Frost, Hendecasyllabics & For Once, Then, Something

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Catullizing English

Reading a letter from Catallus

Neaera Reading a Letter from Catullus

While Robert Frost’s, For Once, Then, Something, isn’t the most memorable of his poems, it’s one of his most unique. It’s written, nominally, in hendecasyllabics. It’s also one of the most devilish to scan.  Frost was imitating the Latin meter of Catullus – said to be one of his favorite Latin poets. What makes the poem difficult to scan is that the English language simply does not do what Latin did. English is not a quantitative language (meaning that syllables are long or short). English is an accentual language, meaning that words receive more or less stress dependent on their usage.

  • I notice that Wikipedia makes much ado about the difference between Hendecasyllable and Hendecasyllabic, (Hendecasyllabic Verse or Hendecasyllabics). However, the author or authors of the Wikipedia article offer no citations to back up their assertions. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics makes no such distinction.  Hendecasyllabic, according to Webster’s and to Princeton, is simply the adjectival form of Hendecasyllable (an eleven syllable line or word). On the other hand, a distinction  can be made between Latin quantitative Hendecasyllabics and the accentual Hendecasyllabics of the later Romance Languages, but that appears unrelated to the whether the word is used as a noun or adjective.

The English language is a naturally Iambic and Anapestic language (meaning that the language prefers a rising stress). In nominal phrases, we don’t  normally say the car, we say the car. (The former also makes sense, but the exception proves the rule.) By stressing the, we  draw attention to the fact that the car is singular. We can do this because English is an accentual language. It is the car. Also, all of our prepositional phrases prefer a rising stress (iambic or anapestic). In a previous post, one commenter objected that I didn’t take into consideration regional or dialectal inflections. Not so. This feature of the language has nothing to do with regional or dialectal inflections. It is simply the way our language works. It’s the reason Iambic meters, rather than Trochaic meters, are the dominant meters of English poetry.

So, what does all this have to do with Frost’s poem?

The problem is that the hendecasyllabics of Catullus, when transliterated into English, make for a trochaic meter. Trochaic meters are extremely difficult to pull off in English. Few poets actually pull it off. No poet, to my knowledge, has succeeded through and through. What do I mean by this? I mean that, at the first chance, the reader will want to read a line as Iambic rather than trochaic. For example, if Frost’s poem were written in Latin, here is how we would unflinchingly scan the first line.

Others | taunt me with | having | knelt at | well-curbs

robert-frost-chairThis is essentially Trochaic Pentameter with a variant dactylic second foot.  If you were being asked to scan this poem for a class, then this is how the professor would probably expect the poem to be scanned (and I’ll provide this scansion), but as far as the English language goes. Here is how most of us will read the line:

Others | taunt me | with ha|ving knelt |at well-curbs

This is essentially Iambic Pentameter with two variant trochaic feet (the first and second foot) with a feminine ending. By modern standards, this would be a perfectly acceptable variant line within a larger Iambic Pentameter poem. And therein lies the rub. Being English speakers, we prefer to hear Iambs, rather than trochees. We naturally bias our readings toward Iambs. Here is another option:

Others taunt| me with hav|ing knelt | at well-crubs

This makes the meter tetrameter (four foot) rather than pentameter. The first foot is cretic, the second anapestic, the third Iambic and the last a feminine ending, or an amphibrach.

All of the variations above are hendecasyllabic. The first two might be called a Pentameter Hendecasyllable and the last might be called a Tetrameter Hendecasyllable.

So, when scanning the poem, what do we do? Do we scan it according to the poet’s intentions, or how the lines actually work in the English language? Frost may have been imitating a Latin meter, but the language is English.

Here is the poem as Frost intended it:

Hendadecasyllabic Scansion - For Once, Then, Something

Robert Frost reciting:


In the scansion above, I only marked the first line. All the following lines are the same except for the first foot of line 12. As you can hear, Frost reads this first foot as a spondee.  Trochaic meters are less forgiving as far as variant feet go and if only for this reason, Frost departs from the hendecasyllabic meter only once. It’s probably the most metrically conservative poem Frost wrote after his first book of poetry.

  • Robert Pack, in his book Belief and uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Page 30, incorrectly identifies this poem as a sonnet. He doesn’t do so elsewhere in the book which leads me to think this was a slip of the pen.

