The Making of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Similar to my post on “Stopping by Woods”, I’ll take a look at how different authors have analyzed the poem (and mix in my own 2¢ along the way). We’ll also look at the history of the poem, how it arrived at its final form — a subject almost as interesting as the poem itself.

Nothing Golden Stays

The aspect of the poem that nearly all close readers and critics emphasize is Frost’s use of paradox and his reference to Adam & Eve – the Christian creation myth. The story of Adam & Eve is sprinkled throughout western art, literature and music and any artist who references the story also inherits a wealth of associations.

Aside: When I was a high school junior at Western Reserve Academy, my English teacher expressed the opinion that the story of Adam & Eve was a profoundly inspired story. I countered that the story was actually stock and trade, no more inspired than any other creation myth. If looks could kill. He chalked it up to teen-aged diffidence but my opinion hasn’t changed. He asked if I could name any other story that was so pervasive. Like in China? I countered. That ended the discussion. My 2¢? Take any fable, be it ever so humble, make it the centerpiece of your culture’s spiritual and religious identity for hundreds of years and watch it flourish. It’s the centuries of art and literature, like variations, that burnish the fable of Adam & Eve. Think of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. There’s nothing special about Diabelli’s little theme. It’s Beethoven’s variations, based on the theme, that burnish the original.

But back to Robert Frost. Frost adds considerable depth by alluding to Adam & Eve. The subject matter of the poem is elevated from a wistful observation on the passage of time to a more universal comment encompassing time and creation itself. Such is the power of alluding to the myth. Alfred R. Ferguson, in an essay entitled “Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall“, begins the essay as follows: “Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa.”

And yet, for all this, the first version of the poem doesn’t include a reference to the Bible. The very first version was, in fact, nothing more than a wistful observation on the passage of time.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
Another golden flame
And yet it’s not the same
It[‘s] not as lovely quite
As that first golden light.

Here’s my theory on Frost’s thought process. The version above, the earliest, is also the most forgettable. The first five lines are clearly the strongest and he probably thought of them all in one sitting. After that, though he recognized their promise, he didn’t know where to go with them. The last five lines are anticlimactic. They don’t elevate the subject matter and present no new ideas.

For example: Gold appears in the first line only to be repeated twice (in lines 6 and 10) as a weaker adjective. Not only that but there’s really no difference between a “golden flame” and a “golden light“. Not knowing what he wants to say, Frost is merely killing space. Adjectives, in poetry, can easily indicate second rate thought, second rate poetry, and a second rate poet. Frost repeats ideas anti-climatically. By writing that autumn “achieves another golden flame” he’s already given away the game. By the time he calls nature’s first “gold” a “golden light” there’s no surprise or elevation in thought. There’s no epiphany or feeling of development. The phrase And yet it’s not the same adds nothing. It’s little more than rhetorical filler for the sake of rhyme.

But Frost wasn’t a second rate poet. He recognized the sententious weaknesses in this first version. He moved on. He revised.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

[From Selections from American literature, edited by Leonidas Warren Payne p. 936]

This revision, this much of it, is a clear improvement. He’s gotten rid of the phrase And yet it’s not the same. He’s tightened the poem by reducing it from ten lines to eight. The final four lines become a mirror image of the first four. In effect, he’s created a volta such as you would find in a Sonnet – a turn or change in the subject, a movement from proposition to resolution.

But problems remain. Golden, as in the first version, is repeated twice, diminishing the epithet’s effectiveness. But that’s the least of it. Changing the noun gold into the adjectives golden remains the first sin. The problem is that the emphasis is on blaze and stays rather than gold. The image left in the readers mind is diffuse. What does a blaze look like?

However, this isn’t the end of the poem. Here is the earlier version of the poem in its entirety. This marks the first time this version has appeared anywhere on the world wide web. I don’t know why scholars (and if you’re a scholar I’m talking to you) can’t be bothered to print the entirety of the poem if you’re going to discuss it. I had to reconstruct this from snippets and fragments gleaned from deviously clever Google book searches. Here it is:

Nothing Golden Stays

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.
A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

In gold as it began
The world will end for man.
And some belief avow
The world is ending now.
The final age of gold
In what we now behold.
If so, we’d better gaze,
For nothing golden stays.

This isn’t bad, but it seems excessive for a wistful poem about the passage of time. The second stanza more or less elaborates on what was already implied by the first stanza. My guess is that Frost thought the poem would feel weightier having a tripartite form. The problem, as Shakespeare put it with characteristic genius, is that “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” There are more words than matter in this poem.

