The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | The Tuft of Flowers | Summary

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Summary

A farmhand has come to a recently mowed field to turn the grass to dry. Self-consciously alone, he looks and listens for sight or sounds of the mower who preceded him. His solitude is neither welcome nor a mere sign of loneliness, but a model of the human condition; he is alone "as all must be." Distracted, he follows the erratic flight of a "bewildered butterfly." The farmhand thinks the butterfly must be searching for a flower it dimly remembers. It flies away from the speaker and then circles back. The speaker, watching the butterfly's trajectory, notices a tuft of bright flowers, "a leaping tongue of bloom" beside a brook. The flowers have been spared by the mower, the speaker speculates, out of his "morning gladness." His loneliness diminished by the thought, the farmhand recognizes the brotherhood of men at work, "whether they work together or apart."

Analysis

"The Tuft of Flowers" appeared in A Boy's Will (1913). This conventionally orderly poem operates through a series of metaphors. The butterfly circles the wilted flowers, flying back and forth from the speaker to the tuft of flowers, as the speaker interprets each leg of the flight. The flight establishes a link between the turns of the speaker's mind and the "bewildered" butterfly's coming and going.

The first half of the poem has an absence of sound that places all thought in the speaker's mind: the silence of the whetstone, the butterfly's "noiseless wing," and "questions that have no reply." A metaphor that operates across a poem in this fashion is called a "sustained metaphor," in contrast to a single comparison that operates only for the duration of a phrase.

The turning point in "The Tuft of Flowers" comes when the butterfly leads the speaker's eye to a "leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared." The field at once fills with sound at the sight of the flowers, with "a message from the dawn," the songs of "wakening birds" and the "long scythe whispering to the ground." The morning music brings "gladness." Thus, a change in tone and mood occurs with an end to the loneliness soothed by the feeling of a "kindred spirit."

Although the lonely speaker seeks kinship in work, intimations of death in the diction also emerge. A sense of loss develops in the words overheard from behind the barrier of a questioning mind: the "withering flower," the "questions that have no reply," the "scythe whispering to the ground."

This poem poses a neat order as readers follow the poet who follows the flight of the butterfly. The poem consists of 20 heroic couplets: 40 lines in rhyming pairs. Only one pair ends with a slant or imperfect rhyme (lines 15 and 16, which end with "upon" and "dawn"). Thirteen lines are end-stopped, which means they end a full thought. Seven lines are enjambed, which means they are not full thoughts and so carry the meaning and meter to the following lines. It is very precise, as are the end rhymes.

This poem does not seem to include the wildness that Frost insists is part of poem creation. It reflects order and close parallels between nature and the man: the butterfly's flight and the poet's thoughts; the butterfly's memory of the flower that has been mowed and the poet's thought "of questions that have no reply." These insistent parallels lead to a "message from the dawn," a message of memory and mystery.

The impetus for memory, however, is a flower "withering on the ground." The memory suggests loss and grief. The poem does end in a paean to the new day and the communion with renewal that the voices of the new day promise. There is birdsong and a leaping tongue of bloom that promise renewal and continuity. Still, another voice appears here as well. Death is the mower whose "long scythe" whispers "to the ground." The earthbound sigh is the sound of the day, work, and mortality. In this poem, there is communion among men not only in the rewards of work but in the inevitability of death.

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