The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

In an interview with Donald Hall, critic Alberta Turner asked him how the reception of "Names of Horses" would be affected since the subject...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Names of Horses” is quite modern in its rejection of traditional rhyme and metrical patterns, but Hall is nonetheless a careful craftsman who makes every word and sound, the design of each line, and the order of lines and paragraphs contribute to the total impact the poem has on the reader.

The words the poet chooses are concrete and specific. Many of the nouns designate tools and other items that characterize farm life in the days before heavy machinery powered by diesel or gasoline engines replaced horse power, such as sledges, hames, and, most picturesquely, the “leather quartertop buggy.” Many of the verbs serve to emphasize the difficulty of the horse’s work: “strained,” “haul,” “culled,” “dragged.”

Hall uses a long line in “Names of Horses,” rather like Walt Whitman’s. Most of the lines are enjambed; that is, the sense of the sentence is carried across the line break. When a line is end-stopped, usually at the end of the paragraph, the last word or phrase conveys a vivid image or a significant idea: “as the sea smooths glass” or “shuddering in your skin,” for example. A kind of rhythm is frequently supplied within these lines by alliteration, which can make the verse slower and heavier, as in “dragged the wagon,” or quicker and lighter, as in “trotted the two miles to church” with a “light load.”

The overall arrangement of the poem is seasonal. The first paragraph, four strong lines, begins “All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars” and recounts what is evidently the hardest work...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

"Names of Horses" is marked by simple, declarative diction. Diction is the specific word choices a poet makes and how the words are used to...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

2,500,000 years ago: Equus, the modern horse, evolves. It spreads across North America.

10,000 years ago: The horse...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Donald Hall has cited Edwin Muir's "The Horses" (1956) as an influence upon "Names of Horses." Read Muir's poem and then compare and contrast...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

An audio recording of Donald Hall reading "Names of Horses" was released by Watershed Tapes in 1985.

Donald Hall: Poetry and...

(The entire section is 45 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Another famous literary horse is Gabilan from John Steinbeck's The Red Pony. This collection of four related stories center around...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Braider, Donald, The Life, History, and Magic of the Horse, New York: Grosset, 1973.

Davenport, Guy,...

(The entire section is 298 words.)