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Analysis of Poem "Gathering Leaves" by Robert Frost

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Robert Frost And A Summary of Gathering Leaves

Gathering Leaves is one of Robert Frost's simpler poems. It's a six stanza work that rhymes and has a catchy beat to the lines. It takes the reader into the world of the leaf gatherer who is busy bagging them up but thinks the work a bit hit and miss.

The imagery is plain enough. The work is straightforward too, or is there more to it than meets the eye?

The language relates to the activity which is a little repetitive and slow. Spade or spoon for picking up those dull leaves? Why exaggerate the facts by claiming the piles are mountains? That is surely mythological territory the speaker is encroaching on?

Robert Frost's poetry is well known for its folk wisdom, integrity and technical excellence. His poems are popular still because they're accessible and open to interpretation.

This poem too is more than the sum of its parts and has been since first publication, in the book New Hampshire in 1923.

  • While the leaves themselves are of little value in terms of a farm crop, the work involved in gathering them is precious because the harvest is without end - the cycle of life, specifically the cycle of the trees that produce the leaves - goes on and on, and is vital for the earth's survival.

The clue is in the last stanza in the question of where will it all stop? The idea that the natural life cycles will persist is a powerful one, without which humans may well lose hope, may well lose their place within the natural order.

Gathering Leaves carries within it a profound deception, so typically Frostian. He manages to squeeze deeper meaning out of the mundane task by asking a simple question related to each and every individual human.

Gathering Leaves

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?

Analysis of Gathering Leaves

Gathering Leaves is a curious poem, being both simple and complex, playful and serious, seasonal and universal, mundane and philosophical.

It focuses on work, and the necessary processes involved in the cyclic nature of leaf fall, from the perspective of a speaker who could well be a farmer (Frost did work a farm but admitted to being a not very good farmer).

  • In the beginning this poem is a little childish, even absurd, spades being compared with spoons, full bags of leaves with balloons. The similes bring a smile to the reader - the work at hand is reduced to a kind of game at a party.

The full rhymes reinforce the idea that this could be a nursery rhyme. Simple work, simpler verse.

The simile in the second stanza sparks the imagination, for here is someone at it all day - there must be loads of dry leaves - creating sounds that relate directly to nature. Wild creatures are on the run, and the speaker must be familiar with their dashing here and there to link the two.

  • If it's contrast you're after then how about balloons and mountains? One full of air, the other solid rock, one light, the other heavy. This is hyperbole, the speaker is working so hard and the work is so tedious that he thinks he's creating mountains. To him, it's Sisyphean toil - a huge almost impossible task.

When he tries to pick them up (intending to put them in a bag?) the leaves 'flow' all over the place. Elude means to avoid or escape from.

So it is that, despite the awkwardness of the dry leaves, the speaker eventually gets them into the shed - note the repeats in the fourth stanza, to underline the repeated manual work - but o what purpose?

  • That last line in the fourth stanza, a question, sets up the ending. Having done so much hard graft, the leaves aren't really of any value as a crop. They're next to nothing. The fifth stanza concentrates the reader's mind - the leaves don't weigh hardly, they're dull and useless things.

There's no mention of mulching the leaves ready for compost so basically what we have here is an ending that is philosophical. The speaker is saying that, although leaves can't ever be a useful or valued crop, the process of gathering them is worth the effort because life is worth the effort, the task is worth doing.

Leaves also represent a natural cycle. They're sure signs of life in spring, keep the tree alive throughout the warmer months and once they've done their job, fall and nourish the earth. Being a part of that is vital. As humans we'll never know how long we have on earth, so why not get involved, carry out the work and renew oneself in the process.

What about Language/Diction in Gathering Leaves?

Gathering Leaves is about work and nature, and there is a definite use of language which captures this essential pairing.

So for example, look at the way words and phrases help build up the idea:

bags full/great noise/all day/the mountains/load and unload/fill the whole shed/a crop is a crop.

Rhyme and Meter in Gathering Leaves

Gathering Leaves is a short poem of six stanzas, all quatrains arranged with rhyme scheme and simple stress pattern, with iamb, trochee and anapaest prevalent.


The rhyme scheme is a simple abcb with some repeated full rhymes and slant rhymes in stanzas 1 and 4. So:

Spades take up leaves

No better than spoons,

And bags full of leaves

Are light as balloons.

The rhyme scheme includes spoons/balloons but note also the repeated rhyming leaves which reflects the repeated action of the speaker as he gathers the leaves.

Meter (Metre in British English)

The majority of lines have a simple two beats each but there are variations in this poem so be careful to read it with awareness of syllable stress. For example, in the first stanza the initial foot is a trochee DUMda or inverted iamb:

Spades take / up leaves

No bet / ter than spoons,

And bags / full of leaves

Are light / as balloons.

So the first line consists of two feet, trochee + iamb, four syllables. The next three lines have five syllables each and are iamb + anapaest (dadaDUM), creating a rhythmic repeat, again related to the actions of gathering leaves.

The second stanza reverses that pattern (with the four syllable line disappearing out of the poem completely after this), the third introduces a six syllable line mixing with the five syllable, and the fifth stanza introduces a seven syllable line:

Next to noth / ing for weight,

And since / they grew / duller

From con / tact with earth,

Next to noth / ing for / color.

So here we have two anapaests in the stanza's first line, an iamb, pyrrhic, trochee in the next, an iamb and anapaest following and the seven syllable line is an anapaest, pyrrhic and trochee. Different stresses in each line make this stanza a delight to read. Ironic given the meaning of the words.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005



© 2018 Andrew Spacey