Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Robert Frost and a Summary of 'West-Running Brook'
'West-Running Brook' is a philosophical poem at heart written in the form of a dialogue between a young husband and wife. The brook is a metaphor for consciousness of a certain contrary type. It moves inexorably, the 'stream of everything that runs away.'
Frost's wedded couple offer contrasting views on the nature of the brook, which itself has a wave running counter to its flow. The man, Fred, forms a swift analogy between the contrary nature of the brook and their own relationship as individuals—he puts it down to trust. But then he asks rhetorically, 'What are we?'
The woman, who is not named, replies 'Young or new?' and goes on to explain just what it is that's caused the wave that runs counter to the brook itself, initially spotted by her husband.
So, a west-running brook when all other brooks run east to the sea. And a counter-wave within its flow, sent back by a sunken rock. There's a sense of puzzlement and potential discovery as the married pair feed off each other.
There is also some mild tension in the dialogue—we can picture the couple wondering about their future together as the brook flows on westward, not toward the sea, opposing logic, confusing yet offering a new challenge.
- The poem focuses on the individual responses to this contrariness, both in nature, metaphysics and the couple's relationship. West is the material, the flesh, the abyss, death.
- The brook is the flow of life's flux (carrying all matter) as it moves with time.
- The counter-wave, caused by a sunken rock, represents individual spirit and consciousness. It can also be seen as emotional energy resisting, a struggle against the flow.
- The husband initially takes a fixed rational approach to the wave and the brook, but later seeks to understand the origins of existence and inevitable decay. His monologue suggests that this resistance, this sending up, back towards the source, is that most we see ourselves in.
- The wife is more open to change and ideal and brings a spiritual element when thinking about the wave and brook. She is the tender to Fred's tough. She has the first line and the last.
- In the end both are reconciled to the idea of two individuals inextricably a part of all things, which includes being contrary.
As with many of Frost's longer poems of a philosophical nature, they are often inspired by ideas he gleaned from both the natural world and the written work of thinkers, both historical and contemporary.
With this particular poem two prominent names are known to have influenced the creation: William James (1842–1910), American philosopher and psychologist and French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941).
Frost was inspired by William James's books, Principles of Psychology (1890), Pragmatism (1907) and perhaps Is Life Worth Living? (1895) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
The poet particularly admired the pragmatist in James—he said that James was the best teacher he'd never had, having read many of his books—and it is clear that Frost gave Fred in the poem the pragmatist's role: tough-minded and skeptical. In contrast, the wife is tender-minded and leans toward the spiritual.
Henri Bergson's book Creative Evolution (1911), which Frost read, contains an image that could have been used as the basis for the poem:
'Life as a whole, from the initial impulsion that thrust it into the world, will appear as a wave which rises, and which is opposed by the descending movement of matter.... this rising wave is consciousness.... [Individual souls] are nothing else than the little rills into which the great river of life divides itself, flowing through the body of humanity.' (Creative Evolution, pp. 269-70.)
It seems that Frost created the central image of the poem having absorbed these philosophical ideas—he then wove the dialogue of the newly-weds around and through the metaphor.
How successful this form is in 'West-Running Brook' is open to debate. Some think the interaction between Fred and his wife lacks authenticity; the philosophical idea is too heavy for them to carry off successfully. Other scholars suggest that there is a valid balance between discourse and idea, that syntax and meter work well enough for the reader. (Contrast Frost's 'Home Burial' poem, which also has a powerful husband and wife dialogue.)
Frost was a great admirer of the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and must have known of his use of metaphorical language in such publications as 'Nature' (1836), an essay outlining transcendentalism, where the natural world is seen as a 'precipitation' of the mind. The element water plays a significant role:
'Man is a stream whose source is hidden.' ('The Over-Soul')
Emerson also wrote on the nature of poetry:
'It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact...Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?'
In one sense, 'West-Running Brook' could be a short scene from a play directed by all three philosophers, written inimitably by Frost, who loved nothing more than a quirk of nature to kick-start his muse and create 'a momentary stay against confusion.'
