Thursday, April 21, 2011

'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm...' by James Wright (1961)

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s 
Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadows.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distance of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between pines,
Two droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up in golden stones.
I lean back, as evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for a home.
I have wasted my life.

What I am attempting to do by looking at these poems is to learn how poets develop strategies to find structures for experience. The delicate balance between the image and the statement, the passive or intrusive voice and so on. Here, James Wright pushes the balance to the extreme. The entire poem, communicated in the passive (or more accurately, purely observational) voice, relates simply the images and sounds that surrounds him as he lies in a hammock in rural Minnesota – the butterflies, the cowbells, the empty house, the chicken hawk. Then, quite out of the blue, the declarative statement of devastating significance: “I have wasted my life”.

What is the connection between the statement and the images that precedes it? Very little, I think. Yet, that is perhaps the point. Wright makes no attempt to imply or suggest this final revelation in the way that he establishes the images of the poem: the sky is just the sky, the butterfly a butterfly. His observations are essentially a disconnect from his own inner life. It is this lack of intrusion that makes the last line so surprising. There is no hint, no foregrounding, no clues to the outcome. As a reader we might feel that the rustic imagery is leading us towards some statement of personal contentment. Yet, if the last line was positive in this way, the poem would fail to be memorable. It’s the starkness and timing of that line that is so unexpected. It relates a peculiarly modern sense of alienation and regret which we might usually associate with the metropolis, but that is here more arresting for being said as the poet lies on a hammock on a summer’s day in rural tranquility.


  1. Is he appreciating the sense of fulfillment, purpose and 'place' all of these things have? Even the turds from last year can 'blaze up into golden stones' while he lies, and tries to figure out if he has either worth, or place, in all of this? He fails to see his purpose, because he observes himself as an individual, and the others as generic, or representative. The result is that it is yet another poem about isolation and self-alienation.

  2. Hey Dublinepost, yes that's a good point. It's definitely a poem about isolation. I think the point I was trying to make is that usually such poems are take place in urban settings, all the way back to Prufrock. But here, given the pastoral scene Wright describes around him, the last thing we expect if for him to proclaim at the poem's end his alientaion or disappointment. It's unusual for a poem to turn so dramatically as this one does on a final line.