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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175

“A Passing Glimpse” is a short lyric by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963). It is typical of Frost’s poetry in various ways, including in its clear and straightforward language, its focus on the personal reflections of a specific speaker, and its use of a simple event to provoke thoughtful meditation. All these traits are also present, for instance, in the works that are probably Frost’s most famous poems: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken.” It is partly Frost’s ability to use mundane circumstances to stir philosophical reflection that has helped make him one of America’s most popular poets. His poems often reflect, and speak to, the ordinary experiences of ordinary people.

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“A Passing Glimpse” opens with the speaker referring to passing glimpses of flowers seen from the rapidly moving car of a train. The flowers symbolize beauty; the passing train can symbolize various concepts, such as machines made by humans versus the living beauty of nature; the loss of personal contact with nature typical of modern existence; and the hurried pace of modern life (a hurry resulting from mechanization). The main focus of the first two lines, then, is on mutability—relentless change. Mutability is a common theme in poetry, but in this poem the sense of change is exacerbated and exaggerated by the emphasis on a gigantic man-made machine—a machine which, by its very nature, contrasts with the delicate, beautiful flowers. The shift from line 1 to line 2 in a sense mimics the experience of the speaker: in the first line the presence of the flowers is immediately established; in the second line, that presence is instantly “gone.” Line 1 emphasizes the present; line 2 abruptly shifts to the past. The first couplet, therefore, doesn’t simply describe mutability; it enacts it. Line 1 reports a complete experience and a complete thought; line 2 then immediately undercuts both.

If the first couplet describes the experience of mutability, the second couplet describes the speaker’s reaction to that experience. He wants, in a sense, to reverse time, to undo an event that has already irrevocably occurred. If the speaker were walking, running, riding a horse, or even driving an automobile, his desire to “go back” (3) might be possible. The fact that he is a passenger on a train, however, symbolizes the impossibility of achieving that desire. Once again, the train symbolizes the ways in which modern life tends to divorce us from nature and also the ways in which it can often frustrate our own desires and hopes.

In the next two couplets, the speaker mentions a wide variety of flowers, which (he is sure) are not the ones he just saw. Paradoxically, because he cannot name the flowers he did see, he mentions many that he did not see, thus allowing both him and the reader to “see” them imaginatively. This is especially the case because he doesn’t simply list the names of flowers but rather imagines different kinds of flowers in different kinds of natural settings. Thus the poem brings the reader into imaginative contact with the beauty of nature. The poem, in this respect, is the opposite of the train: rather than distancing us from natural beauty by speeding past such beauty, the poem allows us to stop and linger over images of natural loveliness—images created by the speaker, and thus images that exist, thanks to the poem, both in his imagination and in ours.

The last two couplets first raise a question; they then answer that question in a final reflection. The question leads us to think about the nature of our lives and experiences: how much of both are imaginative, mental, and rooted in memory? Are such experiences less valuable because they are impalpable and uncertain? Earlier the speaker was uncertain about the specific kinds of flowers he had seen; now he is uncertain about the very nature of experience and perception. The brief glimpse of the flowers provoked thoughts in the speaker’s mind, and now the question he raises provokes thoughts both for him and for us.

Ultimately, the speaker concludes with a couplet that radically expands the horizons of the poem. Until the final couplet, the speaker had emphasized the relationship between humans and nature. Now, by referring to “Heaven” (11), the speaker not only suddenly implies the existence of God but also suggests that God is finally responsible for the fact that our perceptions are so fleeting and imprecise. Perhaps God limits our perceptions in order to humble us or to keep us humble. Our imperfect knowledge of the world, then, seems less a result of machines or the other developments of modernism than it is of the constraints that God has placed on his limited, imperfect creatures.

The final couplet contributes a kind of symmetry to the poem: the last two lines remind us of the experience with which the poem opened (the inability to see clearly and to know for certain). By the end of the poem, however, the focus is no longer on specific kinds of flowers but, by implication, on all things in general. The limits to our knowledge do not simply involve natural beauty but include any kind of experience. As is typical of many of Frost’s lyrics, the speaker has moved from a highly particular experience to thoughts that are far-reaching.

The poem is effective, however, not simply because of the thoughts and feelings it expresses and provokes but because of its particular phrasing. In the first couplet, for instance, the reference to “flowers” is very vague and non-specific. The speaker thus makes us share his own sense of uncertainty: neither he nor we know exactly which flowers he actually saw. Then, in the third and fourth couplets, he refers to highly specific kinds of flowers and does so in ways that translate vivid images from his mind to ours. 

This is especially true, for instance, when he mentions “fireweed loving where woods have burnt” and “bluebells gracing a tunnel mouth” (6-7). Fireweed plants are often bright purple or reddish purple in color; thus, the reference to them makes a vivid contrast (and provides a sense of variety) when juxtaposed with the reference to “bluebells.” The fact that the speaker can casually refer to highly specific kinds of flowers (including lupines, which are often blue or purple but can also be quite varied in color) implies that he has truly specific knowledge of nature and a genuine ability to appreciate its particular beauties.

The speaker also often plays with subtle sound effects, as when he refers in line 6 to “fireweed loving” and in line 8 to “lupine living.” Through his skill with sounds and imagery, Frost thus manages to create within and through the poem the kind of permanent, immutable beauty that the speaker desires (but cannot attain) in his experience of the “real” world. However, because the poem is deliberately short and consists mostly of self-contained sentences confined to single couplets, the poem itself seems mainly to consist of passing glimpses.

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