by Robert Frost
(Read before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University, June 20, 1941.)
If this uncertain age in which we dwell
Were really as dark as I hear sages tell,
And I convinced that they were really sages,
I should not curse myself with it to hell,
But leaving not the chair I long have sat in,
I should betake me back ten thousand pages
To the world’s undebatably dark ages,
And getting up my medieval Latin.
Seek converse common cause and brotherhood
(By all that’s liberal–I should, I should)
With the poets who could calmly take the fate
Of being born at once too early and late,
And for those reasons kept from being great,
Yet singing but Dione in the wood
And ver aspergit terram floribus
They slowly led old Latin verse to rhyme
And to forget the ancient lengths of time,
And so began the modern world for us.
I’d say, O Master of the Palace School,
You were not Charles’ nor anybody’s fool:
Tell me as pedagogue to pedagogue,
You did not know that since King Charles did rule
You had no chance but to be minor, did you?
Your light was spent perhaps as in a fog
That at once kept you burning low and hid you.
The age may very well have been to blame
For your not having won to Virgil’s fame.
But no one ever heard you make the claim.
You would not think you knew enough to judge
The age when full upon you. That’s my point.
We have today and I could call their name
Who know exactly what is out of joint
To make their verse and their excuses lame.
They’ve tried to grasp with too much social fact
Too large a situation. You and I
Would be afraid if we should comprehend
And get outside of too much bad statistics
Our muscles never could again contract:
We never could recover human shape,
But must live lives out mentally agape,
Or die of philosophical distention.
That’s how we feel–and we’re no special mystics.
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.
One more millennium’s about to end.
Let’s celebrate the event, my distant friend,
In publicly disputing which is worse,
The present age or your age. You and I
As schoolmen of repute should qualify
To wage a fine scholastical contention
As to whose age deserves the lower mark,
Or should I say the higher one, for dark.
I can just hear the way you make it go:
There’s always something to be sorry for,
A sordid peace or an outrageous war.
Yes, yes, of course. We have the same convention.
The groundwork of all faith is human woe.
It was well worth preliminary mention.
There’s nothing but injustice to be had,
No choice is left a poet, you might add,
But how to take the curse, tragic or comic.
It was well worth preliminary mention.
But let’s go on to where our cases part,
If part they do. Let me propose a start.
(We’re rivals in the badness of our case,
Remember, and must keep a solemn face.)
Space ails us moderns: we are sick with space.
Its contemplations makes us out as small
As a brief epidemic of microbes
That in a good glass may be seen to crawl
The patina of this the least of globes.
But have we there the advantage after all?
You were belittled into vilest worms
God hardly tolerated with his feet;
Which comes to the same thing in different terms.
We both are the belittled human race,
One as compared with God and one with space.
I had thought ours the more profound disgrace;
But doubtless this was only my conceit.
The cloister and the observatory saint
Take comfort in about the same complaint.
So science and religion really meet.
I can just about hear you call your Palace class:
Come learn the Latin Eheu for alas.
You may not want to use it and you may.
O paladins, the lesson for today
Is how to be unhappy yet polite.
And at the summons Roland, Olivier,
And every sheepish paladin and peer,
Being already more than proved in fight,
Sits down in school to try if he can write
Like Horace in the true Horatian vein,
Yet like a Christian disciplined to bend
His mind to thinking always of the end.
Memento mori and obey the Lord.
Art and religion love the somber chord.
Earth’s a hard place in which to save the soul,
And could it be brought under state control,
So automatically we all were saved,
Its separateness from Heaven could be waived;
It might as well at once be kingdom-come.
(Perhaps it will be next millennium.)
But these are universals, not confined
To any one time, place, or human kind.
We’re either nothing or a God’s regret.
As ever when philosophers are met,
No matter where they stoutly mean to get,
Nor what particulars they reason from,
They are philosophers, and from old habit
They end up in the universal Whole
As unoriginal as any rabbit.
One age is like another for the soul.
I’m telling you. You haven’t said a thing,
Unless I put it in your mouth to say.
I’m having the whole argument my way–
But in your favor–please to tell your King–
In having granted you all ages shine
With equal darkness, yours as dark as mine,
I’m liberal. You, you aristocrat,
Won’t know exactly what I mean by that.
I mean so altruistically moral
I never take my own side in a quarrel.
I’d lay my hand on his hand on his staff
Lean back and have my confidential laugh,
And tell him I had read his Epitaph.
It sent me to the graves the other day.
The only other there was far away
Across the landscape with a watering pot
At his devotions in a special plot.
And he was there resuscitating flowers
(Make no mistake about its being bones);
But I was only there to read the stones
To see what on the whole they had to say
About how long a man may think to live,
Which is becoming my concern of late.
And very wide the choice they seemed to give;
Thee ages ranging all the way from hours
To months and years and many many years.
One man had lived one hundred years and eight.
But though we all may be inclined to wait
And follow some development of state,
Or see what comes of science and invention,
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.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
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.
Retyped from Selected Poems of Robert Frost, 1963. I tried to type it as verbatim as possible, down to the punctuation. The poem has eight verses. Frost used an extra line space to indicate the end of a verse and indented the first line of the next verse. This word processing system does not allow me to do that. So I used a line of hyphens (——) between each verse and a double line of hyphens to indicate the end of the poem.
If you liked this one, you might also want to try “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”