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Once by the Pacific -- Robert Frost

David Wright has sent in a wonderful followup to
yesterday's poem (Poem #984) - this would make an interesting theme if anyone
else would like to contribute...
(Poem #985) Once by the Pacific
 The shattered water made a misty din.
 Great waves looked over others coming in,
 And thought of doing something to the shore
 That water never did to land before.
 The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
 Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
 You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
 The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
 The cliff in being backed by continent;
 It looked as if a night of dark intent
 Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
 Someone had better be prepared for rage.
 There would be more than ocean-water broken
 Before God's last 'Put out the Light' was spoken.
-- Robert Frost
    Maybe poems come in sets, like waves.  At any rate, after pulling out
Whitman's "On the Beach at Night" recently, I stumbled on this Robert Frost
poem - another 'looking out to sea' poem - in a litcrit book I'm reading:
"The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age," by Robert Alter.  Alter's
observations helped me appreciate Frost, a poet I've felt ambivalent about
in the past - the studied folksiness always turned me off a little. The
analysis below is his: it is given in the context of his anti-
deconstructionist argument that literature is something special - not merely
a text but a work and a world of a special type.  (I know how it sounds, but
he's actually quite a good critic, much less reactionary and pious/pompous
than, oh - say - Harold Bloom.)  This is quite long, but those who
appreciate a good, close reading of a poem should enjoy it.  He begins by
referring to a statement by poet A.R. Ammons that in every work of
literature "a world comes into being about which any statement, however
revelatory, is a lessening." ("In all intellectual humilty, a critic should
always keep in mind the lessening, though it may be a price often worth
paying for the sake of the revelation.")

       "I will begin with what would be in Ammons' terms the most drastic
  kind of lessening, a thumbnail paraphrase that is in no way revelatory:
  the speaker in the poem stands by the Pacific shore watching the waves
  pounding and thinks apprehensively of the destruction of all things.  The
  paraphrase in a way does no more than describe the stimulus of the poem,
  since it seems safe to assume that Robert Frost was actually moved to this
  somber musing by looking at the Pacific breakers.  How do such thoughts
  generate a world in which as readers we powerfully experience a sustained
  moment of highly distinctive menace, waves raging and apocalypse
  impending? I say highly distinctive recognizing that each of us will bring
  to the reading of the poem his or her own literary and personal
  associations but also assuming that the elaborate structuring of language
  in these fourteen lines makes them quite different from any other modern
  apocalyptic poem (Yeats' "Second Coming," the end of T.S. Eliot's "The
  Hollow Men," and so forth), whatever the vagaries of our individual

       Frost's use of rhyming iambic pentameter in a fourteen-line piece
  indicates that the poem is meant to be taken as a variant of the sonnet.
  But the rhymes are a sequence of couplets (AA, BB, and so forth),
  producing no divisions into quatrains or octet and sestet as in the
  traditional sonnet form.  The sense of neat containment, then, generated
  by the structure of the traditional sonnet is blurred.  There may be an
  underlying tension between the prosodic form of the poem, whether we call
  it quasisonnet or heroic couplets, and the conspicuously colloquial
  diction preserved consistently throughout, reflected in the avoidance of
  the subjunctive after "it looked as if" (using "was," not "were"), and
  flaunted in phrases like "You could not tell," "the shore was lucky,"
  "someone had better*."  The only word in the entire poem that points
  toward a more literary diction is "intent," a choice dictated not merely
  by the rhyme but by the need to suggest something vast, vague, and ominous
  as the spelling out of the apocalypse moves to a climax - moves, moreover,
  through the only very pronounced enjambment in the poem: "a night of dark
  intent / Was coming."  The colloquial diction is the matrix for a peculiar
  quality of Frost's poetry here and elsewhere that might be called
  expressive vagueness, and that is felt, as several critics have observed,
  in his general fondness for words like "something" and "someone."  The use
  of these words provides an instructive instance of how ordinary language
  is transmuted as it participates in the world-building of the poem.  The
  source in spoken English for this usage would be an idiom employed in a
  situation like the following: an angry child says to another child,
  "Somebody better watch out" - meaning, of course, YOU - or, "I'm going to
  do something to you" - meaning, whatever I will do will be so terrible
  that I would rather not say exactly what.  The extraordinary effectiveness
  of the poem is in part the result of transferring these locutions, with
  their associations of colloquial vehemence, to a cosmic scale while never
  committing the sin or pretentiousness I have just committed in using a
  word like "cosmic."

       Although, as I have indicated, it is not in principle possible to
  enumerate all the kinds of interconnections that engender the world of a
  literary text, I would point here to the four salient aspects of the poem
  which, together with the expressive vagueness of something/someone,
  combine to  produce the distinctive mood and tone of this version of
  apocalypse.  These are: the chiasm and synesthesia of the first line (more
  of which in a moment), the pervasive personification of natural forces,
  the prominence of looking, and the allusions to the first chapter of
  Genesis.  A formal element of a literary text may contribute significantly
  to the building of a world through its placement, through repetition,
  through the rhetorical emphasis it gets, or through any combination of the
  three.  Thus, zeugma and catalogs help define the world of 'The Rape of
  the Lock' because they are repeated so frequently, with such inventive
  variations; and on the smaller scale of "Once by the Pacific," that is
  true of personification and the reiterated verb "looked."  On the other
  hand, the first line features two spectacular rhetorical devices that do
  not occur again in the poem, but because they form the archway through
  which we enter into the world of the poem, they play an important part in
  determining our vision of that world.  The line is symmetrical (two nouns,
  two modifiers, joined by the verb "made" at the midpoint of the line) in
  the form we call chiastic: ABBA (shattered/water/misty/din).  The formal
  crossover of the chiasm reinforces a crossover between different sensory
  realms in the imagery (that is, synesthesia): the din is "misty," though
  mist logically belongs to sight and touch, not sound; and the water is
  "shattered," as though it were hard and solid, not quite a synesthetic
  image but coming close in its transgression of the borders between
  different physical states.  This coupling of chiasm and synesthesia begins
  the poem with a terrific sense of the violent interfusion of opposing
  spheres, solid and liquid, sight and sound, land and sea, and that
  interfusion is the precondition for the poem's apprehension of apocalypse.

