What is a summary and analysis of the poem "A March Calf" by Ted Hughes?

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tresvivace eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ted Hughes' powerful poem "The March Calf" creates an unforgettable image of a new-born calf who is "dressed in his best--his blacks and his whites" (also called a "wedding natty get up") as he prepares to suck the milk from his mother. 

This opening image, comparing the calf's appearance to a well-dressed person, lets us know right from the beginning that although Hughes IS describing the actions of a baby calf, he is also making a statement about humans.  Most young American readers might not recognize the allusion to Little Lord Fauntleroy, the title character of a once-popular 1886 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (coincidentally also the author of The Secret Garden).  In the book, an American boy is found to be the lost son of a British earl.  He is dressed in an English costume of black velvet and white lace--thus, the black and white "Sunday suit" of the newborn calf. 

The second stanza describes the calf and his surroundings ("under cobwebby beams...shiny-eyed) and lets us know that his mother's milk is all he needs. In the third stanza the speaker tells us that the calf is satisfied with a little bit of his new life at a time, that he is not ready to take too much of life at once. ("Let the summer skies hold off, for the moment.") 

Over the next three stanzas, we learn that the speaker lets the calf run toward the mother and blocks the light so that the startled calf can bolt toward what he wants and needs, despite his trembling and fear.  The mother cow's teat is described, in an apt metaphor, as "God's thumb." 

Just as we begin to feel a connection to this "dear little fellow" (stanza 7), the poem grows darker.  Stanza eight introduces "Hungry people...getting hungrier" and "Butchers developing expertise and markets."  The calf has been birthed and is now fed only to prepare to be butchered. 

But his ultimate fate doesn't matter to the calf, who "glistens...Within his dapper profile."  That is, the calf is just exulting in being alive--in the joy of living and existing.  He does not know what is in store for him: "Unaware of...his whole lineage." 

The final two stanzas reiterate this exultation in one's existence, reminding us that perhaps we need to take joy in our own inner world and in our physicality and physical surroundings.  The closing lines of the poem express pure joy in being as the little calf is ready to break out onto the grass and live life: "To find himself himself.  To stand.  To moo." 

We should try to find ourselves ourselves, too.  Although the poem describes the calf vividly, it is very much about the joy of living and about finding our own identity. 

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