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Going by Contraries

Robert Frost's Conflict with Science
Robert Bernard Hass

BUY Cloth · 220 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813921112 · $60.00 · May 2002
BUY Paper · 220 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813921129 · $23.50 · May 2002

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.


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.

Jay PariniMiddlebury College, author of Robert Frost: A Life

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