Not uncommon to the northeast, our weather has been rather erratic this year. A week or so ago I walked through the park in a long-sleeve and today I’ve become something of a frigophobic. In any event, sustained warmth is approaching; and because of this there is a widespread air of relief among those that are out-of-doors, a latent optimism ready to spring. This type of optimism is not such a positive thing. It is, rather unfortunately, a form of the modern American condition: in winter, we whimper for warmth, come spring and summer, we grumble under the sun. Doubtless, we lack presence; or perhaps we’re a lot of malcontents. The former is more poetic. As I thought about this, Robert Frost’s ironic and incongruent nature struck me, particularly in his poem ‘Spring Pools’ (1928).
‘Spring Pools’ is the first poem in Frost’s 1928 collection titled West-Running Brook. The male speaker in the title poem ‘West-Running Brook,’ comes to take on a rather pragmatic reading of the brook and nature in general. It is difficult to isolate a single excerpt from the poem without desiring to quote the poem’s entirety but here is the ‘gist’ of the poem:
‘Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself
It is from that 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’s void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in the water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
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 of the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.’
Emerson, a very important philosopher for Frost, writes in his essay ‘Nature’ (1836), ‘Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?’ Both ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘Spring Pools’ are about the Emersonian flux, but they are dealt with entirely differently. More important than this common motif, is the Emersonian desire for presence. In ‘The Over-Soul’ (1841) (an essay that also discusses the omniscient flow of nature, as in the excerpt above) Emerson writes, ‘Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them.’ He means don’t strive to look into the future because we ‘will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places…’ ‘West-Running Brook’ is about (among other things) accepting Time and Nature. ‘Spring Pools’, again the first poem of the collection, wishes to deny the course with (what I think is a sad) hubris.
The difference between the flow of the brook in ‘West-Running Brook’ and the trees in ‘Spring Pools’ is one of power dynamics. For Frost, the trees are tyrants, siphoning water and beauty from the smaller plants and the reflective pools through their xylem in order to secure their own splendor. The trees’ foliage garnered through this violent extraction would then ‘blot out’ the forest floor from the sun, killing more plants. Frost deems the trees malevolent (‘pent-up buds’ is, I think, a sinister language) and disregards the pragmatism in ‘West-Running Brook’—that Nature and Time ‘seriously, sadly, runs away’— preferring that the moment be sustained. He desires a presence akin to Emerson’s but without the consequence of death. He asserts this desire with phlegmatic hubris: ‘Let them think twice before they use their powers / To blot out and drink up and sweep away / These flowery waters and these watery flowers’ but the final line is stated with such a downhearted tone (note the word ‘only’) that we feel for the hubristic old man striving to stop the currents of time as we might feel for Milton’s Satan: ‘From snow that melted only yesterday.’
Throughout West-Running Brook nature becomes ‘dark,’ a sinister but necessary thing. In ‘Spring Pools,’ I believe Frost is cynically portraying a reversal of the American mind that will become corrected throughout the collection, reaching its culmination in ‘West-Running Brook,’ which asserts an understanding of flux. We must accept the way things are despite our own stubborn desires for something different. We must be the wave we are and learn to ‘run counter’ to ourselves. It will be winter for some time, but spring is soon to come.
Here’s the poem. Listen to the poem (read by Ted Hughes) by clicking the link below.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.