Mowing. Collection – A Boy’s Will.  1915.

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.

Mowing is another example of Frost’s maxim that a poem should ‘begin in delight and end in wisdom’. Frost wanders into the realms of imagination, but returns to ‘fact’. Frost displays his preference for practical sense and labor rather than dreams, as in Birches.

In delight it begins. ‘There was never a sound…but one’, this line creates the setting – stillness. It also draws the reader further to find out what that one sound was. ‘My long scythe whispering to the ground’, takes a leap from real world into imagination at once.

The sound of the scythe heightens the silence of noon and makes the narrator attentive to it. It is the only sound. It is a whisper. ‘Whisper’ is indicative of the actual sound produced by the scythe and on a higher level of imagination, the scythe’s ‘compliance’ and respect for nature’s stillness.

He imagines the scythe whispering to the ground – only the ground is close enough to hear the whispering. He anticipates fantasy, almost wishing that it might be saying something about the heat of the day or perhaps about the quiet, but the scythe, he understands is a worker and not a idler, so,

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak

And he decides that the scythe whispers:

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

Like in Birches, the branches that carry him first towards heaven soon bring him back down to the earth, to reality, the scythe here conveys practical wisdom, states a fact.

Contemplative mood

It starts with imagination – animating a farm equipment and pondering what it could be whispering. The repetition of ‘perhaps’ also indicates the reflective tone. Thoughts lead to conclusion. Notice how in the end there is no uncertainty or doubt. The last statement is very definite and ends contemplation.

Personification

The scythe is a symbol of work, of practicality, of labor. By personifying it, the poet gives its mechanical task the impression of tireless work that springs out only from earnest love for work. It reminds and reinforces the poet’s faith in the practical purposes of life that only can provide the sweetest pleasures.

Through this reflection, Frost is trying to formulate his own thoughts and reiterate his own attitude regarding practical purposes of life. He is reminding himself that like the scythe he must seek fulfillment in earnest work. The scythe works through him and he himself might have a tendency to dream, to slacken but the scythe does not. The scythe is his reminder. It is not a part of nature nor a human being. It is inanimate. But Frost chooses it as the communicator of a practical message.

Conflict of purpose

The poet-farmer’s conflict between practical tasks and imagination appears again.

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 scythe does not go into its task mindlessly or without love. It mows the grass earnestly and untiringly but spares the flowers and the snake. Much like the following lines from other poems:

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,            
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

– A Tuft of Flowers

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

– Unharvested

For I have had too much          
Of apple-picking: I am overtired           
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

After Apple Picking

But practical wisdom and earnest love for his work enable him to find a way forward. ‘The only way out is through’ – Frost said.

The poem in prose

There wasn’t a sound in the wood except that of my scythe. It was whispering to the ground. What was it saying? Perhaps something about the heat of the day or about the stillness (is that why it whispered?).

It cannot be talking about a dream (dreams come when one is idle) or something casual like fairies handing out gold. The scythe that works so earnestly – neatly mowing the swale in rows and sparing the flowers and scaring away (thus protecting) the snake – can only speak the truth.

The scythe whispers that ‘fact is the sweetest truth that labor knows’. That reality is sweeter than dreams to those who believe in and live by practicality. Whispering this it returns to work – to make hay – as if to demonstrate this.

Oft-quoted lines

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

Word meanings

Fay – Fairy
Swale – Small valley



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