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Perishable Thoughts

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 28, 2008

David A. Linder, Director of Merchandising for the Military Produce Group in Norfolk, Virginia, had sent along a great Cicero quote on agriculture, which we used in the Perishable Thoughts section here.

Simultaneously he had sent along a second quote, one he identified as coming from a noted poet:

“Nature does not accomplish things. She is chaotic. Man must finish, and he does so by making a garden.”
— Robert Frost

We have been working on it for some time, yet our fact-checking process could find no such quote. This led Pundit Aide-de-Camp James Elmer to both the Internet and the library stacks for some extensive research.

The quote turns up all over the Internet but without the specific citation we require, so we began our search for a source. We first turned to noted Robert Frost organizations but found little help. First James tried the Frost Foundation:

What I tell my students to do in a case like this is to add the quotation to wikisource. Please see en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Robert_Frost

Failing that, you could work with the research librarian at your local library or hire a professional researcher.

— Mark Schorr.
Frost Foundation

Then came this note from the editor of The Robert Frost Review:

Thanks for the question. I will put out a query to my sources but already I have to say that it is not something familiar enough to yield a quick response. Once I have one, however, I will be back in touch.

— Jonathan Barron
Associate Professor of English
Editor, The Robert Frost Review

Frost Friends calls itself “a national organization to honor America’s favorite poet,” but had nothing to say:

Sorry, can’t help. There is no index on these things.
Frost Friends

The chair of the Robert Frost Poetry Festival 2009 tried to help:

I have forwarded your email off to our Robert Frost Scholar in England to see if he can identify your quote. As soon as I hear back from him, I will email you.

Hope we can figure it out.

— Roberta DePiero
Chair, Robert Frost Poetry Festival 2009

The English Robert Frost Scholar was as much at a loss as we Americans:

I’ve hunted around but so far haven’t found the source for Frost’s comment. I don’t think it figures in any of the poems, so it may be somewhere in one of his pieces on writing poetry (or a quote that he himself never wrote down). I’ll keep looking — sorry I can’t be more help at this stage.

— Michael Wyndham Thomas
Robert Frost Scholar
2008 Robert Frost Poetry Festival

Having failed to turn anything on the Internet and finding local bookstores and his community library unavailing, James, who had just moved to Pittsburgh, turned to the world famous Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and, right across the street the University of Pittsburgh Library.

With the help of one of Carnegie’s ace research librarians, a woman named Leigh Anne Vrabel, James cracked the puzzle:

Turns out, it is not a Robert Frost quote. It was originally a paraphrase written by Gorham Munson of a larger quote by Robert Frost. Munson was an American literary critic and author of a few books on Robert Frost.

What Robert Frost actually wrote was this:

“I believe in what the Greeks call synecdoche: the philosophy of the part for the whole; touching the hem of the goddess. All that an artist needs is samples. Enough success to know what money is like; enough love to know what women are like.”

Gorham Munson, a prolific literary critic and the founder of a literary review known as Secession, paraphrased Frost to explain the meaning of the Frost quote to his readers:

Nature, he explains, does not complete things. She is chaotic. Man must finish and he does so by making a garden and building a wall.

— Gorham Munson
Robert Frost — A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense”
1927, George H. Doran & Co.
1968, Reissued, Kennikat Press, Inc. / Port Washington, NY

It is a slightly edited and rephrased version of Munson’s statement that one can find all over the Internet — as well as on David A. Linder’s desk — as a quote attributed to Robert Frost.

How did this happen? Here is how James assesses the matter:

I believe what happened is Frost’s original words were confusingly quoted in Caroline Ford’s 1935 book, “The Road Less Traveled” as she lumped together Munson’s paraphrase along with a snippet of the larger Frost quote about Greek philosophy and artists, and a casual reader might have attributed the whole thing to Frost.

In fact, despite the fact that there is a footnote to the work by Munson, it did become attributed to Frost. Somehow, over the course of 75 years or so, someone somewhere copied the quote, probably from Ford’s book, and attributed it to Robert Frost… the rest is Internet history.

So the mystery is unraveled. James gets the super-sleuth award of the month and we are left with three things: A lesson as to the need for skepticism; A reminder of the importance of discipline and hard work in achieving things such as the unraveling of this little mystery; and an achingly beautiful quote inspired by Robert Frost and expressed by Gorham Munson that speaks to the human role of perfecting nature.

That notion seems relevant as we consider issues such as irradiation or GMOs. If we view mankind as somehow outside of nature, then these things may be seen as “unnatural” intrusions. If mankind is part of nature, then things such as irradiation and GMOs are part of man’s search for ways to perfect nature.

Frost was speaking metaphorically of beauty and art and seeing in great poetry the building of this most perfect garden. We who tend to the fruit of the earth also have an opportunity to participate in the perfection of nature along with the artist. In this sense, we come to see food safety and the embrace of science generally as an embrace of the human purpose. It is at once humbling and ennobling to realize our prudential concerns are imbued with a meaning we often forget.

Many thanks to David A. Linder, Director of Merchandising, Military Produce Group, Norfolk, Virginia, for reminding us.

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Perishable Thoughts is a regular section of the Perishable Pundit. If you have a favorite quote that you would like to share with the industry, please send it on. You can do so right here.

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