First published in West-Running Brook (1928) as the title poem, this narrative depicts a conversation between Fred and his wife as they meander alongside a brook. It opens with the wife inquiring which direction is north. Fred uses the direction of the brook, west, to determine which direction it is. Having used west as a determinant, the wife pronounces that she will call the brook “West-running Brook.” She finds it odd that the brook runs west, since “all the other country brooks flow east / To reach the ocean,” and concludes that it must be that “the brook / Can trust itself to go by contraries.” She likens this to her relationship with her husband and how they can do that with each other. She is not sure how to classify their relationship: “I don’t know what we are. What are we?” she asks. “Young or new?” Fred offers in response. The wife is unsatisfied.
“We must be something. / We’ve said we two,” she says. She determines that now that the brook has been used as a metaphor for their relationship, they will “change that to we three” and will also “both be married to the brook.” She adds a romantic image of embrace, with the bridge that crosses the brook being their arms thrown over the brook and asleep beside it. She imagines eliciting a response from the brook by its “waving” to them with a “wave / To let [them] know it hears [her].” Fred is too practical for such talk and responds that the wave is a force of nature, one that has been “standing off this jut of shore / Ever since rivers . . . Were made in heaven.” “It wasn’t waved to us,” he says forcefully. But his wife is not going to give in so easily. “It wasn’t, yet it was,” she says contrarily. Fred resorts to gender distinctions, telling her that if she “take[s] it off to lady-land,” she leaves him and all other men outside as they “forbid” themselves to enter and he will “have no more to say.” “It is your brook!” he exclaims. Again, she does not give up easily. “Yes, you have, too,” she says coyly, “Go on. You thought of something.” It is a playful game, and Fred does go on.
He continues with the theme of “contraries” by talking about how the “white wave runs counter to itself ” and explaining that it is from that water that we were born, “long before we were from any creature.” He, too, likens them to the brook, but differently. He describes it as “get[ting] back to the beginning of beginnings” and explains that it is the “stream of everything that runs away.” The stream runs “seriously” and “sadly,” attempting to “fill the abyss’s void with emptiness,” as in Frost’s “Too Anxious for Rivers,” in which the river “[m]ust find where to pour itself into and empty.” The brook that in the woman’s view was included in a loving bedroom embrace here flows beside them, over them, and between them to “separate [them] for a panic moment.” It also flows with them. Fred becomes equally romantic; the brook becomes “time, strength, tone, light, life, and love.” But his impression of the brook also has an edge. It is “substance lapsing unsubstantial,” a “universal cataract of death.” This brook is always “throwing backward on itself ” in an attempt to return to “the source” that “most we see ourselves in.” It is not which direction the brook runs, east or west, that determines its contrariness but its always throwing back upon itself, its desire to somehow fill the abyss with understanding. “It is from this in nature we are from. / It is most us,” Fred says. The two decide to agree about both: “Today will be the day of what we both said,” they resolve.
Robert Pack calls the “coordinates” of the poem “place and nothingness,” which he describes as “Frost’s most extensive exploration of [the] backdrop of chaos” (201). Peter J. Stanlis explains that the wife “presents a religious and idealistic view of the brook; he a scientific account of the origins of life out of matter and water. In the end they are harmonized though still distinct in what they said” (Parini, 250). Jeffrey Cramer notes that in a 1937 letter Frost “linked the poem with ‘Reluctance,’ ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ and the passage about home in ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ as having the ‘same subject . . . [Frost’s] position . . . between socialism and individualism” (96). Robert Faggen writes that “Hyla Brook” and “West-Running Brook” “explore both the failure of nature to provide meaning and our doubts about our ability to impose meaning upon the flux” (289). He goes on to say that “[t]wo questions engender and dominate the dialogue: where are we, and who are we?” (290). Faggen also notes that in the end “[w]e are left with an uneasy sense of what will be done and whether phrases of salvation such as they have uttered can provide purpose, direction, or a justification of the future” (302).
These interpretations notwithstanding, it seems that the poem tries to paint an optimistic picture about the role of people, and lovers, in the universe and about the juxtaposition of life, love, and meaning against the backdrop of the chaos and the abyss. People are the west-running brook, the contrary to the void, and the source of meaning.
Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996. Dietrich, R. F. “The Contrary Mr. Frost of ‘WestRunning Brook,’ ” University of Dayton Review 17, no. 3. (Winter 1985–1986): 83–89. Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 288–302. Heuston, Sean. “Frost’s ‘West-Running Brook,’ ” Explicator 63, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 40–43. Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2001. Kau, Joseph. “ ‘Trust . . . to go by contraries’: Incarnation and the Paradox of Belief in the Poetry of Frost.” In Frost: Centennial Essays II, edited by Jac Tharpe, 99–111. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976. Kochhar-Lindgren, Gray. “The Beginning of Beginnings: Frost’s ‘West-Running Brook’ as a Creation Myth,” Religion and Intellectual Life 6, no. 3–4 (Spring–Summer 1989): 220–227. Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. “West Toward Heaven: The Adventure of Metaphor in Robert Frost’s ‘WestRunning Brook,’ ” Colby Literary Quarterly 22, no. 4 (December 1986): 238–251. Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2003. Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999. Perrine, Laurence. “Frost’s ‘West-Running Brook,’ ” Explicator 4 (1977): 27. Uirak, Kim. “The Seasonal Cycle in Robert Frost’s Poetry,” Arkansas Review 5, no. 1–2 (August 1996): 81–87.