Names of Horses

by Donald Hall

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Lines 1-4: The first stanza begins with a list of grueling labors. The reader determines quickly that the identity of the being addressed as "you" (or "your") is not a person, but a horse. The animal is a beast of burden, a "brute" performing the farm chores that are too difficult for humans alone. The chores are not easy for the horse either, who must "strain" against its burden.

The inclusion of the horse's devices, its network of harnesses, collars, and padding, are important details. They lend the speaker of the poem an air of authority, giving the reader access to the life and procedures of a working farm, a world foreign to most. But most importantly, the contraptions the horse is wearing show the animal is physically linked to its owner, is under the master's complete control. The "ash hames" are the curved supports (here, made of the wood of the ash tree) that are attached to the collar. These are in turn fastened to the traces, which connect the horse to the sledge, or sled, and allow the animal to pull it along. In other words, the horse is tied directly to the heavy load it is hauling.

A strong sense of time and process also informs this stanza. The hauling here is just one link in a chain of necessary chores. The wood is being collected and stockpiled for drying, in preparation for the next winter.

Lines 5-8: Notice how the first two words mirror the opening of the first stanza, except this time "All winter" has become "In April." Time is moving on, and with the passing of the seasons there are new and different duties to be tackled on the farm. Fertilizer needs to be spread on the fields. With "all summer" the poet matches even more closely the poem's opening words. Without a moment of rest, it is summer and time to cut and gather the hay. In capturing the rigors of the hayfield, Hall employs two distinct poetic devices. The first is the use of onomatopoeia, or a word that attempts to imitate the sound it describes. (Hiss, hum, and click are also examples of words that capture sounds.) Here, Hall has invented a word, "clacketing," in an attempt to replicate the noise and rumble of the mowing machine. The word is similar to another actual word, clack, meaning to make a clatter. But Hall extends his word into clacket, which rhymes with racket, also meaning a loud outburst. The invented word has more dimensions and a stronger impact in conveying the sense of a constant, jarring sound.

Hall ends the stanza with a second imaginative use of language: personification. This is when a writer attributes human qualities to an otherwise lifeless object. Here, the sun is said to have "walked high" in the summer sky. While this is a unique and original description of the sun rising across the sky, it also accentuates the role of time, which is so important to the poem, and the slow progress of the horse's endless labor. As the horse performs the same monotonous actions, the sun slowly creeps higher in the sky, sending more and more heat down upon the laborers, making their jobs even more difficult.

Lines 9-12: This stanza continues the account of the hay season. While there are hints of repetition in the second stanza ("manure" and "mowed/mowing" appear twice), the use of rhyme and sound come to the forefront here. The repetition takes on two forms: full rhyme ("stack," "hayrack," and "back"; and "hay" and "day") and internal rhyme, or sounds...

(This entire section contains 1535 words.)

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that rhyme within a word. This is evident in "rake" and "acres" and in "dragged" and "wagon." As the sounds cascade through the poem, creating linkages in the rhyme and repetition, Hall's rhymed wordplay adds rhythm and unity to the work and aids the reader's movement through the poem. Not only are the sounds pleasing to the ear, they form the bond that holds the poem together, with each line or stanza flowing effortlessly into the next. The repetition of words and sounds allows the poet to make an important, yet unspoken, point: The work never ends, and each task is comprised of the same movements repeated endlessly. Here, the repeated sounds reflect or enact the repeated chores of the horse.

Lines 13-16: Hall chose not to focus on the people who work the farm, who must brave the elements as well as the horses to keep the farm running. But if the reader extends any sympathy to them as well, the poet attempts to downplay their significance in this stanza. While the people, the horse's masters observe the Sabbath, the day of rest, there is no such rest for the animal. Although their Sunday task is hardly as grueling as the farm-work, the horse "trotted" carrying its "light load." Whether it is for work or recreation, the horse is a human tool.

Again, the vast sense of time is evoked here as the poet notes that "generation on generation" the horses have brought their masters to church. Now the reader is fully aware that Hall isn't addressing a single horse, but all the animals that have worked and died on his grandparents' farm. The stanza closes with a simile, a comparison using the word "like" or "as," to further this sense of constant work performed over long stretches of time. He claims that as long as it takes for the sea to smooth the edges of glass through a long process of erosion and the wash of waves, generations of horses have rubbed smooth the sill of the stall.

Lines 17-20: Now many seasons have passed, and the horse has outlived its usefulness to the owner. There is no sentimentality on the part of the farmer. The horse was never a pet but a "machine," no different from the hay rake. Having become more a liability than an asset to the farmer, the horse is led out for the last time through the fields it helped to till. Hall's tone is straightforward and matter-of-fact. The reader is unsure of the attitude of "the man who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning." These are the actions the farmer could have done fondly, out of love of the animal, or just to protect his investment and to ensure he got as much work out of the horse as possible. As the farmer prepares the horse's grave, the animal stands "shuddering," a well-chosen word that contributes an ambiguous note to the stanza. Is the word meant sentimentally, as if to suggest that the horse perceives its life is nearly over and waits in fear for its final moment? Or is the shuddering meant to highlight the horse's uselessness and justify the killing, as the once powerful muscles have succumbed to old age and now been reduced to uncontrollable twitches? It is this lack of perfect clarity that helps drive the poem, piquing the reader's curiosity to read on in search of answers.

Lines 21-24: The poem is very direct and explicit in its portrayal of the horse's death. One gunshot and the animal is rolled into its grave and buried. Hall continues to employ the repetition of sounds and phrases to great effect. However, the recurrence of similar structures ("into your brain" and "into your grave") and the use of internal rhyme ("shoveling," "cover," and "above") serve a new function in the poem, one of larger significance. Now it is not the monotony of performing the same tasks Hall is attempting to convey, but a larger cycle: the life-cycle of the horse from its seasons of labor to the moment, now, when its body has given out. So the poem does not end with the horse's death. It is just part of a larger chain of events that encompass, or surround, the animal's life. Hall does not pause to sentimentally eulogize the animal's years of service to the farm. By the end of the stanza, half a year has passed, and the only trace of the horse's existence is a "dent in the ground."

Lines 25-29: The scope of the poem broadens with this stanza. The story of the horse's life is also a comment on time, the seasons and years that have marked each horse's regimen on the farm. But now, time has accelerated even further. It is 150 years later, and the pasture has become a veritable horse cemetery. The stanza ends with a subtle, yet ironic, comment on the horses' lives of servitude. Even in death, they are still working; they are "soil makers," their bones churning and tilling the earth from within as the soil expands and contracts with each change of seasonal temperature.

Line 29: Hall ends the poem with its only single-line stanza, interrupting the expected pattern of quatrains, or four-line stanzas, to present a roll-call of horses that have worked the farm. With this list of names comes the full explanation of the title. The reader more fully understands the scope of the "you": that Hall is not addressing a single horse, but many. In telling the story of one, he is telling the story of all.