A Masque of Reason. By Robert Frost. Henry Holt and Company. $2.00.
On the eve of his seventieth birthday, the most respected of our living poets and the (seemingly) most recognizably traditional of New England voices has published his most questioning and controversial poem. It is like nothing hitherto composed by the author of “North of Boston” or, for that matter, by any other poet. It is called a masque; but those readers who might be led to expect a pretty piece of semi-Shakespearian dumb-show will be vividly shocked, although the lines—even to the stage directions—are in decorous blank verse. “A Masque of Reason,” apparently a one-act play, opens in “a fair oasis in the purest desert.” Underneath a palm—time and place not stated—a man and a woman sit staring at the sky. A tree (which is part Burning Bush, part Christmas Tree) is on fire, and something caught in its branches struggles to get out. What emerges (prefabricated plywood throne and all) is God, and the man and woman are not, as the reader is inclined to guess, Adam and Eve, but a more argumentative and far more interesting couple, Job and Job’s wife. It transpires that the occasion is the Day of Judgment, and it is God who has come to be judged.
But God, an old and skillful dialectician, is not to be tricked into solving the humanly insoluble. Although he admits that he has had Job’s case on his mind a thousand years or so, he says at the very beginning:
There’s no connection man can reason out Between his just deserts and what he gets. Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed. ‘Twas a great demonstration we put on. I should have spoken sooner had I found The word I wanted. You would have supposed One who in the beginning was the Word Would be in a position to command it. I have to wait for words like anyone.
It develops that it was the very essence of Job’s (or any man’s) trial that its agony could not be understood by suffering humanity. God insists that he tried to appease man by following man’s arbitrary choice of good and evil “with forfeits and rewards he understood,” that Job changed all that and thus became the Emancipator of God; as such, Job is promoted to sainthood. But Job’s wife (who recognized God at once by Blake’s picture) is not comforted. She pursues God with protests; she demands reasons, asks why injustice still prevails, caustically inquires who invented earth. Perversely enough, or because of the natural confraternity of males, Job defends God: . . . God must await events
As well as words . . .
God needs time just as much as you or I
To get things done. Reformers fail to see that.
And God agrees that he and Job worked out a great demonstration: that the discipline man needed most was “to learn submission to unreason.” And when Job not unnaturally inquires why it had to be at his expense, God logically replies:
It had to be at somebody’s expense. Society can never think things out.
Nevertheless the man in Job is not satisfied with God’s ex-post-facto excuses and the artist in him “cries out for design.”
I fail to see what fun, what satisfaction
A God can find in laughing at how badly
Men fumble at the possibilities
When left to guess forever for themselves.
The chances are when there’s so much pretense
Of metaphysical profundity
The obscurity’s a fraud to cover nothing . . .
It is here, when Job’s demands grow most godlike, that God is most human. The suffering of Job was an answer to Satan—”a showing off to the Devil,” a temptation God could not resist. It was God’s trial as well as Job’s, made easier for the Deity since God knew he could count on Job, and since (as Job’s wife puts it) the Devil is God’s greatest inspiration. Satan, precipitated from the desert air, appears and is twitted by Job’s wife, who brings the poem to a close on a teasing domestic note. The rest is a cryptic silence.
The reader’s first reaction will be one of surprise. Both the material and the manner seem to be worlds apart from the homely scene and accent of “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and “Birches,” as well as “Come In” and the other lyrics. Yet the Frostian touch is there; it is even bolder in its mingling of profundity and playfulness, more daring than ever in its philosophical banter and metaphysical fancy, The whole poem is a play in paradox. It is a continual alternation of purpose and cross-purpose, of meaning and mockery.
Most paradoxical of all, it is a young man’s poem: a half questing, half querulous search for ultimates. The years have sharpened the wit of America’s most probing and most representative poet. They have emphasized the character of the man who transcended his own rustic material and who, in poem after poem, lifted the regional into the universal. “A Masque of Reason” is his latest triumph—a curious but logical complement to the early monologues which startled us thirty years ago in “North of Boston.” It is a richly speculative piece of exegesis that is no less wise for being so tantalizingly whimsical.