I would argue this poem is a style of pastoral poetry, which celebrates the peace and quiet of the rural world (here presented from the perspective of life on a farm). Not only that, but we see how this peace allows the poetic voice to contemplate his existence and think philosophically about our importance and how small a part of the universe, the earth and life we represent.
Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.
A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.
I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
Norman MacCaig (1910-1996)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Norman Maccaig is another poet/teacher – perhaps one day I will be referred to as such. He grew up in Edinburgh, but divided his time between the city and life in the Scottish Highlands, an area that is both incredibly rural (and difficult to drive to if you are a filthy Englishman looking for a nice place to walk over a weekend) and incredibly beautiful.
This poem is clearly influenced by the time he spent in the Highlands, but is also deeply concerned with his understanding of the world and our significance as a part of it.
Here is another poem that seems to glorify nature, but in a manner similar to Pied Beauty in that it is almost the disorder in nature that is presented as being admirable. In addition, I would argue that the poem explores philosophically the insignificance as us as individuals to further promote the brilliance and importance of nature as it will outlive us all.
This is a pretty complicated poem as far as I am concerned. We deal with the literal images of the natural world as well as the more complex ideas floating around Maccaig’s mind.
We start with a disheveled image of the farm. Straw lies on top of the hedge, green water lies in the trough for the animals and a disorganised gang of ducks is slowly rampaging across his plain of sight. None of these images conform with the idea of perfect beauty and order, but it is exactly the relaxed and calm sense of disorder that makes the poem so peaceful. There is no rush to get somewhere or need to fix or clean anything.
Now things start to get tasty. The second stanza continues with literal imagery of the disordered, but pleasant farm life. However, now Maccaig begins to explore his deep, philosophical ponderings. The one eyed disinterested hen could be regarded as representing himself sat idly without a thought or a worry, only half conscious of the world around him (‘one eye’). However, out of this empty mind we then have a swallow diving in as if from nowhere – this is a kind of daydream about the philosophical that just pops into our minds as if from nowhere.
We return to the literal, he is sitting in the grass and staring up into the sky and wondering. He’s worried as daydreams can take us anywhere and make us thinking about all sort of things. For instance he begins pondering the majesty of the grasshopper and its spring and also begins to wonder about how the grasshopper perceives his world.
In the final stanza, he begins to wonder about his own existence and importance. He sees himself as being only a tiny part of time and history and thus as being of minute importance in the grand scheme of things.
Language and techniques
Okay, so the first thing to talk about is Maccaig’s obvious appreciation for the natural world.
Notice how he describes imperfect imagery of ‘zigzags’ of hay lying on a hedge, ‘green… water’ and ‘wobbling’ ducks. These are all untidy images, but they are all associated positively using oxymorons: ‘tame lightning’ describes the hay – lightning which is one of the few things man cannot control/tame – and makes us associate this mess with both the power and majesty of lightning and as something not to be feared as the natural world looks after and supports us. The dirty water ‘shines’ and thus is associated positively as something beautiful; and even the duck’s ‘wobbling’ is somehow straight and again shows a recognition of beauty in disorder. Both ‘tame’ and ‘wobbling’ are also words we would associate with calmness and peace as they are slow and hold no hint of danger or threat.
Additionally, we see from our poetic voice’s actions that suggest he finds this landscape and disorder as he is lying in the ‘cool, soft grass’ and clearly enjoying being a part of it. The peace and quiet associated with this disorder could be presented as a contrast to The Planners or The City Planners.
Moving on to the metaphysical thoughts. I’ve described the metaphor of the hen with ‘one eye’ representing the unconscious wanderings of the mind, without focus or attention. The ‘swallow’, however, is a swift and graceful bird and hear seems to appear from nowhere or ‘the empty sky’ which is an extension of the idea represented by the hen. When he ‘drops’ into the ‘barn’ we can see that this is as if an idea has appeared from nowhere and the ‘barn’ represents his mind. Now, however, it dives up and we no longer have the empty sky, but instead ‘the dizzy blue’. This is quite a subtle change as the sky is still technically empty as is his head, he is not really contemplating important thoughts or issues in his life, but now he is ‘dizzy’ as he is dealing with deep philosophical questions that are mind blowing when we sit and contemplate them.
You’ll have to explain why he is ‘afraid of where a thought will take’ him. You could interpret this in two ways: (1) he is scared of getting lost in these meaningless ideas; or (2) he is worried about what these thoughts and questions about the meaning of life and everything will reveal how insignificant he and humankind are (I think this is more convincing).
His first thought at first seems unimportant and just pondering about a grasshopper and being interested in its leap. However, he is really exploring the soul and mind of other animals. The fact it is described as having a ‘plated face’ suggests that it is calm and thoughtful in its actions (‘finds himself in space’) and almost suggests animals and the natural world is capable of the same metaphysical contemplation as humans – this is supported by the personification of the creature as a ‘him’.
Now Maccaig’s pondering moves on to his own existence and place in the universe. ‘Self under self’ should conjure an image of Russian dolls with each one giving way and revealing a new, smaller version of the same. He is referring to our position as a small part in human history. The comparison with being ‘threaded on time’ again indicates he is minute and a tiny piece of fabric in the jumper that is time. Again this links to the concept of our individual insignificance. The final image of the multiple farms with him in the ‘middle’ suggests he is not the most important thing in the universe and this farm and everything in it existed before him and will go on after him and he will be forgotten.
I’d comment on the order within the disorder. Stanzas are regular and the rhyme scheme follows AABB the whole way through and yet describes the untidy farm. Maccaig is trying to represent the perfection that can be found within imperfection.
You could also mention the caesuras that punctuate much of the contemplation. These slow the pace of the poem and allow the reader to join the reflective and contemplative mood of the poet.
As above. We are in a contemplative mood, which has been inspired by the relaxing peace of the disordered and calm farm life.