But why is Frost looking for a weightier poem and what’s the third stanza about? Tyler Hoffman, in his book Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, explains (though, like other authors, he couldn’t be bothered to provide the entire poem):

…Frost is speaking out on international political affairs in his sly way, and it is important to remember that this poem is composed in 1920, just after World War I has ended. Feeling sure that “there are two or three more wars close at hand,” Frost expresses a fierce nationalism at this time and, with it, an isolationist political position (…) ” Nothing Gold Can Stay” tropes this position, suggesting through its isolation of syntactic units a refusal to become embroiled in global politics: just as Nature tries to resists the forces of change, so America must try to resist forces that would pull her beyond her borders, even if such resistance may be in vain. That the poem originally included lines that later became part of “It is Almost the Year 2000,” (…) points to another political meaning, as Frost jabs at 1930s liberals who believe that the millenium is upon us on the evidence of the terrible times. [pp. 162-163]

• Hoffman makes observations about the poem’s form that I don’t find persuasive. He remarks that “it is seemingly ironic that the boundaries of phrasal units and lines should match up so neatly in a poem about transition, the change from one season to another.”  Hoffman’s answer to this perceived conundrum is that “through tight closure, Frost is able to depict the effort on Nature’s part to ‘hold’ — to try to resist the forces of change that inevitably will overpower her.” He then goes on to note that the earlier version of the poem does not follow this  pattern. One would think this would fatally undercut Hoffman’s assertion, but he nicely pirouettes: “In this draft version, hard enjambment also is resisted, a formal condition that reads as an emblem of Frost’s political resistence to socialist utopian thought.”

Say what? Hoffman gives us no citation for these assertions. Did Frost, at some point, characterize his use of end-stopped lines and enjambment as political “emblems”? No. So, what we’re left with is Hoffman’s opinion as to what Frost was thinking. I don’t buy it. I’m not persuaded. If anything, this kind of analysis smacks of David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. I’ve linked to Orr’s article a dozen times in other posts, but if you haven’t read it then it’s worth reading or reading again. Orr writes of the Enactment Fallacy:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Hoffman, like Vendler, is imposing meaning on poetic techniques. If one takes Hoffman at his word, are we then to conclude that every example of enjambment is politically emblematic? If not, then we’re cherry picking. Otherwise we must be willing to say that enjambment means X in this poem, but Y in that poem without any evidence whatsoever. Unless you’ve heard it from Frost, don’t be persuaded by assertions like these.

Getting back to the poem’s theme, I am persuaded by Hoffman’s thinking that the original impulse for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” developed into something political. This explains, perhaps, why Frost wanted a weightier poem in three parts. What may have began as a wistful nature poem began to be seen, by Frost, as a good metaphor for his disagreement with liberal politics (“some belief avow”), which he perceived as Utopian – hence golden.

With that in mind, we can discern the first appearance of Adam & Eve. “In gold as it began…” he writes. That is, mankind began in gold, in the Garden of Eden. If gold is then a euphemism for utopianism, then the Garden of Eden is the ultimate tale of liberal utopianism. I’ve read some other analyses of Nothing Gold Can Stay by other bloggers who see in Frost’s allusion a sympathetically Christian one; but, if anything, Frost’s initial allusion to the Garden of Eden is anything but sympathetic. His allusion almost drips with sarcasm. ‘You see how long that lasted,’ he seems to say. What makes you think this new Democratic and socialist utopianism is going to fair any better? If that’s what you think, he writes at the close of the poem, then you’d “better gaze [now], For nothing golden [Utopian] stays.”

He taunts liberals (and socialists) for their Utopian vision of society by bitingly comparing it to the Utopian vision of Christian Theology – the End Days, End Times or the Second Coming. He calls it the “final age of gold”. Is it accident that he uses the very phrase?

A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

Frost’s skepticism applies not just to the Garden of Eden, but to the reputed gold age that will come with Christ’s Second Coming. Just as in the first instance, he writes, it won’t stay.

So much for a wistful nature poem.

But there’s a reason why this earlier version is so hard to find. It’s not that good. As with all political poems, it comes stamped and dated. Political poems have short shelf lives. Without knowing the political impetus behind the original poem, the whole of it comes off sounding excessively verbose. Frost must have recognized the limitations of the poem and how his politics circumscribed the poem’s potential universality.

