On Frost’s "Mowing:" Death, Love and Dante

Mowing
Robert Frost

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 know 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 not 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.

Commentary:

The comment on this poem over at SparkNotes is actually quite good. The argument there goes as follows: this poem is about poetry and what it should say, and how we should listen. You can see this from the central lines “It was not dream of the gift of idle hours / Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf,” which are chastening us for even thinking of being “idle” or attempting to imagine fanciful things. Further, the poem asks us to contrast an inaudible whisper, the product of labor, with speech. Which has the greater claim to truth? Which does poetry reflect better – the whisper, or articulate speech?

I think the SparkNotes writer is really good, but too clever by half. Every poem can be said to be a comment on poetry. Let’s go back to the text, and see what the more immediate themes that affect us are.

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 know 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.

“Beside the wood” is critical. Dante is lost in a dark wood before he emerges and sees a hill he cannot pass. When he sees the hill, of course, there is light. Our narrator, on the other hand, is bombarded with light, having moved nowhere. What is notable about the light is not how it makes things visible, but beats down on the narrator and his scythe. Maybe the scythe is muttering its frustration with being out this hot day.

There is also only one sound, that of the scythe mowing. There is no wind or breeze. The only “wind” comes from the motion of the scythe, and is man-made. Compare with Inferno, where wind – the passions that sway us to evil and ignorance – is divine punishment.

Now we can move to the overarching theme, of “whispers” versus “speech.” Dante’s quest is a quest for knowledge. Hence you can compare Dante and the Odysseus of the Inferno, and derive ideas that stand for the rest of the epic. Knowledge implies that “light” doesn’t oppress, but enlighten. Its coming about requires an escape from winds. And, of course, knowledge has a lot to do with articulate speech.

Here, our stationary laborer creates winds, and only mentions light as a physical impediment to his work. Our narrator is emphatically not interested in knowledge, and his work is literally that of the Grim Reaper’s. His work echoes his death, maybe even testifies to it. The eternality of knowledge is contrasted with laying the swales in rows. Labor comes from the fact we must die, strangely enough. Usually we would say it comes from the fact we want to live better.

And now I think you can see something even stranger. This narrator may not be Dante, but he is no idiot, despite what seems like willful ignorance.

It was not 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.

Our narrator does not need knowledge, which does emerge from idleness (*whistling*), and does look for easy solutions to material problems. The SparkNotes misses the importance of “gold.” Gold is not fantasy money. It has been valuable in all times and all places. Poetry is not created to make gold. But 99% of knowledge came about from some attempt in the spirit of alchemy.

The “truth” is much harsher. It is connected to “love” which is connected to death. The scythe tells all. And in that labor, that labor of death, flowers are beheaded, and snakes run away. The SparkNotes writer makes the absurd suggestion that Frost means by “snake” what orchis in Greek means. There’s no doubt there’s sexuality here, but it’s not that crude. Flowers represent sensuality, and the snake represents the moment when the sensual became corrupt, aspiring to be higher than God. Again, there are overtones of the Divine Comedy here – Dante travels, meeting Beatrice at the end of his journeys. Was the whole enterprise flawed, because it did not adequately separate sensuality and beatitude, as Frost’s narrator does?

Frost’s laborer is a Protestant born and bred. He does not care for the “idle” pornographic musings of bad poetry commentators.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Frost’s narrator does not need knowledge because he has the “truth,” which is predicated on the “fact” of the whisper. It does not matter that it was inarticulate and makes no sense. It’s connected to labor, and there is a happiness there, presumably for the laborer.

I think there’s a really dark joke at play here. The “fact” is “the sweetest dream labor knows.” Does the laborer have the “sweetest dream?” The scythe whispers, and what’s weird is that it doesn’t make hay, but leaves the hay to make. Creation is outside of the laborer’s purview.

Which brings us back to the title. The title is “Mowing.” Our SparkNotes author wants us to take this as a sexual comment. That’s utter gibberish. The question is “What do our labors create,” and the half-answer is “they really don’t create anything, they destroy more than anything else, and maybe they even destroy us.” But there’s another answer, too, which is that in labor there is certainty, and thus the big issues are not far from the surface. It’s very easy to forget in Dante that we’re going to die, despite the fact we are encountering dead people all the time. We have lost focus on ourselves, while mocking or admiring others in a fantasy world.

The fact of mowing does point to knowing, as the whisper does imply the existence of speech. But the fact itself is not a trivial fact, even as it is very problematic.

2 Comments

  1. Wow! That was excellent, very excellent. Sometimes it is too easy to explain things in a sexual manner, especially given the double entranda (I kno I misspelled it). of many of our words. I believ you to be correct.

  2. I do believe he is speaking of the rewards of work. To find the answers to whatever questions you may have, work is a necessity as it leads to enlightenment and knowledge. But also, I feel there is a pessimistic view associated with the poem. The scathe whispers the facts, the facts the speaker longs to know. But the scathe is too quiet for the speaker to hear and therefor he cannot know the truth. And he will never know what was said by the scathe, so he does not try to understand but rather moves on. He feels helpless, as if he’ll never find an answer to question at hand.

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