Robert Frost's "Mowing," or The Danger of an Uncritical Approach to Great Books

Hi everyone--

I did not realize until now how many of you are activists. I've been fortunate to teach in classrooms where my students were open about the change they seek. It's so important to get students to talk to each other, to see each other as part of a shared enterprise. I'm proud to say I've been able to accomplish it at least a few times.

Two things you might useful:

  • This lovely comic by Ruth Chan (link goes to facebook) about cultural differences, sincerity, and how much emotional labor is involved in what seems such a small gesture.
  • If you want to know what teaching in Dallas is like, here's a profile of the head of one of the community colleges around me. I've been encouraged to apply here. Please let me know what you think of that idea after you read this: "The Problem With Running Collin College Like a Business"

Below, I've done a reading of Frost's "Mowing" that takes on an attitude I know we've encountered far too often.

Robert Frost, "Mowing"

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

15 years ago, early in my studies, I would not have seen this statement for what it is.

I’d have analyzed the poem as a product of competing traditions, with all the blandness that sort of talk implies. In the poem, no additional speech is needed to embellish labor. The reward of labor does not depend on a “dream” or “easy gold.” Rather, it itself is the “truth” and an “earnest love,” a combination which could scare away a serpent.

I’d have talked about Frost reflecting on whether American Protestantism cultivates a specific ethic for literature. No need for elaborate stories where one travels to hell and heaven, running into kings and saints. One can sing anonymous laborers who work, who help the land produce for generations. I might have noted that Frost indulges a heavy irony in writing a metrical sonnet with a unique rhyme scheme. Perhaps it’s all poetizing, all fantasy, no matter the age we live and work. Or don’t work.

Robert Frost

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 know 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 not 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.

Now I can say this with confidence: “Mowing” can be useful for classroom discussion, but any serious discussion hinges on calling it out as propaganda.

Part of the problem is the politics of right now. Right now, any idiot can get on the radio and TV and start yelling about how “they” don’t work but “we” do. “We” is a direct line to white nationalism. There are those favored by God who should inherit this continent, whose labors are a blessing. They are making the New World the Kingdom of God, continuing traditions built by Puritans and preserved by the Constitution. Private property and the freedom to worship go hand-in-hand. And then there are the ungodly, those who don’t deserve to be here. They complain about being massacred or their rights being violated, because, um, they’re being massacred and their rights are being violated. They have the nerve to say that this country is nothing but a giant prison that lets its own citizens die so it can run commercials for drugs that remedy erectile dysfunction.

“Mowing” lets this cruel, nostalgic nonsense win the day. It paints a picture where speech is unnecessary if one is doing the work one ought. “There was never a sound beside the wood but one, / And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.” Literally, one does the work of the reaper, and it is nothing but virtuous. This poem, taught in certain settings to certain audiences, is a way of saying other people should not dare to speak out. That speaking is, by definition, not working.

Lost in the Wilderness
Photo by Tim Krauss / Unsplash

One can argue Frost does not live in the shadow of January 6th and an emboldened white nationalist movement which was a minute away from killing the Vice President. Fine. That might make this even worse: If we were in another country, reading this poem, wouldn’t we see this as imperial propaganda? The farm laborer is depicted as a greater man than most mythological figures. To wit: “It was not 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.”

There’s no hint that, in America, you can’t just work hard. Everyone wants to work hard. But plenty of people have been denied that opportunity to begin with. Either they’re not hired, or they’re put in situations where they are worked to death. Or stripped of dignity day-by-day. But here, the poem treats the virtue of the laborer as easily recognizable. It isn’t something that kills or traps them; the “truth” stands as a testament to it, and it is a product of “earnest love.”

To be recognized for one’s efforts and productivity is a matter of privilege. And when one goes further and says that effort and productivity rivals that of heroes and saints, what is being justified? It’s not absurd to say Frost’s reaper has inherited the Earth. Plenty of schoolboys read this poem and acted out their imperial ambitions. They may not have been inspired by it, but they certainly weren’t stopped by it.

It may be objected that Frost would see my criticism and admonish me for neglecting his ironic, detached stance. After all, he wrote a poem about the virtue of not speaking, of laboring on a farm and calling it a dream.

My response is simple: I’ve seen too many people dismiss extremism as mere rhetoric or a joke, when in reality it rots your brain. Braindead nostalgia is a form of extremism. The fruits of one’s labor never spoke for themselves; the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows asks any intelligent reader to clarify “fact,” “labor,” and knowledge. Frost’s snark isn’t good enough to save us from how this poem is used in certain curricula at this moment, where the only poets being read are from decades ago. Where someone can get a graduate degree and not have read a book from the last 100 years. I work with a great books approach when I teach. I’m not unaware of how much more is needed to make it work, to craft a truly educational experience.