Monday, 4 April 2011

The Lammas Hireling (the poem)

The Lammas Hireling by Ian Duhig was described in Poetry Ireland Review as differing from many other poems in the book of the same name because of its "sustained ambiguity and sense of (strange) reality". Poems are sometimes rather like jokes in that if you don't get them the first time then no amount of explanation will convince you that they're any good. So all I'll do here is to point out some of the poem's features and provide some background information for those who found the poem too strange.


  • Form - 4 stanzas of 6 lines, each line about 10cm long! Syllable count 9/9/10/9/10/9 and 9/11/10/12/12/12 for the 1st 2 stanzas - no fixed pattern. Counting beats is no more rewarding. Stanza breaks don't quite match paragraph breaks.
  • Genre - Dark Hardy-esque fable? Certainly it's in a mode where we need to think more in terms of narrative than of sound effects.
  • Diction - Except perhaps for "Yields doubled" the style of language and choice of words is consistent. Some of the phrases are not current
    • "Lammas" - 1st August harvest festival
    • "elf-shot" - ill due to the agency of elves
    • "leather horns" - fake horns? perhaps a cow pretending to be a bull? In the singular the horn would more likely be an instrument. "a wee brown cow with two leather horns" is an Irish riddle, meaning "hare".
    • "To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow, the wisdom runs, muckle care". muckle (or mickle) means "much", the commonest usage being "many a little makes a mickle". Dictionaries mention "go with the hare", etc, but I've no idea what "go into the hare" means. A poetry book by Jocelyn Brooke has a poem called 'The Song of Isobell Gowdie' which has the lines 'I shall go into a hare,/With sorrow and sighing and mickle care/And I shall go in the Devil's name/ Til I come home again'. In a folklore dictionary it says that eating hare makes one melancholy, and that hares have a reputation for being sexless or for changing their gender annually or for being transformed witches.
    Also there's some compression and double-meaning
    • "struck so cheap" means "struck so cheap a bargain"
    • "casting ball" meaning "casting shot for shotguns"? - maybe "silver bullets" to ward off evil spirits. "casting ball from ... my days here" sounds odd. Where is "here"? Farm? Church? Earth?
    • "I knew him a warlock" means "I realised he was a warlock" (assuming his wife's form?)
    • "His top lip gathered" (hare lip?)
    • "I levelled and blew the small hour through his heart". The small hour is the darkest time of night? So he levelled his gun and shot darkness into the hireling's heart? Could the 'small hour' be something to do with rifle sights looking like a small clock?
    • "The moon came out" - of the big hole in the body?
  • Imagery - There's some heightened language to synchronise with emotional peaks. The images are drawn from a simpl(ish) rural existence.
  • Allusions - I read that 'the poem was inspired by a tale of witchcraft and magic heard on a walk in Northern Ireland, and is brimming with Duhig's fantastic range of sources, from Ben Jonson's "Sad Shepherd" to "The Allensford Pursuit of Witches", a seventeenth century chant from the North of England.'
    I skimmed through descriptions of 'Sad Shepherd' but found little of use. It was probably Jonson's last play and it wasn't published in his lifetime. In it Jonson "boldly strikes out to produce a truly English pastoral play, suppressing satire and symbolism, and for Arcadia with its shadowy shepherds as main characters he substitutes Sherwood Forest with Maid Marian and Robin Hood and his merry men; instead of the satyr of conventional pastoral tradition he introduces Maudlin the Witch and Puck-Hairy."
    I think in this poem the allusions don't need to be identified and followed-up. The author got ideas from other works but the poem is self- contained.
  • Plot -
    • Paragraph 1 - A farmer hires a farmhand at a fair. It turns out to be a bargain
    • Paragraph 2 - The farmer's a widower. Woken in the night he thinks the farmhand is a warlock
    • Paragraph 3 - When the farmer shoots the warlock it changes into something else - a hare? a fox?
    • Paragraph 4 - He disposes of the body. He melts down his money. His herd falls ill. He goes to confession often. The reader/listener is in fact a priest.

    This is the most obvious reading, but it does leave some details unexplained.
    • What is the "company" mentioned in the 1st stanza?
    • Why does he become so guilt-ridden? Wasn't it right to kill the warlock?

    Perhaps, as with a whodunit, the explanation that first comes to mind may not be the right one. Perhaps the narrator's gone a bit potty. A widower isolated in his farmyard succumbed to the young flesh (the company that knows when not to talk), hallucinating either during the attack, or retrospectively. The transformation of the corpse (the moulding over, etc) wasn't sudden and magical but took weeks. In his guilt he neglects his herd and goes to confession each hour.
    Or perhaps the hireling was having an affair with the wife, her "torn voice" being her cries of joy.

The conspiracy theory and the Old Boys' Network

Some background may help to dispel notions that it's all a conspiracy by academics. Ian Duhig's "The Lammas Hireling" won the

  • 2000 Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition (3000 pounds, I think). Many thousands of anonymous entries. It took judges Lavinia Greenlaw, Ian McMillan, Don Paterson and Chair Germaine Greer less than three hours to select the winner. He won the National Poetry Competition in 1987 too!
  • 2001 Tolman Cunard Prize for best single poem (1000 pounds, judges included Michael Donaghy and the Poetry Society's Christina Patterson). Entries were not anonymous.

Duhig was described by Carol Ann Duffy as "the most original poet of his generation". Born in 1954 in London of Irish Catholic parents, he now lives in Leeds. He isn't an academic (he used to work in housing) though he's been teaching creative writing lately.

In "The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry" (Salt, 2003) Andrew Duncan suggested that he's better than (though following in the footsteps of) Muldoon. He says that "The linguistic register behind all of them is that of the hedge-school [using] ... traces of Gaelic idiom ... flowers of bardic rhetoric, traces of Catholic, pre-literate features such as stress on argument, feats of memory, quick exchanges and readiness of wit" (p.274)

Why did it win?

I can see how it could easily survive the first phase of judging - the title makes one curious. The subject matter's a change - a period piece. Across the four stanzas, the changes of mood and tone are dramatic. And the narrative is carefully controlled. There's a clever hinge in the middle of the poem ("To go into the hare...") - the proverb is poetic in sound, which contrasts with the prose rhythms elsewhere.

Why is it difficult?

I.A. Richards in "Practical Criticism" (London, 1929) identified some reasons why readers misunderstand poems. Amongst them are

  • Lack of Knowledge - This is a dialect poem; perhaps the dialect is old too. Some meanings aren't even in multi-volume dictionaries, so I think a glossary would have been appropriate.
  • Stock responses and doctrinal adhesions - The line-breaks tempt the reader to find meaning in them. Also the layout of the piece as a poem encourages the reader to adopt poetic criteria where perhaps prose ones might be more appropriate.

The poet however might be forgiven for presenting the piece as he did - glossaries are frowned upon, and prose competitions are few and far between.

1 comment:

  1. I know I'm late to this party, but I just discovered this interesting poem, and wanted to point out that the "company" in stanza one is the hireling himself, whose taciturn presence nonetheless grows more welcome (especially since he's such a beneficial, bargain employee!) to the lonely widower who speaks the poem.