    The violent mixing of realms is a reversal of one of the organizing
  thematic features of Genesis 1: there, creation begins with the spirit of
  the Lord hovering over the face of the formless waters, and it proceeds
  through an ordered sequence of acts of separation, between the upper and
  the lower waters, between sea and dry land, between night and day.  The
  allusion becomes explicit only at the end of the poem, but it is prepared
  for at the beginning.

       As befits a reversal of the work of the anthropomorphic God of the
  Bible, the force of destruction pulsing through the breakers is
  personified and felt throughout as a malevolent will: "Great waves looked
  over others coming in, / And thought of doing something to the shore*."
  Perhaps the pronounced personification somehow justifies the rather
  strange image of the clouds as locks of hair, though I am not so sure of
  that.  In any case, the active "looked" of the personified waves is
  disturbingly reflected by the impersonal "it looked as if," twice stated,
  which betokens the looking of the observer at the appearance of those
  looking waves, that cliff, that descending night.  What I called the
  mnemonic power of the literary work, * here operates more visibly within
  the limits of fourteen lines.  The mind shuttles back and forth among the
  three occurrences of "looked," finds itself in a world of menacing
  appearances behind which there lurks some kind of baleful presence endowed
  with will.

      *..God's 'Put out the Light' in the last line of "Once by the Pacific"
  is, or course, a canceling of the divine 'Let there be Light' in Genesis
  1, and, as we noted, makes explicit the intimations of an undoing of
  biblical creation earlier in the poem.

       Because literary traditions repeatedly recapitulates itself,
  allusions may be layered, and I suspect that is true here.  A reversal of
  Genesis, running the reel back, as it were, from seventh day to chaos and
  void, presides over the conclusion of Pope's Duciad:

          Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor'd;
          Light dies before thy uncreated word;
          Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
          And Univeral Darkness buries All.

  'Put out the Light' is also exactly the sentence Othello says, twice, in
  the brief soliloquy just before he murders Desdemona.  Are we intended at
  the end of Frost's poem to recall Shakespeare's image of a dark man
  enraged with jealousy about to destroy the beautiful woman he passionately
  loves?  There is no way of knowing whether Frost meant that echo to be
  heard, but the very possibility of its presence suggests how the
  accumulate d images, themes, and actual verbal formulations of literary
  tradition become charged particles in the mind of the writer (and "mind"
  is surely more than what is conscious and intentional) and of the reader."


[Martin adds:

 One other device that particularly struck me when I read the poem was the
 unusual use of 'if' as an end-rhyme; this is doubly emphasised, not just by
 the rhyme but by its unexpectedness. That this is deliberate can be inferred
 from its pivotal position in the centre of the poem - indeed, if one makes
 the almost invited comparison of the poem's structure to that of a wave, the
 'if' marks the point at which the wave, having reached its point of maximum
 advance, breaks on the shore and retreats, leaving an ominous brooding
 silence that is merely a waiting for the wave to come.

57 comments: ( or Leave a comment )


i have a midterm on "once by the pacific" this coming monday, February 9th,
and i am really having trouble understanding this. what i do know so far is
that it is apocolyptic and is a sonnet, thats about it. So, if ur spirits
are high and u recieve this today, then it would be great if u would email me
back at space with ur input on the poems deeper meaning. thanks

Martin DeMello said...

--- wrote:
> i have a midterm on "once by the pacific" this coming monday, February 9th,
> and i am really having trouble understanding this. what i do know so far is
> that it is apocolyptic and is a sonnet, thats about it. So, if ur spirits
> are high and u recieve this today, then it would be great if u would email me
> back at space with ur input on the poems deeper meaning. thanks

Go through the very extensive commentary at the end of the poem - in
particular, look at this paragraph:

As befits a reversal of the work of the anthropomorphic God of the
Bible, the force of destruction pulsing through the breakers is
personified and felt throughout as a malevolent will: "Great waves looked
over others coming in, / And thought of doing something to the shore."

Also, see the following sites:
[broken link]
[broken link]
[broken link]
[broken link]

Hope that helps!


Eric McNamara said...

I'm having some trouble understanding the meaning of this poem, if you get this by 8:00, please mail me at , because I have a paper due tomorrow, and I need the analysis.


Herb DuVal said...

Brilliance, originality, insight? You have to be kidding. Any high
school kid could write an essay of the depth of this one on Frost's

Nancy Council said...

i think this poem refers almost entirely to the events yet to come in the Bible in Revelations. God canbe seen in this poem if you read an d analize closely.

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