The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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.