“West Running Brook” by Robert Frost and The Second Law of Thermodynamics
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Although science is regarded as the body of knowledge that strives for being organized, science still seem to speak in a language that is not familiar to everyone. Science seeks to provide explanations to human inquiries through theories and scientific laws, but still many consider science as the most complex subject that exist. On the other hand, there is poetry that many also view as complex. However, it should be taken into consideration that poetry is one of the most read of all the genres of literature. Poetry oftentimes becomes the mouthpiece for opinions and even explanations of a poet that traverses every topic there is—even the complex field of science. The explicitly differing worlds of science and poetry, a poet had arguably created an intersection between the two. Poetry enthusiast had been arguing whether the poems of “West Running Brook” by Robert Frost are functioning as a description of the second law of thermodynamics. This paper will stand with the argument that the second law of thermodynamics inspired Robert Frost’s “West Running Brook”. Moreover, the poems were designed to provide a description of the scientific law using an alternative method to the typical manner of explaining scientific concepts.
Before we traverse further in this discussion, it would be helpful if we first have a brief recap of the concepts at hand so that this paper could have a guided trajectory. Basically, the second law of thermodynamics is about the spontaneous dispersal of energy from being isolated to being spread out only if that energy is not prevented from doing so (Fermi 22-23). On the other hand, poetry is commonly regarded as the form of literature utilizing language in an aesthetic way that it can communicate meaning.
Going back to Frost’s poems, he is already known for being a poet of nature. Frost’s poems are typically a description of what he observes in his environment. Since he is a nature poet, it would not be unusual that he would come across explanations about nature. It could also be even inferred that his fascination with nature was augmented when he encounters scientific explanations like the second law of thermodynamics. Frost may have seen the beauty of the scientific law and at the same time recognize the fact that many could not appreciate its beauty. That is why he attempted to present the concept in an alternative way of communication as opposed to the formal scientific tone.
Frost’s “West Running Brook” is a collection of poems that is supposedly functions as a description of the second law of thermodynamics. The first poem of the collection was “The Rose Family.” This particular poem has some elements that suggest that it is talking about the second law of thermodynamics. The third line of the poem includes the word “theory”, a term often used by scientists (Frost). The whole poem talks about how a rose is always a rose. The topic of the poem is similar to the concept of the second law of thermodynamics that energy or heat would always retain their original nature no matter how they are transferred.
The concept of entropy is a key concept in the discussion of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is basically about the measure of the randomness of molecules within a system (Fermi 11-19). A classic example for increasing entropy is the melting of ice as heat is being spread. The poem “Spring Pools” is clearly a description of increasing entropy. The poem’s concluding line was “from snow that only melted yesterday” (Frost). The poem was about how pools of water became frozen and unfrozen as the seasons change from the cold winter to the warm winter.
There are other poems within Frost’s “West Running Brook” that could also be interpreted as a description of the increase in entropy. The poem “Acceptance” talks about how the heat of the sun affects the biosphere under its radiance “when the spent sun throws up its rays to clouds / and goes down burning in the gulf below / no voice in nature is heard to cry aloud” (Frost) It is the similar case for the poem “Atmosphere” “…but where this old wall burns a sunny cheek / …moisture and color and odor thicken here / the hours of daylight gather atmosphere” (Frost) The latter poem is clearly a description of how the earth is affected by the increase in entropy. Moreover, both poems are talking about how heat becomes an essential aspect nature. Other poems would also describe the concept of entropy like the poems “Once by the Pacific” and “A Winter Eden.”
The second law of thermodynamics also states that free energy must be utilized. Aside from providing a poetic description of this particular aspect of the law, Frost had also expressed his fascination of nature—of how the earth is spending its seemingly inexhaustible free energy. Frost’s short poem “Devotion” could be interpreted as an intersection between the description of the law and Frost’s fascination with nature “the hear can think of no devotion / greater than being shore to ocean / holding the curve of one position / counting an endless repetition” (Frost).
Another important aspect of the second law of thermodynamics is the concept of irreversibility in nature. There are several poems in “West Running Brook” that depicts the concept of irreversibility in nature. One these poems is “Fireflies in the Garden”, in this particular poem Frost had described how fireflies spend and deplete their energy through the light in their tails.
The lines of the short poem could be interpreted as a description of irreversibility in nature “here come real stars to fill the upper skies / and her on earth come emulating flies / that though they never equal stars in size / and they were never really stars at heart / achieve at times a very star like start / only of course they can’t sustain the part” (Frost) There are several key words to take note: “stars” and “sustain.” Stars has always been a favorite topic for physicist as it is the ultimate specimen for energy studies. On the other hand, the word “sustain” is echoing in discussions of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics could even be condensed to the discussion of how energy is sustained and used in the natural world. Going back to the topic of irreversibility, the concluding lines of the poem tells us how the fireflies are unable to sustain the energy spent while lighting their tails. Frost tells the readers that the energy for lighting their tails also fades away when the firefly is dead; and this process is irreversible.
There are many evidences to support the claim that “West Running Brooks” is a description of the second law of thermodynamics. Aside from the poems’ description mirroring the aspects of the law, there key words that are interspersed within the poems that are also echoed in the formal discussions of the law. Some of these key words are: “theory”, “sustain”, “heat”, “cold”, among many others.
But in the end, only the author could be certain if his poems were a description of the second law of thermodynamics. And if the poems really are a description, Robert Frost had successfully presented a scientific concept through a more entertaining medium as opposed to the more formal scientific tone of discussing.
Fermi, Enrico. Thermodynamics. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1956
Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. New York: Library of America. 1995