The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

Padraic Colum’s richly evocative seven-line poem “Branding the Foals” compares the fire of amorous passion that a man feels for his beloved with the fire necessary for the branding tool to clearly mark foals as the farmer’s possession. In this first-person narrative, the unnamed male farmer is speaking to himself. At first, he asks himself a paradoxical question: He wonders why he needs fire to brand his foals. This seems incomprehensible to readers who realize that cold tools cannot be used to brand farm animals, but by the second line of this short poem readers come to suspect that the fire of which the farmer speaks should be interpreted figuratively and not literally. In the second line, the farmer asserts that the only fire he truly needs is his intense physical attraction for his lover, with whom he would like to make love. She is also a farmer, and they live together on their simple farm.

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In the third and fourth lines, the male farmer makes reference to the “lighted coals” and the “branding tool,” which she is bringing to him. These physical objects serve to remind him of their intense love for each other. Although both lovers are hardworking farmers, their major concern is their mutual “desire.” Although they are accomplishing mundane agricultural tasks, they think constantly of their strong attraction to each other.

In the fifth line, the male farmer assures his readers that he has no needs for the coals and tool that the woman is carrying. His true need is more profound. He requires her physical love so that his life can have meaning. The physical pain inflicted on foals who are branded serves only to remind him how much he suffers internally whenever he cannot touch his lover. Her “hands,” which hold the branding tool, remind him that those same “hands” can also be used to caress him during moments of intense physical passion. The final line in this short poem conveys to Colum’s readers another paradoxical insight. He writes, “And grass, and trees, and shadows, all are fire!”

Trees and grass can burn, but the shadows of trees and high grass do give lovers relative privacy to make love in the open air. Everything in nature inspires in lovers a reason to express their passionate love for each other, no matter where they may be.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

Colum was a deceptively simple poet. Unlike more famous Irish writers, such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Lady Augusta Gregory, and Oliver Joseph St. John Gogarty, who created with Colum the literary movement called the Irish Renaissance during the first decades of the twentieth century, Colum was from a very poor peasant background. He grew up in poverty in the Irish countryside, and his formal education ended in eighth grade. He was largely a self-educated writer, but he never forgot his childhood as an Irish peasant, although he lived in Dublin from 1901 until his departure in 1914 for New York City, where he lived with his wife and fellow writer, Mary Colum, until shortly before his death on January 11, 1972, in a nursing home in Connecticut. Many critics mistakenly concluded that Colum was little more than a sentimental poet who re-created in his finely crafted poems and short stories daily life in the rural Ireland of his youth. Such critics, however, did not realize that Colum strove to express keen insights into universal human experiences through the Irish peasant culture which he knew so well.

It is not essential that readers even know that Colum was an Irish writer. The two lovers in “Branding the Foals” could live in any agricultural society, and their mutual passion can certainly be understood by readers from any country or century. In “Branding the Foals,” Colum makes very effective use of seemingly straightforward words and images to convey to his readers the intensity of the lovers’ passion. He stresses the levels of meaning in the words “look,” “need,” “fire,” and “desire.” A lover “looks” for his beloved just as a farmer must “look” for the fire needed to heat branding tools. When this lover “looks at” the branding tool, he sees not just a physical object and his beloved but also his inner love for her. He “sees” an invisible reality that only lovers can understand.

Colum also uses the word “need” in a richly suggestive manner. A farmer “needs” fire so that foals can be properly branded, and foals “need” to be branded so that they can be returned to the rightful owner if they are stolen. The two lovers, however, have more profound “needs.” Without the joy of physical love based on mutual respect, their lives will have no meaning for them and there will be major voids in their existence. These farmers could certainly live without their foals. They would be poorer, but their lives would continue. Without their physical and emotional “needs” being satisfied, however, they could not experience true satisfaction and ecstasy, which would make their emotional lives poorer.

Like water and air, fire is essential for human existence. Fire is needed to prepare meals, heat cottages, and brand farm animals, but fire can also destroy houses, livestock, forests, and lives. People must somehow learn to control “fire” so that it brings pleasure and not destruction. This is relatively easy to do when dealing with real fires that can be extinguished with fire equipment or water, but these two lovers realize that there are much more dangerous fires within them. These are the fires inspired by passion, which people cannot and do not want to extinguish because they enrich life completely, even though they expose people to great risk and may result in intense emotional suffering. These two farmers “desire” a better quality of life on their farm so that they no longer have to live in poverty, but in “Branding the Foals,” the male farmer refers to his beloved as his “desire.” She is the one who gives true meaning to his life, and he cannot imagine life without her.

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