The Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost – Respecting the importance of community

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 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.’
     I first heard this poem referenced by Chief Justice John Roberts at a Georgetown Law School Commencement. Having been impressed with his intelligence, eloquence, & demeanor (not to mention his resume), I found his citation of this poem wistful. One thinks of the highly educated, august Chief Justice role as being one of significant esteem and power, but he described the position as an honor tinged with a hint of melancholy – a melancholy that is particular not only to his job, but more generally, to the human condition. A black-robed judge ensconced in his office surrounded by books, papers, and a smattering of clerks, Roberts noted, actually reads, thinks, and pronounces in a very isolated fashion. As such, Chief Justice Roberts wonders, does one risk succumbing to a touch of despair at the alienation inherent in this role. Robert Frost’s poem provides the answer. It describes a lone worker, yearning for community, and finding himself disconnected from his fellow worker – his fellow man. It is not until, a tuft of flowers, alighted upon by a butterfly, and deliberately spared by the worker before him serves as a gift. It is a gift to reestablish contact in which hope is renewed, in which communion is reinvigorated between a man and mankind. The trajectory of the poem is down into isolated despair, and then up again to the hope of reclaimed community. The work we undertake, if it is to be meaningful at all, relies on community – even if we find our community purely in our ancestors, or in posterity. Communion with others matters. We should continue to look for the tuft of flowers left to us… and likewise, leave a tuft of flowers for others.
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