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— 5
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, 10
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.
Ostensibly, the speaker muses about the sound a scythe makes mowing hay in a field by a forest, and what this sound might signify. He rejects the idea that it speaks of something dreamlike or supernatural, concluding that reality of the work itself is rewarding enough, and the speaker need not call on fanciful invention.
This is a sonnet with a peculiar rhyme scheme: ABC ABD ECD GEH GH. In terms of rhyme, “Mowing” does not fit into either a strict Shakespearean or Petrarchan model; rather, it draws a little from both traditions. Like Petrarch’s sonnets, the poem divides thematically into an octet and a sextet: The first eight lines introduce the sound of the scythe and then muse about the abstract (heat, silence) or imaginary (elves) significance of this sound; the last six lines present an alternative interpretation, celebrating fact and nothing more. But “Mowing” also hinges, like Shakespeare’s sonnets, on its two final lines. In terms of meter, each line comprises five stressed syllables separated by varying numbers of unstressed syllables. Only one line (
A fay, as one can probably tell from context, is a fairy. A swale, in New England, is a low-lying tract of land. Orchises are terrestrial orchids.
Full of alliteration and internal rhymes, this poem has a pleasing sound. “Mowing” is about mowing, but it is also a meditation on art, poetry, love, and how to live. It also—like so many of Frost’s poems—possesses a winking element of wordplay (an element often overlooked by critics).
As a statement about art in general and poetry in particular, the poem tells us that the Real, the common voice, the realities of work and labor—these are sweet; poetry inheres in these things and need not be conjured through willful imagining, flights of fancy (elves), or an abandonment of the everyday. In fact, anything “more than the truth” is debilitating to art. As a statement about living, the poem seems to say that working in the world, embracing and engaging its facts through action, is a prerequisite for knowledge about it. Truth comes before understanding, and truth must be worked for. And so the challenge for the liver of life—and for the poem, and for the reader of poetry—is to work to embody that physical, factual, sensory truth.
But the poem also raises questions about the very act of culling a poem for meaning. In our labor of reading poetry, should we only read for facts, and not venture to interpret or project, because “[t]he fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows”? Or should we nonetheless try our hand at analyzing, at extracting meaning where meaning is not clearly stated?
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
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.