A critical reading of a classic poem
‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is one of the best-loved and most widely-anthologised poems by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), who is viewed variously as a Georgian poet and as a poet of the First World War. Thomas wrote ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ in 1916, focusing on attitudes to the ongoing war expressed by people back home in England, rather than fighting at the front. Below is the poem, and some words of analysis.
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
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.
In summary, ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’ recounts a conversation between the speaker of the poem, who is out walking in the English countryside, and a farmer engaged in ploughing a field with his team of horses. The conversation gets round to the topic of war, since the First World War was going on when Thomas wrote the poem. The two men hold their conversation in snatches, as the farmer ploughs up and down the field; every time he reaches the end of the field where the speaker sits, they exchange a few more words.
The iambic pentameter blank verse that Edward Thomas utilises in this poem – as he does in several of his other celebrated poems, such as ‘Rain’ – carries additional significance in this poem, especially if we bear in mind that the etymology of the word ‘verse’ is the Latin ‘versus’, originally ‘the turn of the plough’. The action of the ploughman going up and down the field, the rhythm of the men’s conversation, and the movement of the lines of Thomas’s poem all work together here.
The ‘share’ referred to in the poem is the ploughshare, that blade used by the farmer to plough the field. (‘Charlock’, while we’re glossing words, is a sort of wild mustard.) Even this takes on extra significance in the context of a poem about war, and it can be analysed in terms of the biblical expression ‘beat your swords into ploughshares’ – in other words, make peace not war.
For the farmer in Thomas’s poem, who is a simple ploughman (one thinks of the origins of modern English poetry in, among other works, the fourteenth-century allegorical poem Piers Plowman), things would be better if the war had not interrupted the rural rhythms of agricultural life. If his mate had not been killed fighting in France, he would have had someone to help him move the elm tree that has been felled by the blizzard. As the speaker of the poem remarks, he would not now be able to sit under it if the tree had been cleared. Everything, he says, would be different.
This is a version of Chaos Theory or the ‘Butterfly Effect’ writ small: if something so calamitous as the war had not broken out, ordinary people’s humble but honest lives would not have been turned upside down. But it is one of the strengths of Thomas’s poem that he does not dramatise, much less melodramatise, the fact that war has broken out.
What is the purpose of the two lovers who run into a wood, and then emerge again at the end of the poem? When we consider the dark portents of the conversation between the speaker of the poem and the farmer, and the fact that some men from the parish who have gone off to fight have been killed, the young lovers’ tryst is given extra poignancy: they may not live long enough to be married, and they may soon be separated – because the man may well be sent off to war soon (conscription had been introduced in January 1916, the year Thomas wrote ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’), and may not return.
Yet the fact that they remain together, for now, offers a faint note of hope: that love will continue, and that life will continue (in a very real, procreative sense: no prizes for guessing what the lovers have disappeared into the woods to do).
‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is a war poem – it takes war as its theme – but instead of focusing on the trenches and the fighting, it looks at the reaction to war on the home front. Rather than mustard gas, it features the mustard, or charlock, in the farmer’s field. And that field is not the ‘foreign field’ of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ but a field in England. It makes Edward Thomas’s poem worthy of analysis in relation to other poems about the First World War.
Image: Ploughing on a farm in Queensland, 1938 (photographer: F. Jones), via Wikimedia Commons.