‘The Lammas Hireling’ by Ian Duhig is a poem which looks at many different ideas and feelings, represented through a wide variety of techniques. Born in 1954 in Ireland, Duhig grew up in England and has won the national poetry competition twice. ‘The Lammas Hireling’ achieved second place in this competition in 2000. He is known for his inventive use of language, and uses his strong knowledge of literature, culture and history to support his work. This poem is particularly curious as a result of the layers of meaning and different interpretations, with unfamiliarity acting as a strong contributor to the poem’s effectiveness.
This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
Interpreture gives ‘The Lammas Hireling’ a difficulty rating of 4, meaning that it is deemed to be a relatively difficult poem. The meaning is likely to be the hardest part to understand for many students, however once this has been overcome the themes are in turn relatively easy to identify and the range of language and structure devices mean that there is large opportunity for a range of analysis in an essay.
‘The Lammas Hireling’
The title relates to an old harvest festival, traditionally on August 1st. This would be the day in which farmers went to their local town or village to hire farm hands to help bring in the harvest, which at this point would be reaching peak output. By focussing on a single unnamed individual, it would immediately bring a sense of intrigue and mystery to the poem, and indicate that the subject matter is specific to one person rather than to anything else. Some readers may interpret this as showing an attempt to distance the worker from the narrator of the poem by there not being a name involved, perhaps alluding to some notable event in the relationship between the two.
There are four stanzas in total in the poem, each made up of six lines. Enjambment occurs between all of the stanzas to create the effect of ongoing quick and frantic speech, with little opportunity to pause for reflection on what has been said. This helps to increase the level of confusion felt by a reader, and is one of the reasons why it is initially difficult to understand the meaning of the poem. In addition, the breaks between stanzas often act as ‘hinge points’ for the poem, particularly between the first and second stanza when the tone shifts to be more mysterious and disturbing.
There is a wide mix of different sentence lengths throughout ‘The Lammas Hireling’, varying from several lines to only one line or less. Again, this helps to encourage the feeling of confusion and make a reader see the narrator as erratic. By ending the poem on one final line a contrast is shown in comparison to the preceding lines because it feels much more rigid in structure. This can be seen as reflecting the idea of conforming to the ideas of church and religion, which are shared through this idea of “confession”.
When skimming the poem, it becomes clear as to how often the word ‘and’ is repeated at the beginning of a line, occurring at the beginning of five lines, particularly in the first stanza. This gives the idea of further building up a story, but could be interpreted by a reader as also indicating that this may be a fantasy and unrealistic. This could be seen as a deliberate choice by Duhig as this would further make the actions of the narrator seem implausible by the end of the poem, and reinforce the confusion of the reader, forcing them to consider the poem more extensively and question their views on the truthfulness and authenticity of the piece. By encouraging the reader to question the authenticity of the narrator’s version of events, it raises the interesting question as to whether what is written has been too easily trusted.
Using specific word placements helps to continue the sense of confusion, often in relation to the ideas of “light” – whether that be something physically light in weight, or happy and positive connotations. For example, the first line describes a “light heart” which may allude to an emptiness in love and emotion, or alternatively a positive and happy feeling. Similarly, the oxymoron “light from the dark lantern” makes a reader question the effectiveness of the lantern if it is not truly able to show light and clarity on the situation, acting as a metaphor for the confusing events of the second stanza which links the ideas of the narrator’s wife, the hireling, and warlocks all into one section. In addition, describing the moon as a “yellow witness” is interesting because it could be interpreted as indicating that the light it gives (both literally and figuratively) is somehow tainted, in contrast to the typically ‘pure’ colour of white.
Duhig also utilises a semantic field of the supernatural, with words such as “warlock”, “night” and “dark”. This helps to add one of the extra layers of meaning to the poem, as it makes the reader question the reality of this situation, continuing with the general skepticism of the narrator’s story. Typical connotations of these words include danger, mystery and the unknown and this would make a reader apprehensive of the situation, but also potentially dismissive that the events took place as described. What is also interesting is the inclusion of the idea of religion in this context, which acts as a positive force against the ideas of the negative supernatural imagery.
Personification aims to reinforce the theme of the supernatural, for example “the fox-trap biting” gives the impression that it has been ‘possessed’ to be given animal or human like qualities. In addition, the description helps a reader to focus on this section, and opens up the possibility of multiple interpretations; for example whether this is to stop foxes getting into the farm, or to stop people from leaving.
“her torn voice”
The use of “torn” is notable because it has savage and primal connotations, reflecting the strange situation that is described in the poem. In addition, specifically using “her” helps to focus on the vulnerability of any other person in relation to the narrator, who would increasingly be coming across as fearsome and frightening. A reader would also feel apprehensive as to why there may such emotion and pain in her thoughts for her voice to be “torn” while simultaneously indicating that the reader will never fully understand the events as nobody is able to fully describe what has happened.