Some might argue that this poem only adds to the confusion, for the reader at least. Perhaps this is the legacy of some of Frost's more ambiguous poems—they remain open-ended and ripe for questioning and debate.
In 'West-Running Brook' there are no definitive answers. The poem begins with a simple question from the woman and ends with her single statement, a joint statement in effect.
Between the first and last lines Fred wants them to build a bridge across the brook, then teases his wife with lady-land before suggesting that resistance is what life is all about, part of a sequence of sending up that extends from the temporal to the mysterious.
Frost was definitely one to pit his will against the flow of things. He said:
'Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.' From 'The Constant Symbol', an essay by Robert Frost in Atlantic Monthly, October 1946.
This poem was published in the book West-Running Brook in 1928. The version below is the authentic original form of the poem.
'West-Running Brook' by Robert Frost
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'West-Running Brook'
Eighty-two lines in all, many with that familiar Frostian beat of the iambic (laced with the odd trochee, pyrrhic, spondee and anapaest) carried on ten syllables. Because it is in dialogue form some lines are shorter—three or four syllables for example—but the next line often makes up the full 10. So it is a blank verse poem with a twist.
The opening line is a straightforward question from the wife, who asks for direction north from Fred. This in itself is a pointer to the sub-theme—where are they going this wedded pair?
At this early stage of the dialogue Fred knows the answer. North is that way (does he gesture?) and the brook is running west. Now the reader can picture them, in a rural setting near the coast, observing the brook.
But this is no ordinary flow of water. The wife names it then Fred gives a rough summary of its contrary nature. All the other brooks run east, to the ocean, but this one flows in the opposite direction.
The brook is anthropomorphized, given human qualities. Fred addresses it rhetorically, puzzled as to why it should be going in such a direction. He guesses that the brook must be trusting of itself but then goes on to suggest that this is in some way just like them, they trust each other to be contrary, going against each other.
He tries to reason why this is but stumbles at that word because . . . because what? He's looking for some sort of definition of them both as a partnership.
To this question the wife answers Young or new? Young people, new people, newly wed? It's not clear. Fred, clearly inspired, thinks they both as a couple should also be married to the brook. Two becomes three. They'll build a bridge which will be an arm, figuratively, and they'll sleep beside it.
This romantic notion is given the thumbs up by the brook because it responds with a wave. Literally. And anthropomorphically. The brook is listening to the conversation.
Frost is gradually leaving the real world behind as the poem progresses. The brook is becoming something other than a mere contrary flow of water. By bringing it to life so to speak he is entering the world of the fairy tale, the myth, but on his own terms as always.
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The wave now becomes a focal point for the couple. Fred initially goes against his wife and her romantic notion that the wave is waving because the water listened. He begins a literal description of the wave but is halted by the over-voice in parentheses, lines 24–31.
Fred appears to become confused—he repeats his line about the wave and the jut of shore and introduces the idea of a 'marriage made in heaven' perhaps prompted by his wife's suggestion they marry the brook and embrace the flow. He persists in his rational approach to the water by emphasizing that the wave wasn't waved to them.
The wife diplomatically plays it cool. The wave was and was not waved to them. Yet she feels it was, due to her sensitivity which borders on the spiritual. That word annunciation means an announcement and is best known from the new testament gospels when Mary is told by angel Gabriel that she is to be with child by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This implies that the wife has faith in the mystery of nature, that spirit can become matter simply because the natural world is not separate from us humans; one affects the other and vice versa.
Is there a Christian aspect to this part of the poem, after all, presumably they were married in a church?
Using such a word also implies the wife is introducing a sexual component to the dialogue—perhaps she is pregnant or simply planting a seed inside Fred's head?
Whatever the intent, Fred's retort is to mention rather sarcastically the Amazons of Greek mythology, who were war-like daughters of Ares and lived at the edge of the known world. They used men for sex and kept only the female babies. Their society was traditionally the opposite of male dominated Greek society—again a contrary position.
Fred, tongue-in-cheek, offers the brook to his wife, because he being a male isn't allowed to enter Amazon territory.
But the wife knows his game and persuades him to continue his speech. She senses he has more to deliver.
