Everything below is really speculative, and subject to change. I just wanted to try and get at what could be so “terrifying” about Frost. Oh, this is from a while back, on Sophocles.
From the article above:
“The difference between expense and waste,” we find Frost writing early on, is that “Waste is where only God can see the sense.” This is from a rough draft of the poem that would become “Pod of the Milkweed,” with its famous line, “But waste was of the essence of the scheme.”
Now I cannot find a copy of “Pod of the Milkweed,” and for all I know, it could have a first line which says “Idiots consider me a ‘terrifying’ poet, but really, I’m not, and I don’t think waste is something that man creates most of the time, or that it is the essence of a universe which doesn’t make sense at all.” So if anyone can get that online fast, it would help for future posts on this topic, certainly. Furthermore, that complication means everything I say here is going to be incredibly speculative, even more contingent on “over-reading” than most of my other thoughts.
For now, we have to make do, though, and trust our author. Both expense and waste involve the external: there is a motion, and then there is exhaustion. The question is whether Creation is a waste, as only God can see the sense in it. But if we make that move, what about “expense?” It seems like there are motions which exhaust which do make sense. How can sense be explained in a universe whose overarching logic does not exist?
I think a moment’s reflection shows us that both Dickinson and Frost are teetering on the atheistic (I think Dickinson is an outright atheist personally, but I haven’t read and commented on all her poems and letters, so I’ll keep that suspicion to myself), because they engage this question and come up with an answer that actually isn’t too bad. We can see the answer reflected in this passage from the review:
If waste is the essence of the universe, the universe can only be explained or justified from a superhuman perspective; but the superhuman, Frost always reminds us, is also the inhuman. The uncomprehending gaze of humans at the inhuman, and vice versa, is the dramatic center of some of Frost’s best poems. Think of “For Once, Then, Something,” where the poet sees a glimmer at the bottom of a well and asks, “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” Or “The Most of It,” where the poet by a lake-side cries out, hoping to awaken “counterlove, original response,” and is greeted only by “a great buck” who swims into view and then stumbles indifferently away.
The issue is that just as we look for sense, with greater powers of reasoning than anything inhuman, perhaps God is looking at us to see if anything can be made sense of. But that isn’t the whole story, because human beings weren’t created to be alone. The difference between expense and waste is where the energy is diverted, perhaps. To “expend” isn’t to just work towards a goal, since goals have to be communicable to ourselves, and by implication, have to at the very least make sense to other people (whether or not people accept them is another story). I would argue that if God can create, for Frost, then 99% of the universe is waste, but 1% is expense, but such expense is not coming from the God/man relation, but the relation of men to other men. Waste is more or less coming from man’s relation to the inhuman, probably.
To make a long story short, since God commands we love one another, the logic behind theism collapses into atheism (same with the logic behind atheism, even from this normative perspective. The arguments are antinomial). For it doesn’t matter if the world was created with an order, it looks like a focus on the present only can lead to realization of what is highest. Unfortunately, since such a powerful line of thought comes from reflection on the present, one has to wonder how delicate this wisdom is, and about the possibility of communicating it throughout the ages.
That’s where I think the full problem lies with the “inhuman” – the inanimate, the bestial, and the eternal. For we see others clearly in the present, but can our conventions be grounded in each other alone in order to build a future? We need recourse to something else: perhaps a form of matter which doesn’t perish, or an actual change in our instincts, or finally, a transcendent providential force which works to remind and guide us. The issue is that the deeper wisdom keeps getting lost, and lost again: people are really good at going through the motions, and exhausting themselves, and not caring what the proper end is. So it doesn’t seem like the inhuman can aid the human in the highest endeavor.
What’s worse is that “sense” from “expense” gives us a tool that might help us realize love in the here and now, but to preserve what is best, well:
Frost is known as a master of metaphor, and many of his poems take the form of extended metaphors. Yet when he writes, “I doubt if any thing is more related to another thing than it is to any third thing except as we make it,” he shows how the power of metaphor can turn on the poet, plunging him into a world of sheer perspectivism where there is no essence, only likeness. If we can make anything resemble anything else, then we are doomed to perish from the very excess of significations.
The tool that is metaphor depends on people’s ability to relate. But who truly relates? We have to assume people relate in order to move to more significant themes. This is all well-and-good when dealing with friends, but when dealing with larger groups of people, especially groups that in their ignorance can be very dangerous unknowingly, the ability to communicate the highest truth might not exist at all. And I need not say anything about the poet’s ability to convince himself of the highest things via metaphor – there, I think, is the case that one has uncovered something truly terrifying.
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