Skip to main content

Robert Frost's "Putting in the Seed"

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "Putting in the Seed"

Robert Frost's "Putting in the Seed" is an Elizabethan (English or Shakespearean) sonnet. It consists of three quatrains and a couplet. The rime-scheme, however, departs somewhat from the Elizabethan. Instead of the traditional ABABCDCDEFEFGG, Frost's rime-scheme offers the following variation, ABABABABCDCDEE.

As Frost has proclaimed his poem, "The Road Not Taken," to be a "very tricky poem," the poet likely thought of this poem as one of his "tricky" poems. His judicious use of subtle imagery and words that seem to carry a double-entendre can easily lead the gullible to read into his works an erotic component.

Such has happened with his nostalgic poem, "Birches," which has lead some readers, including George Montiero, professor emeritus of Brown University, to associate a young boy’s enjoyment of riding birch trees with masturbatory activity.

Again, his well-placed subtlety of expression plays tricks on the those who make the mistake of reading into a poem that which is not there. And the unfortunate mistake of reading into a poem what is not there leads to missing the finer issues that are there.

Such reading-into-a-poem likely happens because of the special reading poetry requires for complete understanding and appreciation. Too many readers believe that poems always have double meanings or at least never really mean what they say.

And also many beginning poetry readers think that poems rely solely on figurative language. However, many of the best poems do not employ poetic devices but simply work with literal language.

Interestingly, most of Frost’s deceptively simple poems might be considered "tricky." In order to comprehend and appreciate their complexity and nuance, most of Frost poems require much more thought than a cursory reading would allow.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Putting in the Seed

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

Reading of "Putting in the Seed"

Commentary

The speaker is dramatizing his deep love for the simple act of planting seeds in the earth's rich soil and watching them grow to a plant. Interestingly, Robert Frost was more successful with composing poems about farming than with the actual act of farming.

First Quatrain: Burying Apple Tree Petals

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.

In the first quatrain, the speaker/farmer addresses his wife. He tells her to come and get him after supper is ready. But he adds the somewhat capricious thought that maybe he will be prepared to stop work and maybe he will not. He will be "burying the white / Soft petals fallen from the apple tree" to fertilize the soil into which he will plant seeds.

Second Quatrain: Adding Nutrients to the Soil

(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,

Scroll to Continue

The speaker's wife, it seems, questions him about burying "soft petals," and the speaker answers that sure, they have not quite decayed, but they will add enough nutrients to help invigorate the soil.

Then the speaker completes his thought that began in the first quatrain: after the wife comes for him, he will see if he will stop his work to go back to the house with her, but in fact, he thinks she might forget that she came to get him for supper, when she sees the alluring act of farming. She might want to join him in preparation for planting.

Third Quatrain: A Passion for Planting

Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

If she becomes like him, she will be a "Slave to springtime passion for the earth." He has this passion, and if she sees how wonderful attending to this work is, she will probably want to join him because the act of planting is an act of love for nature, especially the mechanism that results in growing things.

And not only does planting foster such a passionate love, but also after planting, watching for the little sprouts to come bursting from the soil engenders in the earth-passionate "slave" a devotion that he expects to be contagious.

The speaker is looking ahead to "When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed," but the he drops off and waits for the couplet to complete that thought.

Couplet: The Bursting Forth of Seedlings

The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

As soon as weeds have started to take over the field/garden, the sprouts will be seen popping through the soil, and his little drama personifies the sprouts: "The sturdy seedling with arched body comes / Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs."

The farmer is fascinated by the bursting forth of little planted seedlings, and he thinks that if his wife comes to get him for supper, she will probably forget what she came for, as she watches the miracle of planting unfold.

Is This Poem about Coitus?

A few misguided, genital-obsessed readers of Robert Frost poems have been tricked by certain Frostian poetic devices and become convinced that the poet was writing about copulation in some of his poems. His beautiful and spiritual "Birches" has suffered this erroneous interpretation in the minds of certain readers and critics.

In this poem, "Putting in the Seed," the last five lines metaphorically dramatize the speaker's feelings about watching a plant grow from a seed: it is similar to watching the birth of a child.

Thus, in the image, "Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs," the speaker has personified the baby plant by likening it to a baby human as it is being born, as the child’s head and shoulders push their way from the birth canal out into the wide world through the blood and tissue "crumbs" left behind.

Poets employ metaphors and other figurative language to express similarity between two disparate ideas, thoughts, events, or things; a gross misreading will occur if the reader assumes the point of the poem lies in the metaphor. A metaphor is a medium not a message.

This poem is about the speaker's love for planting natural seeds and watching the plants grow from them—not about copulation and later watching the birth of a human child.

Robert Frost was somewhat of a curmudgeon, although a likable one, and no doubt he got a chuckle seeing readers impute to his lines, through their own misguided ability to read into a poem, what is not there.

Sources

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles