The Musing Idealist

musings inspired by literature, poetry, nature, and occasionally everything else.

Characterization of a Nation


“[They] are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution… they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine… they alone are enabled to call a thing hoped for a thing got, by the speed with which they act upon their resolutions. Thus they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting…”

Who does this sound like? Think about it. They are addicted to innovation, swift in conceiving of and executing ideas, adventurous and daring but perhaps lacking judgment. Their hope for something is followed immediately by achieving or obtaining it. And they’re so obsessed with getting and getting that they don’t have time to enjoy what they have gotten.

Well, this is Thucydides’ description of the Ancient Athenians written 2400 years ago. What’s old is new. What’s new is old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Numbering Our Days

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Carpe annō per viam carpendō diēs!

Think of what you were doing six years ago. Were you beginning college? Were you working in a different job? Were you living in a different place? Were you doing exactly what you are doing now? Recreate a vivid image of yourself at that point. What were your goals? How did you spend your time? Who did you spend this time with?

It doesn’t seem that long ago, does it? Now, do some simple arithmetic. Assuming you’ll live a nice, long life of ninety years, how many six years do you have left? If you’re sixty, you’ll be luck to have five six years left. Your life is 2/3 of the way over. If you are thirty, you may have ten of those six years ahead of you. Your life is 1/3 of the way over. Thinking of it this way is a revelation to bring me to my metaphorical knees, gasping for breath. Yet there is such a disconnect between this reality and the way we live our lives everyday. If we were to sit down and budget the time we have left in our lives, how much would we alot to instagram? to youtube surfing? to reading with our children? to learning to play the oboe? Would we stay at our current job? Would we pursue meaning in some other way?

If we spent our money like most of us spend our time, a financial planner would call us reckless and likely predict bankruptcy in our near future. The norm is to squander away everything. Here is my charge, then: Think about how you want to live your life. What short term goals do you have? long term goals? Assume you’ll live to 90. Now, budget that time! Always live in a way to achieve all of this. This is a twist on carpe diem. That mantra is typically paired with, “Live like today is your last day!” That is awful advice. It encourages reckless hedonism even more. If I’m going to die in twenty-four hours I’m definitely not going to learn more French vocabulary, practice drills on the piano, or drink that veggie smoothie.

No, seize the day as your only means toward accomplishing all that you want to accomplish in your life! Without each one of these steps you will never reach the top of the mountain. You will never be the father or mother you want to be, finish writing that novel you’ve always had on the back-burner, or learn to make woodcuts (like Albrecht Durer’s “St. Antony” at the top of the post; look at the detail he managed in wood!). Numbering our days is seizing the day for the long-term, not squandering our moments because we can’t see beyond the iPhone in front of our faces. The new mantra is Carpe annō per viam carpendō diēs: Seize the years by seizing the days!

“Forgetfulness”

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The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue

or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

-Billy Collins

When I first encountered this poem it struck me, perhaps harder than it does most. As a teacher, I require my students to learn a great deal. I’ve always firmly believed that education was more than memorization and regurgitation, more than formulas and charts and terms and dates. This poem, however, pushed that belief even further. We’ve all had this experience. Gradually things slip away, some more quickly and completely than others: conversations we’ve had, vacations we’ve taken, people we’ve known. Students I taught last year now remember only a fraction of what we discussed and they’ll remember even less of it next year. Even the books we read are largely forgotten. What, then, is the role of a teacher in light of this forgetfulness? What should we be teaching our children and students?

This reminds me of Socrates’ question to Meno, “Can virtue be taught?” If it can’t and Collins is right in his assessment of our minds’ relationship to information, what is left? Or is he being a bit too pessimistic?

This reminds me of another quotation that is generally attributed to Emerson: “I don’t remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten. Even so, they’ve made me.”

Let’s Read: Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”

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Read Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” Come on. It’s only seven pages. I’ll even post a pdf of it here for you (thanks to Harvard): the-chysanthemums

(The Idealist taps his fingers on the desk for two minutes then makes a latte and waits for another ten)

What did you think? I love Steinbeck’s voice, don’t you? Here’s the question I had after reading this story: Why does Elisa cry in the end? I’ll give you my thoughts but I’m no expert. You should take a few minutes to try your own hand at it.

