Donald Hall began writing "Names of Horses" in 1975, and it was first published in the New Yorker in 1977. In this poem, Hall revisits his past and pays tribute to the horses that worked his grandparents' farm in New Hampshire. While poets often change the facts of memories from real life to fit their creative purposes, Hall is faithful to his memories. With the exception of the last, the names of the horses in the poem refer to actual horses Hall knew of as a child at Eagle Pond Farm. Thus the poem has a highly autobiographical dimension.
The first half of the poem reads like a list, a summary of the life of a work horse. Day after day, season after season, the same set of chores needed to be performed if the farm was to thrive. Summer meant haying, Sundays meant driving the family to church, and the horses were always present to lend their power in the service of man. In its direct address, the poem narrates the life of these horses, indirectly giving voice to otherwise mute creatures. At the same time, it educates the reader as to the details and harsh realities of life on a New England farm.
But the poem offers much more than a cataloging of farm chores. When the horse's period of service is over, when its body can no longer bear the workload, it is taken to a field, shot, and buried. Farm work was often very hard, and trying to squeeze a living out of the rocky and sandy soil of Eagle Pond Farm left little room for sentimental attachments, little room to regard the older animals as pets. The unwritten law of the farm demanded that the horses no longer holding their own, those no longer contributing to the success of the farm, must be euthanized. Part story, part meditation on memory and time, in "Names of Horses" the life of a typical horse becomes Hall's means of expressing his complex vision of mortality and the inherent worth of these unsung creatures.
The first stanza begins with a list of grueling labors. The reader determines quickly that the identity of the being addressed as "you" (or "your") is not a person, but a horse. The animal is a beast of burden, a "brute" performing the farm chores that are too difficult for humans alone. The chores are not easy for the horse either, who must "strain" against its burden.
The inclusion of the horse's devices, its network of harnesses, collars, and padding, are important details. They lend the speaker of the poem an air of authority, giving the reader access to the life and procedures of a working farm, a world foreign to most. But most importantly, the contraptions the horse is wearing show the animal is physically linked to its owner, is under the master's complete control. The "ash hames" are the curved supports (here, made of the wood of the ash tree) that are attached to the collar. These are in turn fastened to the traces, which connect the horse to the sledge, or sled, and allow the animal to pull it along. In other words, the horse is tied directly to the heavy load it is hauling.
A strong sense of time and process also informs this stanza. The hauling here is just one link in a chain of necessary chores. The wood is being collected and stockpiled for drying, in preparation for the next winter.
Notice how the first two words mirror the opening of the first stanza, except this time "All winter" has become "In April." Time is moving on, and with the passing of the seasons there are new and different duties to be tackled on the farm. Fertilizer needs to be spread on the fields. With "all summer" the poet matches even more closely the poem's opening words. Without a moment of rest, it is summer and time to cut and gather the hay. In capturing the rigors of the hayfield, Hall employs two distinct poetic devices. The first is the use of onomatopoeia, or a word that attempts to imitate the sound it describes. (Hiss, hum, and click are also examples of words that capture sounds.) Here, Hall has invented a word, "clacketing," in an attempt to replicate the noise and rumble of the mowing machine. The word is similar to another actual word, clack, meaning to make a clatter. But Hall extends his word into clacket, which rhymes with racket, also meaning a loud outburst. The invented word has more dimensions and a stronger impact in conveying the sense of a constant, jarring sound.
Hall ends the stanza with a second imaginative use of language: personification. This is when a writer attributes human qualities to an otherwise lifeless object. Here, the sun is said to have "walked high" in the summer sky. While this is a unique and original description of the sun rising across the sky, it also accentuates the role of time, which is so important to the poem, and the slow progress of the horse's endless labor. As the horse performs the same monotonous actions, the sun slowly creeps higher in the sky, sending more and more heat down upon the laborers, making their jobs even more difficult.
This stanza continues the account of the hay season. While there are hints of repetition in the second stanza ("manure" and "mowed/mowing" appear twice), the use of rhyme and sound come to the forefront here. The repetition takes on two forms: full rhyme ("stack," "hayrack," and "back"; and "hay" and "day") and internal rhyme, or sounds that rhyme within a word. This is evident in "rake" and "acres" and in "dragged" and "wagon." As the sounds cascade through the poem, creating linkages in the rhyme and repetition, Hall's rhymed wordplay adds rhythm and unity to the work and aids the reader's movement through the poem. Not only are the sounds pleasing to the...
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