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The Thing is, the Measure

Frost, the most famous of American poets, once described himself as "half-poet, half-farmer, half teacher."
Robert Frost
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York USA
Thursday, June 7. 1956

To the graduating class I address myself to, I want to say first how much I admire you  –  from here. And I admire you for more than I see. I admire you for having completed a four-year plan, and I admire anybody or any nation that can complete one. I never could do that. I am too impatient. If I could complete a four-year plan, I would write an epic for you. I never succeeded in writing an epic. I lose my interest.

And I want to say, after praising you that way, I want to say what I expect of you. From what I know this college, what I have learned through the years and what I learned last night and this morning about you, I expect a good deal. I was relieved to hear it said in so many words that you weren’t expected to go on thinking that learning was all. Piling up knowledge is as bad as piling up money, indefinitely. You were expected at some point, or earlier  –  had been expected here earlier  –  to begin to kick around what you know.

The word “freedom” is on everybody’s lips. I never have valued any liberty conferred on me particularly. I value myself on the liberties I take, and I have learned to appreciate the word “unscrupulous”. I am not a sticker at trifles. If I wrote the history of the world in jail like Nehru 20 years ago, I would expect to take many liberties with the story. I should expect to bend the story the way I wanted it to go somewhat. There’s a certain measure of unscrupulousness in it. I find the same thing in good scientists. An unscrupulous person for me in science, history or literature is a person doesn’t stick at trifles.

Now the freedom that I am asked to think about sometimes is the freedom to speak, to speak out  –  academic and in the press, newspapers, from the platform like this. I say I have the right to tell anything, to talk about anything I am smart enough to find out about. Second, I am free to talk about anything I am deep enough to understand, and third, I am free to talk about anything I have the ability to talk about.  The limitations on my freedom, you see, are more in myself than anywhere else.

The ability to find out, the ability to understand, the ability to express. But now that you have had more of that freedom here  –  and I complement you on that  –  then you get in most colleges, you have reached the point of sweeping thoughts, sweeping thoughts like Toynbee’s when he writes about the history of the world  –  you know, he leaves Vermont out  –  unscrupulous! But he has his points to make, and the point is the great thing, and there is the courage. There is no time when I talk or when you talk when we ought not to introduce ourselves with the expression, “I make bold to say.” And making bold to say means leaving out what you don’t want  –  no lies; that is corruption. But leave out what you don’t want to say.

From now on what I expect of you is more than this. Freedom has already been inculcated to help you understand freedom. But I expect more than this. I expect that you have picked up in these years of your growth and here at college  –  not only here at college but in the world  –  some interests, say four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten  –  I don’t know  –  main ones, chief ones. For instance you are probably interested in the immortality of the soul, and you are interested in this subject of corruption in our affairs, the corruption that comes a good deal from the vastness of our population. You are interested in education. Now those interests lead you not to uncertainty. I want you to treat them  –  I am coming to the chief one  –  I want you to treat them as knitting you keep to pick up at odd moments in the rest of your lives. Not just to pick up with uncertainty, but to pick up to knit, to have ideas about. Not to opinionate about, but to have ideas about. That’s something more.

Let me tell you about what I mean. Opinion is just pro and con, having your nose counted. I don’t believe that women can write philosophy, and somebody says to me, “why do you believe that?” Well, I believe that if I have an idea about it; it isn’t just an opinion. I can’t leave it that way. I believe it because no woman in the whole world’s history has ever made a name for herself in philosophy. It just occurred to me the other day. I pick up the question of feminism and anti-feminism as one piece of knitting that I do something with every little while. I did a little knitting about that the other day.

Now the immortality of the soul, for instance. I pick up that one every so often. Is there a hereafter? Am I thinking about a hereafter? Is a hereafter more to me than the present? And so on. Am I so interested in the hereafter that I have no interest in any reform that is going on education?