(The Idealist busies himself by doodling what he intended to be chrysanthemums; his five-year-old could do better)

Let’s give it a go. So, to begin, Elisa has a less-than-ideal relationship with her husband. He seems nice enough and wants to show her he cares. He doesn’t know how to show her, though, and she doesn’t feel the love. He doesn’t understand why she grows chrysanthemums. He doesn’t understand “planting hands.” She also seems unfulfilled by the chrysanthemums but they’re all she has to express this part of herself: “The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (1). She is discontent with her current life.

Cue the pot-mender. She is opposed to him and tries to get rid of him. She doesn’t even care that he may have nothing to eat that night until a very crucial moment in the text. Do you know which one? “His eyes left her face and fell to searching the ground. They roamed about until they came to the chrysanthemum bed where she had been working. ‘What’s them plants, ma’am?'” (4). That is one good salesman. He knows exactly how to break through her barrier. She immediately opens up about the plants and slowly opens more and more. This is clear even in the story’s symbols: her gloves and the fence are always protecting her and her chrysanthemums. Even her husband is held back by them. But now, “the man came through the picket fence,” and, “The gloves were forgotten” (4). He has her and doesn’t have to do anything else. She convinces herself, even to the point of seeing “planting hands” in him and finally reaching her hand toward his leg (5), showing a desire for him. In her mind she has already found a connection with this mender of pots far deeper than that which exists between her and her husband. But she stops. She drops her hand to the ground and feels ashamed (5).

I believe this describes self-restraint, that she made a conscious choice to stay with her husband and not to set off with this pot-mender (though he did not truly reciprocate her connection and likely wouldn’t have had her). This is the source of the strength she mentions. Even so, she had a vision of what she could have had, could have, and chooses otherwise. She has lingering regret mixed with resolve and a desire for contentedness in her situation. She was not surprised that the pot-mender tossed the flowers and kept the pot. She knew. In the end, she assertively asks if she and her husband can “have wine at dinner… It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty” (7).

Is she trying to convince herself in these last lines? Is it true? What is the significance of her crying “like an old woman” (7)?

Sense of Wonder

A Blade of Grass

You ask for a poem.
I offer you a blade of grass.
You say it is not good enough.
You ask for a poem.

I say this blade of grass will do.
It has dressed itself in frost,
It is more immediate
Than any image of my making.

You say it is not a poem,
It is a blade of grass and grass
Is not quite good enough.
I offer you a blade of grass.

You are indignant.
You say it is too easy to offer grass.
It is absurd.
Anyone can offer a blade of grass.

You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,

And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept.

– Brian Patten

 

When were you last awestruck by the intricacies of a leaf? mind-blown by the speed of the moon across the sky? stupefied by your tongue wildly flicking around your mouth as you talk? This last one may temporarily impart your ability to speak fluently. We see the wonder in the eyes of children as “cute.” I’d rather see the world through their eyes. 

Does growing older necessitate a loss in wonder? How do we hold onto it? How can we again be mesmerized by a blade of grass? I guess the first step is, next time you see a blade of grass, pick it and spend a moment exploring its intricacies. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you feel like a child again.

Athenian Democracy: The Need for Education

E0702 KLENZE 9463The two major powers in ancient Greece can teach us many lessons about ourselves and our government. Athens shows us the values and dangers of democracy. It shows us something about human tendency and, if we look closely, gives us insight into why our government is structured the way it is.

Ancient Athens is considered the creator of democracy. In Athens the individual was valued. All men could vote (let’s table the issue of women’s and servants’ suffrage for now). They would each cast their votes with a stone in a pile or jar. These would be counted and the majority would win the issue. This individuality, this freedom, gave rise to much intellectual progress in Athens: the birth of theater and recorded, secular history, of formalized science and philosophy. The freedom and independence Athenians enjoyed was unparalleled.

This level of power in the hands of the citizens only works, though, if the citizens remain educated. The citizens are the legislators. The citizens are the rulers. The citizens must decide what is best for themselves and for Athens. They must decide what is right and what is good. If they remain invested, virtuous, and wise, the city will prosper. If they don’t, they risk succumbing to sloth, to ignorance, to persuasion, to manipulation. Ancient Athens is the origin of the term “sophist” which we see in words like “sophistry,” “sophistication,” and “sophomore.” Sophists sound good, they seem to have wisdom, they seem to know what is best and so instill confidence in people. They were trained in rhetoric which many abused to twist the minds of the simple for personal and political gain. This is why Athens has an interesting history with tyrants: “This guy seems like he’d do a great job and it’d be so much simpler to let him make all of the decisions. Imagine how much more time we’d have without the endless debates and voting.” They should not have been surprised to watch their liberty slip away.

