The Sweetest Dream That Labor Knows: Williams and Frost


The poetry of William Carlos Williams and the poetry of Robert Frost are more similar, in spirit and practice, than conventional ideas about them might convey.

As examples of what I mean, here are two poems about work. Mowing and roofing, in these poems, have implications for the work of writing, but in both poems the physical labor itself is also respected, in attentive detail. “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows,” says Frost, summarizing one element in American modernism: attention to the hard edges and exact textures of reality, in reaction against a merely dreamy or idealized, poetic vision. “It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,/ Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.”

Williams, too, writes with an “earnest love.” If “anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak,” then a beautiful, deadpan sentence about eight foot strips of copper, beaten lengthwise at right angles, can dance across two stanzas.

“It was a time,” says Williams in I Wanted to Write a Poem, “when I was working hard for order, searching for a form for the stanzas, making them little units, regular, orderly. The poem “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” is really telling about my struggle with verse.”

Like Marianne Moore writing about “The Master Tailor” with his “invisibly executed pockets” and “buttons of ocean pearl—no two alike,” these poets look at the tools and materials of work with implicit attention to the craft of verse. Frost’s unconventionally rhymed sonnet and Williams’ neat triads, both, are means toward a goal of lucid attention to materials and tools. Both poems listen to what the work whispers. Both take up the material and run an eye along it, while ruminating, both, with a feel for American idiom.


Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.



There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.


160 thoughts on “The Sweetest Dream That Labor Knows: Williams and Frost

  1. Pingback: “CLASSIC POEM” DISCUSSIONS RETURN TO | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum

  2. This month’s discussion fulfills my hope for this forum: people talking to one another, introducing poems and ideas. Not me venting– though I assure everyone that I’m a faithful reader. Gives me high hopes for the April edition, in a few weeks. I will try to come up with another instigation! And as with the other earlier discussions ( — Epigrams, The Man of Double Deed, Bogan, others– this is now a lasting resource. Thank you all!

  3. My friend Jon Tribble, a poet, editor, and teacher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has done a series of poems on fast-food work, and two of them appear here: The sensory memory of the work brings out so much of the crushing fatigue, both physical and mental, that is part of the cost of this type of work. The moments of grace are fleeting, but they are most certainly there, more in the form of what is buried inside, what is sometimes not so successfully guarded from the onslaught of the mess and the cleanup, all day, every day. The music and sensory weight of the language made me think of our discussions here.

  4. Late to the party this time, but here’s one thought about “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows” that I didn’t see duplicated in a brief scan of previous comments–if I missed it, sorry!

    I always took this line roughly in the sense that Jesse Glass did, as a tough-talking reply to the dominant styles of poetry circa 1900–let’s talk about work and facts, not dreams.
    But thinking further, it seems to me that there’s an interesting tension in saying that “fact” is itself a “dream.” If a dream is something imagined that is not actually there, that might imply not only that labor deals with facts, but that labor _creates_ facts: hay is not a “fact” until the mower is done, nor is the new roof in the WCW poem a “fact” until the copper has been put in place and sealed with pitch. Labor moves a “fact” from the domain of dream into the domain of reality.

    For Hegel, the master-slave relation dissolves because, by the very work that the slave does at the command of the master, the slave discovers his or her own ability to change the world as found, and eventually uses that knowledge to dissolve the master-slave relation itself.

    I doubt that Frost stayed up nights reading Hegel, but the convergence is suggestive.

    Off topic: I am very glad to find that stalwarts of the old Poetry Fray on _Slate_, such as Mary Ann and Ted Burke, are finding their way into this new forum.

    • Paul, it was really early in the morning in Japan when I misdirected my reply to you. My apologies for that. Just wanted to say that if Hegel is at the table of discussion, I think Wittgenstein, Austen, Quine, Searle, and the analytical language philosophers–those who look deeply at how syntax and semantics do their work when they’re put together should also be invited in Stripping away the literary baggage down to the linguistic vectors of meaning and uncovering the “motor” of the poem seems a very modern–and a very American– thing to do, and Williams does just that in his “fine work”. The poem as objective picture of an “event” is very Wittgensteinian (the Tractatus), an idea that was picked up later by George Oppen and company when they created the Objectivist group and featured Williams as one of their number in the first Objectivist anthology. It’s also very post-modern in the fact that the poem shows us its process–like a transparent fish–or maybe a pocket watch with a crystal case–so that–in its radical simplification–we can see the sun through the cogs. But of course Poe was the first in America at least to consider the poem as a “machine of words”–a written hurdy gurdy–created to give a certain effect. Jess

      • Jess,

        Thanks for this illuminating response–I especially like two of your observation, which are very elegantly phrased;

        1.that modern American poetry is engaged in “stripping away the literary baggage down to the linguistic vectors of meaning and uncovering the ‘motor’ of the poem . . .”

