‘For Once, Then, Something’ by Robert Frost was originally published in 1923 in his New Hampshire collection, for which he later won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. It was also in this collection that Frost published ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘Fire and Ice.’
The poem is made up of fifteen lines that are contained within one block of text. Frost did not choose to imbue this piece with a single pattern of rhyme, but that does not mean that it lacks unity or rhythm. There is a great deal of repetition in the lines, particular in the end words. For example, Frost ends two of the lines with either “curbs” or “curb.” Another two end with “water” (with the word appearing for a third time in the 11th line) and another two end with “picture.” The word “something” also appears three times in the next, not counting the title. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of For Once, Then, Something
‘For Once, Then, Something’ by Robert Frost speaks on the elusive nature of truth through the story of a man looking into a well from the wrong side, blocking his own view.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is often taunted by others for the way he looked into a well. He was always on the wrong side. This meant his reflection obscured any chance he had of seeing deeper than the surface. This didn’t bother him too much as he was taken in by his own image reflected alongside the clouds and sky. He looked “godlike” from this perspective.
At one point though he saw something more. There was a flash of something white at the bottom of the well. He never saw it again but continued to speculate on what it was. He thought perhaps it was a rock, or maybe “Truth” itself. By the end of the poem the text takes on a new meaning as a depiction of one’s search for truth and inability to clearly see below the surface.
Analysis of For Once, Then, Something
In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by informing the reader that he is often taunted. The thing for which he does wrong, and is then made fun of for, is obscure and a bit hard to interpret at first. He lives in a village of some kind which has a well. When he goes to it, he kneels on the wrong side. This means that his own shadow is cast into the well, darkening the water below. He is,
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well…
If he didn’t kneel in this way, he’d be able to see a great deal more. Now he knows this to be the case, but at the time he could only see his own “picture” on the “shining surface” of the water. The image of his own face reflected back up at him is discussed in greater detail in the next four lines.
The speaker was entranced by his reflection in the water. He refers to himself as “Me myself.” He was there, in the well but also appearing to look down from the sky. His image is almost all consuming. It is reflected alongside the clouds and blue sky. This changed his perspective on the scene so that it seemed as if he was “godlike.” His face emerged,
[…] out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
He recalls that once, and only once (as denoted by the italic form of the word) he thought he saw something deeper in the water. This happened when he had his chin pressed down on the “well-curb” or the edge, likely made of stone. From this position he “discerned” or thought he “discerned” something “beyond” the normal image of himself that he always saw.
It is clear from these brief words that this was an important moment to the speaker. The “something” which never really gets defined, is a revelation.
The speaker explains what the “something” looked like in the next lines. What he saw, was seen through the picture of the sky and the bit of his own head peaking up above the rim of the well. It was “something white.” But he can’t be “certain” what exactly it was. This is due both to the brevity of his encounter with the “thing” as well as the ever changing nature of the water below and the reflections it contains.
He believes that maybe the “white” was part of the “depths.” It could’ve been the bottom of the well, but he doesn’t know. Before he got a chance to study it in more detail he “lost it.” Its disappearance was caused by water rebuking “the too clear water.” The well seemed to be against him searching its depths. When the water became “too clear” in one section the other sections reacted and increased the opacity.
In the final four lines the speaker describes how the water obstructed itself and therefore removed his view of what was potentially the bottom of the well. There was one drop of water that fell from a fern, and,
[…] lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at the bottom,
It is interesting to consider how Frost’s speaker refers to the “something” as laying on the bottom. This makes it seem as though it is not part of the well itself. Rather, it is an object sitting on the rocks below. In the final lines he reflects on all the possibilities. It could’ve been “A pebble of quartz” or the “Truth.” This is an interesting turn for the poem that is, up until this point, easily read as a person’s simple investigation of a well.
With this addition of “Truth” as something to be sought in the well, the speaker’s own actions above come into focus. The more he searched in the water, the farther he leaned over and the more excitable he was, the less he could see. His own image blocked out, and still blocks out, any chance he has of seeing the bottom.
Frost is making a comparison between this action and the way that humankind has a propensity to hide the truth from themselves. Either intentionally, or accidentally in their search for it. The reality of the world, the bottom of the well in which all secrets are hidden, only comes into view when one recedes and no longer looks for it. He is stating through ‘For Once, Then, Something’ that it is impossible for one to know the full truth about life. There might be a glimmer every once in a while, but that’s all.