But democracy itself in Athens also had its own issues. You only need to look at the Ionian Revolt to see that. Aristagoras came from Ionia, the Greek city-states in modern day Turkey, and asked the Spartan king for support in fighting the Persians. The Spartan king deliberated for a long while and eventually decided it was a unwise for the Spartans to join. Aristagoras then went to Athens and spoke publicly to the people. His speech was full of power, of passion, of Greek pride. Their emotions were stirred, their passions were set ablaze and they decided with no deliberation to aid him. There was nothing to check them. There was no process of deliberation, no checks and balances. They were able to act immediately, in the heat of the moment and under the spell of Aristagoras’ charisma. This decision nearly brought complete destruction to all of the Greeks at the hands of the Persians (familiar with the story of the “300” Spartans?).

So pure democracy in Athens tended away from reason and education and toward passion. This is more than an Athenian problem, though. It is a human problem. Athenian democracy was fertile soil for this to happen but the same human problem persists even in our society. How can we solve this? Is it possible to maintain high-quality education in what it is to be human, to be a citizen, and what it is to be these together and in so doing insure our democracy doesn’t crumble? The founding fathers of America attempted to solve this by making America a democratic republic, a blend of democracy (rule of the people) and aristocracy (rule of the best). The people elect the aristocrats. Did their solution work? Perhaps we are still in the trial phase.

Local vs. Federal Government

Gone are the days when the average man knew his local congressmen and actually listened to and appealed to them. When the average woman cared very little for the governmental positions in Washington D.C. as they had little effect on her. Many don’t realize that our emphasis on the central government has not always been the way it is. The local government was what mattered to a person because that is what affected them. We have shifted focus. This change is strange but revealing. It reveals our shift from local power to centralized power, our Progressive shift from bigger state governments and a smaller federal government to the opposite.

Still, though, our local senators and representatives are our representatives in Congress, the law-making branch of our government. The only real power we have to influence federal laws is by putting people in Congress who will represent our local values. It follows, then, that we would know our congressmen well. Do we? Do you know your district representative? What about your two senators? Your governor?

As our education declines nationally, so does our understanding of everything, including the relationship between state and federal governments. As we lose that understanding, we lose sight of how crucial the balance of power is. Our votes are no longer informed by wisdom and understanding but by opinion and passion. We are no longer able to engage in actual argument with resolute minds and open hearts.

We are a democratic republic. We are also performing an educational experiment: can universal education work? Democracy and true education – education of the mind in the liberal arts, education about what it is to be human and what it is to be human together – must go together. When preparation to be part of the economy becomes the focus of education, when it is focused on preparing us for the workplace with “functional” knowledge and skills, we have lost the balance in ourselves and we will lose our liberty as a people.

A Block in the Dark: Analyzing “Something” in the Poetry of Robert Frost

This essay I wrote in graduate school is a great introduction to the ideas buried in Robert Frost’s poetry. I believe it is approachable even if you have not read much poetry. You’ll probably want to google the particular poems I discuss to read and discover their beauty for yourself.

The poetry of Robert Frost is immensely inviting. His vivid imagery, simplistic descriptions, and relatable narrators allow his readers to enjoy most of his poems without feeling the need to pull out a dictionary or consult critical essays. He may invite us to join him on a walk to clean the pasture spring as in “The Pasture.” He may describe a walk through the woods on which he scared a bird and saw a decaying pile of wood as in “The Wood-pile.” He may tell us of his desire to swing birches (“Birches”) or of a cow’s wild escapade through a wall and into the store of cider (“The Cow in Apple Time”). All of these poems are narrated in charmingly simplistic language. However, this simplicity can be deceiving; Frost is a master of metaphor:

My poems—I should suppose everybody’s poems—are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark. I may leave my toys in the wrong place and so in vain. It is my intention we are speaking of—my innate mischievousness. (Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, 126)

Frost’s “blocks carts chairs” are sprinkled throughout the poetry through which his readers so often walk blindly. Most do not trip over these obstacles. Those who do may end up with a pragmatic lump on the head for which they can thank Frost’s mischievousness. The word “something” is one such obstacle. His use of “something” in “The Demiurge’s Laugh,” “For Once, Then, Something,” and “A Passing Glimpse” simultaneously expresses certainty and uncertainty, knowledge and ignorance. It affirms the existence of truth but casts doubt about the human ability to comprehend this truth. The search for the elusive “something” is sustained throughout these poems and, taken chronologically, shows a progression in Frost’s thinking about the nature of truth and of the human intellect.

