A brief note of prelude. I am reading The Voice that is Great Within Us, an anthology of twentieth century American poetry gathered by Hayden Carruth, and my intent is to make at least one post on each poet featured, if only, at least in the worst case, to note my dislike thereof. These posts will be gathered here. Onward.
Author: Robert Frost
“Mowing” stands out first for its greatness, but second for its structure. The former is best admired silently; the form is thus my subject here. “Mowing” is a sonnet, but not in either the Italian or the Shakespearian mode. Nor is it in the less common Spenserian mode. Rather, it utilizes a nonce rhyme scheme that effectively complements the meaning of the poem.
What is noteworthy about the Italian, Shakespearian, and Spenserian sonnets is that they all create natural subdivisions within the work through their rhyme scheme. The Italian sonnet creates an obvious octet/sestet division, with a lesser division of the octet into two quatrains. The Shakespearian sonnet, by contrast, gives us three quatrains and a couplet: each quatrain introduces and fully resolves a unique set of rhymes (ABAB followed by CDCD, etc.). The Spenserian sonnet lets the rhymes run over between quatrains (ABAB followed by BCBC, etc.), but each quatrain can nonetheless function as a stand-alone unit.
“Mowing” works differently. The rhyme scheme, in full, is: ABCABDECDFEGFG. This has two interesting properties. First, it forbids any subdivision into units. There is never a point, before the poem’s end, at which all rhymes thus far introduced have been resolved. Thus, for instance, the opening ABC is not fully resolved before Frost has introduced D and E, and this too is not resolved until Frost gives us F. Second, with the exception of G, the resolution of each rhyme comes at least three lines after its introduction, and C takes five lines to resolve.
These two features of form have two attendant, complementary effects. The lack of units gives the poem a powerful forward thrust, never letting it reach any hard stops. Even though there are periods after lines six and twelve (suggesting a division into two sestets), the need for resolution of the rhymes each leaves open keeps the poem traipsing onward. This effect is especially potent after line six, since the ABCAB scheme of the first five lines creates the expectation of a C in line six, which expectation is frustrated until line eight. The second effect is that the presence of rhymes in the poem is unobtrusive, so much so that on my first reading I didn’t even realize it was rhymed until I reached the end.
One last formal feature of the poem is worth noting: Frost’s use of numerous anapestic substitutions. The opening two feet of the poem (“there was never a sound”) are both anapests, which sets the tone, and I count seventeen total anapestic substitutions (nine in the first four lines), not counting the two line-opening trochaic substitutions (lines five and nine) that create a quasi-anapestic effect. (These two trochees are the only other substitutions in the poem.) This steadily disrupts the regular drum of iambs characteristic of a standard sonnet, giving the lines a loose, relaxed feel.
All of this perfectly serves the meaning of the poem. Frost drops us into a scene of a man hand-mowing grass, listening to the whish of the scythe through the grass and wondering what that whisper might signify. It is not a wish to be elsewhere (“It was no dream of the gift of idle hours”), nor is it a desire for some reward (“or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf”). Instead, it is a pure being in the moment, an expression of the scythe’s love of the grass, the pale orchises, the bright green snake. The narrator himself is nearly effaced from this moment, a mere spectator observing it from afar, recording what he sees. The form of the poem echoes this effacement: it too recedes into the background. The anapests make the iambic rhythm, still technically dominant, harder to hear, but without being obtrusive in the way heavy trochaic substitutions would be. The rhyme scheme makes the rhymes fade into the background, present, but not prominent, while the onward pulse it provides preserves the unity of the scene.
As a result, “Mowing” is an intricately structured poem that hides its form at every turn. Thus we, as readers, sink into the scene itself, not noticing (at first) the highly contrived manner in which it is presented. It is an example of supremely talented artifice, so talented that we hardly notice it is there.