Here’s a detailed analysis of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Gathering Leaves’. It’s tailored towards students taking the CIE / Cambridge A-Level syllabus but will be useful for anyone who’s working on understanding the poem at any level.
Great for revision, missed lessons, boosting analytical / research skills and developing students’ confidence in Frost’s poetry at a higher level. Enjoy!
This is just a part of poem analysis, for a full analysis of ‘Gathering Leaves’ that includes vocabulary, story/summary, speaker/voice, attitudes, context and themes, click here.
Gathering Leaves by Robert Frost
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 rabbit and deer
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?
Simplistic lexis – Frost uses a simplistic register to capture an innocent, childlike sense of wonder. He places the speaker and ourselves into a situation where we’re able to view the pure joy and fun of collecting and playing with the leaves.
Anaphora – ‘Next to nothing for weight…Next to nothing for colour’ – the speaker marvels at the different characteristics of the leaves, using negatives to describe them – they have no ‘weight’, no ‘colour’ and finally no real ‘use’.
Rhetorical questions – ‘And what have I then?’ / ‘Who’s to say where/ The harvest shall stop?’ – the speaker asks rhetorical questions that accuse or defend himself. It’s almost as if he’s having a battle with his own conscience, perhaps part of him is sure that there’s a more appropriate or useful thing he could be doing with his time. It may also be that he’s imitating the voice of the ‘haters’ – i.e. adults or more practical people who may look down on him and his task. He uses hypophora to answer the first question – ‘What have I then? // Next to nothing for weight’ – the stanza break creates a space in the poem, as if he’s pausing and thinking of a sensible reply.
Continuous verbs – the speaker is ‘gathering’ leaves, which make a ‘rustling’ sound that reminds him of the ‘running’ creatures in a forest. These continuous verbs create a sense of constant movement and action, like the process is ongoing and repetitive. However, though we may expect the speaker to be bored or sick of his task, he seems to delight in his work instead.
Tautology – the phrase ‘a crop is a crop’ seems to be the speaker’s final conclusion on the matter – he is sure that he takes the same pleasure from gathering leaves as any farmer would from cropping their harvest. Though this seems illogical, it makes sense to him and he’s very sure of himself – this may be ironically imitating the way in which adults speak to children, giving them strict or definite advice without any clear reasoning behind it.
Simile – the ‘great noise / Of rustling’ is described as ‘like rabbit and deer/Running away’ – this connects the act of leaf collecting to our primal heritage, the pleasure that ancient humans would have derived from hearing leaves rustle in a forest is evoked now in the speaker as he collects leaves and hears them make a similar noise. Furthermore the sibilance of ‘spades’ and ‘spoons’ enhances this idea, as it references the tools that early humans use to interact better with their world. This reference to primality links to the concept that not everything pleasurable is explicable or logical, that there are some enjoyments in life that don’t quite make sense or go deeper into our subconscious and are unable to be easily explained.
FORM / STRUCTURE
Title – The title contains a pun – it is a play on words. The phrase ‘gathering leaves’, if ‘gathering’ is taken to be a continuous verb could mean the act of collecting leaves. However, if we see ‘gathering’ as a gerund, a verb that has become a noun (as in ‘the gathering’), in a more metaphorical sense this would refer to the idea that what you collect together will eventually disintegrate and fall apart again – what you gather, will eventually leave. In a scientific sense, this references the idea of the First Law of Thermodynamics, that ‘matter cannot be created or destroyed’, as the leaves function similarly to particles – they collect, then dissipate (see context for more info).
ABAB rhyme scheme – the alternate rhyme creates a lilting rhythm that feels like a lullaby or song – it’s pleasantly childlike. It goes back and forth in a way that creates a playful and lighthearted tone, that slightly shifts perspective as it explores both the pointlessness and inexplicable joy of gathering leaves.
End stopped stanzas – Next to nothing for color. // Next to nothing for use – Each stanza is end-stopped – it feels complete and finishes with a full stop, reinforcing the speaker’s definite tone and absolute certainty that gathering leaves is a valuable act. The meaning does flow, however, from one stanza to the next – for instance in the penultimate stanza the speaker explores the different pointless qualities of the leaves – their lack of weight, their lack of colour, then he admits in the final stanza that they are of no real ‘use’ at all.
Rhetorical devices – the poem is replete with rhetorical devices – anaphora, tautology, hyperbole, hypophora, rhetorical questions (see above for detail on this) which are typically used when constructing persuasive, logical academic arguments. Frost turns these techniques on their heads, instead of twisting their use to playfully explore the illogical and inexplicable joy that can be found in doing nothing useful at all.
This is just a part of poem analysis, for a full analysis that includes vocabulary, story/summary, speaker/voice, attitudes, context and themes, click here.