“The Demiurge’s Laugh,” a poem published in A Boy’s Will in 1913, uses what Robert Narverson says is the “the common analogy between a walk… in a woods and the course of human life” (Narverson, 39). The poem begins with the narrator speaking of his run through a wood:

It was far in the sameness of the wood;
I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,
Though I knew what I hunted was no true god.
It was just as the light was beginning to fail
That I suddenly heard — all I needed to hear:
It has lasted me many and many a year. (“Demiurge’s Laugh” 1-6)

The speaker is far in the wood. Around him the wood is “sameness,” meaning it is undifferentiated; he is not be able to find his own way or even differentiate one area of the wood from another. The Demon’s trail is the only uniqueness he sees. He runs along this trail with hope as he hunts something greater than himself.

 

As he searches, the light begins to fade and his search becomes increasingly more futile. The use of light as a symbol for discovery, reason, wisdom, etc. has become a constant symbol in human writing. It can be traced back to the Greek god, Apollo, god of the sun and of wisdom (Roberts and Barrett, 146). It can be seen in the Jewish Torah as understanding coming from the divine (Psalm 119:130). It can be seen in the Indian Diwali celebration as symbolic for dispelling ignorance with understanding (Fuller, 123-124). It is that by which we see and understand in Plato’s allegory of the cave (The Republic, 508b-509a). So, too, in this poem it can be seen as that by which the speaker comes to an understanding of the truth. His search for the Demon is only possible with the illumination of the sun and is made impossible by the the continually fading light.

As he begins to see the futility of his search, the Demon rises up to observe his folly and laughs:

The sound was behind me instead of before,
A sleepy sound, but mocking half,
As of one who utterly couldn’t care.
The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh,
Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went;
And well I knew what the Demon meant. (“Demiurge’s Laugh” 7-12)

The speaker is surprised to hear it “behind [him] instead of before.” This revelation only increases his feeling of foolishness as he sees that the problem with his search is not actually the fading light. He lost the Demon’s trail long ago; perhaps he was never on the trail but only believed himself to be. This revelation descends upon the man as demonic laughter. He finds himself as the fool of the Demon. His trek through the wood has left him deep within their “sameness,” lost and vulnerable before the Demon’s mocking eyes:

 

I felt like a fool to have been so caught,
And checked my steps to make pretense
It was something among the leaves I sought
(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see). (“Demiurge” 14-17)

In an attempt to maintain some dignity, the speaker pretends to search for “something among the leaves,” as if he had never been hunting the Demon at all. It is doubtful to him that the Demon would stay to see his vain attempt. This does not matter. As Sheldon Liebman writes in “Robert Frost, Romantic,” the wood in this poem is “the abode of disillusionment” (421).

The poem is titled “The Demiurge’s Laugh.” Strangely, though, the word “Demiurge” does not appear anywhere in the poem. The Demiurge is a term applied to Plato’s conception of the divine as expressed in Timaeus. According to Timaeus, “the father and maker [the Demiurge] of all this universe is past finding out” (28b). It is the first-mover of all things, unknowable and indifferent. The Demon here is the Demiurge. The change from calling it “the Demiurge” to “The Demon” is in the speaker himself; the Demiurge does not change but the speaker’s conception of it does. It laughs at his fruitless search, “As of one who utterly couldn’t care” (“Demiurge,” 9). The speaker has come to believe that the elusiveness of the Demiurge is at once objectively indifferent in itself and subjectively malicious to the pursuer. Derided by the Demon, he ends his search and sits next to a tree.

