And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
‑Herman Melville, Moby‑Dick
Melville’s phantom, seen by him as such a universal haunt, reappears to skulk behind the watery windows of Robert Frost’s poetry. Windows are, for Frost, significant in a dual sense, encompassing their role as both barrier and revealer between the inside and the outside world. Water is a certain archetypal kind of window that can both reveal and reflect, and is a primal source of life and thought, knowledge and experience. “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring,” says Frost in what is his own choice for introductory poem:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
“To rake the leaves away and wait to watch the water clear” is Frost’s stated purpose, one he never loses sight of, for though the water is indeed haunted, it is as compelling for Frost as for Narcissus or any of us: the source of that vision of ourselves and our own world in reflection, and the mystery of the unknown and unknowable beneath.
A Boy’s Will, Frost’s first book, originally bore a gloss of each poem in the volume save two. The glosses related each poem to the title as if Frost was a little insecure about their being able to hold the theme on their own. The volume was also divided into three parts, the poems without glosses were the final poems of the first and last parts, the former being “Going For Water:”
The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;
Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.
We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.
But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.
Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.
A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.
Without a gloss then, we are left with the imagery of the poem itself, which in this case, Frost must have been surer of. It seems the trek to replenish Frost’s well in this poem is vital to his continuing on with the volume, but the quest is by no means sure, even though made through familiar territory, for there is some serious doubt that the brook is still running: Frost’s imagery shows a landscape barren and empty, but the brook, it is hoped, survives.
With only dim moonlight to see by, and under the dark trees, it is by sound that the brook must be found. Tense anticipation is followed by the joy of sure knowledge as the music of the water makes itself heard, followed by the the sight itself, “Like pearls, and now a silver blade.” Water as a source of salvation is seen by Frost in a religious, more than a physical sense. It is the element that must be present for the “Revelation” which is the title of the poem to follow, and it is echoed throughout the rest of the volume.
We see at the end of the volume the effect of the journey for which there is no saving water, no hope of replenishing the force with which to carry on. “Reluctance” ends the volume with a speaker who seems powerless to go on in the face of the dry barrenness that leaves the speaker wondering where to go. It may be “treason” to accept the end but it is the end nonetheless, accepted or not.
Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
Between the replenishing and the running dry in this first volume of Frost’s work is the cleansing rain of “A Line Storm Song” that revalidates love even as it destroys all else, wiping out recent memory in favor of a primordial point of departure:
The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift.
The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,
Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.
The birds have less to say for themselves
In the wood-world’s torn despair
Than now these numberless years the elves,
Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
Wild, earily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods, come,
Where the boughs rain when it blows.
There is the gale to urge behind
And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
From which to gather your gown.
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.
Oh, never this whelming east wind swells
But it seems like the sea’s return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
Our love came back amain.
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
And be my love in the rain.
This is water as baptismal element, renewing innocence through despair and violence that erases experience as well as its tell‑tale effects: “And the hoof-prints vanish away.”
Differing functions of the water in these works are seen to be related in theme when viewed against the backdrop of Frost’s art itself. Water is a spring from which his art flows, a power that replenishes and renews the life force which animates and informs his art, and without which he must make an end. Frost will go on to explore the images in, of and from the water, as if on a journey through a sort of inscrutable window that may be encountered in many forms at different times.
It is encountered by Frost again in North of Boston in “After Apple Picking,” as a fragile pane that dissolves when brought in contact with the frost or “the world of hoary grass:”
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing dear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
This subtle play on names seems to warn that self examination is a strange vision in the morning when using this lens, but it is the lens itself which dissipates when contacting the cold hard reality of “the frost,” an image that could be seen as referring to both the hard cold edge of water in its frozen state or the hard cold edge of the poet himself, independent and without benefit of any filtering lens.
It is this same “Frost” that we are fairly warned of in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” in which we are admonished,
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.
There is something, then, about Frost himself which threatens the revelatory strength of the water. After all, Frost is the poet and manipulator of these images, shouldn’t his influence on the water be as apparent as any influence the water has over him?
The cause of this strange vision and menacing self image is taken up again in “For Once, Then, Something:”
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
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
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.
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.
To see his own image in the water is to see water that is “wrong to the light” and gives only a picture of himself as he appears “on the surface,” that is, on the surface of the water and on the surface of himself. Frost both scoffs at and confirms the existence of something deeper, but it is the water which acts as the revelatory element and, significantly, also as the agent which confuses the picture, as “Water came to rebuke the too clear water.” This water has a self regulating force that won’t allow too much clarity or revelation, at least about things below the surface; you may examine yourself, you may engage in narcissistic self-imagery, but don’t make any pretentious attempts to grasp that ungraspable phantom flirting with you from the bottom; remember the fate of Narcissus himself!
Man may tame the forces of nature in many ways, numbering the houses, enclosing them in squares, cementing over the grass, and chopping up an orchard for firewood, but “A Brook in the City” will not be easily domesticated:
The firm house lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear A number in.
But what about the brook That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force
No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was
thrown Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run -
And all for nothing it hd ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.
A brook’s “strength and impulse” is wild and untamable, all man can do is try to “Staunch it at its source,” or bury it deep and hope to contain it. The brook, however, is an “immortal force” and will not die quietly away but lives and runs in the darkness to haunt the lives of those who try to live their lives over its unquiet grave. The primal, haunting life force of the water prevails over the frail designs of men as a natural fact in the order of things. It rises from the rubble of its supposed defeat to visit in nightmares the troubled men who sought to subdue it.
Out of the water can also come revelations asked for, as if this force of nature is, after all, subject to our desires. But the applications and interpretations of the dubious results of our desires are, somewhat tragically, left to us. “The Most of It” is, after all, what we must make of whatever is, by chance or design, given us by such an impersonal force as is described by Frost:
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush-and that was all.
The one who thinks he keeps “the universe alone” can expect just such an answer to the cry for “original response,” if “answer” it is at all, for the crashing powerful birth of the embodiment of this natural force is both the most “original response” possible and completely irrelevant to the question. Indeed, this ultimate embodiment rises out of the water of “The Most of It” without any awareness at all of the observer.
As we continue to observe the elemental visions presented by the water it is in the times of transition that we see its great potential and begin to understand its all‑encompassing role.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday
This poem, “Spring Pools” comes to us out of that same time of “lurking frost” as seen previously, but it is as heavenly reflector we see the water now, its powerful fecundity held in check by a restraint that is the opposite of Whitman’s cries in such works as “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers,” and yet its tone somehow recalls him. The frigidity of the landscape preserves quiet innocence, and yet is omnipotent and all‑seeing. Its barrenness is precisely the reason for its clarity of vision, and vice‑versa, for a tree with leaves would block that perfect vision and drain off the water that is its eyes. The newness, and fleetingness of the setting are the cause of its absolute pricelessness, and of the poet’s plea that it remain.
If we remain then, to look through the eyes of this suspended potential, what we see in this clarity of near‑perfect vision depends greatly on who we are and where we stand. The masses that Melville and Frost both observe staring out into the water keep watch over the entrapped images of themselves and over a power beyond their comprehension. They may see “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” but they are tied inextricably to the vision:
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be‑‑
The water comes ashore,
And people look at the sea.