You, of course, would first prefer to think, to have the idea yourselves. I judge that from the kind of education you had. I myself would. I am very selfish that way. I would rather think, have an idea myself, than have an idea given to me. Second to my selfishness there is an unselfishness I sometimes have, so I’ll pay attention to what somebody else says to me, as you are asked to listen to me now. But the main thing is to think of it first myself.

Now there is a word we’ve had that goes wrong. I don’t know whether you have encountered it or not. The word is, “the dream”. I wonder how much you have encountered it? I have it thrown in my face every little while, and always by somebody who thinks the dream has not yet come true. And then the next time I pick it up to knit, I wonder what the dream is, or why. And the next time I pick it up, I wonder who dreamed it. Did Tom Paine dream it, did Thomas Jefferson dream it, did George Washington dream it? Gouverneur Morris? And lately I’ve decided the best dreamer of it was Madison. I have been reading the Federalist papers.

But anyway I’m always concerned with the question, it is a dream that’s gone by?  Each age is a dream that is dying they say, or one that is coming to birth. It depends on what you mean by an age. Is the age over in which that dream had its existence  –  has it gone by? Can we treat the Constitution as if it were something gone by? Can we interpret it out of existence? By calling it a living document, it means something different every day, something new every day, until it doesn’t mean anything that it meant to Madison. And this thought occurred to me the other day when I picked it up. Has the dream, instead of having come true, has it done something that the witches talk about? Has it simply materialized?

Young writers that I know, novelists that I know, began as poets, most of them. They began more ethereal than substantial, and have ended up more substantial than ethereal. And is that what has happened to our country  –  has the ethereal idealism of the founders materialized into something too material? In South America this last year at a convention I heard everybody regretting, or fearing or worrying about our materialism. Not for our own sake, but for their sake, because we were misleading them into a material future for the whole world, and anxiety for us. I told him we were anxious about that too. We have scales in our bathrooms to see how material we are getting.

Now I think what I want to say to you is  –  the first thing is that women have not been philosophers. They have been too wise to be philosophers. They have the wisdom of all such sayings as, “misery loves company” or “we all must eat our peck of dirt.” That is just a figurative way of saying we must all be a little  –  but I won’t say that. Or else, in California I learned to say we all must eat our pack of gold. That means we all must get a little rich…the country must get rich, and we must not fear that.

Now I know  –  I think I know, as of today  –  what Madison’s dream was. It was just a dream of a new land to fulfill with people in self-control. In self-control. That is all through his thinking. And let me say that again to you. To fulfill this land  –  a new land  –  with people in self-control. And do I think that dream has failed? Has come to nothing, or has materialized too much? It is always the fear. We live in constant fear, of course. To cross the road, we live in fear of cars. But we can live in fear if we want to of too much education, too little education, too much of this, too little of that. But the thing is, the measure.

I am always relieved when I am introduced, when something has happened before me when I see someone making motions like this [gesture of conducting a chorus] like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness, measure in unselfishness. Measure in selfishness. My selfishness is in being the one to think of it first, and is only just a little ahead of my unselfishness in listening to someone else who thinks of it ahead of me. But first comes the selfishness of being the one to think of it, and to take the liberty.

Now I thought I would say a poem to you, a poem about what Madison may have thought. This is called, “The Gift Outright” and it is my story of the Revolutionary war. My story of the Revolutionary war might be about two little battles. One little battle called King’s Mountain and another little battle called Bennington  –  but I’ll leave battles out and give you the abstract.

                The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.


…the dream was to occupy the land with character  –  that’s another way to put it  –  to occupy a new land with characte

You must have these interests that you keep to knit. And you must not live in uncertainly about anything like that  –  just with no ideas at all about them. That’s what I call to be a Dover beach-comber  –  to wish the long uncertainty would end. It isn’t that uncertainty; it’s getting forward. Every time you have a fresh idea in the knitting, that knits; it’s strengthening. It is life. It is courage.

And just to get away from all that, I am going to say a poem called “Birches”  –  for whatever it means. I interpreted the other one, but this goes uninterpreted.



When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows—

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.


…and that is not an escape poem, that is a retreat poem.