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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Baxter

The Hero's Return: Robert Frost's "Flower Gathering"

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow or National Floral Industry Support Day, as I prefer to call it. What could be more appropriate than Robert Frost’s 1913 poem, “Flower Gathering,” as everybody scrambles to purchase last minute blossoms for their significant others.

Link to poem here:

Most analyses of this poem seem to label it as a light, sweet little bit of love poetry: a poet leaves his wife for the day to go wander around in the hills and do whatever it is that poets do. He comes back that evening with a handful of flowers to make up for his time away. A nice little inscription for a Hallmark card to go with the Valentine’s Day special at the florist’s shop.

Other readings interpret it as hinting at a lovers’ spat and that the flowers are an act of contrition on the part of Frost for abandoning his wife all day.

There may be some of that going on, but I’m picking up on a lot more under the surface of this poem. I believe the poem is actually a nuanced reflection on the culmination of the hero’s journey, the return of the hero. Mythic scholars, such as Joseph Campbell, have broken the process down into three main acts, wherein the hero is called to adventure, has a significant life-changing experience, and then returns home a changed person. It’s this final act that the poem hints at, through various stylistic shifts.

The poem begins with a lilting iambic trimeter. (Three beats per line with the emphasis on the second syllable of each foot.)

I left you in the morning

And in the morning glow

You walked a way beside me

To make me sad to go

It’s a simple, sing-song meter and makes the reader feel that this is another light piece of romantic poesy. It’s here that Frost changes gears.

Do you know me in the gloaming?

Gaunt and dusty gray with roaming?

By subtly shifting the emphasis to the first syllable of each foot, Frost makes these lines stand out by deviating from the pattern he established in the first verse. The question literally hangs in the air, as if between the two lovers at their twilight reunion. Do you still know me? Or has my journey changed me so that I am no longer recognizable to you? Do you still recognize me in the dusk here before you?

There’s the rub. That’s the eternal question of the returning hero. It’s Odysseus asking Penelope. It’s every service man and woman asking their families after a long deployment. I know I’ve changed, but have I changed so much that you do not know me? Are you silent because you know me not? Or silent because you…know…?

Here Frost abruptly changes the tone by attempting to divert his wife’s attention to the flowers has brought. Half-jokingly, he says:

All for me and not a question

For the faded flowers gay

That could take me from beside you

For the ages of a day?

He’s deprecatingly saying, “What’s the big deal about me? Look at these flowers, albeit faded, I have brought you. Don’t you have anything to say about them? They were the reason I left you in the first place, what do you think?”

He then quietly acknowledges the significance of his departure: “I may have been gone for just a little time, but it has been a long time emotionally. Please accept these, please accept me, for what we are worth to you.”

They are yours, and be the measure

Of their worth for you to treasure

The measure of the little while

That I’ve been long away

With virtuosic touches, Frost has created a masterpiece in subtlety and unspoken words and thoughts. This short poem speaks volumes about lovers’ reunions as well as the larger theme of the final (and most difficult) chapter of the hero’s journey, the return.

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