Subject: The speaker describes the sound of his scythe cutting hay and speculates as to its significance.
Themes: Rural work, haymaking, poetry.
✍️ Between 1900 and 1911, Frost and his family lived on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire.
✍️Mowing would have been a familiar activity to Frost during his time on the farm.
✍️Frost was frequently criticized for writing simplistic poetry about mundane rural life. This poem might be seen as expressing Frost’s view that the reality of rural work makes for worthier poetic subject matter than romantic myths.
✍️This poem is also a good example of Frost’s preoccupation with ‘the pleasure of ulteriority’ – that is, the act of using language to say one thing and mean another.
This poem can be read on two levels. At the literal level, it can be interpreted as a poem about surrendering to the present moment, and about how manual labour allows the worker to access a state where they are at one with nature. This reading is supported by the speaker’s observation that ‘There was never a sound beside the wood was one, / And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground’, which suggests that he is wholly absorbed in his work. Frost’s declaration that ‘Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak / To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows’ also implies that losing oneself in rural work enables one to access truth by quieting the compulsive need to analyse everything. His declaration that ‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows’ underscores the idea that truth is only accessed when one gives up trying to look beyond the physical world and merely delights in the sensations of the present moment.
✏Frost uses sibilant words to evoke the swishing sound of the scythe, e.g. ‘sound’, ‘whispering’, ‘sun’, ‘something’, ‘speak’, ‘swale’ and ‘snake’. The strong aural imagery conjured by this use of sibilance reinforces our impression that the speaker is fully immersed in his activity.
✏ At the metaphorical level, the act of mowing can be viewed as a symbol for the act of writing poetry, with the scythe representing the speaker’s poetic voice. Evidence for this interpretation is provided by the fact that Frost personifies the scythe through the verb ‘whispering’. By claiming that his scythe whispers only ‘truth’, Frost may be making the point that poetry rooted in everyday life has just as much value as abstract and inaccessible poetry. The fact that the scythe ‘whispered and did not speak’ also suggests that the truths poetry offers do not lend themselves to being fully expressed through language, and that the reader must listen to the meaning behind a poem’s words.
✏Frost’s image of the way the scythe ‘laid the swale in rows’ suggests that just as a scythe cuts out the superfluous, the poet can distil truths for readers. Through the subsequent image of the ‘feeble-pointed spikes of flowers’ that are cut alongside the hay, Frost suggests that accessing truth through poetry involves cutting away extraneous meaning. His use of a metaphor to observe that the scythe does not dream of ‘easy gold at the hand of fay or elf’ reinforces the idea that poetry should not seek to provide simplistic, mystical explanations of the world, but should instead confront the bare truth, even when it is unpalatable. This idea is bolstered through his assertion that ‘Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak / To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows’.
The fact that the truths uncovered through poetry are not necessarily beautiful or comforting is indicated by the image of the ‘feeble-pointed spikes of flowers’ – the collateral damage of the scythe –and the image of the ‘bright green snake’ that is ‘scared’ by its activity. Since snakes are symbolically associated with evil and sin, this latter image suggests that writing poetry exposes one to the unpleasant aspects of reality.
✏Frost’s rhetorical question ‘What was it it whispered?’ and his subsequent admission ‘I knew not well myself’ indicate that he himself does not fully grasp the truths to which his poetry points. Frost’s use of negation also contributes to the sense of mystery pervading the poem by creating an atmosphere of suspense as the speaker tells us what is not the case in lines such as ‘There was never a sound beside
the wood but one’ and ‘It was no dream of the gift of idle hours’.
✏If we interpret ‘Mowing’ as a poem about writing poetry, the concluding line ‘My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make’ can be understood metaphorically as conveying Frost’s
acknowledgement that it is up to others to interpret his poems, or as conveying his belief that he is not trying to capture any elusive truth in his poetry but merely seeking to represent the world as it really is.
Questions of ‘Mowing’
Q. What is the tone of the poem ‘Mowing’?
Ans. The speaker’s tone is calm and reflective in the opening lines as he describes the ‘whispering’ sound of
the scythe amid the hush of the clearing beside the wood.
It is questioning and uncertain in the following lines as he speculates on the meaning behind its sound.The tentative quality of Frost’s musing is reinforced through the use of terminal caesura in the octave,such as the semi-colon at the end of line three and the dash at the end of line five.
It becomes more decisive, assertive and matter-of-fact in the sestet as he declares ‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows’ and reports how his ‘long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.’
Q. Discuss the form and structure of the poem.
The poem is a sonnet, as it contains 14 lines. However, it does not conform fully to the conventions of either a Shakespearean or a Petrarchan sonnet. Instead, it combines features of both: like a Petrarchan sonnet, it is divided into an octave and sestet by the colon at the end of line 8; and like a Shakespearean sonnet, it concludes with a couplet of sorts, albeit one that does not rhyme. At the same time, it deviates completely from either traditional sonnet form in terms of its somewhat haphazard rhyme scheme of ABCABDECDFEGFG and its metre of five stressed syllables per line and a varying number of unstressed syllables.
The strong rhythm created by the pattern of stressed syllables evokes the swaying motion of the scythe. This effect is enhanced by the unusual rhyme scheme, which creates a powerful forward thrust because it is not until the final line that all the rhymes that have been introduced are resolved. The sense of momentum sustained by the rhyme scheme reflects the fact that the speaker is completely absorbed in, and at one with, his work.