        2. that “it’s also very post-modern in the fact that the poem shows us its process–like a transparent fish–or maybe a pocket watch with a crystal case. . . . “

        • You know, Paul–I’m thinking now in terms of William Carlos Williams’ other accurate poems like this one:

          Classic Scene

          A power-house
          in the shape of
          a red brick chair
          90 feet high

          on the seat of which
          sit the figures
          of two metal

          commanding an area
          of squalid shacks
          side by side–
          from one of which

          buff smoke
          streams while under
          a grey sky
          the other remains

          passive today

          There it is, a perfect visionary picture–a “space” opened up to our eyes by the measuring of it and the accuracy of it. Like Ezekiel in the valley of Chebar:

          The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of a beryl..etc. etc.

          That accuracy of measure and quantity and shape even gave someone like Newton a run for his money, though he saw the poetry of his time as some clever diversion, he spent years trying to tease out the implications of the measurements of the city of god in the book of Revelations, though it’s all a big mysterious prose poem–and one of the sources of our shared nightmare of the Apocalypse that people seem intent on watching for and replicating over and over in the West.

        • Also thinking in terms of tensegrity–the “bounce” of a poem–so many of the minimalist poems that work, like Williams’ roofers have that about it: everything works to further the effect–nothing is wasted.

    • Hello, Breslin,

      there was one thing that was troubling me all along, about how work defines a person and a person defines herself/himself by the work she/he puts in,
      which is why I counter the Hegel – “the master-slave relation dissolves because…”
      I guess work also brings in the hierarchy,
      but then again, it is not whether one is on the highest chair or the lowest rung of the ladder, I guess it is the personal involvement with what one does, the zen space of total involvement,

      and I do think that both the poems point the writer towards that. Regardless of which culture one hails from, which is why work is so important a thing, I think,

      but mine is just one opinion…

      • I also forgot to add – that it is next to impossible to change the world, but it changes because one’s perspective of the world improves when the involvement with work improves,
        the direct visible product being a better processed one,

        • Hello, Anna.
          I wasn’t necessarily think of changing the world, but of changing grass to hay, or stones, pitch, and copper into a roof. My point is that when one is able to effect such local, concrete changes as these, one’s sense of creative agency is enlarged.

          And every once in a while, these transformations can indeed “change the world.” Hegel was probably thinking, as Susan Buck-Morss has argued, of the Haitian Revolution, which began as a coordinated slave revolt and ended up as a victorious war against the French colonizers. It occurred to the slaves that the stamina and strength used in service of their masters could also be used against them, that they could swing their cutlasses at something other than cane, that if they could work cooperatively in the highly regimented process of sugar production, they could also resist in an organized fashion.

          I appreciate your praise of “the zen space of total involvement. But Zen practice also leads to a realization that nothing exists in itself, apart from everything else, and that goes for “work” too–it’s just a name for a wide range of different activities conducted in different contexts.

          If you were one of WCW’s skilled craftsmen working on a roof, or Frost’s mower (who appears to be working for himself and seems happy in what he’s doing), you’d enter that “zen space”more easily than if you were doing a “McJob,” let alone cutting canes from dawn to nightfall under threat of the whip, with no share in the profit or product of your labor. It’s hard to imagine that a Caribbean slave would have found much comfort in knowing that the quality of the sugar and rum produced on the plantation was “a better processed product” than the stuff produced on such other plantations.
          So “work” remains an abstraction, an empty name, unless you ask: what kind of work; who is doing it, and for whom and with what recompense; how is the work socially organized; is it respected or despised?

          It is true, though, that you sometimes see people doing ill-paid, alienating work with astonishing grace and attention to detail. One respects such people immediately. Maybe, despite the discouraging circumstances, they have managed to inhabit “the zen space of total involvement.”

