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Robert Frost

West-Running Brook

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1928

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Summary and Study Guide


“West-Running Brook” (1928) both epitomizes and challenges the popular perception of Robert Frost, America’s bard. The poem describes a husband and wife who stroll along the bank of West-Running Brook, a country stream that meanders near the New Hampshire town of Derry where Frost lived. Frost does what Frost does best: He engages the rural world with its subtle and gorgeous plenty to help understand the widest implications of human behavior in a forbidding twentieth century world of cloaking alienation, inexplicable hostility, and free-floating anxiety. But unlike other Frost poems that explore the implications of his New England rural world, “West-Running Brook” turns into a dense philosophical argument. The poem can be intimidating, even confusing to readers familiar with Frost’s most anthologized poems, “Stopping by Woods,” for instance, or “Birches” or “The Road Not Taken,” poems where lessons learned from nature are clear and rendered accessible by Frost’s signature folksy reader-friendly style with its syllable crisp lines of reassuring rhythms and tight rhymes. By contrast “West-Running Brook” meanders, the husband expounding at length on something he cryptically calls the “beginning of beginnings” (Line 48). In lines fraught with sweeping philosophical assertions, the poem centers on how, despite moving every moment closer to death, people still yearn for the transcendental freedom of something called the spirit.

Poet Biography

Despite his reputation as the poet of the rugged New England backwoods, Frost was born in San Francisco; his family moved to Massachusetts in 1875 when Frost was 11 after his father, a successful journalist, died suddenly. Frost was a precocious reader. He was particularly passionate about the intricate metrical inventions of Edgar Allan Poe and the popular wisdom poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Frost knew early on he would be a poet. He struggled to commit to the discipline of education, attending first Dartmouth College and then briefly Harvard but never finishing a degree. He tried a number of occupations: shoe repair, journalism, and even working the farm his grandfather bought for him when Frost married. He failed at all of them, and in 1912, desperate to find a publisher for his poetry, he and his wife relocated to Dymock, England, about two hours west of London. There he found welcome company among the modernists, artists angered by the moral bankruptcy of the endless grind of World War One and determined to upend every assumption about art inherited from the civilization that had created and then sustained the war.

Frost struggled to find a publisher for his poetry. By his forties, Frost finally published two well-received volumes of poetry. When Frost returned to the United States in 1915, his work was widely recognized for its lyrical grace, its carefully chiseled lines, and its exploration of the dynamic between humanity and nature. Over the next twenty years, Frost became America’s most prolific and admired poet. His collections, among them West-Running Brook (1928), were bestsellers, and Frost himself became a celebrity. He enjoyed a long teaching career at different universities working with young poets, relishing the give-and-take of discussions. He gave public readings that became entertainment sensations. With his craggy face, shock of unkempt white hair, and curmudgeonly temperament, Frost became, after Ernest Hemingway, the most recognized writer of his generation, gracing the covers of both Time and LIFE. His work received four Pulitzer Prizes.

He grounded his verse in traditional notions of careful metrics and strict rhyme—free verse, he often groused, was like playing tennis without the net. His work was at once accessible and conversational and yet philosophically profound, even unsettling. President John F. Kennedy, a fellow New Englander and an avid admirer, invited him to deliver an original poem at Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. The poet, then 86, could not make out the typed lines of the poem he’d written because of the glare of the sun. Without missing a beat, he recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” a poem he published nearly fifty years earlier. The bravura performance cemented Frost’s international reputation as America’s bard. Frost continued to write until his death in Boston in January, 1963, following a massive heart attack. He was buried by his wife and five of his children in a modest grave in the rustic church yard of the Old First Church in Bennington, Vermont. His epitaph quotes his own poem “The Lesson for Today:” “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Poem Text

Frost, Robert. “West-Running Brook.” 1928. Gutenberg.org.


A couple walks along a small stream in the New Hampshire woods. The wife is momentarily disoriented. “‘Fred,’” she asks her husband, “‘where is north?’” (Line 1). “‘What does it think it’s doing running west?’” (Line 6). she asks. The brook must be comfortable with “contraries” (Line 9), that is, comfortable being different—she cannot help but compare that to their own marriage.

Inspired by the romantic notion of how she and Fred are like the stream, unconventional but assured in their differentness, the wife proposes that they consider themselves “married to the brook” (Line 17). With its cooperative yet contrary movement, the brook could be a symbol of their own marriage. She muses about sleeping along beside it. It was as if the stream is “waving to us with a wave” (Line 20).

More pragmatic than his wife, Fred says that the stream is hardly waving to them. The supposed “wave” has been there much longer than they. Within a parenthetical, the poem’s authorial voice intrudes and expounds at length (Lines 24-31) on the image of the eddy, where the west-flowing stream doubles, the current impacted by a jut of rocks along the stream’s bottom. The eddy “[f]lung backward on itself in one white wave” (Line 25) gives the brook a flow against the stream’s larger current, the brook actually moving in two different directions. The wife insists: If the stream is not waving to you, “it was to me” (Line 36). She compares its beckoning wave to an “annunciation” (Line 36), that is a revelation of biblical proportions.

Fred objects to his wife’s propriety tone, as if the stream is somehow hers. Such a womanly idea. Yes, he supposes, the stream is waving at us if we were on one of the mythic islands peopled entirely by “Amazons” (Line 38), those great female warriors, in other words a nonexistent island where men were denied entrance. The wife adds: “‘Go on. “You thought of something’” (42).

Fred says the stream makes him think about “contraries.” (Line 43). “Existence” (Line 50) “[s]tands still and dances” (Line 52). A person is trapped in time, always moving toward death—and yet has the intellect, the wisdom, the audacity to think of things that do not change, that do not dance. Despite our hunger for a timeless, transcendent realm, existence keeps flowing like the brook: “‘It flows between us, over us, and with us’” (Line 58). We head inexorably toward the great and terrifying waterfall, “‘[t]he universal cataract of death’” (Line 61). That contrary tension, between grief over nothingness and the consolation and joy of the spirit, defines each of us: “‘Our life runs down in sending up the clock’” (Line 69); eventually even “‘[t]he sun runs down.’” (Line 71). It is only that “‘backward motion toward the shore’” (Line 73), the resistance to death, a “‘tribute of the current to the source’” (Line 75), that is “‘most us’” (Line 77).

The wife confirms that “‘[t]oday will be the day’” (Line 78) of the “‘West-running Brook’” (Line 81) the day they accept the contrary movement of the human spirit, always being pulled toward and yet always struggling away from death.