The Eensy, Weensy Spider in the Universal Crisis

When reciting Robert Frost’s poem “One Step Backward Taken,” I am strongly reminded of the children’s song “The Eensy, Weensy Spider” (or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”). I do not think this association is accidental or mine alone. Rather, it figures in the play of Frost’s poem. I have not read this observation anywhere, but I imagine that it has been made many times.

Here is the poem:

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.

According to Jay Parini (on p. 360 of Robert Frost: A Life), Frost wrote this poem in 1945, in recollection of his experience of a flood in 1927. Traveling by train across Arizona on his way back to Amherst, he saw a bridge washed out; in Parini’s words, a car on one bank was “edging backward carefully each time a slice of earth fell away.”

It is also usefully tempting to hear, in the final two lines, a suggestion of “up came the sun and dried up all the rain, so …” (“…the eensy weensy spider went up the spout again”). Even the rhythms are compatible: one could superimpose one on another and hear a counterpoint there.

If this is so, then this “universal crisis” could be something as tiny as a spider on a dirt mound in the rain (or as large as a world falling apart). That may be part of its universality: you can find such crises everywhere, in spiders and in men.

Here is a counterpoint of large against small and of shape against shape. Not only does one hear the nursery song playing against the poem, but one also hears various parts of the poem playing against each other.

Consider the poem’s structure, first of all. In terms of rhyme, it consists of three couplets, AA, BB, and CC, followed by the interweaving DEDE FGFG. Thus it consists of two parts: the first six lines, and then the next eight, an inversion of a sonnet. One would expect, then, a volta, or turning point, around the seventh line. Instead, it occurs at line 10, “But with one step backward taken.” This leads the reader to hear the first nine lines as one part, and the next five lines as the other. The two parts interlock, since the “-aken” rhyme ending occurs in both.

So one can think of the poem in terms of two parts: the crisis, and the stepping backward from it. But there are more ways of breaking it down.

Look at sentences. The first six lines comprise one sentence and describe the scene, but the seventh line belongs to the description as well. Then, in the eighth line, the poem turns to the speaker’s experience, “I felt my standpoint shaken.” One could thus see the first seven lines as the first part of the poem, and the next seven lines as the second.

The various divisions of the poem play against each other in the mind–maybe a little like capes caking off in various ways. There is also the subtle wit of the line “bumped heads together dully,” which brings something comic and human into the natural scene. Maybe we are dealing in part with a crisis of bumbling fools.

In any case, what’s remarkable about this poem is the way it sets rhythm against rhythm, shape against shape, meaning against meaning. The poem raises the possibility that it is dealing with something enormous on the one hand and something minuscule on the other. It’s the play of the two that makes this so much fun.

Of course, there’s serious meaning in this too. It has to do with stepping back when everything seems to be falling away. Maybe it has also to do with detaching oneself from the supposed urgency of the moment. But there’s quite a bit of jest in the poem, as I hear it, and hints of paradox, too.

At one (or more) of his readings, Frost commented on the title of the poem. (I have a recording of one such reading; I don’t know when or where it took place.) He said that he had originally given it the title “I Felt My Standpoint Shaken.” (My guess is that he did no such thing, but it doesn’t matter here; the whole story is told in jest.) A few people approached him and asked, “So, you mean you’ve been reading Karl Marx too?” Then he changed the title to “One Step Backward Taken”; a few people asked him, “You think we ought to back out on the bomb, don’t you?” At a reading at Dartmouth College (according to Frost, in this same story), a student spoke up and said,“Why don’t you call it ‘Bumped Heads Together Dully’?” (Roars of laughter from the audience.)

They laugh—but maybe “Bumped Heads Together Dully” really is the most fitting title. When I read a lesson plan for the teaching of this poem, I had to take one step backward to save myself from going. I have seen and criticized many a “strategy” lesson (I find the emphasis on “strategies” distracting and downright stupid), but this one takes the cake. Here, the teacher presents the poem in order to illustrate the “think-aloud” strategy. He or she “thinks aloud” (or, rather, blunders) through the poem, relating it to the unit’s overarching theme of “transitions and change,” and then puts the students in groups (for a “socially constructed learning environment”) to practice “think-alouds” with song lyrics. No more Frost; the point here is the strategy. No more thinking, either, but there wasn’t much to begin with. (I don’t fault the teacher entirely; she is doing what she was taught to do.)

Whole capes caked off in slices, indeed.

Note: I made some changes to this piece after its initial posting.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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