 

In his hunt for the Demon, the speaker comes to believe that discovering reality in itself is impossible; he cannot catch to the Demon; his search is futile from the start. Turning to search for “something among the leaves” may be a ploy to protect his dignity but it does present another possible object of the pursuit. Frost addressed the distinction between pursuing the reality behind the mask and the search for “something” when speaking of poetry in “The Figure a Poem Makes.” “It begins in delight… and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion” (Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, 777). The “great clarification” is ultimate truth. It is seeing reality for what it is. In this poem it is finding the Demiurge. According to Frost, the object of a poem is the lesser clarification, the glimpse of truth. It is what is among the leaves.

In Raphael’s painting, “The School of Athens,” Plato points to the heavens while Aristotle gestures toward the earth. This expresses the different objects of their pursuits. Plato was focused on understanding reality in itself, the forms, through contemplation. His student, Aristotle, turned his gaze away from this pursuit and to what he believed was knowable empirically. “The Demiurge’s Laugh” begins in the Platonic pursuit. The speaker quickly discovers his limitations, comes to believe that the Demiurge cannot be found, and quits his search. Though he does not begin searching for the “something” among the leaves, he is left with this lesser truth as his only option for pursuit. This does not mean the “something” is any less real, it is simply not ultimate reality which was what he wanted to find; it is the difference between Plato’s forms and Aristotle’s essences. Plato believed the forms existed beyond reality; Aristotle’s essences existed within things themselves.

 

Though this “something” is pursuable, discovering it is not easy. The fading light and the leaves both complicate the search. They symbolize the appearances of things and allude to the theme seen throughout literature: the difficulty in seeing the truth of something beyond mere appearances. His resignation does not negate the fact that there is “something” to be found in the woods, that there is a reality beyond appearances, one that is attainable and knowable, unlike the elusive, mocking Demon.

In his essay, “The Constant Symbol,” Robert Frost wrote, “There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriorly. Poetry is simply made of metaphor” (786). A walk in the woods and light are constant symbols. So, too, the word “something” is a constant symbol in Frost. In “The Demiurge’s Laugh” it does not stand in for one particular thing. The narrator never actually pursues it. Its mere existence, though, gives the pursuer an object to pursue; without it, there would be no attainable object for the intellect. “Something” is a noun which is at once abstract in itself and concrete in that to which it refers. It has the potential to refer to any thing and to no particular thing simultaneously. What it refers to has definite qualities but, as these qualities are not contained within the word, “something,” they are indefinite. Thus, it is not referring to a particular truth in this poem, nor is it referring to all truth together or ultimate truth. It refers to any truth.

This “something” is seen elsewhere in Frost’s poetry. “For Once, Then, Something,” a poem published in New Hampshire in 1923, is narrated by an individual who is kneeling by a well-curb in an attempt to see what is at the bottom of the well. Already, there is a difference between these two poems. The object of this narrator’s pursuit is a particular, tangible object; it is the “something among the leaves” of the last poem. Because of this his pursuit is not necessarily doomed to failure by its very nature.

 

As he kneels, “others” taunt him. The first question that arises is, “Why do they taunt him?” The sheer depth of the well makes his task difficult. In order to see into the well, he must gaze into it when the sun is shining directly down the well. This presents a problem. When attempting to look down the well, the viewer’s head obstructs the light from the sun and makes seeing down the well nearly impossible. Additionally, if the sun is ever directly overhead, any light that squeezes past the gazer’s head would be directly reflected back at him, creating an impenetrable reflection. Thus, the reason “others” deride the speaker is likely due to his Sisyphean task. They perform the same role as the Demon in “The Demiurge’s Laugh.” His response is dissimilar, though, as he gazes on, unaffected by their scorn.

As the subject of the speaker’s inquiry lay at the bottom of a deep well, the light from the sun does not often, if ever, aid him in his inquiry. As in “The Demiurge’s Laugh,” the speaker of this poem is attempting to discover the truth of something, whether it be literally what lies in the depths of a well or some general truth in the world. Two things subvert his search. First, though the light from the sun is not fading as it was in the previous poem, it is not sufficient to illuminate that for which he searches. Again, this illustrates the fact that discovering truth beyond appearances is impossible if the light never blesses the speaker’s search.

The second obstacle is the speaker himself. Even when the radiant light of truth favors him by shining directly into the well the speaker himself gets in the way.

