Arts and Leisure

Robert Frost on World War II: ‘Wisdom Is Better Than Bravery’

Robert Frost owed a lot to his closest friend, Louis Untermeyer. Untermeyer, a preeminent literary critic, had supported his work and helped make him a national poet. But when Untermeyer asked him to write propaganda for the Allies in World War II, Frost said he just couldn’t do it. He chose to teach instead.

Robert Frost

In 1943, Frost started at Dartmouth as a George Ticknor Fellow. By then he was a beloved American poet, a winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and a popular speaker on college campus.

Students and faculty flocked to his classes and seminars. They met with him during his office hours and hiked with him in the woods.  He had tea at the home of a student wounded in the war, asked about his war experience and later critiqued his short stories.

Fifteen years later, speaking at Harvard, Frost explained why he taught. He was, he said, “seeking kindred spirits — to comfort them and comfort me.”

Frost on War

Though Frost’s poems were chosen for anthologies given to GIs to boost their morale, he refused to join the Office of War Information (OWI) in spite of the urgings of Untermeyer, his closest friend.  Untermeyer, who was Jewish, was the OWI senior editor of publications.

It wasn’t that Frost was against the war. Robert Frost viewed war as an inevitable, if tragic, outcome of human nature. He had suggested in 1942 that his grandson Prescott attend military school in preparation for the war. When his daughter Lillian replied that Prescott hoped to join the Air Force and work on a ground crew, Frost commented sarcastically on his less-than-noble aspiration in a letter.

Not that he would avoid duty at the front. Only of course he would want to be where his abilities and training would help most. He had been out hunting and killed a grey squirrel. I shall say nothing more on the subject. Not everybody can be expected to like war.

But he hated the gung-ho gang thinking of Americans, “the gay songs and big talk about our celebrating Christmas in Berlin and next Fourth of July in Tokio or vice versa,” he wrote. He refused to accept the moral superiority of the Allies who, after all, would create holocausts in Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Robert Frost at Dartmouth

“The best construction I can put on it is that we and the British have a property and a position the Germans would give anything to get away from us: and that we arent [sic] fools enough to let them,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter Lesley.

Frost was a teacher, not a propagandist, and he was open to the possibility that God was on both sides. He aimed to inspire nuanced moral thinking among his students. “Wisdom is better than bravery,” he said shortly after the war ended.

Dartmouth had turned into an arm of the military during the war. Many colleges trained officers for military service through their participation in the V-12 Navy College Training program or the Army Specialized Training Program. Most of Dartmouth’s students between 1943 and 1946 belonged to the V-12 program. Of those, 85 percent had recently graduated from high school. Another 10 percent were Marines, many of whom had returned from Guadalcanal.

They tricked out their dorm rooms like military barracks and called them the “ships of the Dartmouth Navy.” They woke at reveille, drilled on campus and spoke of time in military terms: “0800” for 8:00 a.m.

After they finished their military service, many of the V-12 veterans returned to school, older and wiser than when they left. The faculty thought them the best students they ever had. Some continued to wear their uniforms on campus because those were the only clothes they owned and could afford.

The captain of the football team had been badly disfigured. His plane had crashed and he was thrown clear. He went to rescue men still in the plane and it blew up in his face.

A V-12 marine named John Gustafson made an appointment with Frost one day so he could autograph a copy of his new book of poetry, Come In. Frost wrote a two-line poem above his signature.

We dance ʼround in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.

Images: Dartmouth logo By http://communications.dartmouth.edu/sites/communications.dartmouth.edu/files/dartmouth_guidelines_web_final.pdf, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14332488.

With thanks to the Rauner Library World War II Oral History Project

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