Frost’s Early Poems

by: Robert Frost


We cannot read just for facts, just for surface verisimilitude—for if we do, this poem’s question becomes moot. The question is, “What did the scythe whisper?” But if we stick to facts, we must admit that scythes do not whisper anything. They lack the human quality of speech, whispered or otherwise. The poet, in building his poem around a whispering scythe, has given us “more than the truth.” But do we blame him for this contradiction? Can the writer, the reader, the mower in the field, help but look behind and within the facts for something more than the just the facts? This listening for whispers seems a basic human trait. And more than a universal aspect of human frailty, it is essential to the whole project of poetry and art. If poetry works toward an articulation of truth, and this truth is factual, then a great paradox sits at the heart of poetry. For some artifice, some imaginative leap, must precede that articulation of truth. Someone must hear a scythe and wonder what it whispers, must be willing to think in terms of whispering scythes—in terms of “more than the truth”—before he can build a poem on the rejection of this notion, before he can maintain that scythes whisper nothing more than the fact of their own whispering. Without someone listening for whispers in the first place, there is no poem; without the labor of the poem, there is no articulation of the “sweet dream” of fact.

But there are many other ways to read this poem, and there are other aspects to note. Consider the idea of creation through destruction, the making of hay through the mowing of grass, and all the connotations this holds for the creative artist. Also the idea of leaving the hay to “make” suggests that at some point, after great labor, the making of hay—or poetry—is out of the laborer’s hands. It must simply “make” itself. The reader must also consider that to evoke reaping and scythes is to also evoke the connotations of the rapid passing of time, and of death, that often accompany these tropes. An anthropomorphized Time holds a sickle and does a bit of mowing in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come.” Is the speaker in Frost’s sonnet mowing through his life and, realizing its ephemerality, wondering what is of most importance? Then, there are overtones of sex and love. The act of mowing was once (and perhaps still is, somewhere) a known euphemism for making love. But for Frost, the scythe’s “earnest love” is apparently harmful, too: It scares a little snake (yes, Freudians) and cuts down flowers. Frost was an able classicist and likely would have known that orchis is taken directly from the Greek word for testicles.

Finally, pay careful attention to the sound of the poem. The swinging, back- and-forth motion of the scythe emerges in lines like “What was it it whispered” and “Perhaps it was something.../ Something perhaps.” Frost wrote about his desire to write with “the sound of sense”—meaning the experience of hearing itself, the perception captured and enacted in words. He comes powerfully close to this with the repetition of “whisper” and “scythe,” and with the alliteration of w’s and s’s that seem to form their own whispers and sighs.