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. (“Something,” 2-6)

 

The allusion to Narcissus is blatantly obvious here. Narcissus, who is cursed by the gods to fall in love with himself, becomes transfixed with his own reflection in the midst of his pursuit. He becomes lost in illusion: “He fell in love with an image without reality, and he mistook for reality what was only an image” (Hendricks, 95). This chiasmic assessment of Narcissus also applies to the speaker of “For Once, Then, Something.” Upon peering down the well, he sees only his own reflection which the personified water gives to him in response to his search. This godlike view of himself, this obsession, obstructs his ability to see what lies beneath the surface of the water. In his pursuit of truth, the speaker has become intertwined in a web of narcissism, as was the fate of Narcissus in his pursuit of Echo. He loses sight of the original object of his pursuit and, for a moment, becomes content in thinking himself godlike.

However, despite the uncooperativeness of the sun and his own obtrusive head, the speaker is eventually able to see through the surface of the water.

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. (“Something” 7-10)

His gaze pierces the surface. He catches a glimpse of something white; however, he does not have a sustained look at the object at the bottom of the well though he does believe he sees something there. The color white has great significance both in nature and in the human imagination; it is another constant symbol of literature. In the profound forty-second chapter of Moby Dick, Melville explored the hidden power of this color:

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul… the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge… so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. (Melville, 162-165)

Thus, according to Ishmael, white is symbolic for everything. Despite this universal significance, though, white is not a thing in itself but only the invisible intermingling with the visible. Invisible light cannot be seen. The color white is the closest we can come to seeing it but is still only a visible manifestation, a mere shadow or shade, of unfiltered light. Thus, when peering into the well, the speaker is eventually able to see past his reflection to the bottom of the well. What he finds, though deeper and closer to what is actual, is only another reflection.

The speaker does not lose hope in this. He cannot discern what lies at the bottom of the well but now believes there is something there; something is infinitely more real, more tangible, more satisfying than nothing. Unlike the narrator of “The Demiurge’s Laugh,” one can assume that the speaker does not give up his pursuit here. Though the task of gaining a true understanding of what is at the bottom of the well seems impossible, the light has not faded and he succeeded in seeing beyond himself into the well. Thus, he is one step closer to understanding this “something.” Something means everything here. He has an object of his intellectual pursuit; he is not overcome by hopelessness and resignation. Though others taunt him, the speaker gazes on for another “momentary stay against confusion,” perhaps even a “great clarification” (Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, 777).

 

The different conclusions of these poems demonstrate a progression in Frost. “The Demiurge’s Laugh” affirms the existence of “something,” of truth hiding beneath the surface of things. However, it leaves the reader with some doubt about this as the narrator never actually searches for it. Further, it leaves the reader with doubt about whether this truth could be found even if he did begin searching. Similarly, “For Once, Then, Something” affirms the existence of this “something” but ends with a glimmer of hope. The speaker sees it, if only for a brief moment. Still, though he does not comprehend anything beyond the existence of the thing, he is one step further than the speaker in the “The Demiurge’s Laugh.”

This elusive “something” is also seen in “A Passing Glimpse,” a poem published in West- Running Brook in 1928. The speaker claims that “something brushed across [her] mind” as she sped away in a train-car (9). She wishes to return to look at it more closely but cannot stop the train:

I often see flowers from a passing car
That are gone before I can tell what they are.
I want to get out of the train and go back
To see what they were beside the track. (“Glimpse” 1-4)

 

As in “The Demiurge’s Laugh” and “For Once, Then, Something,” the speaker of “A Passing Glimpse” is consumed by a search for the unknown. She “[names] all the flowers [she is] sure they weren’t,” (5) but is incapable of figuring out what she saw. This poem is an amalgam of the previous two. It confirms the existence of “something” as in the latter poem but ends with resignation as in the former:

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in position to look too close. (“Glimpse” 11-12)

Here “Heaven” is that which allows the narrator to see and the object of her search; it is the transcendental reality which eludes discovery. Connecting the “something” she saw with Heaven equates the two; the “something” is a manifestation of Heaven. Personified, Heaven gives glimpses of itself when least expected. This is also seen in “For Once, Then, Something” as the speaker only sees through the surface of the water when he is leaning his head on the well-curb, not having given up but also not gazing intently into the well’s depths.

 

Each of these poems is an analogy with three essential parts: appearance, intellect, and reality. In these poems, the Demon, “truth,” and the “something” which brushes across the woman’s mind symbolize the object of the intellect. This object is always beyond the pursuer’s grasp. The intellect is symbolized by the fading light, the blocked-out sun, and the moving train. This expresses Frost’s view that the unaided human intellect is either flawed or incapable of reaching an understanding of reality.

