I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees; 5
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been—alone,
“As all must be,” I said within my heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.” 10
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round, 15
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry; 20
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus, 25
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one though of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn, 30
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid, 35
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.” 40
The speaker goes to a field to turn the grass that has been mowed there. He feels lonely. Then, he sees a butterfly, which leads his eyes to a tuft of flowers that the mower left standing. The joy that must have led the mower to admire and spare the flowers is transferred, through the sight of the flowers, to the speaker. This awakens in the speaker a sense of kinship with the mower. It banishes his loneliness. He feels now as if he were working with the mower side by side.
“A Tuft of Flowers” is written in heroic couplets, with some variation from a strict iambic foot. All rhymes are masculine; the majority of lines are end- stopped. This, in part, gives the poem its marching, old-fashioned sound. (A few archaic-sounding words add to the effect: o’er night,henceforth.) The heart-apart rhyme of lines 9-10 gets recast and repeated later in the poem. Two additional end-words, alone and ground, are repeated.
Published, in A Boy’s Will, a few pages after “Mowing,” “The Tuft of Flowers” revisits the labor of haymaking. Whereas the mower of the former seems mesmerized by his labor, wondering at the sound his scythe makes, the grass-turner of the latter begins with a pervasive sense of loneliness. It is a loneliness more profound than the temporary loneliness of a morning spent unaccompanied; rather, it is the loneliness of the entire human condition: The speaker is lonely “As all must be.” But just as he resigns himself forlornly to this solitude, a butterfly captures his attention.
The butterfly is like a herald announcing the ambassador. The ambassador, then, is the tuft of flowers, a “leaping tongue of bloom” with “a message from the dawn.” What is this message? It seems to be one of camaraderie, a refutation of essential loneliness. The speaker recognizes in himself the regard that led the mower to spare the flowers, and, with this recognition, he feels a bond between his values and the other man’s values, between his work and the other man’s work. Just as earlier he generalized his loneliness to the human condition, his joy now leads him to generalize his feeling of alliance in purpose. The tuft of flowers serves as a sort of catalyst for reconciliation with mankind. The medium, however, is labor. The need to work, the fruits of work, and that which work cannot resolve form the human bond of empathy.
“The Tuft of Flowers” does indeed follow “Mowing” in the book, and one might suspect that line 32 of “Flowers” was borrowed from line 2 of “Mowing.” It is, in fact, the other way around: “The Tuft of Flowers” was written several years before “Mowing,” likely in 1896 or 1897; as such, it heartily deserves the designation “Early Poem.”