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It can be said that animals bring out the best in humans. Paul Muldoon when introducing us to his anthology ‘Faber Book of Beasts’ believes this, but also feels that poetry does, so it so no surprise that there are volumes of poems published where animals are used literally and metaphorically as an elaborate link between themselves and humans. In poetry, animals can be given human attributes and vice versa, and the boundaries between the two can be crossed, reimagined, and redefined. I am going to discuss two poems, written almost 50 years apart, and their use of animals: in both cases, horses.

‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ was written by Edward Thomas in 1916. The date is significant as it falls during the First World War, and it is no surprise that the theme of the poem is war and the far-reaching effect it has on everyone at that time. It has no obvious rhyme scheme. There are examples of poetic techniques such as assonance and alliteration. An example of the first is in lines 4-5: “Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square”. The latter is in line 18: “A minute more…”. The poem has an informal conversational tone, with a steady rhythm. Set in the English countryside, the poem begins with the speaker sitting on the bough of a fallen elm tree. Nearby, a farmer is leading his team of two horses, up and down the field, a process which takes approximately 10 minutes. When the farmer is at the point the speaker is sitting, they chat. The first topic of conversation is the fallen tree. “‘When will they take it away?’. ‘When the war’s over’. So the talk began –”. They have a minute of conversation before the farmer leads his horses away. The horses are not personified in any way in this poem, they set the beat of the poem and they create the intervals for the conversation with their regular up-and-down ploughing of the field. The head’s brass refers to the bridle and harness the horses would be wearing. The back-and-forth conversation turns to the war and how it has affected their lives. For instance, the fallen tree would have been moved by now, but the farmer has lost some of his workers to the war. Some never return. The speaker points out that had the tree been moved, then he would never have sat there, and the conversation would have never taken place. “Everything would have been different. For it would have been another world”. The war is clearly dominating the lives of these men, but the ploughing still must be done, and the horses are a symbol of the normality, in some sense that life had to carry on. I feel that the poem doesn’t really end, it drifts off, the horses carry on with their work, and we are left wondering what happens next to the characters. The lovers who appear at the start and end of the poem (in and out of the woods) are not discussed at all. Perhaps they were escaping from the talk of war, staying hidden, or, like the horses, a representation of familiarity.

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The second poem, ‘A Blessing’, was written in 1963 by James Wright. Set in the US, it tells us of two friends, one being the speaker, and their chance encounters with two Indian ponies in a field just off the highway. The poem is based on a personal memory. It is written in free verse; the poem has variable rhythms and line lengths. Again, there is some alliteration, such as “hardly happiness” in line 9. The speaker sets the scene in line 2: “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass”. There is a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. The men are welcomed by the horses, there is a juxtaposition here between this friendly welcome and the fact the men step over the barbed wire to reach them. The horses’ eyes “darken with kindness” in line 4 – an invitation to proceed. This is an interesting use of language, as darkness and kindness are contrasting descriptions, but here the words symbolize a positive image. The horses have been grazing all day alone, and they very much welcome human contact. They are happy to see the men, and the comparison to the “wet swans” in line 11 is contradictory as swans are creatures who mate for life and are happy alone, but these ponies feel lonely. The speaker turns his attention to the ‘slenderer’, (a womanly attribute) of the two. The pony reminds the speaker of intimate contact with a girl, comparing the long ear of the pony with the delicate skin on a girl’s wrist, the pony’s wild mane implying the wild nature of a woman, the breeze imploring him to make that touch, that contact with the pony. This moment gives the speaker a profound sense of connectivity with the animal, and he experiences a truly spiritual moment. He realizes that in acknowledging the beauty of this moment and his emotions, his life would surely be more fulfilling: “That if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom”.

I will now discuss the similarities and differences between the two poems. Both poems have rural settings, and both poems are recounting chance encounters. In ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ (the first poem), the contact is between two humans, and in ‘A Blessing’ (the second), it is between humans and animals. The speaker in the first is solitary and his meeting is with a fellow human being, but in the second poem, the speaker is with a friend and their meeting is with the ponies. The horses in the first poem do not have any interaction with the speaker or the farmer, yet the second poem is all about the connection between the ponies and the speaker. We could argue that in the first poem, the interaction between the speaker and the farmer is just as moving as it only happens by way of chance, due to circumstances caused by the war. Other variances are one is written during a time of conflict, the other during peacetime, one in the daytime, and one is at twilight. The first is very much about life must go on despite the challenges arising from such a monumental, the second is about a moment in time, where life is still for a moment, one which could change the speaker’s life forever. The horses in the first poem are like the drumbeat, the bass of the music. They rumble along at the same speed, creating the chance for the men to talk, and then rest, then talk, and so on. The poet has used them as a metaphor for time and process, he has not alluded to any real contact between them and the other characters.

Both poems, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ by Edward Thomas and ‘A Blessing’ by James Wright, are thought-provoking and uplifting. The role of the animals is in the first case, enabling the farmer to continue his work whilst his world is one of uncertainty and conflict, and in the second poem, enlightening the speaker to be more aware of the beautiful world he inhabits, offering their friendship freely and without fear.

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