Does Truth Lie at the Bottom of a Well?
Robert Frost wrote almost solely about nature, exposing his belief in pathetic fallacies, the belief that nature should match internal feelings. Additionally, his style is vertical, meaning he looks up to a higher power or meaning. Both philosophies converge in his poem, “For Once, Then, Something,” with his extended metaphor of looking deep into the reflective water of a well. Frost uses first person to put the reader in the shoes of the narrator, a person who desperately searches for a glimpse of the unknown but is hindered by the obsession with his own reflection. A ripple caused by nature distorts the one chance the narrator has to see what is greater than himself, leaving him in a state of dissatisfied confusion. Though “For Once, Then, Something,” doesn’t explicitly define the existential meaning of personal experience and, instead, expresses uncertainty through a repetition of vague, symbolic references to “whatever it was” (line 13), the poem maintains that there is “something.” Additionally, the refusal to adhere to harsh or soft sounds, one meter or a consistent order between dependent and independent clauses, cements the feeling of uncertainty, suggesting that there is not just one single interpretation of what lies at the bottom of the well.
The amorphous diction repeated in reference to the object at the bottom of the well and the ephemeral connotation in reference to the speaker’s reflection solidifies the speaker’s confusion. Frost outright describes the object as “uncertain” in the line, “Through the picture a something white, uncertain” (line 9). Not only does Frost characterize the object as “uncertain” but also as “white,” a word that holds a possible meaning of purity and blankness. The author makes the reader uncertain of what the object is by never thoroughly defining the substance. In fact through the countless repetition of “something” and “it,” Frost refers to the object in the most objective, removed way possible. Moreover, the word “something” is a combination of the words “some” and “thing,” which could both refer to any noun in the same way that “it” can replace any noun. This emphasizes the shapelessness of the object and; therefore, emphasizes the uncertainty of the speaker’s attitude towards the metaphor. The tone of uncertainty endures through the various shifts in the poem via the undertone of words such as “picture” reiterated three times in a relatively short poem of fifteen lines, “I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,/through the picture, a something white, uncertain,” (lines 9-10). The repetition of such a simple word by a poet with an expansive vocabulary means that it must portray some aspect of his message. The “picture” is the product of the viewer’s reflection on the water of the well, and it prevents the viewer from seeing the “whiteness” (line 14). The echo of the subject’s appearance is not reality: A “picture” is only a replica of an experience, like how a photograph captures a passing moment in time forever. Hence, the word choice consistently maintains an air of puzzlement towards the idea of reality, congruent to how the rhythm reflects an unpredictable, erratic position on the meaning of life.
As a whole, the one stanza poem sustains a facade of rhythm since each line holds eleven syllables. At the same time the poem has no rhyme, and the almost capricious meter generates a change in cadence from one line to the next. The beginning of the poem mostly maintains trochaic pentameter, not the typical iambic pentameter, but the pattern of stressed followed by unstressed syllables breaks in the middle of each line only to resume at the end. For example in the line, “Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs” the meters begins stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, unstressed and then continues in a trochaic pattern: stressed, unstressed. The first syllable of the first line creates immediate stress, “oth,” defused by an unstressed syllable “ers.” This is the same in the next eleven lines: “always,” “deeper,” “gives me,” etcetera. Then, the rhythm immediately fissures into dactylic meter, “taunt me with,” as if the writer couldn’t decide on one meter. Afterwards, the pattern returns, creating this subtle variation, not only from beginning to end but within one line. The meter mutates again in line 12 and continues until the end of the poem, “One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple” (line 12). The beginning of the line is almost aggressive in the way Frost highlights or stresses both the first and second syllables of the each line, specifically the “one drop” in this line is the metaphorical hindrance of the speaker’s vision of the unknown object, the “something.” The rest of the line upholds the same unsteady rhythm as the rest of the poem; stressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed. The fact that the rhythm is purposefully crafted to be erratic means Frost cunningly generated an undecided sound to parallel the resonating ambiguity. Furthermore, whether the meter is trochaic or dactylic, the meter underlines the first syllable of each line and leaves the last word or syllable unstressed. This builds an almost pessimistic tone that quickly deflates in momentum, unraveling instead of building to a definite conclusion.
Continuing the analysis of the ambiguous rhythm, the combination of a staccato-like syntax and a pattern of a wide range of consonance functions similarly to the unfixed meter. The break in tempo first comes in the line, “Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb” (line 7). The deliberate “once” followed by a comma forces the reader to pause, compared to omitting the “once,” all together to make the sentence uninterrupted. The syntax grows even choppier in the following line, “I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture” (line 8). A dependent clause divides the independent clause in the middle, whereas in the previous line the pause is in the beginning, reflecting the physical effects of a water droplet actually causing a disturbance in the middle of a glass-like surface. Both of these aforementioned, coinciding lines, as well as the following lines, have a staccato sound, deviating between harsh and soft sounds. The word “once” is almost a hiss succeeded by a bounce back and forth between harsh “t” noises and soft “s” sound in “trying” and “against.” In the line, “Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?” (line 14), the inconsistent sound and syntax almost makes the poem jerky, like a rollercoaster with ups and downs. The alliteration of the harsh repetition of “bl” and “d” in “blurred” and “blotted,” the harsh “t” sound in “it” and “out,” and the harsh punctuation between the two brings the reader to a complete, almost certain, stop. However, the poem then unravels into an unanswered question with the soft “s” and “w” in “was” and “whiteness.” There is calculated inconsistency, a decision to vary between the choppiness of harsh and soft sounds, emphasized by a foundation of rough syntax and ultimately culminating in an undecided tone in the final, vague statement, “For once, then, something” (line 15). The commas make pauses between almost every syllable, breaking up the rhythm, while the repeated hiss of “s” ends almost like a whispered question that went unanswered. There is something greater or more important than the viewer’s reflection, but Frost doesn’t know what that something greater is.
The only thing consistent about this poem is that the speaker is always uncertain and never defines life’s greater meaning. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it pure? Is it “truth” or is it just “a pebble of quartz” (line 15), meaning it could be profound or it could be completely insignificant and material. The varying form of the poem matches Frost’s ambivalence to the world, seemingly saying that there is no one, ultimate meaning. The world isn’t black and white, yes or no: it is a fluctuating dance of harsh versus soft sounds. The need to look beyond ourselves is important, lest we let narcissism and godlike “pictures” consume people’s whole worldview. The search will continue on for eternity in an open-ended question of “something.”
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