Analysis of Robert Frost’s Too Anxious for Rivers

Too Anxious for Rivers (1947)

Look down the long valley and there stands a mountain
That someone has said is the end of the world.
Then what of this river that having arisen
Must find where to pour itself into and empty?
I never saw so much swift water run cloudless.
Oh, I have been often too anxious for rivers
To leave it to them to get out of their valleys.
The truth is the river flows into the canyon
Of Ceasing-to-Question-What-Doesn’t-Concern-Us,
As sooner or later we have to cease somewhere.
No place to get lost like too far in the distance.
It may be a mercy the dark closes round us
So broodingly soon in every direction.

Too Anxious for Rivers is contemplative and questioning: “Look down the long valley and there stands a mountain / That someone has said is the end of the world. / Then what of this river that having arisen / Must find where to pour itself into and empty?” A river may not be defenseless, but the sympathy expressed for it is evident. If the world ends or drops off on the other side of a mountain, what happens to this river of life? What might become of it? The speaker feels responsible for any river’s continuance and says that he cannot “leave it to them to get out of their valleys,” as we often are left to do for ourselves. He must attend the flow of life, its pouring and emptying.

Lawrance Thompson writes that philosopher Henri Bergson, in his Creative Evolution (1907), “had extended the Lucretian view of life as a river: the stream of everything that runs away to spend itself in death and nothingness except as it is resisted by the spirit of human beings” and there is evidence of such a view in this poem (Thompson, 300).

The river is symbolic. The speaker’s sympathy is sympathy for himself and for humanity. If the world ends on the other side of that mountain, what does humanity pour itself into, where do we empty? The sympathetic “nature” of many of Frost’s poems is due to the humanity that can be imputed to nature. Nature cannot be separated from human nature. We are of it, whether we choose to consider ourselves a part of it or not: “The truth is the river flows into the canyon / Of Ceasing-to-QuestionWhat-Doesn’t-Concern-Us.” We cannot cease to question; that is what it is to be human, but some questions must not be asked, cannot be answered, in that canyon, an abyss. The river concerns us because it is as much a part of nature as we are; it lives as we do. Everything concerns us. We cannot cease to be concerned any more than we can cease to question. It is not only our nature, but everything in nature, that has the capacity to affect us, and this causes us to be concerned, if not for altruistic reasons, at least for selfish ones.

Frost points out that the river itself does concern us, as the “we” in the next line suggests: “As sooner or later we have to cease somewhere. / No place to get lost like too far in the distance. / It may be a mercy the dark closes round us / So broodingly soon in every direction.” Just as the river must flow into the canyon, we must sooner or later be emptied of our individual selves and flow into the canyon, like so many before us. We, too, must cease somewhere.

While the poem meditates on death, the tone is resigned. Just as the dark closes around the bird in “Acceptance” with the lines “Now let the night be dark for all of me. / Let the night be too dark for me to see / Into the future,” here the poet considers whether the darkness closing in is merciful. Frost himself, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, was afraid of the dark and always slept with a nightlight, but here the darkness is less terrifying (24). Besides, there is “no place to get lost like too far in the distance.” But the difficulty with this ironically casual report of what is to come is that it comes too “broodingly soon.”

At this point the poem branches off into a discussion of how we were sprung from the earth in the first place. The contemplation of life and death grows grand as it contemplates myths of creation: “The world as we know is an elephant’s howdah; / The elephant stands on the back of a turtle; / The turtle in turn on a rock in the ocean.” The evocation of these myths demonstrates how a separation from nature is an illusion. If we delude ourselves into believing that we are not a part of nature and are not natural beings, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are in some way not susceptible to its forces Robert Faggen writes that “Frost adds an important fact to substantiate the fable of the elephant and turtle—namely, that the turtle stands ‘in turn on a rock in the ocean’ [emphasis his], a sardonic figure of the way the church of modern natural history stands on geology the way the old church of Christianity was found on Saint Peter’s rock” (44).

The anxiety expressed at the beginning seeks resolution at this point. We have been confronted with possibilities in nature—with the possibility that everything may end on the other side of a mountain. Again Frost is demonstrating a process for coming to terms with such knowledge. He goes on: “And how much longer a story has science / Before she must put out the light on the children / And tell them the rest of the story is dreaming? / ‘You children may dream it and tell it tomorrow.’ ” The questions the speaker cannot cease to ask are not answered by supernatural phenomena. He is uneasy, but he does attempt to create comfort by providing answers that explain all. There is a sort of peacefulness conveyed in the not knowing. We know that “science,” or the earth’s story, eventually will end and darkness will come to us, the children of the earth. But rather than fear it and imagine the worst, Frost says that what comes next is “dreaming.” We are tucked away tightly in our beds as the light is put out, and we are set to slumbering in undisturbed contentment. The rest is dreaming.

At the end Frost introduces the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who, like the Greek Epicurus before him, believed that fear of gods and of death caused unhappiness, so he was interested in earthly and natural, rather than divine, explanations for creation. He did not believe that any atom is brought into existence or put out of it by divine intervention. Frost suggests that while we are susceptible to nature’s forces, we do not have to attribute them to otherworldly phenomena in order to come to terms with our existence. Like the birds in “Acceptance,” he suggests that he is willing to let what will be simply be.

The acceptance of what will be for Frost cannot be found in assumptions that explain all in terms of supernatural forces; it can be found in the recognition that, as part of nature, we have a history and a knowledge of nature that is internal, inherent, and natural. We are in some way linked to the “vapor” from which we came. This poem reveals why Frost is able to seek resolutions when faced with conflict. Rather than lash out at some god or controller of the universe, he recognizes the inevitability of nature’s effects, knows that he can hold none accountable for them, and instead of succumbing to them, finds there is no other recourse than to persist. It is this same ability to accept our world as an unexpected happenstance that is expressed in his other poems, such as “Acceptance” and “A LeafTreader.” And it is with a certain contentment that Frost says, “ ’twas the effort, the essay of love.”

In “Too Anxious for Rivers” Frost, as in “On a Tree Fallen across the Road,” begins with man contending with a natural roadblock and seeks to resolve the conflict in such a way as to allow for the discomfort that nature causes us to feel while creating a way to resolve those feelings of discomfort. The strength lies in our ability to accept the chaos of the natural world, accept that we are a part of it, and at the same time not despair or give in to it. Frost may present the darkness of nature, but he does not revel in it. Despite this, what he says can never quite be trusted, because there is always an undercurrent of discontent in his work. His varied views demonstrate how uncertain he is about what he is saying. He may suggest that he is accepting, but the way he puts it is not entirely believable.

Randall Jarrell says that Frost occasionally writes with a “bare sorrow with which, sometimes, things are accepted as they are, neither exaggerated nor explained away,” and that is what is evident here (28).

The poem was first published in Steeple Bush.

Cook, Marjorie. “Acceptance in Frost’s Poetry: Conflict as Play.” In Frost: Centennial Essays II, edited by Jac Tharpe, 229–230. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 44.
Thompson, Lawrance. Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938–1963. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

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