The Hope of Gathering Leaves with Robert Frost

Fall is my favorite time of the year. Though nature appears to be singing her swan song, the "music" she produces is beautiful to look at. Robert Frost traces the activity of gathering leaves in "Gathering Leaves" (provided for your reading pleasure at the bottom of this brief article). With six stanzas of four lines each, Frost draws the reader in with quick, simple and concise lines in order to capture the reader's attention to the subject of gathering leaves. 

The voice of the poem is first person singular, but the gender is unclear, thus allowing both sexes to identify with the action. The individual doing the action in the poem is "taking up" (1) leaves with a spade, as opposed to a rake or a shovel or her hands. She is making a considerable amount of noise during the process (5-6) and the task appears to be overwhelming (9-12). She is loading and unloading (13-14) the bags of leaves into a shed (15) as opposed to a barn, or a place in the back yard, or in the back of a truck. Notice that the person is "gathering" leaves rather than "raking" leaves or "scattering" leaves or "burning" leaves. Yet, she does not appear to be complaining. As a matter of fact, though the "harvest" of leaves is good for nothing (21), "a crop is a crop." (22) The notion of gathering leaves resembles harvesting rather than merely raking leaves in order to dispense with them. 

But what about leaves can be harvested? Since dead leaves are "next to nothing for use" (21), in what sense can they be considered a harvest or a crop (22, 24)? Perhaps not at all. The harvest may not consist of the leaves themselves but in the experience of gathering leaves. As is the case for literary modernism, that the search for meaning is meaning, so here the gathering of leaves is the harvest; the harvest does not consist in the leaves in and of themselves.

A spade is used to break up and move dirt, but Frost uses the tool in this poem for gathering leaves, which is a normal practice for many people year after year. He notes that the spade is capable of "taking up" leaves (1) but is practically "no better than spoons." (2) If the spade is no better at taking up leaves than spoons, then why not use a tool that is better suited for the task -- a tool like a rake? Conceivably, the gatherer's use of a spade for gathering leaves corresponds with Frost's unconventional, natural language which he utilizes to undermine and challenge the Romantic, literary tradition. A spade may be an unconventional way to gather leaves, but it still works.

We may rightly ask why the individual in the poem is gathering leaves rather than scattering or burning leaves. Yet, the setting is in autumn, which is the time of harvest as much as it is a season of decline. The historical king Solomon admits that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together (Ecc. 3:1, 2, 5). Fall is a season for plucking up and for gathering. The gatherer is not scattering leaves -- pushing the leaves away from her. She is not burning leaves -- consuming and annihilating them. She is gathering leaves (her crop) to herself and containing them in bags to be stored in her shed as a harvest.

The leaves have grown "duller from contact with earth" (18-19), having lost their original color (20). Though considered useless by most people, these are gathered together as a crop. The life that the leaves once experienced, by growing out of the tree, has come to an end. They were sown with hope and enjoyed life but now have died and are being gathered for harvest. What has been is not in vain or void of worth.



Imagery is effective in this poem. The displacement of weight ("full") and light is a welcomed and positive one, for appearance can be deceptive. The bags full of leaves (occupying space) may appear heavy, but in fact they are light (because of the substance), and not a burden in the least. The substance which occupies the space is manifestly inconsequential. Furthermore, Frost chose to give the gatherer a small shed (15) instead of a large barn, where farmers keep a harvest. I think this conveys the idea that space (size) can be deceptive. What matters is not the amount of space occupied but the substance which occupies the space. His perspective is that quality trumps quantity. Frost's gatherer is undeterred by the sizable bag of leaves because the mass is actually light. The reader is invited to contemplate substance over size and reality over embellishment. A form or belief which one has always revered may be nothing more than an illusion.

However, the reader is tempted to read too quickly through the poem, thus overlooking why the gatherer thinks she has gained a harvest. She has accomplished this harvest with much hard work. Can you see her taking up the leaves, putting the spade to the ground and straining with each stroke to put the dried, dead leaves into the bag (1-2)? Can you smell the autumn leaves? Can you feel, smell and taste the cool, autumn air? Can you feel the handle of the spade in your hand? Can you see how the "mountain" is actually light as balloons (3-4, 9)? Can you hear her making a great noise of rustling the leaves, as when a rabbit or a deer runs away from sudden noise (5-8)? Can you sense how overwhelmed she must seem by the mountain of bags eluding her embrace, flowing over her arms and into her face (9-12)? Can you see the sweat on her forehead from loading and unloading again and again, filling the shed with the bags (13-15)? Can you hear the sound the door of the shed makes as she opens and closes it? Do you see in her face the realization that the leaves have no monetary or agricultural value (17-21), but, nonetheless, she admits that she has obtained a crop (22)? Her harvest is in the experience of the gathering, not in the leaves.

Both the tone and emotion of Frost's poem from my perspective are positive. Though the gatherer is surrounded by death -- autumn is a season of decline, when things begin to die -- she understands that this period in her life is temporal; seasons change. After autumn comes winter; after winter comes spring. Hope is alive. After gathering and clearing away leaves she will gather and clear away snow. But when the snow is gone -- and it will go -- spring will bring about new life. The gatherer is not concerned or alarmed about bagging up leaves, for she knows that this season in her life will pass in time. It has come to pass before and it will come to pass again. When life seems as overwhelming as bags of leaves which elude her embrace, flowing over her arms and into her face, she can remain positive because she understands the temporary nature of the season. The "bags of leaves" in her life are not "half empty," so to speak, they are "half full," even overflowing. Her "harvest" is plentiful, and her "shed" is full.

Finally, one question remains regarding the reaper's gathering of leaves. Frost writes: "Next to nothing for use. / But a crop is a crop, / And who's to say where / The harvest shall stop?" (21-24) Autumn is a season -- a period of time when a person harvests a crop. But the reaper does not ask when the harvest shall stop but where it shall stop. The question is framed not in time but in space.

The element of space in the poem includes the outdoors (1-12), the shed (13-16), and the ground (19-20). Are we permitted to conclude that the harvest stops at the shed? Who is to insist that harvesting stops there? If harvesting consists in the experience of gathering rather than what is gathered (i.e., space vs. substance, as seen above) then the element of time with regard to a harvest is subordinate. A person is not confined to gathering leaves to gain a harvest. The issue of life is not when the harvest comes -- it comes whether or not you are prepared -- but where you are in life's season when it arrives. The gatherer views the harvest as spatial as much as substance -- as a place as much as a season. The reader understands, therefore, that "gathering leaves" is not a cyclical, rote practice, but an aspect of one's existential mortality.

__________

GATHERING LEAVES

Spades take up leaves / No better than spoons, / And bags full of leaves / Are light as balloons./

I make a great noise / Of rustling all day / Like a rabbit and deer / Running away. /

But the mountains I raise / Elude my embrace, / Flowing over my arms / And into my face. /

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, / And who’s to say where / The harvest shall stop? /

__________

Robert Frost, "Gathering Leaves," in Anthology of Modern American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 100-01.