You see Gnosticism everywhere, dude. No, bear with me, Montresor, and I’ll tell you a little secret about laughing demons and ancient heretics who were both the joker and the thief.
The Gnostic Spirit has survived and even thrived throughout history, despite the often tectonic pressure of Orthodoxy and its penchant for micromanaging history and reality itself. Perhaps its greatest avenue has been through daring art. That’s not truly surprising since reputed scholars like Willis Barnstone, as he explains in my book Other Voices of Gnosticism, have proposed that the perennial heretics were artists as much as they were theologians. This is apparent in the Gnostic historical continuum, from the aerial prose of Valentinus to the elegant hymns of the Cathars.
In modernity, the Gnostic quest for the ecstatic release of humanity’s inner, divine light seems to be almost unconscious — a Luciferian rebellion against heavens of rules and expectations that hack the soul’s ability to emanate its unique wavelength across the universe. Such visionaries as William Blake, W.B. Yeats, William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges, and Philip K. Dick had limited access to Gnostic materials; yet they somehow tapped into their ambrosial wellsprings to create timeless invocations for the return of Sophia and her redemptive healing of the cosmos.
These manifestations of the Song of Wisdom are sometimes found where least expected.
And Robert Frost would certainly be under this category. One of his lesser known poems not only betrays but explicitly underscores the Gnostic sensibility and mythos itself.
It is called The Demiurge’s Laugh:
It was far in the sameness of the wood;
I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,
Though I knew what I hunted was no true god.
It was just as the light was beginning to fail
That I suddenly heard—all I needed to hear:
It has lasted me many and many a year.
The sound was behind me instead of before,
A sleepy sound, but mocking half,
As of one who utterly couldn’t care.
The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh,
Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went;
And well I knew what the Demon meant.
I shall not forget how his laugh rang out.
I felt as a fool to have been so caught,
And checked my steps to make pretense
It was something among the leaves I sought
(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see).
Thereafter I sat me against a tree.
Most Frost scholars and biographers agree that Frost was not a religious man, often referring to himself as a Freethinker. Although he did keep company with august and cultured poets like Ezra Pound and T.E. Hulme, there is no evidence that Frost was greatly moved by Western esoteric systems.
Of course, the notion of a Demiurge (Greek for “public worker”) would not have been all that unknown for the educated and seekers of truth in past centuries. Plato in his Timaeus originated this concept, proposing that the demiurge was a lesser divine being that ordered the chaos of the universe beyond the World of Ideas. In ancient times, the Demiurge was often considered the active and creative aspect of the supreme consciousness. Even Christianity adopted this form of dualism. Two examples would be the church father Justin Martyr claiming that Jesus was the demiurge of God (Dialogue with Trypho) and Saint Paul’s similar allusions found in 1 Corinthians 1:24 and Colossians 1:16.
But only one group saw the Demiurge in a negative light — the Judeo-Christian Gnostics. And Frost’s poem certainly takes the side of the Gnostics of a demonic Supreme Being attempting to ensnare a person’s Divine Spark in the dark woods of Creation.
If Frost had a spiritual view, there are indications it came close to the Gnostics (or that he came to similar conclusions). In Robert Frost: A Life, Jay Panini writes that Frost saw God as “almost always the fierce Jehovah of the Book of Job and not the more gentle Elohim of who visited Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.”
In Robert Frost, Harold Bloom spends considerable time revealing the Gnostic instincts of Frost, going so far as to call him “a shrewd Gnostic” who understood that behind the ostensibly inviting canopy of nature lay a transcendental force ready to crush the human spirit. Bloom writes that Frost believed in “the Gnostic identity on the knower of what is known, when the sparks of the alien God or true Workman stream through you.” Bloom offers Frost’s poem, Uriel, to support his claims:
In vain produced, all rays return;
Evil will bless, and ice will burn.’
As Uriel spoke with piercing eye,
A shudder ran around the sky;
The stern old war-gods shook their heads;
The seraphs frown’d from myrtle-beds;
Seem’d to the holy festival
The rash word boded ill to all;
The balance-beam of Fate was bent;
The bounds of good and ill were rent;
Strong Hades could not keep his own,
But all slid to confusion.
Furthermore, Bloom reveals that Frost never truly saw the universe as benign or filled with providence. He quotes the last letter ever written by Frost, which echoes the Gnostic enigma on existence: “How can we be just in a world that needs mercy and merciful in a world that needs justice?” Bloom declares that the Demiurge, the Demon of the dark woods of Creation, laughs at us because of this conundrum. The only way to defeat him is not to indulge the demiurgic imagination, manifested as the imperfect artwork called material existence that is a poor copy of the Eternal Realm of the Aeons. In other words, as Saint Paul and William Blake proposed — do not accept reality and its law-giving systems but create your own reality by seeking the divine knowledge that Sophia confers and art unleashes in its Luciferian rebellion. “A poem begins with delight and ends in wisdom,” Frost said. Eden and Sophia.
He further wrote on Sophia:
I love to toy with the Platonic Notion
That Wisdom not need be of Athens Attic
But May Well be Laconic, even Bocotian
At least I will not have it systematic.
As mentioned with the other luminaries, Frost didn’t need to have the Nag Hammadi library in front of him to understanding the cosmic struggle between Sophia and the Creator God, the higher self and the ego. As Stephan Hoeller once said, “Any serious artist is already half a Gnostic.” Most artists who delve deep into the imaginative realm will sooner or later tap into Gnostic axioms. The artist will create but will also find himself destroying the very fabric of the dark woods of Creation. After all, one of Bloom’s motto summarizing the Gnostic worldview:
Everything that can be broken should be broken.
The message of the Gnostic Spirit appears to be simple — the Demiurge crafted reality, thinking himself a great artist but really nothing more than a counterfeiting, mechanical artisan, and now laughs at humanity in order to repress its superior, creative talent. Both the Gnostic and the artist, once unified within an individual, must breathe in the remembrance of what it means to be truly free and lean against the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (as the first poem perhaps alludes to). And then begin the great task of breaking down the Demon’s rendition of the Eternal Realm, piece by piece, through artistic expression nurtured by the astral muse that is Sophia.
If anything, one must counter the Demiurge with the same trickster attitude he adopted when he stole the powers from his mother, Sophia, and set himself upon the great stage of life as the supreme joker and thief. Or as Frost wrote:
Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.
No, I do not see Gnosticism everywhere, Montresor. I just hear laughter everywhere that is driving me sane.
Want to find Gnosticism in another weird and wonderful place? Check out “Gnostic Themes in Fight Club.”
And get Other Voices of Gnosticism for the interview with Willis Barnstone and other experts who decipher the dangerous wisdom of the Gnostics: