Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Stalwart Soul: Frost's "A Lone Striker"

Meet my newest favorite American poet: Robert Frost.

Most of us are familiar with a few of his more famous poems, namely "The Road Less Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." These two are truly small masterpieces, but, as I've discovered, he had so many more! Several months ago for Great Books I read his "New Hampshire" collection and I was delighted by his realism, wit, and what I can only describe as a certain soberness of style. Frost is not your anguished, broken-world modernist. He has ground under his feet.

Over Christmas I was happy to discover a volume of Frost's collected writings tucked away in the corner of a bookshelf at my grandparents' house. While working through his complete poems, I have marked many favorites. One of these is "A Lone Striker".

The poem opens with a factory hand arriving late to work to find himself locked out for half an hour, as punishment. In this unexpected free time the worker contemplates the marvel of the man-made machine, and yet questions its ultimate value:

Man's ingenuity was good.
He saw it plainly where he stood,
Yet found it easy to resist.

In the end the man decides to go on lone strike for a day and take a walk in the woods:

If--if he stood! Enough of ifs!
He knew a path that wanted walking;
He knew a spring that wanted drinking;
A thought that wanted further thinking;
A love that wanted re-renewing.
Nor was this just a way of talking
To save him the expense of doing.
With him it boded action, deed.

Go ahead--read it aloud. I love the rigor of rhythm and arch of line here. In fact these lines struck me so deeply that they stayed in my mind without my even trying to memorize them. But why?  Because they spoke to my love of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Throughout the poem Frost emphasizes the un-humanness of the factory. Its only purpose is the mass-production of a thing. The human workers are only there to fix the machines when they break. In the context of the factory, the people, too, are merely parts of the machine, with its single material purpose.

But the lone striker would have more. He desires cliffs, trees, water; space to breath and think and love--truly human occupations. He does not totally condemn industry--as he implies by the line "Man's ingenuity was good"--but he asks for something deeper, more fulfilling. He would have a soul free to pursue beauty.

This is exactly how I feel about my pursuit of a Great Books education. The norm in colleges today is to prepare its students for a specialized occupation in society. Of course this is not a wholly bad thing. We need doctors and engineers and scientists. But civilization needs more that that. It needs humans. And we will never find our humanity if we limit it to merely a material livelihood. That's why we need wonderful poets like Robert Frost.

"A Lone Striker" is another clarion call to me on my journey to a true liberal arts education. I too know a path that wants walking, a spring that wants drinking, a love that wants renewing. The adventure has hardly begun.