Analysis of Robert Frost’s Mowing

Mowing (1913)

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.

In this irregular sonnet, the characteristically New England Frost presents an image of hard farm labor, as in his “After Apple-Picking.” Robert Faggen writes that “Frost’s allegiance to the pursuit and love of fact is apparent” in this poem, noting that it was Frost’s “favorite poem of his first book (A Boy’s Will)” (45). One of his most quoted lines, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows,” appears as part of the memorable closing couplet.

The poem opens with the sound of a “scythe whispering to the ground” as a fellow does a hard day’s work while speculating about the sound his scythe makes beside the wood. He wonders what his scythe whispers and why it whispers instead of speaking. His labor is a sweet dream and an “earnest love,” something he does with great passion but also something he does not know well himself. He knows that it is not the “dream of the gift of idle hours” and that the golden hay that he mows is not caused by a fairy or elf. Instead, it is his love that lays the “swale in rows,” the rhythmic motion keeping him from fully absorbing the act himself. As Faggen asserts, the poem “reflects a desire to unify work and play . . . but also expresses the frustration of limited revelation” (45).

The second half of the poem is somewhat elusive. The speaker tells the truth about the love he has for his labor, as “[a]nything more than the truth would seem too weak” but it is unclear what would be more than the truth. The whispering of his scythe is the same action of which the scythe cannot speak. It is the whispering that scares the snake, the truth of its purpose that lays the land in rows. It whispers something about the truth to the land, something about a farmer’s encroachment, something about what he mows down. It is the technology of the scythe, the force of it. It is the laying of the land that spares some “feeble-pointed spikes of flowers.” Faggen writes that “the persistence of flowers reminds the mower of his weakness, his inability to control completely the environment and his unwitting participation in the creation of stronger forms” (48). But the flowers are feeble in relation to the scythe, as are the snakes. The fact of what the speaker can do with his labor—the immediate effects of his labor—is what he hopes for as a reward. There is no longterm guessing about his actions. There is an immediacy in mowing something down, as there is in making something, that is “the sweetest dream that labor knows.” The next task is in the distance, and this scythe will leave the “hay to make,” will leave disorder behind for the tossing of a pitchfork.

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren comment that “. . . Man is set off from nature because he is capable of the ‘dream,’ because he is an idealcreating being. . . . But man is also of nature, he fulfills himself in the world of labor and his ideals develop from the real world; he does not get his ideals from some Platonic realm of perfect ‘Ideas,’ but must create them from his experience and imagination” (371). Neither the speaker nor the reader is told what is whispered; both are left only to theorize. It seems, however, that the scythe and the ground have a special relationship, one that is just beyond human perception. Perhaps an understanding of nature will always be just beyond our grasp.

Two further considerations might lend some insight. John H. Timmerman writes that “Frost supplies a metacommentary on poetics in the poem” (44) and that “[i]f the poem is successful, the reader stores the hay the poet has cut” (45). Jay Parini observes that mowing is also a traditional euphemism for lovemaking.

Despite the cruelty and brutality of the scythe, there is a rhythmic and lulling beauty to its whisper.

Beach-Viti, Ethel. “Frost’s ‘Mowing,’ ” Explicator 40, no. 4 (Summer 1982): 45–46. Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry. 3rd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960, 371. Elder, John. “The Poetry of Experience,” New Literary History 30, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 649–659. Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 45–48. Lentricchia, Frank. “The Resentments of Robert Frost.” In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Lanland, 268–289. Amherst: University of Mass Press, 1990. McInery, Stephen. “ ‘Little Forms’: Four Poems and a Developing Theme of Robert Frost,” Critical Review 40 (2000): 59–74. Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999. Paton, Priscilla M. “Robert Frost: ‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows,’ ” American Literature 53, no. 1 (March 1981): 43–55. Scott, Mark. “Andrew Lang’s ‘Scythe Song’ Becomes Robert Frost’s ‘Mowing’: Frost’s Practice of Poetry,” Robert Frost Review (Fall 1991): 30–38. Timmerman, John H. Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002, 40–45. Vail, Dennis. “Frost’s ‘Mowing’: Work and Poetry,” Notes on Contemporary Literature 4, no. 1 (1974): 4–8.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Poetry

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