For once, then, something
by Robert Frost
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.
This poem, by the American poet Robert Frost, is a magnificent example of saying two things at the same time. It is both a simple story about a man looking into a well and a meditation on meaning. Frost talked about “The pleasure of ulteriority . . . saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another.”
Frost was very much a skeptic. In this poem, he manages to question the nature of reality by merging the myth of Narcissus entranced by his own reflection with an aphorism attributed to the Greek philosopher Democritus. He does all this without losing his native vocabulary as a New Hampshire farmer.
It’s only when we arrive at the word “Truth” on the last line that we grasp the universal significance of the poem. This universal significance in no way denies the immediacy of well-curbs and cloud puffs; it’s as if Frost is saying “If there is meaning, it’s to be found by looking deeply into the world, not by running off into speculation.” The way beyond the world (as we habitually experience it) is by way of a fuller engagement with the world.
The story is simple: the poet, “always wrong to the light,” can’t see “deeper down” into the water, but only catches his own “godlike” reflection “Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.” This is a marvelously homely metaphor for our human situation: we try to look into life, but all we see is our own reflection staring back at us. So often we’re not really listening to our friend, we’re merely waiting to give our opinion; we can’t enjoy a sunset or a painting because we’re talking about it in our head. Even when we take up the spiritual journey, mostly it’s just “me.” We put ourselves at the center of everything, and then struggle to see beyond our own egotism.
Frost’s face in the reflection—“Me myself in the summer heaven”—is a comic reference to those vast, frescoed church ceilings by Michelangelo or Tiepolo, where God in all his glory sits surrounded by sun-struck clouds and lute-playing angels. The one god of our world, Frost is saying, is “me”; everything revolves around that.
He’s saying there’s nothing beyond our self-attachment. Ideas of transcendence are self-deluding—it’s just me “godlike / Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.” But then he changes tack: there was a time when he seemed to see “beyond the picture, / Through the picture, a something white . . . Something more of the depths.” But it’s uncertain. A drop of water falls from a fern and blots it out. For a moment, there did seem to be something more to life, something genuine . . . “and then I lost it.”
“For once, then, something” hovers between affirmation and rejection. The biblical references in the poem—“godlike,” “heaven,” “and lo,” “rebuke”—evoke the Christian story, but Frost will not affirm it. What’s interesting is that he won’t deny it either. The poem seems to say that belief and unbelief are equally false, or perhaps equally partial. There is “something”—but Frost refuses to either pin it down or disavow it. He remains genuinely skeptical, rather than taking refuge in pseudo-skepticism that mistakes nihilistic belief for the facts of life.
Frost’s poem is open to something beyond our limited egotism and yet alert to how easily we delude ourselves. There’s a genuine longing to see deeper into life, even though others “taunt him” for always being “wrong to the light.” He ends the poem by asking “What was that whiteness?”—white is a universal symbol of purity and perfection—“Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”
Frost’s poem demonstrates an authentic openness to how things really are, unclouded by religious or secular dogma. He is saying “Sometimes there does seem to be something beyond my egoistic reflection, but I can’t be sure. When I look again it’s gone.” As soon as we try to appropriate experiences that lead beyond self-attachment, we’re back in self-attachment.
Perhaps, having read the poem, Frost’s glimpse of “a something white, uncertain” reminds you of experiences you’ve had? You might have caught sight of something in friendship, in your response to noble or heroic deeds, in altruistic work, or in your most inspired readings of philosophy. How could you set up conditions in which you’re more likely to experience “something more of the depths” again?
We need to learn from Frost’s skepticism as well as embrace his longing to see deeper into the world beyond self-clinging. The most important feature of this “deeper seeing” is wholeness—where thinking and feeling flow together in a new unity and all our energies are aroused in a single act of perception. This new faculty of wholeness—intelligent but not heady, richly felt but not merely emotional—takes us beyond the threshold of “being me.” Frost’s poem weds his fine intelligence with direct sensual experience, combining humor with vigor, questioning with questing. Only then will we be able to see “beyond the picture, / Through the picture.”
From The Journey and the Guide: A Practical Course in Enlightenment, by Maitreyabandhu (Windhorse Publications). Reproduced with the permission of Windhorse Publications UK and Faber & Faber (Frost poem).
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