Analysis of Poem Mowing by Robert Frost

Updated on November 7, 2019
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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 | Source

Robert Frost And A Summary of Mowing

Mowing is one of Robert Frost's early sonnets and focuses on the act of mowing grass with a scythe. It's a pastoral, typical of Frost, who lived and worked in the New England landscape, composing his unique poems inspired by the environment he knew so well.

As is also the case with a Frost poem, there's a hidden message or two to within the 'sound of sense' found in the lines. A Frost poem is always more than the sum of its parts and its this magical ambiguity that keeps his poetry so fresh, and popular.

Written in 1913 and first published in A Boy's Will this sonnet is to do with work, one of Frost's most consistent poetical subjects. A farmer himself, he believed in the work ethic applied to nature in a meaningful and productive manner.

  • So the theme of Mowing is that of the vital relationship of the worker to the land, of the work being in itself the reason for proper and wholesome existence. The physical act of scything as part of the natural order becomes 'the sweetest dream that labor knows.'

This dovetails with Frost's own view of where a poem comes from:

A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words--My definition of poetry would be this: words that have become deeds.

Frost's talent for taking an everyday occurrence, such as scything grass in this example, and transforming that simple act through poetry into something profound and insightful is well known and admired.

Mowing exhibits this but also gives the reader something else to chew on: symbolism and metaphor. The scythe is a classic symbol of Time and Death, cutting the thread, carried by none other than the Grim Reaper.

And the local process of scything down the grass becomes a metaphor for the universal hard passage of life and death we all have to go through: the sweeping effect of time.

The idea that the scythe (and scyther) do all the work and leave the cut grass, or hay, (and left the hay to make) behind could be Frost's way of suggesting that the poet works to create the lines, it's up to the reader to decide what to harvest, in the sense of meaning and enjoyment.

Although Frost's sonnet is original he was no doubt influenced by an earlier poem called Scythe Song published by Victorian poet Andrew Lang in 1888:

MOWERS, weary and brown, and blithe,

What is the word methinks ye know,

Endless over-word that the Scythe

Sings to the blades of the grass below?

Scythes that swing in the grass and clover,

Something, still, they say as they pass;

What is the word that, over and over,

Sings the Scythe to the flowers and grass?

Frost must have read this poem when a young man and taken on board the special sounds of the scythe, then a common agricultural tool for cutting grass. It's this aural quality that comes through strongly in his poem.

For a poet like Frost, a keen observer and exceptional listener, the subtle sound of a sharp scythe must have been irresistible. Here's what he had to say about the poetics:

There are only three things, after all, that poem must reach: the eye, the ear and what we call the heart or mind. It is the most important of all to reach the mind of the reader. And the surest way to reach the heart is through the ear. The visual images thrown off by poem are important, but it is more important still to choose and arrange words in a sequence so as virtually to control the intonation and pauses of the reader's voice.

Robert S. Newdict. "Robert Frost and the Sound of Good Sense," American Literature, IX (November, 1937), 299.

Mowing

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.

Analysis of Mowing Line By Line

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,

The reader is taken straight into the countryside, close to a wood, and there is something going on already because there's a sound, the only sound. Frost's use of long and short vowels to produce contrast is present....ou/oo/o.

And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.

Twelve syllables again, internal rhyme (sound/ground....one/long) and the introduction of the scythe, symbol of time and life processes, death and reaping. The scythe is whispering, communicating to the ground.

Here is Frost portraying the worker of the land, a subject close to his New England heart. The reader is directly involved, given an intimate close-up of this activity as the work continues.

What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;

He asks a question, rhetorical. The sound of the scythe seems to have a meaning. And the scythe is personified...it whispered. As it hits the grass there's contact, quiet yet distinct. He doesn't quite grasp the meaning.

Note the togetherness yet also separation. The worker needs the scythe to do its job; the scythe needs handling...both are there because the grass needs cutting. There's a harvest to be done.

Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,

The worker thinks it might have to do with the sun's heat as it strikes the blade and presumably parts of his own body. Perhaps the whispering is a result of pure physics, light rays impinging, causing heat, nothing else?

The relationship between man and scythe is deepening as the imagery opens up.

Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound -

Note the reversal....Perhaps/something...something/perhaps....reflecting the action of the scythe as it moves one way then the other, and the thoughts of the worker. The punctuation, two commas, helps slow things down. And the distant echo of sound/ground makes more sense now.