He went back to work. He revised.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I  find the differing versions of this poem revealing as to Robert Frost’s personality. It’s easy to sense, in the earlier version, a side of Frost that was ill-humored, sarcastic, acerbic and dismissive. It’s a darker undercurrent that can be sensed in many of his poems and one, as revealed in many of his sketches, that he tempers. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a perfect example. The final version is deceptively straightforward, like many of Frost’s poems, but the tincture of Frost’s acerbic personality remains, adding depth and perspective to what, otherwise, might simply be mawkish.

Frost quickly dispenses with the second stanza. One might not think it at first glance, but it’s easy to read a dismissive tone into the first four lines of the second stanza:

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.

There are other colors (politics) besides gold, but no one else “in the vast” seems to see them. Without the political impetus behind these lines, they have the potential to sound petty. The lines also state what is already understood. The subject of the poem, in a sense, pertains to what is golden. The fact that the other colors are overlooked is already implied.

The third stanza gets the ax because it threatens to come off as nothing more than derisive political posturing.

This brings Frost back to the first stanza. Eden is still buzzing in his brain. He realizes that this reference has the potential to expansively elevate the  subject matter – a facet missing in the earliest versions. Frost returns to the first four lines but this time changes flowers to the more universal flower. The singular flower carries a more symbolic feeling than flowers. Likewise, the change from hours to hour gives the word a more universal, symbolic flavor.

Frost alters his poem from naturalistic generality to symbol. A flower could be anything (whereas flowers will be more generally read as flowers). From there, and with Eden still in the back of his mind, he makes the leap to the next four lines:

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Rather than use a euphemism, Frost simply writes Eden — Eden sank to grief. But a tone has been set. By Frost’s use of the singular flower, hour and leaf, the reference to Eden becomes a symbolic gesture which, because of its suggestive power, smoothly elevates the poem’s thought and philosophic reach. The idea of Eden burnishes the word dawn, imbuing it with a deeper symbolism. But there’s something more to this line, the idea that dawn goes down to day. More than one author and critic has sought explanation in the Latin phrase felix culpa or blessèd fall. This is the paradoxical concept that through diminution or decay comes increase and growth. The day is the apogee of sunlight and warmth, but to have that day, the beauty of dawn must go down. The dawn itself, like the first green of the early leaf is a kind of gold that must go down before the leaf can bear fruit. Nothing gold can stay. As King Midas learned, gold that stays makes for a lifeless world.

Alfred Furgeson, whose Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall I quoted earlier, nicely sums up the same ideas in his own way:

It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not “go down” to day, but comes up, as in Kipling’s famous phrase, “like thunder,” into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden’s fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light.

It’s worth pointing out, at this point, that the poem’s political implications were still probably present in Frost’s mind and in his later readings, but they no longer feel like the poem’s primary impetus. He accomplished this, in part, by his more symbolic use of language. The poem, if construed as political, is no longer an ascerbic dismissal of a political belief, but an elegant alternative to those beliefs. Rather than simply mock a system of beliefs he disagrees with, he offers an alternative. The decline (or failure) of utopianism is an inevitable outcome if the cycle of life is to be respected and appreciated.

This revision makes the poem interestingly and compellingly constructive rather than destructive. The necessary tension between creation and destruction is what makes the poem great. At the same time that we feel the loss of all that is gold, we also sense the necessity and blessèdness that comes from that loss.

The Poem’s Form

The poem is written in Iambic Trimeter. The only variant feet are a trochaic foot in the first line and a headless foot in the final line. The headless foot in the final line is especially effective. To my ears, it adds a succinct pithiness to the final line, like a sonnet’s epigrammatic close.

There’s another longer and more detailed (read deep) look at how this poem works at an aural/linguistic level by John A. Rea. The analysis can be found here. It’s a fascinating attempt to do what is nearly impossible – describe what is musical about the language in the poem. It’s almost like trying to describe the color red to a blind man. You can decide for yourself whether he succeeds or is even readable, but I admire and appreciate the attempt.

Coda

  • Curiously, a number of bloggers have posted a strange hybrid. You will sometimes find the following:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaves subside to leaves.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The problem is that the word leaves doesn’t rhyme with grief. That’s not anything Frost would have written. That’s just a mistake. You will also find the title, sometimes, mistakenly given as Nothing Golden Stays. This title, in fact, belongs to the earlier version.

Frost, Hendecasyllabics & For Once, Then, Something

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 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.

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