Analysis of Robert Frost’s Skeptic

The speaker moves between two positions: belief and disbelief. He addresses the “Far star” that “tickles” his “sensitive plate” and whose heat is so intense that it can fry black atoms white. He refers to his body as his armor from the star, his “plate,” like a reptile’s.

“I don’t believe I believe,” the speaker says to the star; he “put[s] no faith in the seeming facts of light.” Light is visible but not graspable; it seems to be but cannot be held. The grammar of “I don’t believe I believe” is essential to the poem, as is the repetition of the phrase. It is its own contradiction. The speaker cannot believe that he believes is one way to read the line, but another is to read it as a considered contradiction: He at once believes and does not believe.

The speaker addresses the star, asserting that he is not certain it is the “last in space” or that what makes it “red in the face,” makes it shine so brightly, is “after explosion going away so fast.” The philosopher-poet is referring to the Big Bang theory. Stars shift to the red portion, or lower frequencies, of the visual spectrum as they move away from us. The faster a star moves away from us, or the farther it is from us when it moves, affects how its light reaches us and how it appears to us. So, too, if it moves in the opposite direction; if it moves toward us or is closer to us, its appearance is supposed to shift to the higher frequencies and therefore to the violet area of the visual spectrum. Also, in cosmic time, stars eventually die, extinguishing all life that relies on those stars as a source of energy. A dying star is indeed “red in the face.”

The closing stanza speculates as to whether the universe is as immense as we believe. The speaker is confronted with facts that make it seem cold and distant, but there are occasions when the universe feels like home and like protection despite those cosmic facts. At times it is as if he is in the womb; he feels as securely wrapped as a baby in a caul, or fetal membrane. The universe feels like his; he is not as inconsiderable as science would make him seem.

The poem is ultimately about how we should view the universe. Should we see it as an antihuman void or as the foundation of our existence and, somehow, a comfort? The poem is titled “Skeptic,” but it seems simply indecisive. The speaker is uncertain which view of the universe he should adopt. He goes back and forth on the discoveries of astronomy and in the end concludes, unscientifically, that “[t]he universe may or may not be very immense,” pointing out that both scientific data and a human factor are necessary for a full grasp of the nature of the universe with all its cold emptiness. The universe still has qualities that can make humans feel comfortable, and these should not be discounted.

Frost here, as in “Lines Written in Dejection on the Eve of Great Success,” tries to limit the reach of scientific conclusions compared with human experiences. Depending on the context, he suggests that human “common sense” can be just as informative as, or even more so than, scientific observations. Frost does not seem to be critical so much of science per se as of the overarching conclusions of some scientists. In relation to these people, Frost sees himself as a skeptic.

The poem, first published in Steeple Bush, can be compared to “Any Size We Please,” in which the speaker tries to embrace the universe.

Sanders, Charles. “Frost’s ‘Skeptic,’ ” Explicator 40, no. 3 (Spring 1982): 47–48.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Poetry

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