The Gathering of Thoughts and Flowers: An Explication of the Robert Frost Poem "Flower Gathering"
The Gathering of Thoughts and Flowers
When Robert Frost published his first poetry collection, A Boys Will, in 1912 (Parini 122), it was the start of an illustrious career that would last for decades. While this collection is full of lush, delicate and often lengthy poems, it is the poem titled “Flower Gathering” which may tell us the most about the author. In this poem, the reader senses the innate conflict within the speaker to be alone with his thoughts and gather ideas together for his next poetic adventure and his desire to spend time with his beloved. The flowers in this poem likely indicate a physical gathering of flowers as well as a gathering of his own thoughts. While one can’t explicitly know that this poem is about Frost and his wife Elinor, if one operates from that assumption based on evidence with this poem and on biographical evidence, this poem carries a deeper—and even darker meaning.
Frost has a vast body of work about walking—and usually about walking alone. Based on the amount of time that he spent writing about walks, one could assume that walking was a regular and important part of his life. Indeed, while on his farm in Derry he would often go on what he called “Botanizing walks” (Parini, 74). A Boys Will, in fact, has another poem about going for a walk, “A late walk.” (Frost, 18) Using this evidence, for the duration of this explication, it will be assumed that Frost is the speaker in the poem.
On the surface, “Flower Gathering” appears to be a simple poem about a man out on a walk gathering flowers for his lover. While the literal reading is interesting and sweet, as with Frost, it’s what is found between the lines upon a close reading that provides this poem with its power.
If you are unfamilair with the poem, here it is in its full text:
"Flower Gathering" by Robert Frost
I left you in the morning,
And in the morning glow,
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty grey with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not,
Or dumb because you know?
All for me? And not a question
For the faded flowers gay
That could take me from beside you
For the ages of a day?
They are yours, and be the measure
Of their worth for you to treasure,
The measure of the little while
That I’ve been long away.
It opens: “I left you in the morning/and in the morning glow” (II. 1-2). We know from Parini (74) that Frost was not typically an early riser despite being a farmer (and, indeed, his poem “A Late Walk” (Frost, 18) is about an evening flower gathering walk), but here we see that he rises early to take this journey. This seems to be another Frostian contradiction. Perhaps this is to get a jump on the day, perhaps it is simply so that he can find some peace and solitude before the day begins. Or, perhaps, it is simply that he likes early morning walks. Of course, early could also be a relative term. perhaps these walks are only early by his own standards—though this point is not relevant to the poem itself.
Before the reader, however, has time to settle into the poem, a conflict arises. Some tension mounts: “You walked away beside me/To make me sad to go” (II. 3-4). The speaker (Frost) set off on his own but suddenly, there is a “you” beside him, which can assumed t be Elinor. Did Elinor, seeing that Frost had gone, rush to be by his side and join him on his journey? The motive, it would seem, is not a pure one. Elinor does not simply want to join Frost on the walk, she essentially wants to guilt him into allowing her to join on the walk or to cause the speaker to feel bad about not inviting her along. This is typical of Frost: Turning a light—or at least a normal—situation into a dark one.
Frost, though, is wise to this ploy and he won’t fall for it: “Do you know me in the gloaming/Gaunt and dusty gray with roaming?/Are you dumb because you know me not?/or dumb because you know?” (II. 5-8). Looking first at the word ‘gloaming”, According to Merriam-Webster, one finds that this word means twilight. He likely chose this word specifically because it was an easy rhyme with roaming, but it also provides the reader with internal rhymes as well with “Gaunt” and “Gray” which appearing in the next line. and reminds one of the word “gloomy”, which fits the tone of this poem as well. What this four-line section of the poem means is that this is a routine activity for the speaker, something that seemingly happens every day. Every day, Frost goes for these walks, and every day he eventually returns home. The word “dumb” here could mean that the Elinor is simply playing dumb to a situation that she is well aware of, or, the word “dumb” here could mean that Elinor is simply not saying anything because she knows that Frost will return home in the evening and maybe a part of her hopes that by not saying anything, he will allow her to carry on the journey with him. Perhaps there is truth in either reading of the word.
With the first stanza complete, the readers have a good picture of what’s going on: Frost is setting out on a journey, by himself, apparently against the wishes of Elinor. Here, the title of the poem gives a clue about what’s going to happen as part of this journey. “Flower Gathering”. To this point, no flowers have been gathered. The title builds suspense and gives a greater insight into the journey—and the readers aren’t left waiting long into the second stanza for the title of the poem to pay off. This final stanza explains why Elinor should be okay with this situation, and also clues the reader in to why this walk is so important for Frost.
It begins: “All for me? And not a question/For the faded flowers gay/ That could take me from beside you/for the ages of a day” (II. 9-10) All for me? This line at first seems a little out of place but, upon a closer reading, it seems as if Frost is arguing that the walk is not solely for his own benefit, but for Elinor’s as well: “I’m not taking this walk for my benefit. See? I’m bringing you flowers aren’t they pretty?” This seems like a sweet gesture and the reader knows from Parini (66) that Frost adored Elinor and wanted to make her happy. He also wrote many of his poems for her. This is where a closer reading leads one to believe that he is not merely speaking about flowers, physically, but flowers as a metaphor for the creative process as well. These walks are essential for him to engage in his creative endeavors, which he also does for Elinor (but also for himself as “All for me?” Implies that he also gets some benefit from this situation.)
Finally, we come to the payoff: “They are yours, and be the measure/Of their worth for you to treasure/the measure of the little while/That I’ve been long away” (II. 15-16). The flowers are hers. The poems are hers. They serve as a physical reminder of the productiveness of his wanderings. She treasures them. Yet, the most interesting aspect of this poem are the final two lines where Frost says “Little while” and “Long away”. These two phrases seem to contradict each other. But, when understood in the light of a newly married couple, they make perfect sense. Even a short time away seems like a long time.
In conclusion, this simple little poem tells the reader much about Frost and his relationship with Elinor and about his creative process. He goes on these walks, alone, and he returns with flowers, both literal and metaphorical. As with “After Apple picking”, this poem provides one with a lot of insight into the mind of Robert Frost, the poet and Robert Frost the man.
Frost, Robert. “A Late Walk.” “Flower Gathering.” Frost: Collected Poems Prose & Plays
Library of America, 1995. 18.
Frost, Robert. “Flower Gathering.” Frost: Collected Poems Prose & Plays. Library of America,
"Gloaming." Merriam-Webster, 2019. Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Parini, Jay. Robert Frost A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.
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© 2020 Justin W Price