Our homeschool poetry calendar for the year is now available at riverhouses.org/calendars — a collection of 48 friends you can get to know week by week. Most aren’t children’s poems per se, but they are quite suitable for high schoolers and advanced middle schoolers — and for mom and dad, too, since they also deserve a little intellectual inspiration from time to time! This week: Robert Frost’s “The Tuft of Flowers.”
Frost is a wonderful poet for younger people because his poems are generally well structured and use direct language. “The Tuft of Flowers” is a poem about mowing a field, and it features three characters: two farmhands and a butterfly. The first farmhand is the speaker; the second farmhand is “off stage” and never appears, although we discover something about him by seeing the work he has done; and the butterfly — the butterfly is the one who brings the two of them together:
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 bewildered 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.’
Frost is always a careful observer, and his details are precise. Have your students ever seen someone mow a field with a scythe? Here’s a simple example — the man in this scene is performing the first step, cutting the grass and leaving it in rows. He, or someone else, will come by later to turn the rows over so they will dry and not rot:
“I listened for his whetstone on the breeze,” says Frost. Skip ahead in the video to the 2:25 mark and you’ll see exactly what that sounded like.
“I left my place to know them [the flowers] by their name, / Finding them butterfly weed when I came.” Is “butterfly weed” an invention? Not at all. Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) is a common field-flower of the northeastern United States that is particularly attractive to butterflies.
It’s now late summer, and in many parts of the United States the Monarch butterfly migration is underway. Perhaps you can find a few Monarchs in an open field near you this week and trace the paths they take on tremulous wing. Who knows where they may lead you.
What wonderful words have you found and what literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool lately? 😊
❡ Making a new friend: When you introduce your students to a new poem, especially one in a traditional form, take your time, and don’t worry about “getting” everything right away. A good poem is a friend for life, and as with any friend, it takes time to get acquainted. Before you even start reading, take a look at the poem’s structure. How many lines does it have? Are the lines grouped into stanzas? How many lines in each stanza? How many syllables in each line? Many traditional poems are highly structured and fit together in an almost mathematical way, which you can discover by counting. Do the lines rhyme? What is the rhyme-scheme (ABAB, AABA, ABCD, or something else)? By uncovering these details of structure your students will come to understand that good poems are not the result of some kind of imaginative outburst on the part of the poet, but are instead carefully crafted pieces of literary labor. If a line or a turn of phrase happens to strike you, copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for the week, and your new poetical friendship has begun. 😊
❡ Look in the lexicon: There’s some good vocabulary in this week’s poem to look up in the dictionary (riverhouses.org/books): whetstone, tremulous, scythe. Send your students to the dictionary as well for any poetical terminology you encounter: stanza, couplet, quatrain, sonnet, pentameter, hexameter, iambic, dactylic, and more — wonderful words, every one! 😊
❡ Explore more: The website of the Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org) includes biographies and examples of the work of many important poets (such as Robert Frost) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers.