Definition of Freedom: It’s Being Easy in Your Harness

Robert Frost? James B. Simpson? Apocryphal?

frost09Dear Quote Investigator: An enigmatic metaphorical statement about freedom has been attributed to the famous American poet Robert Frost:

You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.

Are these really the words of Frost? What was the context? Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Robert Frost held a news conference on the eve of his eightieth birthday in 1954. An article from the Associated Press (AP) news service described some of the questions and answers which included remarks about freedom. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“I find my greatest freedom on the farm,” the four-times Pulitzer Prize winner said. “I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.” He lives on a farm in Ripton, Vt.

What’s your definition of freedom, he was asked.

“It’s being easy in your harness,” he replied, slipping into rural vernacular.

Note that the words spoken by Frost in this contemporaneous account did not quite match the quotation under examination. QI believes that the modern quotation evolved from the words spoken by Frost in 1954.

Frost suggested that some form of constraint was inherent in his notion of freedom. The reader must provide his or her own interpretation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Stories based on the AP information were printed in multiple newspapers, e.g., “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio, 2 the “Morning World-Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska, 3 and “The Hartford Courant” of Hartford, Connecticut 4 During the 1954 meeting with journalists another explication was sought from the poet:

Frost was asked to define poetry.
“It’s like a wild game preserve,” he answered. “It’s where wild things live. This is the ultimate in poetry and it has to be there.”

In 1957 a collection called “Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56” compiled by James Beasley Simpson was published. The following statement was credited to Frost: 5

“I guess one way of putting it would be that you have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.”
Robert Frost, news summaries of May 10, 1954.

The date of May 10th was several weeks after the March 25th news conference, and the phrase “news summaries” was not very precise. The origin of this variant statement was not clear to QI.

The book editor of “The Christian Science Monitor” examined Simpson’s work in May 1957 and found the statement ascribed to Frost engaging enough to reprint it in his column which facilitated its further dissemination. 6

In 1965 a newspaper article provided by the American Bar Association included an instance of the comment by Frost: 7

How does it happen that poet Robert Frost defined freedom not as the lack of all restraint but as learning to “feel easy in your harness”?

In 1988 “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” included an entry with a truncated version of the quotation listed in the 1957 collection. This instance matched the expression given by the questioner: 8

ROBERT FROST
You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.
News summaries 10 May 54

In conclusion, Robert Frost did speak about freedom in 1954. His remark did not conform to a simple freestanding quotation; instead, the most natural template was question-response.

Image Notes: Picture of trotting racer at the Krieau; author Jorge Royan. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of Robert Frost circa 1941. Image from the New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Mike Finch whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to top-notch researcher Sam Clements and the forum participants at the Straight Dope website who mentioned evidence with a May 1954 date.)

Notes:

  1. 1954 March 26, The Hartford Courant, Frost, Poet, Is Honored On Birthday: New Englander, 80, Views World as Too Crowded and Hurried, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  2. 1954 March 26, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Robert Frost, 80 Says “Be Easy in Your Harness”, (Associated Press news service), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1954 March 26, Morning World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), Poet Frost, 80, Defines Freedom: Easy in Your Harness, (Associated Press news service), Quote Page 1, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1954 March 26, The Hartford Courant, Frost, Poet, Is Honored On Birthday: New Englander, 80, Views World as Too Crowded and Hurried, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  5. 1957, Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56, Compiled by James Beasley Simpson, Section: Authors 1954, Quote Page 11, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1957 May 23, Christian Science Monitor, Footnotes by the Book Editor, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  7. 1965 April 5, Omaha World-Herald, The Family Lawyer: Child Asks Law’s Help by Will Bernard, (Article was donated as a public service by the American Bar Association), Quote Page 8, Column 4, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1988, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, Compiled by James B. Simpson, Section: Wisdom, Philosophy & Other Musings, Entry: Robert Frost, Quote Page 227, Column 1, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. (Verified on paper)