Fred's monologue ensues. Encouraged by his wife to elucidate on the subject of contrary things, the husband steadily begins to describe the motion of the white wave resistance and the evolutionary path back to origins.
Gradually Fred attempts to get back to the beginning of beginnings, by working on existence within the context of the flow and the wave. He says that existence slips away, it doesn't hold its ground in one place but flows on and on westwards inexorably . . . only the strange resistance persists, which, in sequence, (which involves life, time, the brook and the sun) sends up in a backward motion.
So, according to Fred, the resistance is the spiritual origin that is most us and is associated with the east, opposed to the matter and death of the west. Fred has come a long way in this speech—he seems to be reconciled to a Platonic idea of essences, separate from sense, but steers clear of mentioning divinity, returning to the god.
Fred's speech highlights the mutual need spirit and matter share—can one exist without the other? The brook needs the sunken rock, the rock the brook's flow for its purpose to be known.
What has been termed the 'ultimate resolution of contraries' is explored in this poem. (Fritz Oehlschlaeger, 'West Toward Heaven: The Adventure of Metaphor in Robert Frost's "West-Running Brook'" (colby.edu).
But in a way there is no ultimate resolution; life goes on, changing as evolution's marriage to science forms and re-forms, as we strive to learn about and understand the relationship between the mind and the flesh.
In the end, husband and wife share in the process that is life's consciousness, matter and all. It's the woman who has the final say—she named the brook, she encouraged Fred to expand his thoughts about the resistant wave, and now she unites them both as the brook continues its path westwards and the white scarf runs back up to the far shore of alders.
What Is the Meter in 'West-Running Brook'?
Scanning this poem it is clear that the majority of lines are ten syllable and follow the iambic beat, with variation occasionally to spice up the familiar daDUM daDUM rhythm (stress on the second syllable in each foot).
Robert Frost however has 'played' with the syllable count here and there, using eleven syllable lines which carry an extra beat (used to be known as a feminine ending) which falls away, dips, loses energy, as opposed to the rising ambic beat at the end of a line.
This does alter the feel of certain lines and sections no doubt and the poet for certain used this strategy for variation, to liven up the rhythm and bring nuanced sound into some syntactical units.
With it being in dialogue form some lines are split but together retain the ten syllable, five foot, convention. The opening two lines for example are split 4 syllable/6 syllable.
Let's take a closer look at several lines:
'What does / it think / its do / ing runn / ing west
When all / the oth / er coun / try brooks / flow east
To reach / the o / cean? It / must be / the brook
Can trust / itself / to go / by con / traries
- Line 6 - 8: each10 syllables, five iambic feet, so iambic pentameter.
- Line 9: 10 syllables, iambic dominant, last foot a pyrrhic (no stresses)
To sep / arate / us for / a pan / ic moment.
It flows / between / us, o / ver us / and with us.
And it / is time, / strength, tone, / light, life / and love -
And e / ven sub / stance lap / sing un / substantial;
- Lines 57-58: 11 syllables, iambic except for second foot which pyrrhic and amphibrach as fifth foot but some say iambic with extra beat or feminine ending (unstressed syllable)
- Line 59: 10 syllables, note spondees (double stresses third and fourth feet), mostly iambic.
- Line 60: 11 syllables, iambic dominant, final foot amphibrach or iamb with extra beat.
- Poetry Foundation
- Robert Frost: Online Resources - Library of Congress Bibliographies, Research Guides, and Finding Aids (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress) (loc.gov)
- The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
- Sears, John F., and Robert Frost. “William James, Henri Bergson, and the Poetics of Robert Frost.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 1975, pp. 341–361. Accessed 4 June 2021.
- Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. 'West Toward Heaven: The Adventure of Metaphor in Robert Frost's "West-Running Brook"' (colby.edu)
- Shaw, W. David. 'The Poetics of Pragmatism: Robert Frost and William James'
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on June 12, 2021:
Appreciate the visit Chitrangada, thank you. Frost always gives the reader a bit more to think about!
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on June 12, 2021:
An excellent and in depth analysis of the poem, West-Running Brook by Robert Frost. I liked how you have interpreted the poem, line by line.
An enjoyable read. Thank you for sharing.