Published as a part of the 1923 anthology New Hampshire, ‘Gathering Leaves’ by Robert Frost explores philosophical themes of childhood, nature, humanity, and maturity, all while using fallen leaves as an extended metaphor.
Gathering Leaves Robert FrostSpades take up leavesNo better than spoons,And bags full of leavesAre light as balloons.I make a great noiseOf rustling all dayLike rabbit and deerRunning away.But the mountains I raiseElude my embrace,Flowing over my armsAnd into my face.I may load and unloadAgain and againTill I fill the whole shed,And what have I then?Next to nothing for weight,And since they grew dullerFrom contact with earth,Next to nothing for color.Next to nothing for use.But a crop is a crop,And who's to say whereThe harvest shall stop?
Explore Gathering Leaves
‘Gathering Leaves’ is a seemingly childish, nursery rhyme-like poem that progresses to explore the themes of man versus nature and man versus himself.
In ‘Gathering Leaves,’ Frost uses natural imagery and descriptive language to portray the themes of maturity, loss of childhood, and internal value that man places not only on himself but on everything that surrounds him. The first stanza is light-hearted and festive, aided by child-like metaphors. The second stanza is somewhat comedic, wherein the speaker seemingly makes a fool out of himself, making more noise than getting work done. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas explore the themes of man versus both nature and himself. The final stanza is positive, wherein the speaker ultimately concludes that value should not be universally decided and that everyone has different needs and expectations.
Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme
‘Gathering Leaves’ is a regularly structured poem consisting of 6 stanzas, each a quatrain (4 lines). The poem has a consistent rhyme scheme, alternating between full rhyme and slant rhyme but an inconsistent meter. The first line is four syllables, having an iamb and trochee, and the rest of the lines of the first stanza have five syllables each: an iamb and anapaest. That pattern is reversed in the second stanza, wherein the four-syllable line disappears. The third stanza introduces a six-syllable line into the structure of five-syllable lines, and so on. The lack of a consistent meter makes the poem interesting and non-monotonous to read.
Literary Devices & Punctuation
- A metaphor is the creation of comparison without the use of prepositions. In the third stanza, Frost uses a metaphor when he compares leaves to a mountain.
- A simile is the creation of comparison using prepositions. In the first stanza, Frost uses a simile to compare the leaves to balloons.
- An anaphora is the repetition of words for emphasis. Frost uses an anaphora when he repeats ‘leaves’ in the first stanza.
- Imagery is descriptive language that immerses the reader in the poem. Frost uses natural imagery when referring to leaves and animals.
- Onomatopoeia is descriptive language that describes the sound that an object makes. Frost uses onomatopoeia in the second stanza when he mentions rustling.
- Enjambment is the lack of punctuation throughout the line that allows sentences to continue across several lines or stanzas.
- Caesura is the use of punctuation in the middle of a line for emphasis, repetition, or rhythm break.
Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.
The first stanza of ‘Gathering Leaves’ introduces natural imagery. An unseen figure is collecting presumably fallen leaves.
A spade is a large gardening tool similar to a shovel. It is an odd choice to collect levels with a spade as they are usually raked up. Frost creates a simile by comparing a spade to a spoon, which indicates that despite the unconventional tool use, the activity is relatively easy. Spoons are commonly used for soft, pliable foods, such as dessert. Moreover, Frost goes on to compare the bags that are filled with leaves to weighing almost nothing: they are as ‘light as balloons’. Another simile is effective in creating a festive, somewhat childish atmosphere. The full rhyme (leaves-leaves, spoons-balloons) reinforces the light-hearted ambiance, making it seem somewhat of a nursery rhyme.
The theme of work-life balance gets introduced in this stanza. Frost compares gardenwork to child’s play; it is done with ease and merriment, and the speaker clearly enjoys it. Additionally, both fallen leaves and balloons have similar connotations: they connote the passing of time. Balloons are typically put up at a milestone achievement or celebration, most frequently a birthday. A birthday is a celebration of another year of one’s life, the passing of time. Similarly, fallen leaves indicate the end of summer and the upcoming of fall and, consequently, winter; hence the passing of time.
