Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Robert Frost: Trial by Existence

Robert Frost:  "Trial by Existence"

Normally I don't post poems this long, but this one I just have to.  It is, to me anyway, one of Frost's most unusual and inexplicable poems.    It is fairly straightforward and understandable on the surface level, but something else is going on here.  Just what this is, I have no idea, which is why I have posted it.  I'm hoping somebody can help me understand this poem and Frost's thinking as he wrote it.  Perhaps that's too much to ask, and I should just read and go with it.  But, I have this itch .  .  .


Even the bravest that are slain
Shall not dissemble their surprise
On waking to find valor reign,
Even as on earth, in paradise;
And where they sought without the sword
Wide fields of asphodel fore'er,
To find that the utmost reward
Of daring should be still to dare.

The light of heaven falls whole and white
And is not shattered into dyes,
The light forever is morning light;
The hills are verdured pasture-wise;
The angel hosts with freshness go,
And seek with laughter what to brave;--
And binding all is the hushed snow
Of the far-distant breaking wave.

And from a cliff-top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!

And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.
And a white shimmering concourse rolls
Toward the throne to witness there
The speeding of devoted souls
Which God makes his especial care.

And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
And very beautifully God limns,
And tenderly, life's little dream,
But naught extenuates or dims,
Setting the thing that is supreme.

Nor is there wanting in the press
Some spirit to stand simply forth,
Heroic in it nakedness,
Against the uttermost of earth.
The tale of earth's unhonored things
Sounds nobler there than 'neath the sun;
And the mind whirls and the heart sings,
And a shout greets the daring one.

But always God speaks at the end:
'One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.'

And so the choice must be again,
But the last choice is still the same;
And the awe passes wonder then,
And a hush falls for all acclaim.
And God has taken a flower of gold
And broken it, and used therefrom
The mystic link to bind and hold
Spirit to matter till death come.

'Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.

 Do you find this a strange poem when put up against others of his that you know about?

What does this say about the various religious traditions that concern themselves with guilt and everlasting punishment for sins committed here in this life?

Choosing the life of a saint or hero or some remarkable person would be understandable.  And perhaps choosing a martyr's life could also be understood.   But, choosing to live the life of Hitler? 

In the post immediately preceding this one, Hoffer talked about freedom to choose or not to choose.  I wonder if there's any connection between Hoffer's comments and my sudden decision to provide this poem a day later.  And, it was a sudden decision.


  1. My brain is mush, Fred. All I can say is yes, I find it quite different from his other poems I've read. Good questions, something to think about.

  2. Fred, I am baffled. If my mind were clearer, I might have a chance at explicating this one. Let me ponder it for a while. Perhaps I will have something in a day or so or more.

  3. madamevauquer.

    I wish I had some good answers for those questions. Every time I try to make some sort of sense of it, I get a headache.

  4. R.T.,

    As you can see from the post, I too am baffled. I will now do a search on the Net for other commentaries on the poem. I don't remember ever seeing anything in the past about this poem. Perhaps others are equally baffled.

    1. Perhaps some academic journals will have some articles. Have you considered an MLA database search?

    2. R.T.,

      No, I haven't. How would one get access to that? Through a library? I'm no longer connected with a university.

  5. Perhaps Google Scholar has some options, links, and articles. And if I find the time, I might dig through some things via my still useable university library access.

  6. R.T.,

    Good luck and happy searching.