          • Hello Paul and Anna–Though Hegel is of interest, I think Gauss’ calculations proving the truth of Bode’s law gives us an important insight into the connection between Hegel’s dialectic, brilliant though it may be, and objective, physical events. Though Hegel’s logic allowed him to say–no if’s and’s or but’s–that the search for planets outside the sacred seven would result in failure, Gauss proved otherwise. That’s why much of Hegel and lots of Heidegger and our more modern continental metaphysicians strike me as so much thinking in the subjunctive mode, much of it taking place in la la land, interesting though it may be. Near Wendell Berry’s Farm, next to Gary Snyder’s Zen retreat, there are two little philosophical temples with eternal flames fluttering before them–dedicated to the two super H’s: Hegel, and Heidegger–all erected on the shores of beautiful Lake Wobegone. I think, if we begin to consider masters and slaves and the Haiti revolt in such abstract terms, and not in terms that take into consideration the history and the fracktalform ripples that Haiti sent across the world, and its very real effect on the “Peculiar Institution” in America and those who suffered most from it, we might well keep Hegel’s failure in mind, and not risk failing ourselves in the pure light of objective facts. I’d also like to add that there’s a saying here in Japan that Zen is Buddhism for Americans. It’s not popular among the average Japanese–in fact it’s rather suspect. In addition, it’s heavily dependant on Japanese culture itself–like the language–if you’re not a native speaker it’s difficult to connect with nuance–the same with Zen–if you look at it through Western eyes you will be seeing it with the expectations you’ve internalized since childhood of what a religion is supposed to be and do. So when you start throwing the word Zen around, please keep in mind that you’re probably wrong about it, or speaking of Americanized or Britishized forms of it.. Unfortunately Zen has been used to sell any amount of philosophical hair tonic and shoe polish to the rubes who like the apparent “ease” of it and believe accordingly. Not that either of you are rubes, mind you. Finally, I’ve just been reading about the work environment at Amazon–mcjobs for real–and wonder how anyone manages to work gracefully when your every step is monitored by the gizmo you carry and the threat of being fired hangs over you from minute to minute, and the fact that 16 other people are lined up for your job the moment you fail to reach the goal that the company chooses for you and then deliberately increases to make you run to catch up. An earlier post about the Toomer poem mentions the dignity of work. How is it possible that dignity of anything could survive in such an environment? Frost’s mower seems to have his dignity intact, and certainly Williams’ roofers appear to have it. Even Toomer’s workers might be said to have their dignity. What is the future of American work going to be like if such “scientific” models as Amazon’s–and others’– proliferate?

            • Hi Breslin and Jesse,
              what I will not mention is the c word called consumerism and supply and demand, ( but I did, didn’t I? )

              I think that someone working a job where it is easy to be fired for not exceeding expectations for pennies and rough times, is more in need for total detached involvement in the work, it would at least improve their own morale, the wages are bad enough to be forgotten. Also I think most of the employees are students and shift workers, those working at flexi – jobs,

              which brings us back to the poems on work posted here, and the reason they are what they are, is because they speak about works where quality matters,
              and the way the work is done is what rings in the demand,
              which is why they learnt – as in the WCW poem that Prof Pinsky has chosen- or the poems about cutting grass….

              which Breslin, brings me to what you mentioned: the slave being unrewarded and unappreciated for the sweat work- I think that the unrewarded and unappreciated need to be uninvolved with expectations and do the work for their own satisfaction, because a good day’s good work helps one sleep better, no matter what,

              and that is true in case of anyone, writer, poet, reaper, manual labourer, etc, etc,

              plus of course, the fact that a job well done appears easy, and offers respite under a midday sun, and

              (plus the fact that the jobs that fire an employee with ease are little different from what you speak of in Haitian history, why do these people not act for their collective benefit? )

              Jesse, yes, about Zen, I will for this once listen to your advice.

              …I will not have internet access for the next week or so, moving away from my desk

              good work and great sweat


              • Anna and everyone, no need to take my advice about anything–it’s not required in the syllabus of the great schoolhouse in the sky, where one great American poet avers that all will be explained.

                • The elevator man, working long hours
                  for little–whose work is dull and trivial–
                  must also greet each passenger
                  to be so heroic
                  he wears a uniform.

                  –Charles Reznikoff

              • One of my favorite work poems–dignified as all get out!


                Ortans stands on one end of a teeterboard;
                Mogador and Belmonte,
                from the height of two tables,
                on the other end.
                Ortans flips into the air,
                does a two and a half turn,
                and lands neatly in a high chair.
                Relaxed as a rag doll,
                gracious as a queen,
                looking as though she had been there all afternoon.
                She lolls a moment in the chair,
                gives the audience a glance
                and a beautiful smile.

                Then she daintily dismounts
                into her brothers’ arms;
                lifts her right hand,
                curtseys on tiptoe, and disappears.

                –Robert Lax

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