“There was no / Splash”
Splitting this sentence across two lines places much more emphasis on “splash” due to the changing of lines creating a brief pause in reading. This helps to momentarily build tension, while also demonstrating the confusion of the description because there is more time for a reader to consider what the narrator is sharing. This leaves the reader with many unanswered questions, which is effective at ensuring that confusion continues until the end.
“It has been an hour since my last confession.”
Only an “hour” between confessions would strike a reader as being very short, signalling some form of insanity or extreme guilt which is compelling the narrator to confess their actions repeatedly. This then results in the reader questioning whether any of the poem can truly be believed at all, if it is being shared through the perspective of an unreliable narrator, and there is not even proof of how long the duration between confessions has actually been. In the Catholic Church, confessions must be full and made with the intention of making amends, so confessing this frequently to the (presumably) same crime would indicate that various details are not being included, once again demonstrating the narrator’s unreliability.
‘The Lammas Hireling’ Key Themes
- Transgression: There is a clear link to the idea of transgression and taboo throughout the poem, linking both the real and supernatural with contrasting ideas. Many boundaries of human interaction are blurred, making a reader question the narrator’s reliability, and this confusion is maintained beyond the end of the poem.
- Language and Truth: It is very clear to a reader by the end of ‘The Lammas Hireling’ that accuracy and truth are likely to be hard to find from the narrator of the poem, with numerous examples as to why they are untrustworthy in their account. As such, the poem is very effective at maintaining confusion for the reader due to so many unanswered questions.
- Society and Culture: The confusion between the narrator’s wife and the hireling raises questions for a reader that are never adequately answered, with both a mix of feminine and masculine imagery combining to question what a normal response of society would be. The poem is also based in the traditional agriculture and pagan cultures, and shows how society can fail when cultures and unsuccessfully mixed.
Quick Focus Questions
- What impact does the mix of feminine and masculine imagery have on a reader?
- How effective is the inclusion of religious ideas in further on evoking a response from a reader?
- How does Duhig use structure to show the unreliability of the narrator?
‘The Lammas Hireling’ is a curious poem that helps to spark an interest in the reader due to the mix of language and structure devices. While it can be difficult at first, this mix helps to make it enjoyable and also allows for interesting comparisons with other poems, such as ‘Giuseppe’ or ‘The Deliverer’ for the theme of transgression, or the idea of gender in ‘Eat Me’. The wide range of interpretations also make this poem very ambiguous, which also is a great way comparison point in an essay.
Isn’t it ‘yellow witness’ rather than ‘yellow whiteness’. that’s what is written in my ‘Poems Of The Decade’ copy.
Hi Hannah Jane, you’re right! I’m not sure how that typo managed to get in there. I’ve updated the post with some new analysis of the correct line. The idea of a “yellow witness” is super interesting for all the ideas you can combine regarding the connotations of ‘yellow’ and the significance of a ‘witness’.
Hi, so what would you say the overall meaning/message of the poem is?
Arguably this poem lacks a central message to the same extent as others in the Poems of the Decade collection (eg ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ being reminiscent about childhood, ‘Effects’ remembering a loved one) but there’s definitely lots about emotions and transgressions. As with all poetry, your interpretation is valid as long as you can back up your ideas.
Hey, thanks for the post.Really thank you! Really Cool.
There’s a grammatical error in the section about the quote, ‘there was no splash’ – it should be ‘this leaves the reader with many unanswered questions’ not ‘unanswered poems about the poem’
Thanks for spotting the error, it’s now been fixed.
How would you say Ian Duhig presents mythical/folklore characters in this poem?
Ideas related to mythology and folklore are typically those that are passed between generations through word of mouth and have deviated from the truth, and as such this poem fits really well into that idea.
First person narrative is used, and while it is perhaps less ‘folklore’ than a third person narrative, it’s still relatively vague, indicating that precise details have been lost over time. There’s no indication as to who “I” really is, nor the other characters referenced, plus there’s no proper indication of a location. As such, the characters and settings are presented in a way which could apply to a huge range of people and places – the result of changes made as generations of people have told the story. Some could also read into “yields doubled” as being hyperbole, again a result of this being a story that has grown and warped over time as it has been recited.
Then of course there is the “warlock” description, with magic, descriptions of the night etc, all of which are quite typical ideas that are typically associated with myths and legends. The description “cow with leather horns” is an Irish riddle for ‘hare’ so this also adds an element of mystery and puzzle.
Overall I think what Duhig has done so successfully is make this poem feel as if it is actually folklore, through all these subtle choices in terms of the narrative style and descriptions, which make it feel like it has been a story passed on for generations rather than one that has just been created.
How is violent imagery presented in the poem
I think there’s an interesting pun on hare and hireling? The fecund language associated with the young boy is also hinting at a lust the owner feels for him (reminds me of descriptions of Tess with her cows in TEss of the D’Urbevilles). Surely a strong sense of an illicit passion is here?
Hi, How would you say Ian Duhig presents experience in the poem?
hey, thank you for the post! extremely helpful. what would you say are the key ambiguities in the poem not too sure which ones are the key ones.