Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Sower"


The poem "The Sower" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of a Victor Hugo poem. It describes an encounter between the poem's speaker, who sits within a "porchway," and the titular "sower," whom the speaker watches as he carries out his task of planting seeds. As the sun sets and the hours for planting seeds come to a close, the speaker is fascinated by the sower's motion and his figure as he sets about his farming task. As the scene gets darker and darker, the silhouetted figure of the sower also becomes less and less distinct, and the speaker muses on the almost transcendent nature of his exercise. By the end of the poem, we are made to consider the mundane in a new and exciting light, as well as think about the contrast between the speaker, who sits more or less indoors, and the sower, whose job necessarily involves engagement with nature.


The rhyme scheme of "The Sower" resembles the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet, though it deviates from the sonnet form in that it has twenty lines. Still, it has the alternating rhyme scheme that is associated with Shakespearean sonnets— preserved from Hugo's original text—and its body is divided into quatrains.

Starting from the remote vantage point of the poem's speaker, who sits inside, each of these quatrains then takes us further, both into the action of the sower that the speaker observes and into the night. In the first stanza, the isolated speaker in the "porchway" is shocked by the sudden onset of "twilight," but as the sunlight fades and day turns to night, the speaker's mind is oddly preoccupied with work: "working hours have well-nigh past." From this introduction, the speaker then turns to a lone sower in the fields by the porch, whose "old" age and clothing of "rags" stands out against the speaker's relaxation in a "cool" porch. Still, despite the apparent contrast between the speaker's observant relaxation and the sower's strained activity, the speaker "feel[s] a thrill" at the "still[ness]" of the sower in the fields. The mere act of observing is its own pleasure for our speaker.

In the following two stanzas, the sower then assumes a more powerful position with regard to the speaker: no longer does the sower merely stand still; he now "dominates the furrows" with his figure and "strides" with the scattering of grain. His mundane actions take on an unusual liveliness and flair when perceived by our speaker, who does not perform similar work. As the poem closes and night takes over the poem's setting, the speaker deliberately exaggerates the sower's magnificent appearance, saying that his movements or "gestures" are majestic and that his figure seems to reach upward to the stars. In line with Hugo's original Romantic sentiment—one focused on the outpouring of deep emotions in response to everyday occurrences—the poem is thus an expression of the spontaneous grandeur our speaker perceives in the mundane action of the sower at his work, as well as a description of an encounter between people of different walks of life.

But just what are the implications of these different walks of life? Surely, the speaker is likely to enjoy a more luxurious and relaxing life than the sower (who works at night out of necessity), but also on the poem's mind is the way in which each figure is connected to nature. While the speaker sits in the interior space of the porchway and thinks of the day in terms of discrete and clear divisions such as "working hours," the sower simply takes to the field in the evening because "the task [of sowing] is set" and necessary. The speaker's amazement at the sower's movements and his pleasure at observing the sower specifically derive from the sower's "domination" and command of nature while he spreads seed. Finally, the disconnect between the sower's immediate contact with nature through sowing and the speaker's observant distance from nature is underscored by the speaker's contextualization of the sower's actions: "Soon shall come a time to reap." This claim from the speaker reads as particularly alien to the world of the sower, which is preoccupied with present actions and the importance of completing them throughly.

The end of the poem, too, provides interesting material for poetic interpretation. When the poem breaks off in line 19 with an em dash, just after the sower gestures to the speaker, it is unclear as to whether the sower's gestures are directed at the speaker or simply meant to imply the motions of his work. Hugo's original, on the other hand, reverses the final image of the stars and the gesture of the sower, maintaining this ambiguity and cutting the gesture off from additional context. There are thus at least two important possibilities when dealing with the poem's conclusion. On one hand, the speaker might be greeted by the sower at the end of the poem, and this connection between their two worlds spurs the speaker's realization of the sower's transcendent beauty. On the other hand, the speaker might come to this transcendent realization simply through the process of observation and the process of poetic creation. In either event, the poem touches deeply on the relationship between humanity and nature, as well as the relationship between the poet and the beauty that serves as poetic inspiration. These are elements that allow Dutt, even in translation, to creatively probe the questions that excited her most: the fundamental questions of lyric poetry and how close writers can get to pure experience of the natural world.