A Critique of Robert Frost's A Masque of Mercy

Robert Frost

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A Critique of Robert Frost's A Masque of Mercy

Copyright © December 24, 2011 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

It is late. Very late. But I don't have to pay time its dues tonight. It is Christmas-Eve-eve, and I can stay up all night to write. Never too late. But wait! Here I can open the door and look in upon a scene most have missed. Please enter the play room, the storehouse of the past with me, and we may learn together.

JESSE BEL. You can't come in! (Knock, knock) The store is closed!

PAUL. Late, late, too late, you cannot enter now.

JESSE BEL. We can't be always selling people things.
He doesn't go.

KEEPER. You needn't be so stern.
Open enough to find out who it is.

JESSE BEL. Keeper, you come and see. Or you come, Paul.
Our second second-childhood case tonight.
Where do these senile runaways escape from?
Wretchedness in a stranger frightens me
More than it touches me.

PAUL. You may come in.

FUGITIVE. (Entering hatless in a whirl of snow)
God's after me!

JESSE BEL. You mean the Devil is.


---The opening character lines of A MASQUE OF MERCY by Robert Frost (The Poetry of Robert Frost, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, p.493).

I have read and written poetry since I was twelve years old. I have read and studied all the great poets. I have read the great Romantics Shelley, Keats and Byron. I have read the ignoramuses of their time (to many to name). I’ve read the sonnets of Shakespeare and of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the far greater (and lesser known) poems of her husband Robert Browning. I have read the wordsmiths of the 20th century: the forlorn T. S. Elliot and the ponce e. e. cummings. And many more than these I have read. There remains for me no greater poet that still speaks to our times than Robert Frost.

As Christians, we wonder why we have so few converts in an age of secularized religion. Frost never pretended to be a Christian. (A friend of mine accurately stated that Frost is best classified as a non-conformist). Yet in this small drama he uncovers the mind-numbing provincialism effectively keeping most of us in the cultural backwaters. Like Paul, (both the Apostle, and Frost’s character here) he opens the door despite our baseless fears, even though it may be a murderer gaining entrance (as the Apostle was known to have been before his conversion). Once opened, it is revealed that the fugitive is like as we are. Though late at night, Paul does not fear the consequences. Whoever this person was he was seeking refuge (the Old Testament provided cities of refuge for the unwitting or suspected manslayer). Like Adam in the garden, Frost’s character realizes that God Himself is Who we flee from.

Frost reminds us that it is not the devil who is our problem. It is rather our own unwillingness to answer the persistent nagging in our souls born out of our separation from the One Who created us, Who wants to redeem us, and calls us to be a part of His redemption even of those we fear are not like us. (On this subject see my recent article Fear and Loathing in the Leave It to Beaver Generation.)

Frost reminds us in his earthbound New England voice that we fail to really be the Church when we fail to be as Paul, opening the door to all despite our hatred for what we see staring in at us: a world to much like our selves and still fleeing from Him. So we misinterpret their terror at shadows as our own personal demons that we must flee. "It's the Devil!" we declare, not realizing that (as Andre Gide once said) "God is in the details!" (The attribution has been given to many others besides Gide. It is hard to determine who the original author is. The opposite quotation “the devil is in the details” appears to have developed as a parody of the one above, and is a perversion of the Christian doctrine of God’s sovereignty).

We shun the atheist, the agnostic, the polytheist, and the secularists because we hear "No God", without realizing that oft times they flee with a comma between their legs: "No, God!" God is Who they fear and flee as we did once ourselves. But the unknown God, known now by us, is the greatest reason why we are able to open up the door and give refuge as it has been given us. The fugitive, like Paul, and like us, may finally find forgiveness and reconciliation. Like the FUGITIVE of Frost's iambic pentameter play; like Saul turned Paul in the New Testament; like we ourselves, they may become the next great Jonah of our generation, bringing the Gospel to those who would not have listened had it come from inside the "…bookstore late at night." (Frost, page 493, opening sentence of the poem.)

For many years I contemplated what Robert Frost meant by the term he creates in the phrase/title A MASQUE ... I think I finally understand. It is a MASQUErade. The Church oftentimes is caught by the world in a masquerade of mercy, of truth, of love, et al., afraid that the world may see us as we really are: a people who are redeemed out of this world, but still struggling against our former identity as part of this world. Later in Frost's poem Keeper intones "I say I'd rather be lost in the woods / Than found in church." To which Jonah (the FUGITIVE) replies "That doesn't help me much." (Frost, page 513.) It is only the Church that is a light in the darkness; the City on a hill observed and looked to in the night for safe refuge by the lost. We who are in the Church often forget, like Keeper, that we are already in the lit place; in the bookstore, and have a light that shines out into all the woodlands around us. We are our brothers’ keepers whether we like it or not, or else we are a part of the darkness that is always looking in.

Like Jonah (p. 518) in Frost's strange parable, we all can finally admit "I think I may have got God wrong entirely." But like Keeper, we may answer "All of us get each other pretty wrong." We all lay prostrate before the cross in Frost's near last parodying words (p. 521):

KEEPER: Courage is what it takes and takes the more of
Because the deeper fear is so eternal.
And if I say we lift him from the floor
And lay him where you ordered him to lie
Before the cross, it is from fellow-feeling,
As if I asked for one more chance myself
To learn to say (He moves to Jonah’s feet.)

Frost’s last word for the Church, and for all men really, the next line spoken by Keeper, is the truth we have been waiting for:

Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the NewEdisonGazette.com. You may contact him at dje@newedisongazette.com.


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