Donald Hall’s “Names of Horses” consists of twenty-nine lines of unrhymed free verse, arranged in seven brief stanzas and a final single line. The speaker, who directly addresses the horses and finally provides their names, is clearly Hall himself; the farm on which these horses have worked is called Eagle Pond, and the poem itself is thematically related to essays collected in String Too Short to Be Saved (1961). A good deal of Hall’s work, both poetry and prose, has focused on that farm in New Hampshire, home for three generations of his ancestors and a retreat for Hall himself.
In the first half of the poem, Hall addresses what seems to be a single horse, praising it for the work it performs season by season. This, readers quickly learn, is not a pet but a draft horse, engaged in crucial activities on an old-fashioned farm. The jobs include hauling firewood, cut this winter for the next; pulling cartloads of manure to spread on the fields; mowing and raking the grass and hauling it to the barn; and pulling the family buggy to church each Sunday.
At about the midpoint of the poem, a shift occurs, and the reader realizes that the single horse is in fact a series of horses, “Generation on generation” taking turns at the work, living and dying on the farm, each horse in turn being put down and buried by “the man, who fed you and kept you.” Death comes only when each horse in succession becomes “old and lame,” in such constant pain it is unable to graze comfortably.
Over the years, the place where the horses are buried becomes “the pasture of dead horses.” Here are the remains of the “old toilers, soil makers,” who are finally in the last line addressed by name.