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Mark Walhout

A Poet Reads Darwin

In Robert Frost's poem "New Hampshire," published during the heyday of William Jennings Bryan's crusade against the theory of evolution, a friendly farmer reports that "The matter with the Mid-Victorians / Seems to have been a man named John L. Darwin."

Frost's little joke is as much on Charles Darwin as it is on the state of New Hampshire: the farmer's conflation of Darwin and the prizefighter John L. Sullivan is the poet's wry comment on Darwin's violent universe. In fact, as we learn from Lawrance Thompson's massive biography of the poet, Frost's sympathies during the Scopes Monkey Trial lay with Bryan; he thought Clarence Darrow lacked the imagination necessary to solve the riddle of human existence.

Yet Frost, as Robert Faggen demonstrates, was more troubled by Darwin than such mockery might suggest. Critics have made much of Frost's interest in the theories of spiritual evolution offered by William James and Henri Bergson. But it was Darwin's own bleak naturalism, Faggen insists, that cast the longest shadow on Frost's poetry. As Faggen reminds us, one of Frost's favorite books was The Voyage of the Beagle, which, along with The Origin of Species, he first read while studying geology at Harvard with Nathaniel Shaler, one of many turn-of-the-century modernists who attempted to harmonize evolutionary theory with Christian faith in a grand vision of human progress. But Frost would have none of Shaler's utopianism, finding in Darwin, Faggen suggests, the same ancient wisdom he found in Job: the wisdom of meaningless suffering, of necessary limitation, of human ignorance.

Critics who read Frost as a religious poet—notably Dorothy Judd Hall and, more recently, Ed Ingebretsen, SJ - -also acknowledge these themes as part of Frost's "grammar of belief." As far as Faggen is concerned, however, reading Darwin made it all but impossible for Frost to believe in a benevolent deity. In his concluding paragraph, Faggen quotes Frost's famous couplet "Forgive, O Lord, my little ...

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