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)
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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