And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

Whispering is something we do when we're in church, or when circumstances demand quiet, as in a hospital. Secretive language is associated with whispering, when we don't want others to overhear.

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

The speaker changes tack slightly and begins to evaluate the experience. Just what is behind the whispering? It's certainly not the product of laziness, of a lazy mind. He's not imagining it.

Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:

Neither is it a romantic notion of his; there's no superstition involved - no fairies (fay) or elves (elf). This is something valid, tangible, it's no folk story. He hears the whispering and is trying to understand it.

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak

The ninth line and the speaker is coming to a conclusion of sorts. In the previous eight lines there has been observation and perception, an attempt to frame the whispering and give it meaning.

The speaker's relationship to the scythe and the scythe's relationship to the land holds more than the truth for the speaker. Indeed the truth isn't enough by a long way.

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,

This is work, this is passion, this is reason to exist. The speaker's whole being is wrapped up in the act of scything. There's no romanticism, no fake rewards - the whispering is the raison d'etre and becomes a sort of prayer.

Swale is the grass forming in a line.

Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers

The speaker cuts down flowers too, they become part of the swale.

(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.

Orchises are orchid flowers found in north America. It's the earnest love, the passion in the action that scares the snake. Some see the snake as a symbol of the fall (ie as representing evil) and that good work sends the devil running.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

One of Frost's best known lines. The speaker reaffirms that the task is enough, to do is the essence. Work itself rewards. By being a part of the natural order the speaker's act of scything and the scythes whispering become one. The fact is the physical taking part; the fact is the act - this is what living the dream is - working the dream.

Frost farmed the land and knew first-hand the intense nature of the work.

My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

We leave the speaker with his scythe. The cut grass, now hay in the making, is left. Is this the poet telling the reader that the whispering is the poem, the scythe the pen and the hay to make is what the reader can 'harvest' from the poem?

In the end the whispering is not interpreted. It remains a kind of prayer, a mantra. All we know is that the speaker as worker loves to scythe. What appears mundane is in fact a profound act, perhaps of faith.

Analysis of Mowing - Form And Rhyme

Mowing is a 14 line sonnet based on the Italian model, with an octet of observation followed by a sestet, the conclusion. The lines are on average longer, some made up of 11, 12 and 13 syllables as opposed to the usual ten.

Frost also alters the traditional rhyme scheme to this:

abcabdec dfegfg

Frost would have carefully worked out his rhymes being a technical master so it's worth noting that certain rhyming lines are close to and full, others far apart and slant. The idea here is to reinforce certain sounds and have some as distant echo.

So for example line 6 with - speak - is initially isolated until line 9 when the full rhyme - weak - appears. Read line 6 and the reader will understand why speak is isolated to start with.

And what's going on with lines 7 and 11 - such a big gap between hours and flowers? Again, there is a distant echo plus a half rhyme with sound and ground. It's as if the poet is reflecting the subtle variations of sound as the scythe does its job.

Mowing - Analysis of Meter (Metre in British English)

Mowing is a sonnet with 14 lines but does not follow the traditional iambic pentameter beat, with one unstressed and one stressed syllable (daDUM) per foot.

Frost uses the anapaest (dadaDUM) to alter the rhythms of certain lines, but manages to maintain the pentameter (five feet per line) throughout.

There was nev / er a sound / beside / the wood / but one,
And that / was my long / scythe whisp / ering / to the ground.
What was / it it whisp / ered? I knew / not well / myself;
Perhaps / it was some / thing about / the heat / of the sun,
Something, / perhaps, / about / the lack / of sound
And that / was why / it whisp / ered and did / not speak.
It was / no dream / of the gift / of i / dle hours,
Or eas / y gold / at the hand / of fay / or elf:
Any / thing more / than the truth / would have seemed / too weak
To the earn / est love / that laid / the swale / in rows,
Not with / out feeb / le-point / ed spikes / of flowers
(Pale orch / ises), / and scared / a bright / green snake.
The fact / is the sweet / est dream / that lab / or knows.
My long / scythe whisp / ered and left / the hay / to make.

The first line contains twelve syllables made up of two opening anapaests and three iambs, which gives a relaxed and rhythmic flow.

The anapaestic influence continues on as the poem progresses, bringing that special lilt so often seen in Frost's longer lines. Out of the 14 lines a total of 11 have this stretched out rising feel.

Note too the lines without an anapaest - lines 5, 11 and 12 - have a trochee and spondees to bolster emphasis.

Sources

www.poetryfoundation.org

The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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