Entry #500: The Search for Truth – On Frost’s "For Once, Then, Something"

For Once, Then, Something
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.

Comment:

What occurs at well-curbs? The religious imagery of kneeling, experiencing light, and then using that light to see into a reflective darkness gives this poem a seriousness it might not have. Is life on the farm so boring that you have to hang out near the well and try to look at the bottom? There’s nothing else to do? We have seen before that pastures are meeting places of a sort. But still, one wonders if Frost grew up on the weirdest farm known to man.

The water here gives one thing only to most people, but it is interesting. They look into the darkness with total conviction that they are seeing deeply, and they are rewarded. Turns out that the center of the universe is yourself, if you look carefully enough. Down there in the well is you smiling back at yourself, and not just any “you,” but the new and improved version. The one that will hang out with angels in the next life and sit on clouds and be crowned with leaves and maybe even eat from trees.

Is that surface all that is there? Are all our searches for truth doomed to giving us back what we think initially? Is the only religion that exists the one where we delude ourselves into thinking we’re humble, when we really want knowledge/power/immortality and read those “wants” as the moral truth underlying the world?

Our narrator kneels differently once. One is supposed to kneel with one’s hands at the next pew, not arms on top of what is ahead – you’re not supposed to lean forward and use the kneeler as a crutch. You’re not supposed to look anywhere but down, in the spot you resided at. Prayer demands focus, not curiosity.

Our narrator kneels his way and guesses (“discerned, as I thought”) there is something beneath the surface conception of things. Whatever it was, it was white, and he only got a glimpse of it. “Water came to rebuke the too clear water” – God will never flood the Earth again, but our conception of Creation could still necessarily depend on the existence of Chaos. The fern, of all things, is responsible for blotting out – blotting out what, exactly?

We move from “white, uncertain, something more” to “truth, a pebble of quartz,” and “for once, then, something.” The central issue is the concreteness we move to. Before, the picture of “me myself in the summer heaven godlike” had visual elements that corresponded to this world, but it was just an image. Now the image may have dispelled, just for a second, and we want to know what else from this world could underlie the image. “White” is a color and could describe any number of objects. But Truth is only one object. “Uncertain” has been resolved, in a sense – it could be “a pebble of quartz,” something that can be fashioned for human use if retrieved. And then, the temporal progression of the last element – “something more” is only accessible in the context of what has been. Therefore, “once,” meaning not just this moment, but all the other moments prior like this one; “then,” meaning this moment, leading up to something futural; and finally that “something,” a concrete thing or even an experience crowning the whole endeavor.

Images are all there are. The question is where human seeing is directed, or where the images truly lie. That ripple shook nothing but our speaker’s sight temporarily; there are somethings Chaos cannot deny.

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