The Tuft of Flowers

Robert Frost

‘The Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost is a poem about the lives of simple, hardworking people. As it progresses, it takes a more mystical turn.


Robert Frost

Nationality: American

Robert Frost is one of the most popular American poets of all time.

His highly accessible work made him famous in his lifetime.

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In this poem, the speaker goes to ‘turn the grass’ after it has been mown by a neighboring 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, in the next lines of ‘The Tuft of Flowers,’ the speaker no longer feels isolated, when he realizes that he and his co-worker share similar thoughts on the beauty of nature.

The Tuft of Flowers
Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after oneWho mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keenBefore I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,And I must be, as he had been, alone,

`As all must be,' I said within my heart,`Whether they work together or apart.'

But as I said it, swift there passed me byOn noiseless wing a 'wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er nightSome resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to lookAt a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had sparedBeside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speechWith one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

`Men work together,' I told him from the heart,`Whether they work together or apart.'
The Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Structure and Form

The poem is set out in 21 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.)

Analysis of The Tuft of Flowers

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 neighbor 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 the 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 filled 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 neighbor 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 spirit kindred to my own’ and later when they ‘held brotherly speech’.

The Tuft of Flowers’ 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 favor 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 neighbors, 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 neighbors can be found in ‘Out Out’ and ‘Mending Wall’.

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Helen McClements Poetry Expert
Helen is a teacher of English and French in a Grammar School in Belfast. Helen has contributed to articles on her Book Group in the Irish Times and her passion for running in The Belfast Telegraph.

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