Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trusting "Contraries"

Notes on the Poetry of Robert Frost

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.

To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.

-  John Donne,  from "The Ecstasy"

Robert Frost's short poem "West-Running Brook" is a little drama about some very big ideas.  He began writing the poem in 1920 and decided to make it the the titular piece for a collection of poems he began compiling in the winter of 1927 and saw published the following year.  

One notices that, of the couple in the poem, we have only a name for the man.  His wife is either "my love" or "my dear".  
Neither referents are all that bad, but they are indefinite, and when the couple are joined with the brook (two become three) it is the wife that goes unnamed even as she is the one who names the brook.  It begins with a question, "Fred, where is north?", that folds into a discussion of the brook that runs west contrary to expectation and to "all the other country brooks" which flow east.  He then announces one theme of the poem, contraries, as according to him "It must be the brook / Can trust itself to go by contraries" which he immediately compares to their relationship.  This leads him to the conclusion that they are a "we", a couple who "must be something, but then adds the brook, saying:

"We'll both be married to the brook.  We'll build 
Our bridge across it, and the bridge shall be 
Our arm thrown over it asleep beside it."

Thus the brook becomes the third to their two and is suddenly anthropomorphized with a wave that lets them know it hears".   The lovely image of "our arm thrown over it" suggests a joining of the two together and with the brook as a third, perhaps a family.  This also can be inferred from the wife's response below.  The contraries of the poem are not violent, rather they are like some waves whose motions against the grain are like a resistance to going with the "drift of things".  However when Fred suggests the river "wasn't waved to us" his wife disagrees:
"It wasn't, yet it was.  If not to you / It was to me--in an annunciation."

Fred's response suggests that it is her fantasy and about such a brook "I have no more to say."  But with her contrary encouragement the big ideas soon appear as Fred responds with a rhapsody on the primitive "water we were from" with Darwinian connotations leading us from "long before we were any creature."  The metaphor of the stream of life also appears with hints of Lucretius including  "a swerving" that suggests indeterminacy in the direction of the stream of life.  In its flow we see,
"A universal cataract of death / That spends to nothingness".  It is a throwing back (another sort of contrary) that demonstrates to us our source, the "nature we are from."  His lengthy commentary on the source of life and the nature of its flow with currents "against the stream" seems an excess of eloquence.  All this may be most unsettling to his wife, but her comment is a more simple recognition of where they are that concludes with "Today will be the day of what we both said."  

I like the recognition that while she seems to say in effect we will agree to disagree, she is still referring to "we".  They are a couple whose love, like that of Donne's (see the epigraph above) and many others can withstand such disagreements.  But we should note that this poem demonstrates many of Frost's preoccupations with its eloquent use of the stream metaphor and his ability to merge the dramatic with the lyrical form.  The poem, at least if you side with Fred, seems to suggest that as humans we are ultimately redeemed by our natural resistance in the face of extinction.  But, as is usually the case with Frost, the meaning is not explicit, the difference between husband and wife is not resolved.  It is left on the table.  Yet, the poem ends with them still a "we".

West-Running Brook

'Fred, where is north?'

'North? North is there, my love.
The brook runs west.'

'West-running Brook then call it.'
(West-Running Brook men call it to this day.)
'What does it think it's doing running west
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you -- and you with me --
Because we're -- we're -- I don't know what we are.
What are we?'

'Young or new?'

'We must be something.
We've said we two. Let's change that to we three.
As you and I are married to each other,
We'll both be married to the brook. We'll build
Our bridge across it, and the bridge shall be
Our arm thrown over it asleep beside it.
Look, look, it's waving to us with a wave
To let us know it hears me.'

' 'Why, my dear,
That wave's been standing off this jut of shore --'
(The black stream, catching a sunken rock,
Flung backward on itself in one white wave,
And the white water rode the black forever,
Not gaining but not losing, like a bird
White feathers from the struggle of whose breast
Flecked the dark stream and flecked the darker pool
Below the point, and were at last driven wrinkled
In a white scarf against the far shore alders.)
'That wave's been standing off this jut of shore
Ever since rivers, I was going to say,'
Were made in heaven. It wasn't waved to us.'

'It wasn't, yet it was. If not to you
It was to me -- in an annunciation.'

'Oh, if you take it off to lady-land,
As't were the country of the Amazons
We men must see you to the confines of
And leave you there, ourselves forbid to enter,-
It is your brook! I have no more to say.'

'Yes, you have, too. Go on. You thought of something.'

'Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself.
It is from that in water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Here we, in our impatience of the steps,
Get back to the beginning of beginnings,
The stream of everything that runs away.
Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away,
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss' void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in this water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
It flows between us, over us, and with us.
And it is time, strength, tone, light, life and love-
And even substance lapsing unsubstantial;
The universal cataract of death
That spends to nothingness -- and unresisted,
Save by some strange resistance in itself,
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from. It is most us.'

'To-day will be the day....You said so.'

'No, to-day will be the day
You said the brook was called West-running Brook.'

'To-day will be the day of what we both said.'

West-Running Brook by Robert Frost. Holt & Co., 1928.


Brian Joseph said...

Outstanding commentary James.

This one would have been a mystery to me without your illuminating insights. There is a indeed a true beauty in the portrayal of the contrasts and their acceptance between the husband's and wife's views on life.

I am generally with Fred here but I am glad there is diversity of opinion as represented by the wife. I am even more happy that in this world, couples and other relations can accept and live with those differences.

James said...


Thanks for your kind words. I should give some credit to the lectures and discussion that I participated in this past weekend, but the analysis is much of my own and was put together in my own way. There is much more, however, that can be said about Frost's poem as is true with any great work of literature. I am tempted to expand this commentary a bit as it would seem to be worth including some further thoughts.
One thing has become clear as I read more and more Frost poems and that is his craft. He places his words with a purpose in an specific order (as he does his poems) and it worth the time spent meditating on almost every word, phrase, line, and stanza. This is not unique to Robert Frost, but it is part of what makes him an amazingly exciting and interesting poet to read, and enjoy!

Lucy said...

Wonderful commentary, James. I love this poem, particularly the line that goes "A universal cataract of death / That spends to nothingness". It really sums up Frost's talent as a poet, and I'd love to study more of his work.

I'm a great fan of Edward Thomas, who was a friend of Frost's before going to war, and it's fascinating to consider the two together.

Thanks for this post!

Best wishes,
Lucy from Tolstoy Therapy

James said...


Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your recommendation of Edward Thomas whom I have not read, yet. I will plan to add his poetry to my TBR list.