‘Mowing’ by Robert Frost is a fourteen line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. The lines follow a rhyme scheme that does not conform to either one of the most popular sonnet structures (Shakespearean or Petrarchan). Instead, the lines rhyme ABCABDECDFEDFD. Although the rhyme is very different from the most familiar forms, there are elements of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet present in Frost’s poem.
Just like a Petrarchan sonnet, the text can be separated into one set of eight lines and another of six. These are known respectively as an octave and a sestet. There is also the characteristic turn, or volta, that occurs at the beginning of the second half. A “turn” in the text of a sonnet is usually seen through a change in narrator or opinion. It can also occur when the speaker provides answers to questions asked in the first half, or there is another sort of resolution.
In regards to the Shakespearean sonnet, there are fewer recognizable elements. The metrical pattern that is so common in these kinds of sonnets, iambic pentameter, only appears in one line of ‘Mowing.’ But, the final two lines of the text provide a reader with the same sort of surprising, impactful ending common to this sonnet form.
Summary of Mowing
The poem begins with the speaker describing how there are no sounds around him, aside from the swishing “whisper” of his scythe. He hears the scythe and wonders what it could be trying to say. This line of inquiry quickly leaves his head. He does not really believe it is speaking. In fact, he says without reservation, that hard work should be separate from fanciful imaginings.
All of these lines, while speaking to farming, also address Frost’s own writing practice and his desire to speak on mundane actions. Something might seem simple on the surface, but underneath the “easy gold” appearance there is a great deal of valuable work going on. The poem concludes with the speaker deciding that if his scythe was speaking, it too would express its appreciation of a simple life, lived with good intentions.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Mowing
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,(…)Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
In the first lines of ‘Mowing’ the speaker begins by stating that there is only ever one sound present in the woods. It is the sound that the speaker’s “long scythe” made as it brushed the ground. Frost personifies the speaker’s tool, describing the sounds it makes as “whisper[s].” This is a contrast that is immediately noteworthy.
A scythe is a piece of equipment used by farmers. It consists of a long pole, onto which a curved blade is attached. This is swung paralleled to the ground in order to cut crops. Generally, this tool is cast in a dangerous, if not somewhat foreboding, light. It appears more often than not as the choice weapon of the Grim Reaper. When Frost states that the scythe was “whispering” this places it it in an entirely different light. Now, one must consider its movements as gentle and precise.
The speaker, addressing himself and the reader, asks,
What was it it whispered?
He is unsure what the scythe is trying to communicate. He doesn’t expect the reader to know either. His best guess, at this point, is that it is “something about the heat of the sun.” By personifying the scythe, and giving the speaker something extra to think about while cutting crops, Frost has added wonder and an out of the ordinary element to a very mundane scene.
The speaker does not make another guess about what the “whispering” is. Instead he tries to reason out why he thought the scythe was, or is, whispering in the first place. He thinks that maybe he is the victim of a delusion, because of the sun beating down on him.
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—(…)Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
In the next quatrain or set of four lines, the speaker wonders why it is so quiet in the middle of a summer day. The silence is as mysterious to the speaker as the sounds that seemed to come from his scythe. He believes he only took note of the “whispering” because it was so quiet. Then comes to the conclusion that the scythe had to whisper because it was so silent. Otherwise, if there was a lot of noise around, it could “speak.”
It is at this point in the text that Frost introduces another element. It is under the surface, below the descriptions of farming. He is speaking on what it means to do hard work, and that sometimes things that seem simple, such as thinking about and writing poetry, are much more similar to mowing the lawn than they seem. His thoughts, as he is considering writing, are not easy. They are not gifts in “idle hours.” He is constantly working.
Additionally, he says that they are not “easy gold” sent to him from the hands of an “elf.” His poetry does not come into being by magic. It is not always an enjoyable process but Frost appreciates the hard work it takes.
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak(…)(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
In the ninth line, the speaker continues to flush out the situation. He is determined not to give into fanciful delusions about the world. The speaker feels that it would have diminished the world to dress it up in fake, magical pretense. Instead, the would like the reader to focus on the highs and lows of work, as well as the beauty and horror that lay in wait in life. These are seen through the “Pale orchises” and the “bright green snake.” There are always going to be troubles in life, and many of those will come as one is aspiring to work hard and trying to make something of their days. This should not put one-off.
This metaphor is especially applicable to Frost’s own poetic works. He was fond of writing about mundane, everyday activities, such as mowing the lawn. That does not mean that his work is worthless. He found value in every aspect of life, especially those that become the backbone of everything else one is able to do.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
The thirteenth line of the poem is striking and confusing. That is, until it is read alongside the fourteenth. The final line makes clear that the scythe is speaking. Frost’s speaker has come to a conclusion about what the scythe would say if it spoke, which he doesn’t really think it did. It would say,
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
This is a complicated way of saying that truth is important in labor. One should know what they’re working for and why they are working, and that’s it. There’s no need to complicate it further. He concludes with a simple description of his scythe and the work it is engaged in. He feels admiration for the straightforward intentions of the tool.