Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Tuft of Flowers and Mowing by Robert Frost

Yesterday's poem, "It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free" was a form of sonnet by William Wordsworth. There was something about its feeling of calm - and its feeling of being somewhat alone, for all that the speaker in the poem addressed a young girl with whom he was walking - that reminded me of Robert Frost's poems "Mowing" and "The Tuft of Flowers", both of which were found in the same 1910 collection of poems (A Boy's Will), and both of which have to do with making hay (literally, not figuratively, although perhaps there's a bit of that as well). Rather than choose one or t'other (I tried, I really did), I'm giving you both today. I liked "The Tuft of Flowers" for the revelation to be found in a bit of nature (thematically related to yesterday's poem) and "Mowing" for its being a rather interesting sonnet (or sonnet-like) poem, as well as its content. Hard-pressed to select a favorite among the two, I give you both, with analysis tucked behind cuts for those of you reading it at Live Journal.

The Tuft of Flowers
by Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Form and analysis: The poem is written in iambic pentameter, meaning that each line consists of five iambs (a poetic "foot" consisting of two syllables - an unstressed one followed by a stressed one: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). It is also written in rhymed couplets - two lines that rhyme with one another - and Frost has made that abundantly clear by setting each couplet separately. The way Frost has written his couplets in iambic pentameter and with masculine end rhymes makes them "heroic couplets". Many of the lines are end-stopped (with punctuation like a comma, period or semi-colon) which makes the end-rhyme that much more pronounced and makes the poem feel a bit as if you're marching along next to him as he tromps through the field.

The speaker in this poem is a bit lonely as he begins - he's out in the field to turn the hay so that it dries in the sun and can be later collected up. He thinks about the mower, there earlier in the day and also working alone, and says all men are alone, whether they work together or apart. He watches a butterfly flit about, and sees a tall tuft of flowers (butterfly weed - a form of milkweed with orange or yellow flowers) that the mower left standing along a brook. The speaker appreciates the beauty of that tuft, and the generosity of the mower in leaving it standing when the rest of the field (including flowers) was mowed down by his scythe, resulting in a feeling of kinship and/or fellowship that pervades the rest of the day, and makes him reconsider his earlier "glass half empty" statement; he now sees the glass as half full: "Men work together . . . whether they work together or apart."

Although "The Tuft of Flowers" appears a few pages later in A Boy's Will than does "Mowing", that is not reflective of their dates of composition: "The Tuft of Flowers" was written in the late 1890's, whereas "Mowing" came along about a decade later. "The Tuft of Flowers", with its heroic couplets, feels like a 19th-century poem, whereas "Mowing" is decidedly more "modern" - and more indicative of the direction in which Frost's work would go.

by Robert Frost

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Form: This is a modern version of a sonnet: It has 14 lines, all of which have five stressed syllables, but only one of them (line 12) is strictly iambic - the others include other sorts of poetic feet along with iambs, and I won't bother to go line by line for you, since I am nearly certain that most readers aren't all that interested in that sort of thing. (If it turns out I'm wrong, and someone out there would like a line-by-line analysis of feet, drop a note in the comments and I'll give it a go!) The form borrows from both the Italianate/Petrarchan tradition and from Shakespeare: as with a Shakespearean sonnet, this one breaks into an octave (eight lines) plus a sextet (six lines), with the "turn" or volta occurring in the ninth line of the poem. Also similar to a Shakespearean sonnet, the final two lines are a bit of a further turn, containing the point or conclusion of the poem. The rhyme scheme is ABCABDECDFEGFG.

The poem is full of alliteration: Just look at all those lovely Ns and Ds and Ws (or "w" sounds, as in "one") in the first line, for instance. It also has a lot of internal repetition, which mimics the back-and-forth swish of the scythe through the grass: "What was it it whispered" and "Perhaps it was something . . . Something, perhaps".

Analysis: The poem purports to be about the sound a scythe makes while the speaker is out mowing; it is, however, about being out alone in nature, with no sound but the sounds from the nearby wood (or is it no sound except his scythe, operating next to the woods?) and the swish of the scythe through the grass. The scythe is a device - not literally (as in, "a tool for mowing the field") but figuratively, as a way of talking about the solitude of the day, the sun, the silence, the flora and fauna; it is also a metaphor for poetry - the sound of the poem, what a poem talks about, what it means, what sort of language a poem ought to use.

The speaker has enough imagination to imagine that his scythe might be whispering to the ground, but on thinking further, he concludes that his practical tool would not be whispering about fantasies - elves or fairies or the like - but might whisper about the facts of the day: the sun, the silence, the snake - the things that make up the scythe's truth. This poem is often seen as a metaphor for poetry: poetry needn't be about fantasy elements, but can be a practical tool: it can speak the plain truth based on everyday facts. What a lovely notion.

In the words of Emily Dickinson, the poet can "tell all the truth, but tell it slant": Frost certainly does, for although he proclaims the importance of fact and practicality, it is nonetheless based in the rather fanciful notion that the scythe is whispering. But perhaps I digress.

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1 comment:

Richard said...

A very beautiful selection here. . . and so interesting in how Frost disguises the same theme within the relatively same way, but with stark differences. . . . if that even makes sense!