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September 5, 2017

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 knew 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 no 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.

Robert Frost, 1913

COMMENTARY: Robert Frost aimed at understatement. On the surface, his poems (like those of William Blake) sometimes seem simple, offhand, unplanned and casual–the singsong meter, the folksy characters, the quaint farm images, and the colloquial diction. But just as an understatement conceals, by omission, the truth that rests above the register of expression, Frost’s simple vignettes often hide layers upon layers of paradoxical meanings.

This poem (which Frost, in an interview, once said was his favorite poem from his first book) is no exception. The anecdote the poem describes–a scythe whisking and whispering over the grass–provokes, by the subtlest suggestions, a variety of questions and interpretations. For instance, if we take “whispering” to be an act of speech, then it seems reasonable to interpret the poem as a parable about making poems with the “rows” in the meadow as lines of verse, the whispering of the scythe as the subtle insinuations of the muse, and the paradoxical line “anything more than truth would have seemed too weak” a proclamation of the aim of the poem: truth telling. In this reading, poems are not “dreams of idle ours” or “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf” (that is, freebies given by the romantic soul) but rather the product of sweet, solitary labor.

But is such a reading justified? The poem never makes the connection between mowing and writing explicitly. The reader has to make that jump on his own, and, is such an interpretation, the “more than truth” that Frost says is “too weak?” Are other readings equally justified? For instance, “mowing,” at the time when Frost wrote this poem, was slang for sexual union. Given the physical suggestions of a masculine tool whisking along the ground and the well-known etymology of the word “orchid,” could the entire poem be read as an erotic parable? Like the green snake hidden under the grass, these suggestions whisper invisibly under the explicit meaning of the lines. The lines leave behind them, paradoxically, not a tidy conclusion but wild, disordered hay to try to pitchfork into squares.


From → Nature, Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. This poem brings these lines to mind:

    Only where love and need are one,
    And the work is play for mortal stakes,
    Is the deed ever really done

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