A Fountain, a Bottle, a Donkey’s Ears, and Some Books – Poem by Robert Frost

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Old Davis owned a solid mica mountain
In Dalton that would someday make his fortune.
There’d been some Boston people out to see it:
And experts said that deep down in the mountain
The mica sheets were big as plate-glass windows.
He’d like to take me there and show it to me.

‘I’ll tell you what you show me. You remember
You said you knew the place where once, on Kinsman,
The early Mormons made a settlement
And built a stone baptismal font outdoors-
But Smith, or someone, called them off the mountain
To go West to a worse fight with the desert.
You said you’d seen the stone baptismal font.
Well, take me there.’

Someday I will.’


‘Huh, that old bathtub, what is that to see?
Let’s talk about it.’

‘Let’s go see the place.’

‘To shut you up I’ll tell you what I’ll do:
I’ll find that fountain if it takes all summer,
And both of our united strengths, to do it.’

‘You’ve lost it, then?’

‘Not so but I can find it.
No doubt it’s grown up some to woods around it.
The mountain may have shifted since I saw it
In eighty-five.’

‘As long ago as that?’

‘If I remember rightly, it had sprung
A leak and emptied then. And forty years
Can do a good deal to bad masonry.
You won’t see any Mormon swimming in it.
But you have said it, and we’re off to find it.
Old as I am, I’m going to let myself
Be dragged by you all over everywhere- ‘
‘I thought you were a guide.’

‘I am a guide,
And that’s why I can’t decently refuse you.’

We made a day of it out of the world,
Ascending to descend to reascend.
The old man seriously took his bearings,
And spoke his doubts in every open place.

We came out on a look-off where we faced
A cliff, and on the cliff a bottle painted,
Or stained by vegetation from above,
A likeness to surprise the thrilly tourist.

‘Well, if I haven’t brought you to the fountain,
At least I’ve brought you to the famous Bottle.’

‘I won’t accept the substitute. It’s empty.’

‘So’s everything.’

‘I want my fountain.’

‘I guess you’d find the fountain just as empty.
And anyway this tells me where I am.’

‘Hadn’t you long suspected where you were?’

‘You mean miles from that Mormon settlement?
Look here, you treat your guide with due respect
If you don’t want to spend the night outdoors.
I vow we must be near the place from where
The two converging slides, the avalanches,
On Marshall, look like donkey’s ears.
We may as well see that and save the day.’

‘Don’t donkey’s ears suggest we shake our own?’

‘For God’s sake, aren’t you fond of viewing nature?
You don’t like nature. All you like is books.
What signify a donkey’s cars and bottle,
However natural? Give you your books!
Well then, right here is where I show you books.
Come straight down off this mountain just as fast
As we can fall and keep a-bouncing on our feet.
It’s hell for knees unless done hell-for-leather.’

Be ready, I thought, for almost anything.

We struck a road I didn’t recognize,
But welcomed for the chance to lave my shoes
In dust once more. We followed this a mile,
Perhaps, to where it ended at a house
I didn’t know was there. It was the kind
To bring me to for broad-board paneling.
I never saw so good a house deserted.

‘Excuse me if I ask you in a window
That happens to be broken, Davis said.
‘The outside doors as yet have held against us.
I want to introduce you to the people
Who used to live here. They were Robinsons.
You must have heard of Clara Robinson,
The poetess who wrote the book of verses
And had it published. It was all about
The posies on her inner windowsill,
And the birds on her outer windowsill,
And how she tended both, or had them tended:
She never tended anything herself.
She was ‘shut in’ for life. She lived her whole
Life long in bed, and wrote her things in bed.
I’ll show You how she had her sills extended
To entertain the birds and hold the flowers.
Our business first’s up attic with her books.’

We trod uncomfortably on crunching glass
Through a house stripped of everything
Except, it seemed, the poetess’s poems.
Books, I should say!- if books are what is needed.
A whole edition in a packing case
That, overflowing like a horn of plenty,
Or like the poetess’s heart of love,
Had spilled them near the window, toward the light
Where driven rain had wet and swollen them.
Enough to stock a village library-
Unfortunately all of one kind, though.
They bad been brought home from some publisher
And taken thus into the family.
Boys and bad hunters had known what to do
With stone and lead to unprotected glass:
Shatter it inward on the unswept floors.
How had the tender verse escaped their outrage?
By being invisible for what it was,
Or else by some remoteness that defied them
To find out what to do to hurt a poem.
Yet oh! the tempting flatness of a book,
To send it sailing out the attic window
Till it caught wind and, opening out its covers,
Tried to improve on sailing like a tile
By flying like a bird (silent in flight,
But all the burden of its body song),
Only to tumble like a stricken bird,
And lie in stones and bushes unretrieved.
Books were not thrown irreverently about.
They simply lay where someone now and then,
Having tried one, had dropped it at his feet
And left it lying where it fell rejected.
Here were all those the poetess’s life
Had been too short to sell or give away.

‘Take one,’ Old Davis bade me graciously.

‘Why not take two or three?’

‘Take all you want.’
Good-looking books like that.’ He picked one fresh
In virgin wrapper from deep in the box,
And stroked it with a horny-handed kindness.
He read in one and I read in another,
Both either looking for or finding something.

The attic wasps went missing by like bullets.

I was soon satisfied for the time being.

All the way home I kept remembering
The small book in my pocket. It was there.
The poetess had sighed, I knew, in heaven
At having eased her heart of one more copy-
Legitimately. My demand upon her,
Though slight, was a demand. She felt the tug.
In time she would be rid of all her books.

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