In The Tuft of Flowers the Speaker goes to ‘turn the grass’ after it has been mown by a neighbouring farmer, but he is disappointed to see that he has already left and that he must complete the task alone. His spirits lift, however, at the surprise arrival of a butterfly, which appears almost to be ‘sent’ to draw his attention to a tuft of flowers which have been spared the scythe by the farmer. Noting this, the Speaker no longer feels isolated, when he realizes that he and his co-worker share similar thoughts on the beauty of nature. You can read the poem in full here.
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in 20 rhyming couplets, known here as heroic couplets as all are written in iambic pentameter. (There are a few slight variations with an extra syllable in the second line of several of the couplets.)
The Tuft of Flowers Analysis
As the poem opens we are given an insight into the lives of the New England people. The speaker’s predecessor rises early to complete his task ‘in the dew before the sun’.
The strong work ethic of his neighbour is made evident by the reference to his ‘blade so keen’ and the ‘leveled scene’, which shows that he has been thorough in his task. The Speaker sees no sign of him, despite trying to seek him out. The repetition of ‘I looked for him’ and ‘I listened for’ conveys that his loneliness is acute. This is also suggested by the dash in the fourth couplet between ‘been’ and ‘alone’ which almost seems to constitute a sigh. It causes him to reflect that perhaps we are all essentially on our own, as he recounts in the rather dreary aphorism:
“As all must be,” I said within my heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
This is where the poem though takes a mystical turn. It is as though some celestial being has sensed his despondency and sent the butterfly to lift his gloom. The immediacy of its appearance is made clear in the sixth couplet:
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly.
This prompts the reader to wonder why it should be thus bewildered; as though the butterfly also shares a sense of awe in the beauty of nature or the importance of the message which it has been sent to convey. The butterfly itself can be seen as a symbol of the Speaker’s inquisitive nature and longing soul, as it makes him think of ‘questions that have no reply’. The poet is a searcher, always looking for meaning behind everyday activities.
The language up to this point has been simple and straightforward, with a directness for which Frost was famed. However in the depiction of the butterfly and the description of the flowers, it takes an elevated turn. It is imbued with a quasi-religious quality, with the repeated references to its ‘wing’, at once ‘noiseless’ and ‘tremulous’. The Biblical allusion is continued as the flowers become ‘A leaping tongue of bloom’. This seems to be a direct reference to Pentecost in the Book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples, as they are gathered in a room, bereft and confused after Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. The disciples being speaking in tongues and are rejuvenated and filed with a new sense of purpose.
This sense of renewed energy is exactly what the Speaker experiences, upon noting that the flowers have been spared. After having felt a sense of disconnect with his co-worker, he comes full circle and his heart is filled with joy. This moment for him is like an epiphany; a rediscovery that he shares more with his neighbour than he thought. This is clear in the fifteenth couplet:
The butterfly and I had lit upon
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
The Biblical allusion is carried through here with the poet’s use of the colloquial phrase ‘lit upon’ which links back to the reference to the tongues of flame in the twelfth couplet. There are many references to a sense of rebirth, such as his appreciation of the ‘wakening birds’ and the repeated mention of the dew. There is a lovely use of gentle onomatopoeia when he hears ‘his long scythe whispering to the ground.’ In the penultimate couplet he states:
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
He feels a surge of appreciation for the farmer: all the more significant because it was so unexpected, so much so that he feels as though he is ‘dreaming’. The flowers are less significant because of their natural beauty, but because they represent the human tenderness of the farmer who left them. He reinforces this connection by saying he felt a ‘a spirit kindred to my own’ and later when they ‘held brotherly speech’.
The poem ends with the same aphorism as earlier in the poem, but this time it has been altered to send out a positive message. To stick with the Biblical allusions, the Speaker shares a moment of communion with his co-worker, and this connection transforms his outlook.
The musical tone of the iambic rhythm adds to the sense of harmony in the poem.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost, (1874-1963) is one of America’s best loved poets. He formed part of the Modernist Movement, by rejecting former elevated poetic styles in favour of a more direct approach, making use of a more conversational style and taking the everyday events from his life in the farming community of New Hampshire as his inspiration.
Frost had a complex relationship with his neighbours, sometimes finding fault with their endless preoccupation with work, and limited appreciation of the arts. He was sometimes the object of scorn, both by the snobbish poetry elite of the time, and also by the farming community, as he tried to straddle both worlds. Such derision for his neighbours can be found in Out Out and Mending Wall.