feel at home in a given occupation? Even if I was good at it, that didn’t prevent me from feeling like a stranger on a particular path. And if I felt like that, I moved on. Only later did I understand that God was at work in those twists and turns.”

“It may not always have been obvious to you, but God has been your companion along the way. Sometimes God may not have felt present to you, or maybe you went through times where you felt abandoned by God. But, the journey is long and we are people of faith. We believe God is the Guide. It may seem as if we’re on our own, but in this we trust: God is on the pilgrimage with us.”

“Scripture is replete with accounts of people trying to sort out which way their path is taking them. The Bible is the story of God’s people trying to find their way. Sometimes it’s clear; at other times, it’s not.”

“Think of the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. That was one, long search for the way forward . . . . The dream of freedom turned into something that felt a lot like a nightmare. . . . They forgot about God’s promise; [instead] they made a new, little god they could manage, a golden calf. They were grasping at anything to find some sense of clarity in their lives.” [Exodus 32:1-9.]

“[W]hen Jesus ascends to heaven . . .[He] tells his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit descends on them. They return to Jerusalem, go into an upper room, and settle in together until the time is right. . . . [They wait.] Their waiting involves prayer. They’re not passive in their hope of the promise fulfilled. Prayer is active waiting in anticipation of divine response, active trusting that God is listening. Prayer helps on the journey. Their waiting involves watching. They pay attention to the signs around them, looking for glimmers of the promise, “the trailing wisps of glory.” Their waiting is done together, in community.” [Acts 1:1-14.]

“What’s next for me is a question aimed at vocation . . . . Every one of us ought to be asking the same question of our own pilgrimage in life: what’s next? Where do I go from here? What does God have in store for me at this point in my life?”[2]

“We Presbyterians are known to emphasize the vocation of each person. It begins with John Calvin who argues that everyone has a vocation, not only those called into ministry. Everyone has a role to play in the community, in business, in education or medicine or industry or technology or the military or science or public service or _____ – you fill in the blank.”

“Calvin views every occupation as an opportunity to excel, and in our excelling, we glorify God. All human work, Calvin writes, is capable of ‘appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God.’ . . . For Calvin it’s the person that matters, the person, not the job.”

“In his view, people are not called by God out of the world, in order not to sully themselves with ordinary life, but rather, people are called by God into the world, right into the mundane stuff by which we make our living. And there, right there, in the everyday challenges of the jobs we do, God is found, and God can be glorified in what we do, no matter what it is.”[3]

“The Israelites cowering in fear in the wilderness and the followers of Jesus huddled together in that upper room struggled with what was next for them. They wondered if God had given up on them; some of them gave up on God.”

“Each of us is tempted to wonder the same thing when the way forward is not clear, or when it’s littered with challenges that seem to overwhelm, or when it leads into darkness that offers little respite.”

“But those who wait for God’s promise, even if it takes forty years, will not be disappointed. Light will illumine the path. The way forward will be clear. We will find it together, trusting that the Spirit will meet us on the way. “

What’s next for me? We need only open our eyes, take a step in trust, and then another, and another, and another. We will discover what God’s future holds for us.”

Choir’s Anthem

The sermon’s emphasis on pilgrimage was echoed in the choir’s anthem for the day: The Road Not Taken with music by Randall Thompson and the words from Robert Frost’s poem by the same name:[4]

“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.”

========================

[1] The bulletin for this worship service is available online.

[2]A number of posts to this blog have discussed the religious notion of vocation.

[3] The notion of God calling us into the world was also embraced by poet Christian Wiman.

[4]The Road Not Taken” is one of seven Frost poems in Frostiana: Seven Country Songs, a piece for mixed chorus and piano composed by Thompson in 1959 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Massachusetts town of Amherst, where Frost (1874-1963), who had known Thompson and admired his music, had lived for many years. Thompson (1899-1984) was an American composer, particularly noted for his choral works. A colleague said “Thompson’s choral works are a shining reflection of the joy and creative skill with which he taught musical craft—of Palestrina and Lasso, of Monteverdi and Schütz, of Bach and Handel. It has been his belief that music of this craft is timeless in its nature, and can form part of the basis of a composer’s working vocabulary without loss to his individual talent. In this he is a true classicist and an academic in the best sense.”