Check out the first part of Stephen’s blog here and then read on:
The ideals of liberty and freedom have been evangelized since the beginning of our “experiment in democracy.” Each of the founding fathers—all inspired by enlightenment thinkers before them—extolled the merits of liberty so much that they fought a war over them. It is in our blood as Americans to fight for our freedoms, and it is in contrast to everything that we have ever known to advocate for less freedom. Like most of us, Robert Frost felt the same and lauded the values of liberty and freedom throughout his poetry. Consistently referencing the individual, and the pursuit of self-actualization, Frost emphasizes the importance of human autonomy constantly in his poetry. Many of Frost’s poems are either told in the first person or are describing the actions of a single individual. His poetry does not focus on macro forces or on group activities, but instead tell tales of rugged individualism. Unconstrained by governments or societal pressures, the subjects in Frost’s poems live existences of their own choosing. Examples of these themes can be found most clearly in the poems “The Road Not Taken,” “The Wood Pile,” and “Birches.” All of these poems deal with individuals being able to live their lives free of both extreme want, and extreme control, and in so doing, living lives in which humble work provides gradual, and minor forms of fulfillment. Frost sees virtue both in the life of the “individualist” and in the systems which allow those individuals to exist. In one of his few quotations explicitly on political themes, Frost describes his views on liberty in the following way: “I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.” Though this type of voraciously pro-liberty rhetoric has gradually become synonymous with the Friedman-esque style of laissez-faire capitalism, in order to survive and to thrive as a movement, the left must take back the meaning of Frost’s words, and create a movement where freedom is synonymous with leftism—not conservatism.
The discourse around liberty has been warped horribly by the political parties to which we are so subservient. Each of these parties has defined liberty in a narrow fashion, delimiting it as Mills’ “freedom from restraint” instead of Berlin’s “freedom from want.” Caving into neo-liberal thinking, our political system has given up the great debate of whether we should strive for “negative” or “positive” liberty. One of the greatest philosophical debates of the past several hundred years, the notion of liberty is one which must be picked up again if the left hopes to have any substantial future in this country. The dream of positive liberty is one that must be pursued, as only with positive liberty can human beings ever hope to achieve their “potential.” Negative liberty simply prevents interference, whilst positive liberty begets possibilities. Instead of living a life where you are “free” to suffer, this theory gives you the freedom to explore and to grow. In short, true liberty is one where every human being has the ability to “pursue the potential.” Leftism’s theory of liberty promises a life where you have the power to determine your own eventual destiny—not just to survive. This is in contrast to our capitalist present, in which our economic system constrains your ability to choose your own path in life and instead grounds you in the mundane conditions of existence. Socialism promises a world where you are free to pursue the infinite, the ideal, and the limitless. The future that leftism attempts to consecrate is one where your identity does not determine your value, but instead one where your humanity endows you with inherent worth. Neither class, nor race, nor gender will ever abridge the story of your life—your potential is up to you. This is boundless freedom and is the ideal that Frost extolled in his poetry. The exploration of the unknown, and the realization of the self, are the possibilities open to those who embrace the politics, lyrics, and life of Frost.
According to The Guardian, not only are carbon emissions rising at unprecedented speeds, they are currently at their highest point in the past 66 million years. The climate crisis represents the largest existential threat to the survival of our species since the invention of the Atom Bomb. It has the potential to destroy both our carefully manicured civilization and the environment in which we all live. This is not a war against an enemy on a battlefield—our species has become well-trained at that—but is instead a fight amongst ourselves to reorganize and to adapt. If we fail to change our ways, and reinvent our civilization, our species is doomed. Fighting against the unseen spectre of the climate crisis will be immensely difficult, but in order to do it, the left must start speaking a different language than the one it is speaking in currently. We can no longer rely on patriotic speeches urging us to fight an evil foe—as our “foe” is ourselves—but must instead use language that speaks of the virtues of the changes we need to go through. The left must start speaking about the inherent virtues of protecting nature and thinking about it not as an afterthought to protecting the continuance of human “domination” over the planet. Large portions of the environmental movement today focus ways to continue human expansion into the natural world—albeit in a “green” way—and totally fail to see the beauty and value that “the wild” holds. Nature gives us our life’s blood and welcomes us with terrible beauty, and immaculate perfection every time we leave the preserved comfort of the inside world. The left needs bold poetry, which paints a picture beyond the simple rhetoric of policy and ideology. The environmental movement must inspire people to sacrifice and to fight for something greater than themselves—something transcendental. This movement should not just be focusing on not raising temperatures by X degrees over a period of X years—it should be described as a fight to protect our planet—our island home. Robert Frost gives us this rhetoric, and this belief in his poetry. He describes nature with a reverence and an importance lost on many in left-leaning circles today —forgotten about and replaced with reverence given to technology instead. In order to make the radical changes needed to fight climate change and preserve the natural world, the left must borrow the rhetoric and belief in the “divine virtue of nature” given to us by Frost.