Each of these poems also contains “something.” In “The Demiurge’s Laugh” it is hiding among the leaves, ignored by the narrator as he chases the Demon. It is the knowable world around him he is attempting to surpass by seeking knowledge of the Demiurge directly, like some sort of beatific vision. If he were to stop and spend time searching for it among the leaves, he may find it. His obsession consumes him and the realization that his idealistic pursuit is unattainable crushes his desire to search. In “For Once, Then, Something” the “something” waits at the bottom of a well, hidden but potentially attainable, like the “something” among the leaves. The narrator knows it is there and knows that, provided all factors coalesce perfectly, he will see it.

 

The existence of “something” in both of these poems is a sustained theme. Taken together and in the order they were written, the reader can see a progression. It begins with an idealistic youth pursuing “great clarification.” This youth believes he can learn all there is to know, solve all problems, see around the veil of appearances to fully comprehend reality in itself. As he realizes the foolishness in his sophomoric attitude, he is defeated. In “For Once, Then, Something” the reader might imagine the narrator is an older version of the previous narrator. Having given up his idealistic pursuits, he became aware of the truths that lie hidden in the world around him, one of these at the bottom of the well.

With a little more creative license, this theme can be seen stretching into “A Passing Glimpse,” as well. Later in life, this same youth, perhaps no longer a youth, has come to see that reality cannot be forced to show itself. That, look as long as she might, the “something” hidden among the leaves of the wood will probably never be found amidst the nearly infinite number of leaves. That she cannot force the sun into position in order to see down the well. This is a sort of resignation, a giving up of the pursuit but not of the belief in the “somethings” that lead to truth. This is giving up the belief that humans can attain “great clarifications,” but the affirmation that we can have “momentary stay[s] against confusion.” If she happens to be walking through the forest and finds the “something” under the leaves, so be it. In his essay “Robert Frost and the Darkness of Nature,” Roberts French says, “Nature has nothing to say to us, no matter how much we pry and ponder; persistent inquiry leads nowhere… Frost depicts the futility of the human search for certainty” (Critical Essays on Robert Frost, 160).

 

In this poem there is a representation of incomprehensible reality: Heaven. This corresponds to the Demon in “The Demiurge’s Laugh.” Here is another progression in Frost’s view of reality. The malicious, mocking, indifferent Demon cares nothing for the man’s search. It is also not in any way connected to the “something” among the leaves. In “A Passing Glimpse,” Heaven appears benevolent. The woman does not glimpse it by circumventing appearances and beholding it directly in a beatific vision, nor is her glimpse a result of a prolonged, restless investigation as in “For Once, Then, Something.” In this conception of reality, guile and perseverance are not sufficient for knowledge of reality. Heaven graciously bestows a glimpse of itself upon the woman for no particular reason.

In “The Demiurge’s Laugh” there is a search for reality in itself, for ultimate truth and understanding. This search is quickly subverted by the elusiveness of reality (the Demon) and the limitations of the intellect (the fading light); the knowable reality around the narrator is ignored. In “For Once, Then, Something” there is also a search but the object of this search is a lesser truth. Nevertheless, the narrator does not succeed entirely in his search because of the limitations of the intellect (the light cannot properly illuminate the object). Both of these poems express the search for truth about reality through appearances. In the end, both narrators are left without an understanding of reality. However, there is a progression. The narrator of the former pursues reality directly, around appearances; the latter seeks through appearances. The third poem, “A

Passing Glimpse,” undermines the search in both of these poems. In it Frost essentially says, “Reality, or truth, will reveal itself whenever and to whomever it pleases. Searching for it will not make any difference.”

Thus, in searching for something in Frost’s use of the word “something” the reader falls “head foremost into the boundless.” This simple, ubiquitous word pulls his readers in and forces them to grapple with the nature of truth, of reality, and of the human place in the cosmos. One can read each of these poems at the surface level, enjoy the narrative and the scenery, close the book of poetry and say, “That was nice.” To do this is to navigate through the dark without tripping over Frost’s blocks. It is to miss the potential “[stays] against confusion” contained within his poetry. “Something” is a block worth tripping over.

 

 

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