An undated drawing of Robert Frost by Northampton artist Ercole Cartotto, who also painted several portraits of Calvin Coolidge, Class of 1895.
Telling This With a Sigh
By Lewis Miller Jr. ’60
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I’m going to talk about myself (I wouldn’t talk so much about myself, as Thoreau suggested, “if there were anybody else whom I knew as well”) and about Robert Frost several decades ago, and how his poetry and prose have been a part of me for these many years.
When I was an exploratory first-year student at Amherst, physics seemed as good a major as any—probably because my physics professor was a supreme showman. His name was Arnie Arons, and he used to lock the door to his lecture hall the moment the 8 o’clock bell rang (even on Saturday mornings), taking visible delight, it seemed to me, at the sounds of those late and wayward first-years who were sprinting down the long hallway imploring Professor Arons to keep his door open just a few seconds longer.
Lewis Miller Jr. '60 at his home in Waltham, Mass.
Their urgency was justified, for to miss an Arons lecture was to be condemned to studying from the book, and the book, as Professor Arons never ceased to remind us, was filled with omissions and errors. One learned from Professor Arons by absorbing his lectures with all the passionate attention one could muster at 8 a.m. For reasons perhaps only a therapist could fathom, I thrived in this punishing atmosphere.
At the start of a lecture one dark winter morning, Professor Arons announced Robert Frost’s arrival on campus and suggested that we attend Frost’s reading, which, Arons cryptically added, “may teach you something about physics.” Poetry was not my strong suit, but Arons had spoken. Besides, Robert Frost was a household name—I had read some of his poems and had once heard my great-aunt Lillie recite something about “promises to keep /And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.”
So I went. Frost read or “said” several of his poems, and I could see what Professor Arons meant. Frost’s poetry had a strong grounding in science, at least in what we had been studying in our physics class: the laws of thermodynamics, entropy, Niels Bohr’s theories of complementarity; it was all there in some fashion. Indeed, Frost had urged us all to listen to his poetry as a means of understanding how metaphor lies at the heart of all our thinking, whether in science or in poetry.
As I returned to my dorm in the subzero New England air, Frost’s slippery phrases about clarification and confusion haunted me, and I was inwardly chuckling over what had happened in the question period that followed Frost’s reading.
You see, if we had learned anything from Professor Arons it was not to ask questions unless they were smart questions. Poor Joe Peterson (so I’ll call him) had not learned this lesson, and in front of 300 students and most of the college faculty, he—poor Joe—a declared English major, at that—had asked Robert Frost a dumb question.
“Mr. Frost, sir,” Joe Peterson had eagerly piped, “have you ever been confused?”
Dead silence. We waited with cruel anticipation.
“Do you know the game ‘Confusion’?” Frost responded to Joe Peterson.
“No sir,” said Joe in a voice of quivering politeness.
“Let me teach you: You start by asking me if I’m confused—go ahead.”
“Are you confused, Mr. Frost, sir?”
“No. Now I ask you: Are you confused?”
“Well, I guess so, sir. Yes . . . .”
“I win,” Frost declared to the astonishment of Joe Peterson and to the sadistic delight of his fellow students.
It was then that I decided to major in English—in part so I could ask Mr. Frost a smart question, in part because I relished the playfulness that seemed to characterize the language of poets, in part because I found Frost and his readings to be so engaging, and in part—in large part, I suspect—because my physics course was growing increasingly difficult.
I soon discovered that in English courses I had merely to read books and write papers. Unlike physics, the exams in literature pretty well took care of themselves if you’d kept up with your reading. Was this a legitimate or even a respectable way to choose a major? Probably not, but the dean needed an answer, and so did my parents. (Today, decision theorists draw a distinction between “mindful” and “mindless” choices.)
The more I saw of Frost in his brief visits, the more I wished to be like him: not old and craggy, but shrewd and sagacious, and possessed of a rapier wit which he used to dispose of his real or imagined rivals, as in his comparison of writing or reading free verse with the experience of playing tennis with the net down, or in his pronouncement about Carl Sandburg’s poetry: that it had everything to gain and nothing to lose by being translated into another language. Vicious and heady stuff,this, for a callow student who had thought that physics was his calling.
Yet hadn’t Frost’s complex persona included a scrupulous meanness akin to what I found in Professor Arons’s own style of teaching? And hadn’t the strong opposing currents in Frost’s presentation of self (this Socrates on a crackerbarrel), hadn’t this intrigued me all the more? When Frost was asked by a professor of religious studies about the role of religion in his life and poetry (a smart or dumb question?), Frost answered by reciting a nursery rhyme:
Mary had a little lamb
His name was Jesus Christ.
God, the father, was the ram,
But Joseph took it nice.
Drawing: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections; Photo: Mark Cherrington