By way of comparison, here is the scansion of a hendecasyllabic line in Latin.

latin-example-hendadecasyllabic1

The example comes from a powerpoint document I found online (no author is given). Clicking on the link or image will download it – if you’re curious. The paper is intended for students studying Latin. While the symbols used are similar to those used for accentual-syllabic verse, the symbols mean something different. What Frost (and all English poets) have done is to substitute a stressed syllable for a Latin long syllable, and an unstressed syllable for a Latin short syllable. If you don’t want to download a Powerpoint presentation but are still curious, here’s another resource from the Iona School of Arts & Sciences:

Latin example from iona.edu

Scanning it the way we read it

Dactylic feet are hard to pull off for the same reason that trochaic meters are hard to pull off. The English speaker’s ear will always want to turn a dactyl into a anapest.

So although Frost may have imagined the third line as follows:

Deeper | down in the |well than |where the |water

No reader, without a prior knowledge of the Latin verse Frost was transliterating, would ever scan it this way. Nearly all prepositional phrases are heard as anapestic (as a rising stress) by English speakers.

Deeper down |in the well |than where |the water

None of this is to say that there aren’t dactylic words or phrases, or that a dactylic meter can’t be written. Longfellow’s opening lines to Evangeline have a dactylic gait. But Longfellow isn’t assiduous in pursuing a dactylic meter for long:

THIS is the | forest pri|meval. The |murmuring |pines and the |hemlocks,
Bearded with |moss, and in |garments green, indistinct in the twilight…

The Dactylic gait is helped when the first word of each line receives the stress. Frost’s hendecasallabic line also places the stress on the first word of each line but the effect isn’t the same. The first foot isn’t dactylic but trochaic, so the ear isn’t primed for a dactylic reading as with Longfellow’s poem.

Furthermore, 9 out of the 15 “dactylic” feet are prepositional phrases, which strongly favor an anapestic reading.

to the light
in the well
in a shining…
in the summer
of a wreath
as I thought
of the depths
to rebuke
from a fern

So, after all that, how would I scan it? I opt for a tetrameter line.

For once, then, Something - Alternate Scansion

  • Once again, the scansion for each line, following the first line, is the same unless otherwise marked.

This scansion, I think, more accurately reflects how we read the poem and I like it because there’s a nifty symmetry. Where the first foot is cretic, or an amphimacer, the final foot is a sort of mirror image, an amphibrach (otherwise called a feminine ending). The second foot is anapestic and the third is iambic. Lastly, and best of all, the first foot of the twelfth line is a Molossus. A molossus is a metrical foot of three syllables with each syllable being stressed. Molossus. Good word. Good foot. Very rare.

So what’s it about?

Not a lot is written about this poem. Several Frost biographies fail to even mention the poem. But in certain ways, it’s his most revealing. He apparently wrote it in response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Two writers who discuss the poem are Tyler Hoffman, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, and Robert Pack’s Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost.

The speaker of the poem is both the poet himself and his reader. The criticism he has received from critics and other poets, he characterizes and analogizes in the first six lines of the poem:

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

“Others taunt me”, he writes, in reference to critics. He is accused of kneeling at well-curbs, “always wrong  to the light” – where “light” could be understood as knowledge, poetic knowledge or understanding. The result? He never sees “deeper down in the well”. His poetry and meaning is shallow. His poetry is merely a “surface picture” lacking substance. Then, with some wry humor, he adds that, rather than perceiving the deeper currents of the well’s waters, he only sees himself in “heaven, godlike,/ Looking out of a wreath of fern…”. The sly reference to Apollo’s laurel’s, the Poet’s Laurels which Keats so desired,  from which the term “Poet Laureate” comes, is unmistakable.  In other words, he is accused of being little more than a vain, cracker-barrel  philosopher suffering from delusions of grandeur. That view and criticism of Frost still holds up today – in some quarters.

From there Frost turns to more Philosophical matters – a defense.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.

