Robert Frost's Considerable Speck

By Madeline Clark

Robert Frost has left us in his poems a heritage consisting of vital seeds of thought that fly from his mind to ours and start germinating.

I have in mind in particular his poem, A Considerable Speck Microscopic, which seems to spell out the meaning of Emerson's "animalcule" that is none the less perfect for being little.

The way this inimitable poem came to be written is as curious and original as the contents of the poem itself. The poet had sat down, pen in hand, with his blank sheet before him and had even written a few lines, when he noticed — black against the white of his page — a minute speck about the size of a period. . . . It moved! At first he thought his own down-breath had moved it — a speck of fluff. If so, it was an Inconsiderable Speck. But no, it now started across the vast empty expanse of the paper on its own volition, proving that it was indeed a Considerable Speck, and worthy of attention.

Idly, Frost says, he poised his pen "to stop it with a period of ink." But on the pen's mere approach the speck stopped short, then fled across the page, only to be checked again when it came upon the still wet ink of the last written line. Here it paused again, sensing something possibly threatening in that lake of wetness with its alien odor; and turned and fled as if in terror. But the smooth unbroken stretch of desert in which it found itself proved in the end too much for it; and after creeping, faltering, going on and hesitating, it cowered motionless in the middle of the page, as if resigning itself to its fate. Whatever means of propulsion it had to enable it to flee from these unexpected terrors, Frost argued, the Speck had used them "to express how much it didn't want to die."

There, meanwhile, sat the giant, the human god, with power to annihilate that struggling entity with the touch of a finger. But Frost forebore, hoping the poor thing would sleep. . . . It was a study in consciousness, for the microscopic creature had shown, in reactions incredibly minute, suspicion, dread, bafflement, terror, and the overpowering desire to preserve its life. But these were emotions, even the same as a human being might experience in a similar proportionate situation.

Little did the poet think, I am sure, as he sat down to write, that he was shortly to have a glimpse, through this tiny knothole, into the awesome dimensions of the atomic small. It was like looking at the universe through the opposite end of the field glass, telescope, microscope, and discovering the same perfection and completeness, if not degree of consciousness, as in the more familiar creation — all the essentials of existence, in fact: firsthand proof, as the philosophers have already told us long ago, that nothing is great, nothing is small, in the divine economy. Emerson, who had studied widely, sensed this truth when he said that the world "globes itself in a drop of dew," that the microscope "cannot find the animalcule which is less perfect for being little"; and that "God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb."

It is perhaps "old hat" among scientists to have studied the physical properties of greatest and smallest bodies from the universe to the atom: their movements and attractions and a great deal more along mechanical lines. But here we have a glimpse into the world of consciousness, of motivation, and in a being so infinitesimal in size that we hover on the brink of incredulity. Could a being so low in the scale be open to such an interpretation of its actions? Perhaps it is too much to believe that motivations could arise within an entity as yet devoid of mind or will. One idea bearing on this has been put forward, and that is, that in the scale of being, those less evolved in one hierarchy, yet having the instinct of self-preservation, may be acting under the protective influence of a higher order of beings who have some link with them from the forgotten past. And this same law of nature could apply to beings more familiar to us: could explain the amazing activities of bees and ants, the migrations of birds, fish, even some insects such as the painted lady butterflies, and many other quaint ways of creatures that we ascribe to instinct — a word that is itself veiled in mystery.

But again as to size: we ourselves with all our parts and organs so delicately balanced and coordinated — and with higher attributes constantly unfolding — must seem infinitesimal and almost beneath notice to the august gigantic beings of the outer universe. On the other hand, it has been suggested by at least one thinker that even on the electrons of an atom, considered as planets circling their central nucleus, there might be beings more highly evolved than our familiar mankind. So we are, in one sense, a microcosm; in another, a macrocosm, at least in respect to the atomic lives which make up our own constitution, and by their activities in the cells and molecules perform the groundwork that enables us to function in our particular sphere.

Perhaps we had better stop at this point in our conjectures. Frost himself would probably be highly astonished to see how far his adventure with the Speck could lead us. He himself winds up his poem with the humorous remark that having a mind himself, he recognizes mind on meeting it "in any guise":

No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Someone years ago put into my hands a volume of the then "Complete Works" of Robert Frost, and such was the intriguing quality of his thought and the way it was presented, as in this ingenious and original piece about the Speck, that here, I realized, was a modern poet who spoke our language, and could transmit, through these moments of insight, a new concept of the immense scale of universal life. And we of the human race, who have habitually thought of ourselves as the one and only point and acme of all creation, simply fall into our natural place in this immense concourse of evolving beings.

 (From Sunrise magazine, October 1970; copyright © 1970 Theosophical University Press)


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