Monday, June 10, 2013

Frost's "Mowing"

Robert Frost's sonnet "Mowing," from his first collection, A Boy's Will, is one of a subset of his poems that focuses on the act of physical labor:


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.
Among the many things to admire here is the genius of the third line--the fact that, having acknowledged the silence of the setting, the poem puts that quietness to further use.  The silence invites the speaker to listen to what the scythe's passes through the grass are "saying," equivocal though that whisper might be--"perhaps," "perhaps." In the long tradition of the sonnet as rhetorical argument with self, the poem turns inward in that third line; even as the subtle rhythm of the scythe continues in the background, the poem generates another rhythm, that of introspection about why the speaker finds the work so satisfying. "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," and yet it is not just the "mowing" that is being accomplished; the last line reminds us that the byproduct of the labor will be used--it is not just grass that the speaker is cutting, but hay that will be consumed by domestic animals.
And as is so often the case with Frost's sonnets, this poem might at first be all but unrecognizable as one.  It is not until the fourth line that we have a repeated end rhyme, and all the way through the poem the rhymes seem to appear almost randomly--we go five lines before "myself" is enchoed by "elf." The piece rejects the notion of the sonnet as conventional form, finding its own way to braid the various strands into a cohesive whole.
Surely it is intentional that "long scythe" shows up twice, each time "whispering," first "to the ground," and at the end, merely whispering. "Long scythe," long sigh--the sounds are interchangeable, again framing the poem with the ryhthms of work and of pleasure in the labor.