Something a little different today. A brief jaunt into the poetical realm. But it all has to do with history, in the end. As most things do from my perspective.
My favorite poet: Robert Frost. I am no literary critic but I know what I like and I see in his poetry familiar imagery of rural New England that feels comfortable. I also like the fact that beneath the ostensibly pragmatic Yankee tone of his writing are hints of pastoral Romanticism and nostalgia for the past.
Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874 where his hard-drinking father worked as a newspaper reporter. His father died when Frost was twelve and his mother, then destitute, took the family to live with her inlaws (Frost’s paternal grandparents) in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Frost’s grandfather was involved in textile mills and was a wealthy man.
In the 1890s, just out of high school, Frost worked various jobs in Lawrence which he loathed, spent a semester at Dartmouth College which he quit, and struggled to publish some poetry. His first poem, “My Butterfly” (not his best) was published in the New York Independent in 1894. Success at last…but fame was still a long way off.
He married Elinor White in 1895, spent two years at Harvard University, then, in 1900 at age 26, did something entirely different. His grandfather purchased a farm for Frost and his growing family in Derry, New Hampshire. This was the ideal environment for the ambitious poet. He wrote in the mornings, spent the afternoons working the farm and also taught English at Pinkerton Academy. Sounds like the perfect life to me. Here he wrote (but did not yet publish) some of his better known poems, inspired by the landscapes and inhabitants of rural New England.
He had a tough time making a living as a farmer, however, so he gave it up in 1911 and moved with his family to England, hoping that the literary circles there might assist him in at last becoming a successful poet. It worked. With the support of several writers including Ezra Pound, Frost published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, in 1913 at age 39. By the time he published his second book, North of Boston, in 1914 Frost had at last achieved fame.
One of my favorite Frost poems, “The Tuft of Flowers,” appeared in his first book. I find that the message behind it is poignantly relevant to the work of historians. Or, at least sentimental ones like me.
The Tuft of Flowers
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before 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 by
On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some 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 look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside 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 speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
What is it about the image of mowing that gets me? In one of my first posts, I discussed my favorite painting which also has mowing as the subject matter. I guess it’s a good metaphor for your life’s work…tiring, seems to go on forever, but also full of things beautiful and surprising.
Frost’s speaker follows up behind a lone mower (long since left from the scene) to turn the grass, wishing he were not alone in his work. But he spots the tuft of flowers carefully preserved by the mower for their own sake and suddenly feels a connection to the unknown man. Not a stranger now, but someone with whom he fancied he had had a brotherly chat in the shade. A kindred spirit.
Knowing that it will sound overly sentimental, I have to admit that I have often felt the same way about the historical profession. It is my job to preserve and promote objects and stories, these many “tufts of flowers,” that have been carefully left behind by people I do not know. People who died decades or even centuries ago. And, in many cases, by getting to know their story, their legacy, coming to understand why they decided to leave behind that particular tuft of flowers, I, like Frost, feel a little bit like I am sitting down with someone “whose thought I had not hoped to reach.”