I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
The second stanza of ‘Gathering Leaves’ introduces the speaker: Frost chose a singular first-person narrative, therefore, relating this poem to a past event or experience. Robert Frost owned a farm in New Hampshire from 1900 to 1911, where he not only farmed but also developed his poetic style, for which he later won the Pulitzer Prize.
The speaker, presumably Frost, recalls himself being loud and startling the local wildlife: the rabbits and deer. The peaceful animal imagery of docile herbivores effectively creates a contrasting atmosphere: while the farm and its surroundings are calm, Frost makes a ‘great deal of noise’. The stanza is written in the present tense, in addition to the present participle of ‘running’. The use of ‘running’ instead of run or ran suggests that animals were a constant in Frost’s farm life.
The verb ‘rustling,’ also written in the present participle, further connects Frost to the surrounding nature. Rusting is an action typically associated with the contact of leaves against either animals or other plants, creating a soft sound. Rustling is, therefore, an onomatopoeia.
The stanza is light-hearted: Frost sees himself as a comedic disruptor. While trying to collect the leaves, he disturbs the local animals but knows they will be back. However, he also sees himself as not achieving anything, which is indicated by the melancholy tone of the first line: all he does is make noise while trying to collect leaves. Despite the subtle melancholia, the rhyme scheme is still present, albeit less regular: while ‘day’ and ‘away’ rhyme, ‘noise’ and ‘deer’ do not. This is intentional: the manmade noise does not fit in with nature’s calm and steady rhythm.
Man vs Nature
The theme of man versus nature is very prominent in the stanza: only humans concern themselves with fallen leaf raking; it is done purely for aesthetic appeal, sometimes even for the outside gaze and consequent approval. None of the animals, neither the deer nor the rabbit, care about the superficial inconvenience of the presence of leaves: it is the natural cycle of nature, and they accept it as such.
Despite the subtle melancholia of the stanza, the rhyme scheme is still present, albeit less regular: while ‘day’ and ‘away’ rhyme, ‘noise’ and ‘deer’ do not. This is intentional: the manmade noise does not fit in with nature’s calm and steady rhythm.
But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.
The third stanza of ‘Gathering Leaves’ directly contradicts the first stanza. While in the first stanza, the leaves were ‘light as balloons,’ in the third stanza, they are mountains. Both comparisons are instances of hyperbole.
Moreover, Frost has stopped enjoying the work; the atmosphere is getting tense and anxious, despite the rhyme scheme. The three rhyming words in lines one, two, and four indicate Frost’s attempt to maintain control.
While the atmosphere was festive in the first stanza and comedic and insightful in the second, the third stanza’s tone and atmosphere are entirely melancholy, even sorrowful. Frost lifts the metaphorical mountain yet reaps none of the benefits. Affection eludes him, and nature does not care nor reciprocate his efforts. Instead, the leaves ‘flow’, meaning slowly slide, over his arms, covering his face. Just as the title suggests, Frost is gathering leaves, trying to give each of them meaning and importance, despite working on getting rid of them. The force of nature is, quite literally, in his face, yet Frost chooses not to see it, attempting to embrace the leaves instead.
I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?
The fourth stanza of ‘Gathering Leaves’ is a methodical, repetitive stanza. The anaphora of ‘again’ in the second stanza creates a mundane atmosphere, further straying from the light, festive tone of the first stanza. The progression from positivity to anxiety to sadness to boredom is portrayed effectively and can mirror the work life of many people. Starting a job is exciting; the feeling of newfound freedom is exhilarating and makes one feel ‘light as balloons,’ yet the novelty wears off over time, and the repetitive tasks are no longer effortless; instead, feeling like a burden.
Frost effectively uses opposites ‘load’ and ‘unload’, and allocating them with the anaphora of again creates an inescapable cycle. Once done loading, the speaker gets rid of their progress by unloading; and then loads again. By using leaf raking as a metaphor, Frost addresses the theme of repetition without results or progress. Even when a milestone is achieved, meaning that the shed is full, the speaker feels no satisfaction.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The leaves aren’t thrown away; they are put in the shed: an allusion to the idiom ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The achievement of raking up all the leaves is hidden, yet it remains. The rotting leaves are not disposed of; they are just moved. Just as one’s trauma and problems don’t disappear when hidden, so too will the leaves remain.