If the average reader knows anything about Robert Frost, they know that his poetry deals with the natural world. Every single poem he wrote touched on themes of nature and dealt with the sacred importance it carries in the heart of every human. His characters roam and explore in untamed surroundings, and often with the grapple with the idea of “the wild.” They treat nature not as a conduit for further human expansion, but as something uniquely valuable. The notion that land is merely a vehicle for human habitation is inherently imperialist and is an ideology rooted first in ignorance for natural beauty and colonial history, and second in classism—as one who sees land as only a profit-seeking medium is almost certainly making those profits. They value land not simply as a place of habitation but something beyond that—as something of great cultural and personal significance. Frost describes nature with a reverence he reserves for nothing else and pushes nature away from the realm of the mundane and into the realm of the divine. An example of this type of description can be found in Frost’s poem “Directive” where the protagonist wanders in the wild, seeking adventure and direction in life and finds—in nature—a cup which he believes to be the holy grail. It is in this poem that we see (quite literally) the divine in nature, and most clearly are urged to protect the natural world—as it is “god’s creation.” At the very end of “Directive” Frost makes a final point about the divine and makes the argument (by quoting Mark 4.11) that poetry—along with nature—allows us to see and explore the beatific. It is Frost’s belief that only through both lyrical rhetoric, and a careful protection of the outside world, can humans ever hope to find the “glory of God.”
Of course, experiencing the “glory of God” has nothing to do with the political realities of our times, but Frost’s belief in the “divine virtue of nature” does hold some important truths for the left both in terms of policy and in terms of presentation. The environmental policies of the left must be changed so that protecting the natural world is not forgotten when crafting policy to deal with our present climate emergency. In fact, by protecting the natural world and prohibiting endless encroachment on wild lands, humans are mitigating the effects of the climate emergency. In terms of presentation, the left can use our species’ innate love of the natural world—and perhaps the “divinity” of it—to sell individuals on the radical changes that will be needed to protect our climate. In order to convince people on remaking the very fabric of their lives, we need more than dire statistics and scientist’s warnings—we need to use the majesty and romance of the crisis to our advantage. A fight for the very soul of our planet—for the divine beauty of nature if you will—is rhetoric that will play much better than dire forecasts and war-like chest-thumping. This rhetoric is needed to sell such policies as achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, shuttering coal, natural gas, and oil infrastructure, expanding protected areas and animal habitats, and creating a massive green jobs corps. Along with embracing and fighting for these policies—using the grand rhetoric of the divine found in Frost—the left must also fight for the inclusion of the natural world in these policies, and not just continue down the path of human domination over the natural world—albeit in a green way. We must welcome proposals that protect animal ecosystems, untamed wilderness, and untouched ocean waters, as these features are not just necessary for our planet’s continued preservation but are also important to the human psyche. We must fight for nature not just as an afterthought to human survival, but in concordance with it. Using the art and majesty of a reinvigorated movement—with new rhetoric and policy—we must fight for the transcendent and not merely the immediate. Sacrifice not merely for the good of our species, but for the long-term health of earth—our island home.
Founded on ideals seldom met, consecrated on ground horribly stolen, and evangelized by merchants of human beings, our country was born in terrible imperfection. Robert Frost is an imperfect poet, and an imperfect man, but his ideals, sentiments, and lyrical verses are a perfect blueprint for our deeply flawed nation. They lay naked our soul, our culture, and our potential. Robert Frost’s poetry is not elegiac—it never causes terrible pain—but it is honest, deeply wrought, and profoundly sentimental. Taking inspiration from the culture and writings of Frost, the left must forge a new path, endowed with the knowledge that the work of the nation is never finished, and the hope of millions lives with them. We can never right the wrongs of our blood-soaked history, but instead of putting them out of our mind, we can pursue policies that move us closer in the direction of the seldom met ideal of justice.
Stephen Dames is a rising Senior at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in New York City. Stephen has a true love of advocacy, and leftist politics, and has channeled this since interest into work with both local and state-wide political campaigns. He is interested in the intersection between socialist politics and American culture, and of the power of localism in creating a viable American left. He is also the captain of his school’s debate and economics teams, and loves public speaking. In his free time he enjoys record collecting, watching the New York Mets, and listening to Steely Dan.