Going by Contraries: Robert Frost's Conflict with Science

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One of the most vexing problems facing American modernist poets was how to find a place for poetry and religion in a culture that considered science its most reliable source of truth. By the time Robert Frost began writing, the Emersonian concept of nature as an analogue for a benevolent deity had been replaced among the scientifically educated by the view that nature?s mechanisms were based solely upon accident, competition, and survival. Immersed in his mother?s peculiar blend of Emersonian and Swedenborgian ...

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Overview

One of the most vexing problems facing American modernist poets was how to find a place for poetry and religion in a culture that considered science its most reliable source of truth. By the time Robert Frost began writing, the Emersonian concept of nature as an analogue for a benevolent deity had been replaced among the scientifically educated by the view that nature’s mechanisms were based solely upon accident, competition, and survival. Immersed in his mother’s peculiar blend of Emersonian and Swedenborgian mysticism, and already inclined by age sixteen toward a career in poetry, Frost not only saw his religious belief shattered by Darwin’s theory of natural selection but also recognized that poetry, in the wake of stunning scientific accomplishment, was slowly losing to science what was left of its cultural authority. With both designer and purpose absent from the post-Darwinian world, the old religious orders appeared trivial, and humankind found itself dislodged from the center of the natural order. This view of nature, coupled with a series of debilitating personal tragedies, plunged Frost into a spiritual crisis, which he surmounted by writing poetry.

Arguing that the central problem of Frost’s career was his conflict with science, Robert Bernard Hass examines the ways in which the conflict affected the development of Frost’s career from beginning to end. Hass situates the poet’s work in the intellectual ferment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and argues that as materialism collapsed under the weight of new scientific discovery, Frost began to see science as a historically conditioned mode of perception. Gradually viewing science as an imposed construct rather than a literal transcript of the physical world, Frost ameliorated his fear of science’s disturbing conclusions, reaffirmed his belief in a spiritual reality, and subsequently formulated the most convincing defense of poetry since Sidney.

In this engaging and substantial exploration of Frost and the philosophical and scientific currents that influenced him, Hass situates the poet as a foundational figure in ecocritical thought.

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

Jay PariniMiddlebury College

One of the strongest books on Frost I’ve read, Going by Contraries is full of interesting readings of many overlooked poems and full of arguments that place Frost in the tradition of American nature writing more squarely than any previous work has done. Hass is exactly right when he suggests that in the poetry of Frost, a human being is capable of surmounting ‘our cosmic loneliness,’ reclaiming nature by projecting on it the ‘saving structures’ that give it meaning.... Hass has written an intellectual history of Frost’s poetry, and this has long been needed.

Booknews
The ascendancy of science pushed aside Emerson's view of nature as an analogue for a kind and benevolent deity and led to a spiritual crisis that Robert Frost attempted to address in his work. Hass (English, Edinboro U. of Pennsylvania) argues that this was the central concern of Frost's work throughout his career. Frost consistently argued that poetry must seek to find a consistent rationality that strives towards wisdom and firmly rejected Poe's conception of poetry as mere ornament or the more revolutionary conceptions of the American Modernists. Hass traces Frost's career as one in which he slowly overcame his fear of materialism and was able to restore his religious faith. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813921129
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Series: Under the Sign of Nature Series
  • Pages: 220
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Bernard Hass is Assistant Professor of English at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 A Narrow Choice the Age Insisted On 23
2 Darwin 45
3 We Are Sick with Space 89
4 Education by Poetry 125
5 The Risk of Spirit in Substantiation 157
Notes 183
Bibliography 203
Index 213
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2003

    The Maturation of Robert Frost's Beliefs

    It's easy to stay with this book. Scholarly tomes can bring on the yawns to those not intrinsically fascinated by their topics, but Hass writes in an easy (yet formal) style, advancing the reader's interest in every chapter. ¶ Hass's book is a new examination of Robert Frost's poetry. It is rather a detective story, a search for Frost's evolving belief structures regarding Science and Religion. But it is a search in which the examination and appreciation of evidence is of equal importance to the end of the story. Snippets of information are revealed within the poems examined as the book moves on, with mini-conclusions periodically drawn. These converge on a satisfying whole. ¶ This book leads the reader toward a greater appreciation of Robert Frost and his work through analysis of Frost's beliefs and their changes over time. On another level, it is a well-written exposition of Frost's personal growth, as engrossing as an intricate novel. This is a book to be read, not just put on a shelf for reference.

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