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In Edward Thomas "As the Team's Head Brass," war and nature are intertwined in Thomas' reflection of a day in the country. The poem begs the questions: is war always a bad thing, or from a distant perspective, can it bring something positive?
The poem opens as the speaker describes the "team"—horses that are pulling a plow—with brass harnessing flashing in the sun:
The “head brass” are the metal bridles around the horses’ heads that allow the horses to be led.
There are lovers that disappear into the woods. The speaker sits on a fallen tree, watching the ploughman work. With fine imagery, we can visualize the square he is turning of charlock (a weedy, wild yellow mustard plant); as the man continues to plow, that section with its yellow flowers grows smaller:
...the plough narrowing a yellow square
As the ploughman passes, he leans away so as not to run the speaker over with the plow. They speak briefly each time the farmer comes around that side—where the speaker sits on the elm. There is an ebb and flow of discussion between them. They talk about the weather and the war.
In the second section, the speaker studies the elm that the snow knocked over months before, that serves now as his seat. In its surface he sees the hole of a woodpecker. The conversation between the men is being documented: its inclusion would indicate that what they had to say is important.
The farmer asks about the tree, and the speaker responds—the conversation moves back and forth:
“When will they take it away?”
“When the war's over.”
These short spurts of conversation continue as the ploughman comes close and then ambles away again. The speaker tries to be pragmatic about war: he has not seen fighting yet, and relates that he wouldn't mind going so much if he could survive, remaining mostly in tact.
If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...
Their conversation turns to the loss of men from that area. One was a friend of the farmer. He was killed as soon as he landed; if his "mate" were still alive, he would help the farmer move the tree. This leads to something of a philosophical question between the two men. The speaker notes that with the tree gone, he wouldn't have stopped and talked to the farmer: he was encouraged to sit because of the seat the elm provided.
The narrator points out the impact of losing even one man:
Would have been different.
The speaker infers that no life is expendable. The existence of the farmer's friend (of anyone) can make the world totally unique. The farmer suggests that if everyone were able to see things from another place—from a distance—war might look different.
If we could see all all might seem good.
But this discussion dies as the trappings of the every day impose themselves upon the landscape once more. The lovers return and the plow moves on. Life goes on. On the verge of an epiphany, the men separate.
There is also evidence of symbolism—first in the "fallen elm." The tree is symbolic of "strength of will and intuition." The wood generally does not fail. The tree may represent the dream of peace one day returning to England. The elm won't always rest broken there—perhaps hope will rise up, and, too, a brighter future for England and its people.
The farmer may symbolize England; the stumbling team, those who fall in battle.
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