Frost essentially rejects the notion that there is a truth, the truth, that can be perceived beneath the surface. Yes, he may have thought (in his youth) that there was something “beyond the picture” (that surface picture which, ultimately, is all we have) but whatever truth that was, he “lost it”. And in the losing of it, he rejects the notion that it can be known. He writes:

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Water creates the reflective surface upon which we perceive life and understand life. The surface of water, in this poem, is like Keats’ veil – it is everything that we see, but only the surface of what we see. The surface of the water is what we perceive as reality. And when we try to look beyond it, past the veil, one drop falls “from a fern”, almost teasingly, blurring and blotting out any deeper truth. We are not meant to know but to guess, Frost seems to be saying. But there may be another analogy at play. The surface of the water could also be seen as the textual surface of a poem. In this sense, the person peering into the well is transformed into the reader or critic reading one of Frost’s poems. Frost rejects certainties. He rejects the “too clear water” of other poets and rejects the critics’ call for it. When they look too closely, lo, “Water”/Frost “rebukes” them.

“What was that whiteness?” – Frost asks. “What was that whiteness?” -the critic asks.

Neither are meant to know with any certainty – only that, yes, there was and is “something”. Keep looking, says Frost. Keep looking.

By contrast, Tyler Hoffman takes a different set of concerns to the poem. Here is some of what he writes:

In “For Once, Then, Something” Frost depicts someone who tries to find a way to knfrost-the-politics-of-poetry3ow (and know he has known) such a moral absolute as Truth. The speaker seems to be an object of ridicule for pursuing absolutes without a proper faith — a person blinded by egotistical concerns (“Others taunt me with having knelt at well curbs”). But that figure is not fully imagined; we do not receive a profile that would help us determine with certainty the attitudes and emotions behind his utterances. It us unclear how he feels about the taunting that he receives and how his search for “Something more of the depths” is shaped by it. The questions leading up to the phrase in its final appearance only muddy the water: “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” How are we to hear these questions? Does he ask them in an agitated tone?… The epistemological problem that the poem presents — “How can we know the Truth if at all?” and “How do we know if we have known Truth?” – is never finally resolved. (Pages 113-114)

My own view on Hoffman’s comments is that he asks questions that Frost himself does not try to answer. This sort of analysis by rhetorical question gets mixed reviews from me. To me, at least, the trick is guessing at what questions Frost does ask, based on the poem which is, in and of itself, the answer.

Here is Robert Pack’s take:

…in “For Once, Then, Something,” in looking down into the bottom of a well to discern the identity of some object glittering there, Belief & UncertaintyFrost ironically speculates that it might be “Truth” or merely “A pebble of quartz.” Frost’s dismissal of the concept of truth as such is much like Stevens’s parodic line, “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” In Stevens’s outrageous concluding line in “The Man on the Dump,” the word “truth” finally is replaced by the word “the,” suggesting ironically that “the” is the more specific and useful word. For Frost, the abstract idea that there is something we might call Truth goes beyond uncertainty into meaningless abstraction. Even when Frost uses “Truth” capitalized as a term as in “Birches,” he does so to make the distinction between his fancy that the birch trees have been permanently bent down by a boy’s swinging on them and the truthful “fact about the ice storm.” In other words, truth here is known in its specificity, as a phenomenon of nature. His dismissal of Truth in its abstract grandiosity is part of Frost’s anti-romantic strain, his worldliness, his suspicion of anything smacking of transcendence, as distinguished, say,. from Keats’s indentification of Beauty and Truth in both poetry and his lectures. (Pages 184-185)

Once again, I hope this post has been helpful. Let me know.

I love comments. If you’re a student, just drop a note with the name of your school. I’m always interested to know who’s reading and why.

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34 responses

  1. I’m doing a reportage of Frost and his work for class and was looking for interpretations of this particular poem (You were right, not really a lot material over this one.) when I stumbled upon your blog. This has been REALLY helpful, so thank you very much! Keep it up. ^_^

    Oh, also! I first encountered “For Once, Then, Something” in The Robert Frost Handbook by James Potter. It was mentioned in relation to the tensions in Frost’s poetry; specifically about ambiguity. The author didn’t really delve that much into the reading of the poem, putting this up as an example of how Frost likes to leave a choice of interpretations for the reader. Just a bit of info that might interest you.

    - Aki, De La Salle University-Manila

    • Hi Aki!