Man vs Himself vs Nature
Frost asks a rhetorical, philosophical question: What has humanity achieved by creating its own customs and success criteria? The metaphor of cleaning up fallen leaves is an incredibly effective one as it allows the reader to explore the theme of man versus nature, as well as man versus himself. Even when achievements are acquired, what has truly been achieved? What will Frost get after gathering leaves? Fallen leaves have been allowed to decompose and further benefit the ecosystems for millennia, yet man openly defies nature by not only taking those leaves away but having no need for them. The stanza concludes that man’s greed will be his demise.
Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.
The fifth stanza of ‘Gathering Leaves’ again contradicts the previous stanza, agreeing with the first. The leaves are no longer unliftable mountains; they retreat to being ‘light as balloons.’
Frost diverges from the theme of man versus nature and himself, instead choosing to describe leaves from the surface. The fallen leaves mean nothing to him: they are useless as a crop, not aesthetically pleasing, and they clutter the speaker’s space. Despite seeming blunt and straightforward, the stanza delves into another philosophical theme: what is value?
In the natural world, everything has a purpose. The bright colors attract mates and pollinators or repel predators; the sounds are beacons of location; thick fur is used for warmth and protection, and so on. Even dead organisms have a place in the seemingly chaotic world. Only the man, arrogant enough to think that his way is the only way, barges in and disrupts the ecosystem that has been in place long before man’s ancestors walked the Earth. And yet, man has domesticated and enslaved animals for productivity and entertainment; man actively destroys forests and pollutes oceans, all in the name of value and, by extension, money. Despite not being alive, dead plants and animals serve a purpose in nature, whereas man only sees value in things that can make him rich.
The leaves are, consequently, utterly useless to society. When they fall, they create inconvenience, one more task on the never-ending to-do list. Humanity is incredibly selfish, not only regarding nature but also to one another. Despite having no practical use for the fallen leaves, it is unanimously decided that they should be disposed of.
Childhood and Maturity
Moreover, the topic of childhood and maturity is explored. The first stanza had a light-hearted theme of excitement, with the underlying theme of celebration. Children are typically eager to engage in natural play, for example, collecting and jumping into leaves. For them, leaves are fun and thrilling: they see a purpose. For adults, however, leaves are nothing more than another chore.
Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who’s to say where
The harvest shall stop?
In the final stanza of ‘Gathering Leaves’ is a continuation of the previous stanza, Frost continues with the theme of value and humanity versus nature. He points out that the leaves are worthless now that they have fallen; they have no value. The full stop at the end of the line symbolizes the finality: it is time to grow up. The leaves, once being ‘light as balloons,’ full of possibilities and excitement, are now useless.
Frost concludes the stanza with a hopeful message. The speaker decides that it is for the individual to determine what is useful; there shouldn’t be a universal standard of value.
The anaphora of ‘crop’ in the second line is effective: the original purpose and intent of the object should be taken into account when considering its overall utility. No matter how one views the leaves, they will fall every year, regardless of the feelings of those who have to clean them up. The quiet determination of nature will win in the end.
In ‘Gathering Leaves,’ Robert Frost Explores the themes of nature and making, as well as childhood and maturity. The poem is a fascinating collection of juxtapositions.
Robert Frost ( full name Robert Lee Frost) was born on March 26th, 1874, in San Francisco, California, USA, to Willian Prescott Frost Jr and Isabelle Moodie. He died on January 29th, 1963, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, at the age of eighty-eight.
If you enjoyed ‘Gathering Leaves,’ consider exploring the following poems:
- ‘The Night Dances’ by Sylvia Plath explores the relationship between nature and childhood.
- ‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ by Emily Brönte effectively describes the autumnal foliage using visual imagery.
- ‘The Falling Leaves’ by Margaret Postgate Cole reflects on the dire need for change in difficult situations.