Lesson #282: Reflecting on Work, Empathy, and Nature in Robert Frost’s ‘The Tuft of Flowers’(1915)

It has been quite a long time since we enjoyed a poem together. One that comes to mind from time to time, and which seems so appropriate for the day (being his birthday) is the American poet Robert Frost’s poem, ‘A Tuft of Flowers’. 🎕

Let’s take a step away from grammar today and enjoy the meaning of these lines:



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 levelled 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.’


turn the grass: to turn the cut grass over

after one: after someone

mowed (past simple of ‘to mow’): to cut grass

dew: the light drops of moisture on the ground in the cool of the morning

blade: the flat cutting edge of a knife, saw, or other tool or weapon; the flat, wide section of an implement or device such as an oar or a propeller

keen: having or showing eagerness or enthusiasm; (describing one of our five senses) highly developed

the levelled scene: the scene or landscape where all the grass has been levelled (cut flat and reduced to the same level everywhere)

isle: island

whetstone: a fine-grained stone used for sharpening cutting tools

gone his way: gone away to do whatever he needed or wanted to do

mown: the past participle of ‘to mow’ (to cut grass)

swift: quickly, lightly and fast

noiseless: extremely quiet, without any noise

‘wildered: bewildered (stunned, surprised, shocked, shaken and amazed at the same time). Note: Frost removed the first syllable from ‘be-wild-er-ed’ because he wanted to have a reduced number of syllables in the poem’s line and rhythm; but generally we don’t reduce a word like this, unless we are speaking very quickly and informally. In a way, Frost’s choice here adds a sense of conversational, chatty friendliness to his poem – his language is mostly simple, thoughtful, and approachable.

seeking (from the verb ‘to seek’): to search for

grown dim o’er night: grown dim (or dark, murky, invisible) overnight

resting flower: a flower on which the butterfly could rest

lay withering: lay withering or wilting or decaying

as far as eye could see: This is a phrase we sometimes use in English – ‘as far as eye can see’ – to describe seeing something far into the distance.

tremulous: shaking or quivering slightly; timid, nervous

on tremulous wing: flying on his trembling wing

questions that have no reply: deep, existential questions that cannot be easily answered

to toss the grass to dry: to throw the grass up in the air so that it is exposed to the air that will help it to dry better (for the purpose of feeding it to cattle, horses, etc, later on)

But he turned first: but the butterfly turned first

and led my eye to look: and it led me or directed me to look …

tuft: a bunch or collection of threads, grass, hair, etc. held or growing together at the base

brook: a small stream

a leaping tongue of bloom: a ‘tongue’ or tall tuft of flowers blooming that looked like they were leaping or jumping up on the side of the mown field

scythe: a tool used for cutting crops such as grass or corn, with a long-curved blade at the end of a long pole attached to one or two short handles

spared: had not cut, had rescued from being cut or destroyed

reedy: full of reeds or tall thin plants that look like grass and grow in water or on marshy ground

to know them by their name: to identify them by their proper botanical names

Finding them butterfly weed when I came: finding out or discovering, when I reached them, that they were called ‘butterfly weed’

had loved them thus: had loved them, wanted to protect them, thus (in this way)

flourish: to grow and blossom and reach their full potential

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him: [he hadn’t] spared the flowers because he wanted to draw our thoughts and sympathy to him as a kind person

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim: but he had done it from pure morning gladness at seeing the overflowing edge of flowers

had lit upon: had lighted upon (suddenly discovered [the flowers] on arrival)

dawn: the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise; the beginning of a phenomenon or period of time, especially the beginning of a day

a message … that made me hear the wakening birds around: a message that made me sensitive to hearing the birds awakening all around me

whispering to the ground: making a whispering noise (speaking very softly using one’s breath rather than one’s throat, especially for the sake of secrecy), as if the scythe were speaking softly, rhythmically to the ground.

a spirit kindred to my own: a kindred spirit, a spirit that feels like a close friend or relation

henceforth: from this moment onwards

I worked no more alone: I didn’t work alone any more

I worked as with his aid: [it seemed to me as if] I worked with his help at my side

weary: showing extreme tiredness, especially because of excessive exertion.

sought at noon … the shade: searched for the shady places at noon (when the sun is at its highest and hottest)

as it were: seemingly, in a way, as if something where the case/true

held brotherly speech: enjoyed or carried on a brotherly or friendly conversation

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach: with someone whose thought or mind I hadn’t expected to reach, talk with, have fellowship with, interact with.

Men work together: people work together

from the heart: with deepest, fullest sincerity; within one’s heart or mind or spirit


Please re-read the whole poem now together with this vocabulary list that I have prepared for you. Take time to wonder and imagine what Robert Frost is saying.

🫴 Have you ever felt a kind of empathy (deep feeling of identification) with someone you haven’t met, all because you respect the same things in life?

I have. I like to buy second handbooks, and sometimes I find handwritten notes, dried flower petals, or even old photographs among the pages of these pre-loved books. They remind me that this book was read and loved by a person who is a stranger to me, and yet whose tastes in literature or culture I can understand and appreciate. ✨

I think however that Frost’s experience of empathy is even stronger than mine is whenever I find a second-hand book with markings. I say this because I think work – like the work of cutting grass by hand – requires more personal effort and involvement, more heart-felt commitment, than the simple pleasure of enjoying a book that someone else appreciated too.

What do you think? 💭

Feel free to write your thoughts and send them to me via my contact form here. I will be happy to read them and share a little conversation with you by distance. As Frost put it, whenever people value the same things in life, they ‘work together … Whether they work together or apart’.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)