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On Frost’s “Mowing”

Usually I associate concern, in poetry, with the relationship of imagination to reality, the shaping effects of the former on the latter, with Wallace Stevens. But it’s a concern I also find in plenty of Robert Frost poems, albeit in less overt terms. One striking example is Frost’s “Mowing,” a sonnet spoken, I take it, by one of Frost’s hard working and pragmatic New England farmers, someone who in the course of the poem eschews the old tales of fays and elves, for he requires no such diversions from reality. And yet the poem is not so much about doing away with all myth as it is about creating a new myth, one that fits the speaker’s circumstances in the modern world of New England farm life. The myth this speaker creates is one that asserts that he needs no myths, only the hard facts relating to his work. In fact, it is the myth of a mythless life that animates his labor.

The poem’s opening line sounds like a more or less factual report–“There was never a sound beside the wood but one”–thus setting the tenor of the poem’s speaking voice, that of one who is interested in the world as it is, not the world as it might be imagined. The second line, however, identifies this single sound as the speaker’s “scythe whispering to the ground.” Thus, the speaker’s language already takes him back into an imaginative world in which his scythe, the tool that functions as an extension of his body, of himself, whispers to the ground, implying an interaction between nature and human artifice. This whispering–a projection of the human voice onto the tool–that dominates the poem (the verb ‘whisper’ in one form or another occurs four times in the fourteen lines) anthropomorphizes the tool that reshapes the natural world even though the speaker does not know what the scythe whispers. “What was it it whispered?” is the question that he goes on to explore, and this question is one that takes the poem into issues of the fundamental relationship between humans and the world, art and nature, imagination and reality.

The speaker’s speculations about the subject matter of his scythe’s whispering lead him to consider the fundamental situation of humans on the earth, for he speculates that the scythe might whisper about “the heat of the sun” or “something about the lack of sound.” His speculations take up the fundamental experiences of the weather and of the unresponsive earth in relationship to which humans are moved to speak–or to imagine their technological extensions to speak–to bring language, and thus narrative and humanly comprehesible meaning, into the world. The image of the sun, in this simple landscape of a poem concerned with meaning and voice, also calls to mind the image’s use in representing the originary source of meaning and truth in Euro-American tradition generally (see Hans Blumenberg’s “Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation,” trans. Joel Anderson, in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, 30-62). However, the image of the sun does not function as such an origin here; it is associated more with heat than with light. It is in such a world, one in which the traditional image of truth is displaced from its traditional function, that the speaker’s pragmatic search for meaning takes place. If the sun is here the source of heat and not an image of ultimate truth, then all the more urgent is the mower / speaker’s quest to discern what his scythe whispers. To continue in his labors on the earth, he needs some narrative, some meaning to make the work make sense. His tool will provide, if nothing else, a whisper of pragmatic meaning.

Perhaps he half catches himself in the act of forming a myth or story (and recall that our word ‘myth’ comes from the Greek word for story), and he therefore specifies that he is not relying on the old tales that earlier ages might have needed: “It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, / Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.” These lines also articulate, by way of denial, his fundamental values as a worker. His hours are evidently anythig but idle, and what gold he gets is surely earned, not “easy gold.” The magical and fanciful worlds of fay and elf, such worlds as might yield riches by means other than everyday labor, are decidedly unrelated to his world, though by denying them he calls them to mind, recalling how the old tales brought meaning to the human lifeworld, and calling attention to his own search for signifance in meditating on the meaning of his whispering scythe.

If there is a moment of nostalgia in this recollection of ancient elfin tales, the speaker forestalls the nostalgic moment with a line that may be taken as his motto, summing up as it does the value of the truth and nothing but the truth: “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak….” The images that follow then form a litany of the details of the scene: the swale laid in rows, the “Pale orchises,” the “bright green snake” scared away by the scythe. These are no fanciful details but the facts of the scene of work. The snake remains just a snake even though snakes in stories or poems, going back at least as far as the book of Genesis, have a way of rising to the occasion by becoming more than everyday snakes; thus, it may be just as well that our worker scares this one away. As he maintains, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” On the one hand, this line asserts the continuing need for dreams, those phenomena–whether associated with the day or night–of human imagination and longing. On the other hand, these dreams are Joe Friday dreams, dreams of just the facts. But the fact remains intertwined with dream in this line. The fact will not stand alone but needs some dream–some story, some interpretive matrix–arising from the unconscious and the imagination within which to make sense.

The poem then ends with a final juxtaposition of the animated tool and the accomplished work: “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.” The juxtaposition of the whispering scythe with the accomplished task is significant here, for it is this whispering scythe–this metaphor of language, imagination, art–that helps to enable the work. At the same time, it is this personified scythe that, even as the speaker eschews “anything more than the truth,” intertwines with the myth of a purely factual life, one without animating myths. In accomplishing his labor, the mower has turned his scythe into a thing of myth, a tool that whispers secrets to the ground, and by extension to the natural world, being shaped by both the whispering tool and the human imagination that hears the single sounds as whispers. The mower forms a new myth, that of a mythless world, as he cuts away the old myths with his animated technology. Out of the ruins of the past, the creative imagintion makes new stories that respond to the situation and demands of the present.