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.

Learning (a poem)

for Nancy – happy 21st birthday

in pennsauken
firemen always comfort
a suited gentleman
blankly staring

once there were
no stares.

king george’s men
marched in red
ordered, purposed
to the battle
bleeding.

the heart moves
as it will.
this
all gentlemen know.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiaryphotos by Paul Drozdowski

This is not a study of decay as much as a record of what has decayed. Over and over in these photos we have to consider what is and what was. The brightness of light and the solidity of certain geometric forms, forms that are or always look like bars or doors, recur in the images presented. All else has corroded.

A consideration regarding these photos is why they do not grip, even as we see the series move into ever so much more bleakness, even beginning to see in the later photos light itself a different way. I think the reason why they do not grip is obvious. If we ever told ourselves that this old prison was saying more about life, we’d know more about life than we ever really wanted to know.

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The Unity of Justice and Fraternity: On Lincoln’s "Second Inaugural"

Commentary below the speech, that makes sense of the speech paragraph-by-paragraph. My apologies for the format of this post; I hope you will read it in its entirety, and if you have suggestions about how it ought to look, do tell.

Second Inaugural Address
Abraham Lincoln

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it–all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Commentary:

The Gettysburg Address argued for the centrality of equality in American life. Nothing less than a refounding of the nation was necessary, “a new birth of freedom,” as liberty had become perverted through direct and tacit support for slavery.

The Second Inaugural concerns Providence and its relation to Justice. How can a war-torn nation be repaired when one side, clearly in the wrong, is now also to be humiliated militarily?

A dignity is needed for citizens to be citizens. But right and wrong seem to be absolutes and do not allow us to assign dignity so easily. God’s time is above our time, calling us to something higher than our present conceptions, no? It would be for the South’s own good that they were treated like traitors and slavers. A transcendent notion of justice might demand that. To show “mercy” would be to cave into the sentiments that almost prevailed before the war, thus treating the war as an aberration from the normal course of events. The particulars of actions and times can be used in conjunction with what is perceived as transcendent to ignore the present, highest duty.

Lincoln asks his audience for charity, right then and there. How he gets to that point is the greatness of this speech.

The First Two Paragraphs

Lincoln begins with a shocking statement – we do not need plans, I do not need to tell you news. In this age where Presidents have to make news to be on the news, we must wonder what he feels his rhetorical task is. “The progress of our arms…is as well known to the public and to myself” gives a clue – he proclaims himself equal to the public in a matter he has been charged with; he is appealing as an equal to them at least as much as an Executive.

The equality of knowledge – upon which hopes are based – then segues into an equality of past hopes: All of us did not wish war. However, the knowledge that past hopes were based on involves a bit of history one might call skewed. The insurgent agents that wished to “divide effects” ultimately fired on Ft. Sumter. The way Lincoln makes it sound, there was a completely legitimate policy debate going on in Washington then.

Lincoln is not lying – he wants us to focus on the general problem of a democracy, that of minority/majority divergence. Every democracy is legitimate because the majority can make their voice heard and create law and policy. However, democracies didn’t just come about to only serve the many. They came about because actors in other regimes were deprived of their rights and what they had a right to. Every democracy is defined by this tension: the right of the majority versus the rights of minorities. The question of “what is most just” is merely one degree away.

The Third Paragraph

So Lincoln moves to the question of yet another minority, that of the slaves the South had. He mentions that they were “somehow” the cause of the war, as if to say “no one really understand exactly how the slaves mattered,” as if to say that America really does not understand the deep problems regarding democracy and equality. The North certainly did not know the deeper ideas behind both concepts when it said it could only restrict the territorial enlargement of slavery, at most. It gave a free hand through its passivity to the South to try and make slavery an acceptable thing for all.

The point of slavery not being understood properly as the cause of the war shows us that both North and South were engaged in a fundamental injustice. To oppose something wrong for the wrong reasons is not a good thing. In this case, it encouraged the South to be more bellicose than it should have ever allowed to be.

Since both North and South do not know what justice is, it makes perfect sense both sides would not expect anything that actually happened in the war. If they cannot understand what is universal, how could they understand what is particular? Ignorant of causality, they move to prayer, as if God will change the cosmic order for their shortsightedness.

To that end, Lincoln puts forth two counterfactuals. He does not say “God considers slavery a wrong that He wishes to remove, and this will cost us all much blood.” He is saying maybe God thinks that way. He appeals to a “just God” punishing both North and South in a Providential order. That’s the first counterfactual and it alone could end the speech. Hasn’t Lincoln established justice and providence in his audience’s mind in some way?

No, because the horrors of war do more than merely question justice and providence. They put one in a situation where prayers must be answered. If we’re Lincoln’s audience, realizing in some way the truth of our guilt, we should be able to repent and the war should end. A Providential God means a good must emerge at some point, as the war should not just consume everything. Yet the war isn’t over and it isn’t clear when it will end. Still, Lincoln is giving ground for belief in the justice He stands for. Suppose the worst about God, that He uses us to destroy each other to rid the world of evil. Is one going to say this is unjust? The predicates one uses to describe God could have been used long ago to rid us of those evils we are paying for now. The North was decadent before the war and allowed the tension that defined democracy to get out of hand. It did not take its own right seriously. This does not mean the abolitionists were of a true opinion in burning the Constitution, for they neglected the teaching which Lincoln will conclude with. They embraced a harshness Lincoln sees only out of necessity as a step to something higher.

Conclusion

Lincoln moves us from the “judgements of the Lord” to another Biblical teaching which has been neglected, that of charity and fraternity. We trust in God not for the sake of knowing the particular, but knowing that which is most important, which we could always see if we wished. The Providence and righteousness of God have always been about how we treat each other. The most magnificent words in American history describe any soldier, North and South, any widow, any orphan, and the first mention of justice itself in this speech is also the last: justice does not take peace for granted at any time, as the constant conceding to the South did, but aims for a peace that is lasting.

The Beginning

The last blog had a lot of high points, and I wholly expected it to go viral and find much greater success. I remember posts with tons of comments and lots of responses from other blogs. I felt active, involved, always going forward.

That was a mistake. I didn’t understand that the garish design of the blog worked against me. I didn’t understand what community where I blogged meant. I know now what it means and it is not a good thing. It was never about genuine support, but about trying to manufacture hype through fake smiles and lots of postings. I wanted a place for mutual learning and teaching, an audience willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. The hope was that success could grow a more natural way. I required something more than the usual, i.e. everyone trying to drum up some views for their blog.

Highlights of what’s been written previously:

It is time to find the audience I need and needs me. I’ve got something to say. It might even be important. I owe myself a fresh start.

Edit, 12.12.2014: I have been blogging for 8 or 9 years. I have created quite an impressive scrapbook on this blog, but I would only put forth a few pieces as me at my best. Everything must be revised, old mistakes must be confronted, so something beautiful, thoughtful, worthwhile emerges.