Gathering Leaves

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  • Gathering Leaves
    • In 1923 Frost took up a subject which his friend Edward Thomas had written about some years previously – the apparently pointless and frustrating task of gathering up the autumn leaves.
      •  Frost had written several poems about rural work. In Mowing for example he had reflected on the dignity of such tasks and the satisfaction to be derived from them. At the end of Gathering Leaves Frost refuses to accept that the work is without its point, insisting against the apparent facts that something had been achieved.
    • In this poem we see or rather hear what Frost meant when he said that in his poetry he was aiming for “the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre”, which would enable the poem to say more than the words.
      • Lines such as “But a crop is a crop” appear to be purposeless tautology, but such phrases turn up in our everyday speech when we wish to make an insistence against the facts.
        • Such a line, and the repeated phrasing of “Next to nothing for…” seem to catch the cadences of everyday speech in what they say about work.
    • The poem develops a tone of humorous complaint, conveyed by a series of similes where the elements of comparison are so inappropriate that all sense of seriousness or productivity is lost from the work
      • So, his spade is no better than a spoon; the products of his labour, the sacks of leaves, are feather-light, “light as balloons”. Although his work is accompanied by much noise – the onomatopoeic “rustling” – the comparison veers away from the work into the pattering feet of wildlife making itself scarce.
        • The imagery of the third verse hints at ambiguities in what the speaker is saying about work. The metaphorical use of mountains (for the leaf piles) seems to imply solidity, but this is countered by the liquidity suggested in “flowing over my arms/ And into my face”.
          • A second ambiguity – and this one applies more deeply to what Frost is saying about work - centres on the “embrace/ face” rhyme. Frost seems to be saying that the work is uncongenial and frustrating to him. It “eludes [his] embrace”, or as we might say, it gives him nothing back.
            • The laboriousness and tedium of the work re-merges immediately after this hint, an effective use of contrast in this poem which although short is pleasingly varied. This laboriousness is conveyed through the multiple repetitions of the following verses:
              • “I may load and unload Again and again Till I fill the whole shed. And what have I then? Next to nothing for weight; And since they grew duller From contact with earth,Next to nothing for color. Next to nothing for use. But a crop is a crop.”
    • The final repetition reverses the implications of futility and pointlessness in the previous ones by assertion that there has been a crop, whatever the value of that crop may have been.
      •  Frost uses two rhetorical questions towards the end of the poem, which balance each other structurally and thematically. “And what have I then?” The question is rhetorical because the answer has already been supplied, repeatedly, in the preceding lines. The second of these questions,
        • “And who’s to say where The harvest shall stop?” 
          •  rhetorical because it asks for information which cannot be supplied. These questions reinforce the dual view of work which emerges in Gathering Leaves: on the one hand the experience of work as an unsatisfactory expenditure of energy for “next to nothing”, and on the other the dogged insistence that there is a harvest and a reward and a product in it.
            • The “sound of sense” of the last two lines indicates that the gathering in of this harvest may be prolonged.

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