      I’ll have to look up Potter’s book. I’m not familiar with it. Glad that you found the post helpful. I’ve been writing a lot of Frost posts (a poet whom I especially enjoy) but he’s the poet most readers seem to be looking for.

  2. thank God i found this site.. I really find it hard to look for materials about this particular poem of Robert Frost. We were asked to make an analysis to this poem using New American Criticism… And its too difficult… this really helped me a lot… thanks guys!

  3. I believe you may be the first person to attempt a thorough scansion of this particular poem. There are other attempts to work through this particular species of classical translation; Tennyson’s poem entitled “Hendecasyllabics” is probably the best known example (Coleridge’s don’t seem to follow any meter, and are probably purely quantitative). It is also very different from Frost’s poem, particularly in the way it stretches long, ungainly polysyllabic words across the alien meter: “Thro’ this metrification of Catullus,” etc.

    As for Frost’s “Hen Dekker syllables,” as he jokingly called them once, he seems to take a lot of joy both in the characteristic trochaic ending (“summer heaven godlike”) and in the very very unusual absence of stress in the fourth position of the line: “Once, when trying with chin”. Isn’t that so colloquial, “trying with chin”? It seems Frost wants to foreground the phrase by placing it just where we would notice something non-iambic, therefore unusual. It is a lot like Milton’s jarring “double trochees,” like “Universal Reproach, (far worse to bear…”. Hopkins called this “counterpoint”

    I don’t know how precisely to scan this poem, but I suspect one cannot scan very accurately when there is no precedent, no larger tradition the way there is with iambic pentameter. Nigel Fabb and Morris Halle attempt to scan Tennyson’s poem in “Meter in Poetry: A New Theory” ( I strongly recommend it). I am not, however, convinced of this effort. Even if we cannot scan with precision, we can still note how the poem diverges from Frost’s usual blank verse or rhyming tetrameters.

    Also, John Talbot has a good article entitled “Robert Frost’s Hendecasyllabics and roman Rebuttal,” which helps explain why Frost (and Tennyson) would write a rebuttal using a Catullian Meter.

    I like your site! I’ll be reading your other posts on Frost soon.’

  4. //I believe you may be the first person to attempt a thorough scansion of this particular poem.//

    I think you’re right. Will this be my claim to fame? I’ll have to look at Talbot’s article. I’m just now coming out of my summer malaise and working up a post on Millay. Look forward to hearing more of your input.

    • I was also going to recommend Talbot’s article–I first read this poem in a course Talbot taught at BYU.

  5. this is very helpful and insightful.
    i am currently writing a research paper on frost and this rare information is incredibly valuable!

  6. I’m a student at The College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and we’re doing an interpretation study. I know nothing about poetry so this post was extremely helpful. I really enjoy this poem, and after reading this feel confident in what I’ll argue. Thanks!

  7. This post was brilliant…I think the poem is about man’s search for meaning…When he looks deeper, there’s nothing but more questions so man tries to make meaning from ordinary events…

  8. I want to thank you again for this post. For me to hear Robert Frost’s words reading this poem is like the feeling Frost had after a crow shook down a dust of snow from a Hemlock tree.

    Will you answer an unrelated question for me? I was wondering why, when I really want to think deeply about a subject, that I reach for the poetic interpretation? Math leads to a deeper understanding that words cannot. Even in your beautiful analysis you use math to make meaning of the style. But, why do I want to read a poem for insight and meaning? Why not, Victor Frankl, or Zen and motorcycle maintenance?

    • Hi Mike. Your question:

      I was wondering why, when I really want to think deeply about a subject, that I reach for the poetic interpretation? Math leads to a deeper understanding that words cannot.

      Good question. Here’s my stab at it.

      What poetry and math have in common is that they are both a symbolic language. There is really no such thing as a 1 or 2 and that’s good because the concept of a number can be applied to anything. (I’m not sure I would call numbers a metaphor.) Some might argue that words are also symbolic, but not in the same sense. The word apple applies to one kind of fruit, the word orange to another. The concept of the number 1, on the other hand, can apply to both.

      But the concept of 1 also has its limitations. No matter what the number is applied to, the amount will always signify 1.

      The beauty of poetry (in the hands of a great poet) is that words become like numbers. They are freed from what they normally signify. The poet takes the reader into the realm of not just symbol but metaphor. The signification of words and whole sentences shift , and that shift engages the imagination in ways that are unique to each reader.

      But, in another sense, math and poetry are opposites. The thinking of a creative mathematician is convergent whereas a poet’s is divergent. In math, a creative mind like Einstein’s started with the observable world and reduced it to a given formulation. In poetry, the great creative mind starts with a single formulation – a word, simile or metaphor – and applies it imaginatively/divergently to the observable world, expanding its meaning. In this sense, a given mathematical formulation will always model one thing (it takes many events and reduces it a single formulation). A given poetic formulation begins with one event/formulation and is meant to be imaginatively applied to a world of events.

      Math is elegantly convergent, poetry is elegantly divergent.

      Longer works, like Zen & Motorcycle Maintenance, don’t do what poetry does. The meaning is more explicit and that can’t be helped. The more words, the less open-ended they will be. Poetry’s power derives from its suggestiveness. And of all the poetic forms that demonstrate the divergent potential of language, it’s ability to evoke associative meanings, the Japanese Haiku is the most rarefied. That is, the haiku represents poetic power in its most distilled form.

      E=MC2 will always refer to the properties of light.

      The meaning of Basho’s frog haiku is ineffably elusive and manifold.

      What you interpret as “insight and meaning” is poetry’s chameleon-like ability and demand that you give it meaning and insight through the experience of your own life. This makes it feel personal and meaningful. The deepest well to draw from is our own life experience. That’s where you will find “insight and meaning” – it’s the source of the water that makes poetry blossom. :-)

  9. How beautifully stated your answer is. I will go back to Frost’s poem and argue that the “white” seen in the well is all invented in the poet’s mind. It’s what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote, “It’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In my mind, For Once, captures the essence of your reply. That is, you give the poem meaning.

    Will you write on more of Frost’s work? Nothing Gold Can Stay is simple, but if you ever run out of ideas and want a quick blog, please consider it.

    • Will you write on more of Frost’s work? Nothing Gold Can Stay is simple, but if you ever run out of ideas and want a quick blog, please consider it.

      Consider it done. My last post on Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium was also a request (from a student in Saudi Arabia, I think).

  10. I just stumbled upon this. I studied the poem at high school and now I’m reading it in a completely different light, thanks! It’s one of my favourite poems..I’m a music student and I’ve actually just based one of my compositions on it. Thanks for the enlightening analysis, the view on syllables really helped me set the poem to music actually!

    • Thanks Alanah,

      If you ever feel like it, send me an audio recording of your composition and I’ll add to the post. Or, if you post it elsewhere, send me a link. :-)

  11. Pingback: Robert Frost, Iambic Pentameter & Mending Wall « PoemShape

  12. Pingback: Further Thoughts on Mending Wall « PoemShape

  13. I’m an MD from Pakistan and will finally be undertaking, what I consider, a pilgrimage of sorts to Bennington to pay my respects to Frost. I’ve loved him since I was a child, was rereading some of his poems which I really liked and trying to appreciate the finer underpinnings to them and came across this site. Needless to say, I’ll be returning here often!

  14. Excellent post. I have been writing a fair amount of poetry of late, plus reading a chunk of Frost. Having heard about the meter of Catullus, I was interested to know about it. I was more interested when I found that Frost had written one.

  15. I was thinking about this at work and suddenly realized Frost was being quite clever in his title..

    Once Then Something
    One-Ten syllable

    Practically telling in his title the type of poem it is….

    Sound reasonable?

  16. You can thank Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ for the linguistic mind jarring that helped make that connection. I would be surprised if someone else hasn’t noticed it.. Extremely clever in deed!

  17. Pingback: Hendeca Life « After his Image

  18. Hello!
    Just started writing an IB English paper for this poem and this site helped me a lot!
    I am a student in Mexico that attends to an American school.
    Thank you for your elaborate analysis on Frost’s style of writing. Saved my life.

  19. “We naturally bias are readings toward Iambs.” Do you mean “…naturally bias OUR readings….” ? Interesting post. Thanks.

  20. It’s helpful to know there’s an old Greek proverb, not as familiar now, that declares “Truth lies at the bottom of a well”. Surely Frost was acquiinted with that line, which is why he’s gone to a well to search in the first place.

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