This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in April 2013.
When I was a kid I loved studying poetry in school. For the same reason I love a jigsaw puzzle, for the same reason I loved diagramming sentences (yes! and I’m not ashamed to admit it), for the same reasons I enjoy editing now, I loved the discussions about symbolism and simile and structure.
I loved parsing the words, teasing out the message that just wasn’t clear to a thirteen-year-old of limited frame of reference. “I met a traveler from an antique land,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1817,* “Who said, ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone …’” and these lines never fail to thrill me. I’m right there in that desert. It’s a fairly transparent sonnet, actually, but I was quite impressed with it when I was thirteen and I am still, these many years later.
I also love being exposed to new poetry. So I was delighted to read a post from poet Isabel Rogers, in which she mentioned this gorgeous piece—“The Lammas Hireling” by Ian Duhig. The poem won the (UK) Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2000. I immediately sought it out—and it’s lovely—but knew I needed to do a little research.
Isn’t it always an adventure to read and then think and imagine what’s going on in a poem? You can start with the title. Lammas, as it turns out, is a pre-Christian tradition: a harvest festival on August first. The hireling is simply a man, a stranger, engaged at a rural hiring fair. Duhig himself tells us this is how farm “labour was engaged well into the last century.”
It’s based on a story I heard when I was in Northern Ireland, out for a very late night walk, a local person pointed out a house he told me was where the local witches used to live, and in their tradition witches would change into hares, and when the father was dying, his family was very embarrassed because the father’s body was turning into a hare’s and this bloke [who] told me the story said he attended the funeral and the last thing you could hear was the hare’s paws beating the lid of the coffin as they lowered it into the ground.
Now there’s a story for ’round the campfire, eh? The poet goes on to say, “‘A cow with leather horns’ is another name for a hare—if you think about it you’ll see why.” That last line, of course, is the best part of reading poetry, as we’ve discussed. If you think about it, you’ll see why.
Read the poem again.
Now, just for fun, watch this short film from filmmaker (and poet!) Paul Casey, founder of the Ó Bhéal reading series in Cork.
What do you think? Now that you’ve watched the film, do you think there could there be a less magical interpretation? Casey gets us started when he says the poem “explores superstition in 20th century rural Ireland.” What do you think of his choice of a woman to play the hireling, when the poem calls the hireling “he”? Is the old widower a reliable narrator? You tell me.
UPDATE: This post became known to the poet within minutes of the time it published, and in short order I was having a Twitter conversation with him. He said, “If obscurities remain—allowing for its unreliable/unhinged narrator—do ask.” Don’t hesitate, friends: @IanDuhig.
* “Ozymandius” was published in the 11 January 1818 issue of the (London) Examiner.
Thank you, Isabel, for exposing me to “The Lammas Hireling.”
There’s some more interesting discussion about the poem here.