"The Farmhand" contrasts a young farmhand's awkwardness and unease at a dance with his skill and confidence at his job.
The poem consists of five quatrains (stanzas of four lines) written using simple, conversational words. As the poem opens, the speaker describes the farmhand standing by the door of the dance floor, lighting a cigarette and pretending to be "careless" and at ease.
In the second stanza, however, we find that he feels out of place at the dance. He watches the girls dancing but the music "tears ... an old wound open." Although it appears he was hurt at sometime by a woman, the circumstances remain mysterious throughout the poem.
In the third stanza, we learn the farmhand was not made for dancing or love but to plough fields. In stanza four, the theme of his awkwardness with women continues. He has no girlfriend, but he dreams of one.
Finally, in the fifth stanza, we see him at ease on the farm:
Forking stooks, effortless and strong -
Or listening like a lover to the song
Clear, without fault, of a new tractor engine.
The poem raises our sympathy for the young farmhand who longs for love but doesn't know how to go about getting it. If only it was as easy as farming, the poem implies.
Baxter uses imagery—description that uses the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—to help reinforce the pathos and sadness of the young man's situation. We learn he has a "red sunburnt face and hairy hands," and "sandy" hair. Images of "Sunday couple[s]" walking, of girls giggling with their boyfriends, and of girls running their fingers through a beloved's hair contrast the farmhand's loneliness.
Baxter employs similes, saying, for example, that the dancing girls are "drifting like flowers," pretty and fragile but seemingly out of reach. The farmhand, in another simile, listens "like a lover" to the sound of his "tractor engine."
The poem has a tone of melancholy and longing, but also possibly ends on a note of hope. If the farmhand listens "like a lover" to the "song" of his engine, it is possible he might someday apply that patience and caring attention to a woman he can love.