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The Lammas Hireling
Transcript of The Lammas Hireling
Ideas and Themes
"This poem is called 'The Lammas Hireling'. 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 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. Hare stories are sort of found all over England and Europe in fact. There's one rhyme in this that I suppose it might be helpful for people to have pointed out, and that's the one "to go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow, muckle care"- that's from the Annals of Pursuit which is a North Country witches' chant, restored by Robert Graves. "A cow with leather horns" is another name for a hare - if you think about it you'll see why. The story is: a farmer gets a young man from a hiring fair, which is how labour was engaged well into the last century, and takes him home with him, and finds he's got more than he bargained for."
- A farmer hires a farmhand at a fair. It turns out to be a bargain
- The farmer's a widower. Woken in the night he thinks the farmhand is a warlock
- When the farmer shoots the warlock it changes into something else; most likely a hare.
- He disposes of the body. He melts down his money. His herd falls ill. He goes to confession at the church often.
Language & Phrases
“To go into the hare gets you muckel sorrow”. This quote shows the ideas that farmer is thinking at this point in the poem. He has just found out that his hireling is some sort of witch or wizard, and he is in a dilemma about whether to kill him or not kill him. This quote creates an effect which implies that sometimes, love may be stronger than anything else, even if it means pain and suffering. On the other hand, it could create an effect of “some things aren’t what they seem” which in return gives a more, melancholy feel to the poem. However, in the next stanza we learn that kills the hireling through the phrase, “In a sack that grew lighter with every step”. This quote suggests that he regrets what he has done, as he has lost someone close to him, whom he may have even loved to the point of obsession, which in return could be the reason why he killed him. The obsession could have driven him insane, so the only way to stop it was to shoot a bullet through his heart. In this sense, happy and sad emotions contradict each other as it is a bitter sweet ending.
Form and Structure
4 stanzas of 6 lines.
Syllable count for each line: 9/9/10/9/10/9 and 9/11/10/12/12/12
This could perhaps reflect the mundane country life the farmer is accustomed to experiencing.
This regular structure could also reflect the strong theme, or presence of religion and sin within the poem. It can also reflect on the theme of the supernatural as there are ideas of ‘warlock’ and ‘elf-shot present in the poem.
Atmosphere and Mood
There is a dark and mysterious atmosphere/mood created by the poet as the poem is mainly set during the night, but also because of the amount of ambiguity used within the poem which creates room for speculation and makes the readers think and wonder. This atmosphere is created from both what is said and what is left unsaid by the poet in order to keep a ‘secret’ from the readers.
Additionally, an element of mystery is added by the emphasis of the moon in the third stanza, as usually the moon is associated with supernatural or magic activity, as well as mystery and suspense in literature.
The warlock may have been assuming the form of the farmer's wife. It seems her voice is coming out of the warlock. "I hunted down her torn voice to his pale form." Notice the "torn" and "pale". It could suggest that she was "torn from peaceful rest in the afterlife. The word "pale" aludes to ethereal/ghostliness. The ranch hand could have been pale, or in her form? The warlock is naked when the farmer finds him; this could be because the warlock was between transformations. "Stark naked but for one bloody boot of fox-trap..." The warlock had probably assumed the shape of a fox or hare and got caught in a trap and had a bloody ankle - the farmer may have shot him to put him out of his misery, or because it was supernatural and therefore a sin (which is why he has to confess in a church.)
Another reason the farmer may have been confessing was because he had feelings for the hireling. This could be inferred because he is a widow, and it is implied he enjoyed beiing with the hirling "i grew fond of having company" he also descibes the hirling with affectionate terms such "his lovely head thinned" and emphasise his "top lip". At the very beginning it is stated that he had "still a light heart", or good spitits upon purchasing the hireling.
"Lammas" - 1st August harvest festival
"elf-shot" - ill due to the agency of elves
"leather horns" - possibly fake horns. 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".
"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" "here" is ambigious, does he mean church, earth or somewhere else?
"I knew him a warlock" means "I realised he was a warlock" (possibly assuming his wife's form)
I levelled and blew the small hour through his heart". The small hour is the darkest time of night, he may have levelled his gun and shot darkness into the hireling's heart, killing him (?).
"The moon came out" - possibly double meaning of the big hole in the body made by the bullet.
Words & Phrases
- the farmer feels immense guilt for shooting the hirelingl as seen by him having to confess to a priest, and admitting that he can no longer sleep "i dont dream" "spend my nights casting half crowns".
- the poem is largely ambiguous, we do not know what happened to his wife, or what the hireling truly was. This theme is empahsised by the moon and the sack not making a sound in the river.
- the farmer enjoyed beying around the company for a time, he admits he "grew fond of company that knew when to shut up". The farmer is also a widow, and is seen to be alone and trying to pass the time after the hireling's death.
“I grew fond of company that knew when to shut up”. This phrase suggests positivity towards the hireling as he is being complimented for the fact he is a smart, sincere person to talk to, who can also be quiet when the timing is necessary. The way he has phrased it though creates a sense of passion that the farmer has towards the hireling, passion which may be ‘love’ hidden in some sort of disguise (especially in disguise for the time period it was set in). Maybe the phrasing of this quote is like that to insinuate homosexual desire the farmer has towards his hireling, maybe even going as far as fantasising about the relationship they have, e.g. master and slave.
“There was no splash”. This suggests the narrator is feeling guilty at what he has
done to young man. The fact that there was no splash signifies that he is small and light, which adds to the sense of guiltiness, as he was really an innocent young lad. However, it could relate back to the fact that he was some sort of wizard, and the water could relate to the symbol of holy water. The fact that there was no splash could suggest that he wasn’t a wizard as there was no pain towards the hireling when he fell, which could further suggest that the farmer imagined the whole incident in the barn and he is just a mentally damaged and confused human being. “Bless me father for I have sinned’, shows that he is a religious man, which yet again adds to the sense of guilt as if he was gay, it would’ve been a sin against the church and God at the time. Overall the poem suggests that the farmer is very confused and in some cases lost, due to his sexual desires and the loss of his wife which could have
affected him mentally as well as physically.
The imagery used is very simplistic and linked to rural existence (which is prevalent in the first stanza - "cattle", "cream" and "yields" bring forth images of the countryside), as well as being linked to folklore.
Generally, in folklore hares represent changing forms/gender such as transforming into a witch or another kind of magical/supernatural creature. This relates to the poem as the warlock transformed into a hare, and again connotes images of paranormal or inexclipable events.