A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost

BookA Scientific Companion to Robert Frost

A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost

Clemson University Press


April 1st, 2021



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Mention Robert Frost and people instantly think of snowy woods and less-traveled paths and rural neighbors meeting to fix their stone fence.  But what does Robert Frost have to do with science?  You might be surprised. Born in 1874, Frost lived through a remarkable period of scientific progress, including the development of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, the Big Bang theory, the discovery of the structure of DNA and the beginnings of space travel.  Possessing a powerful intellect driven by keen curiosity, Frost was highly knowledgeable about the science of his time and infuses his poetry with imagery and language borrowed from science.    Frost not only uses the language of science to enrich his poetry in the same way he uses classical, historical, biblical and literary allusions, but he also uses ordinary language to create sophisticated metaphors based on scientific concepts such as evolution and entropy.  A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost represents the first systematic attempt to catalogue and explain all of the references to science and natural history in Frost’s poetry.  The book, which is organized chronologically, uses language that is accessible to laymen and is supplemented by numerous illustrations, and appendices that should make it a valuable resource for teachers and scholars. 

'What a wonderful idea Virginia Smith, with her strong scientific background, had in providing us with A Scientific Companion to my grandfather’s verses! Always impressed by Rorbert Frost’s deep understanding of his natural surroundings – in botany, archaeology, astronomy, among others – we learn here just how his scientific knowledge enriches the metaphorical language of many of his verses. As a teacher of his poems, I frequently note the need for such a Companion: the heal-all in “Design,” the iris in “Iris by Night” that is not a flower, or the complex interaction of fruit, trees, ancestral primates, and a young girl, in “Wild Grapes,” one of my favorites. Richly illustrated, the volume will help you move ever more deeply into the poet’s layers of meaning while, at the same time, awaken you to the endless mysteries of the universe.'
Lesley Lee Francis, author of You Come Too: My Journey With Robert Frost and Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900–1918

'More than half a century ago, C. P. Snow lamented that science and the humanities had become so specialized that their practitioners could no longer speak to one another. With the publication of A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost, Virginia Smith proves the exception to the “two cultures” divide. A professor of biochemistry at the United States Naval Academy, Ms. Smith is also an astute reader of Frost’s poetry. In combining her “avocation and vocation,” as Frost advises in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Ms. Smith demonstrates the breadth of Frost’s engagement with science and carefully discloses how Frost used the lessons of science—in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and natural history—to inform his poetry. In doing so, she provides devotees and scholars with an invaluable primary resource that will surely stimulate new thinking about our most thoughtful and complex American poet.'
Robert Bernard Hass, author of Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science and co-editor of the Letters of Robert Frost

'Any lover of Frost’s poetry will be delighted by Virginia Smith’s A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost. It brings an exciting new perspective to many of the poems we have all long admired. Now with her book as our guide through all the allusions to matters of science that Frost continually turned to in writing his poetry, we can experience and appreciate these poems more fully. Smith has not missed a single one of these allusions, providing us with clarifying details of the significance and history of specific words and phrases in the poems related to the fields of botany, ornithology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, physics, and the technology of his day. But her book is not merely a catalog of Frost’s use of scientific language and imagery; Smith puts her commentaries in the context of where he was living, the books he was reading, the people he knew, and the discussions of the times. Each entry is meticulously documented, drawing on an impressive body of research, often primary sources, including what he had read, courses he had taken, and letters he had written and received. The ninety one illustrations throughout the book further illuminate and enrich our understanding of Frost’s fascination with science. While scholars will surely make use of this book for academic study, I urge the multitude of readers who have made Frost their favorite poet not to pass up this opportunity to get to know his poetry more deeply and enjoy it even more.'
Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, author of Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry

'Robert Frost was one of the few poets who knew as much about science as he did the humanities. Here at last in one volume Virginia Smith allows readers to see just how deeply informed and rich with scientific knowledge Frost’s poetry could be.'
Jonathan N. Barron, director of The Robert Frost Society and author of How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter

'The careful research Smith has conducted into Frost’s reading is a great strength of this volume... A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost will help scholars and students alike see new dimensions in Frost’s poetry.’
Steve Knepper, The New England Quarterly

'A professor of chemistry and an active Frost scholar, Virginia F. Smith is uniquely positioned to contribute to these interdisciplinary conversations. In A Scientific Companion to Robert Frost, she draws on her authoritative knowledge of both scientific concepts and of Frost’s life and work to give us an invaluable guide to scientific references in Frost’s poetry. The book not only illuminates these references, it also makes clear the significance of scientific ideas to Frost as both man and poet. Any engaged reader of Frost will benefit from having this Companion at his or her elbow while leafing through the poems.'
Marissa Grunes, The Robert Frost Review


Author Information

Dr. Virginia F. Smith is a Professor of Chemistry at the United States Naval Academy where she maintains an active research program and has published over twenty scientific articles. Her interest in Robert Frost's use of scientific imagery and language has led to three publications and multiple speaking engagements at colleges, universities, and professional meetings. She has also served as president of The Robert Frost Society. After earning an A.B. in physics and chemistry from Mount Holyoke College, Virginia served five years on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, then worked in industry before earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Washington State University. Virginia and her husband live in Annapolis, MD.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of Illustrations9
1. A Boy’s Will29
2. North of Boston51
3. Mountain Interval65
4. New Hampshire87
5. West-Running Brook119
6. A Further Range139
7. A Witness Tree179
8. Steeple Bush199
9. An Afterword229
10. A Masque of Reason237
11. In the Clearing245
12. Uncollected Poems281
Works Cited295
Annotated Bibliography of Works Related to Science, Technology, and Discovery305
Correlated Chronology of Scientific Advances during Frost’s Lifetime337
Concordance of Plants345
Concordance of Animals351