‘As the Team’s Head Brass’

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

NOTES

As a couple walk together into the wood beyond, a walker rests at the edge of a field. There, a farmer is methodically ploughing his fields with a team of horses, and the narrator and farmer fall into conversation about the war.

As the Team’s Head Brass: the ‘team’ are a pair of horses led by the farmer, pulling a plough. The farmer is preparing his land for the sowing of crops; in some ways, this seems to be a timeless agricultural scene. The “head brass” are the metal bridles around the horses’ heads that allow the horses to be led.

STRUCTURE: This is a narrative poem— it tells a short story. It is written in Iambic Pentameter, and has, I think, a Shakespearian feel to it: everyday events and dialogue are elevated to high poetry by Thomas’ feel for the significance of small things.

“As the team’s head brass flashed out on the turn”: time is important in this poem. The poem throws us into events immediately occurring. The flash of the brass in the sunlight as the horses turn at near end of the field punctuates the poem.

“The lovers disappeared into the wood.”: Lovers appear again as key figures in a Thomas poem. We only see them at the beginning and the end of the poem, but they are important symbols of love and life. In ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ the absence of lovers is a terrible loss; in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ their fleeting presence is a cause for optimism and hope.

“I sat… and watched”: the peaceful watching of the narrator as time passes by gives this poem a thoughtful, ponderous tone.

“the fallen elm / That strewed the angle of a fallow”: the narrator sits on a fallen tree that lies on unploughed (“fallow”) land. The narrator views the farmer working the field just as he views the war in this poem; from the side, at an angle to events.

“Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square of charlock”: charlock, or wild mustard, is a weed that must be cleared on arable land for farming. Thomas’ description of the “yellow square” of weed is precise and vivid. This poem utilises pastoral conventions— for example, suggesting at first the peace of the country as opposed to the war beyond— but only does so to subvert those conventions through a realistic depiction of the effects of the war. English agriculture had been in a long, steep decline since the mid-Victorian age. The countryside was a difficult place to live in 1916: this fact, rather than an idealization of the country life, comes through in Thomas’ poem.

“the ploughman leaned… About the weather, next about the war.”: the farmer turns his horses to work back up the field when he reaches the narrator. They exchange pleasantries, and talk about the war.

“Scraping the share… till the brass flashed / Once more.”: the “share” is the ploughshare, or blade that turns over the ground. He turns over the earth as he ploughs his lines along the field, ‘screwing’ “along the furrow”. When the farmer begins to return towards the narrator, the horses’ bridle flashes as it catches the sun. This flashing punctuates the poem, giving a sense of the slowness of rural rhythms.

“The blizzard felled the elm…”: Thomas preserves the iambic pentameter here as he moves forward in his narrative, beginning a new line below. There is a sense of time having passed, but also of continuity. With the blizzard and the fallen tree, Thomas introduces an image of a mishap caused by natural forces.

“‘When will they take it away?’ / ‘When the war’s over.’”: the dialogue between the farmer and narrator introduces the war for the first time. War and good husbandry seem to be contrasted.

“One minute and an interval of ten…”: the rhythm of the encounter is slow, punctuated by work. The repetition emphasises this.

“Have you been out?’…”: an interesting and wryly humorous conversation begins between the two. The narrator’s answer that he would join up “If I could only come back again…” shows the easiness of the two’s conversation. There is no pretence here, no mock-heroism. There is an almost documentary feeling here, and the absurd, self-deprecating humour of the watching narrator belies the seriousness of the following conversation.

“Only two teams work on the farm this year…”: the significance of the single farmer working this large field is made clear by the manpower shortage caused by the war. This practical aspect is made immediately personal by the farmer’s dead friend.

“The second day / In France they killed him”: this swift killing of new recruits was sadly common; new soldiers often made mistakes that exposed them to enemy fire. Sadly, Edward Thomas himself was one of these unlucky recruits, dying very soon after seeing action.

“The very night of the blizzard, too”: as in ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, Thomas is again effective in making the presence of certain things in nature (a fallen tree) represent the absence of human beings (the man who was killed on the same night that it fell). Similarly, the blizzard here becomes linked in its devastating power to the effects of the fighting on the front.

“Now if he had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”: this irony is really at the heart of the poem’s narrative. The tragedy of the farmer’s friend’s death is relayed in an unsentimental, factual way. A sense of the unremitting pressures of the farmer’s life comes through, perhaps, in his resigned attitude.

“And I should not have sat here… it would have been another world”: Thomas cleverly uses this tree to emphasise the tragedy of lost possibilities that the war has brought. There is a philosophical air to this reflection on change and loss. As we have seen in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, this sense that the world has changed for the worse is insisted on through the small details of life that have been affected by the war.

“Ay, and a better, though if we could see all all might seem good’”: a better world has been lost, agrees the farmer; though he proposes optimistically, as a form of consolation, that in the broader view the loss of his friend might be explained for the good. This comforting faith is the last thing said between the farmer and the narrator.

“Then the lovers came out of the wood again:”: the reappearance of the lovers seems to reinforce this sense of hope near the poems end, yet the final three lines work to subtly undermine this.

“…for the last time / I watched the clods crumble and topple over”: the absorption of the narrator in the action of the plough now seems linked to change, and by extension, the war. The crumbling clods of earth and their toppling as they fall from the plough suggest the change in the world wrought by humans; perhaps also suggesting the falling of men to earth in fields abroad.

“…the stumbling team.”: the “stumbling” of the team suggest the difficulty the farmer continues to face, but also of course the loose footing of life itself.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem describes events similar to that Hardy describes in ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ (p.161) but are quite different in tenor. Where Hardy generalises and hardly touches on the actual effects of the war occurring abroad, Thomas is careful to construct a more contemporary encounter that is arguably more powerful because of the understatement of its message.]

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