“The Lesson for Today”

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.”

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11 Responses to “The Lesson for Today”

  1. Deborah McGregor says:

    Robert Frost before breakfast–

  2. Jon says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’d not read this before…

  3. Pingback: “Two Tramps in Mud Time” | Boojum's Bonanza

  4. Abhay Phadnis says:

    I cannot thank you enough! I have been looking for the full poem for a very long time. Stumbled upon it here quite by accident. Thank you a million times!

  5. A neighbor sent an email which shows the size of earth compared to the galaxy. That reminded me of “The Lesson for Today.” Your saving these words allows me to respond with Frost’s insight.
    Conversing of common cause and brotherhood,
    Howard

  6. Pingback: Oops for the post lapse! | Cynthia Blog

  7. Pingback: Epitáfios de escritores | RFID Brasil

  8. Pingback: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World* | Poetry on the run

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