Commentary on Harry Ploughman

The first four lines describe a man's body, especially his musculature. His arms are hard as a fence (‘hurdles') covered in golden down. He is lean, so that his ribcage shows clearly, and his waistline goes in Ploughmanwhere it should. His thigh muscles look like ropes and his shanks or lower legs look like barrels. Hopkins seems to be imagining them, as presumably in real life, the man would be wearing breeches of some kind.

The second four lines refer to his co-ordinating his whole physique via his eye. He has to plough a straight furrow and his body is focused on that. Hopkins can see the muscles of Harry's limbs in motion as he controls the horses of his team. Some of the muscles look like mounds of earth (‘barrowy'), others look either ‘curded', small round knots like curds, or as hollows (‘sucked or sank').

The final three lines of the octave refer to the biblical image of the body, where each part knows its place:

‘The body is a unit, though it is made up of may parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.' (1 Corinthians 12:12)

So here, Harry's body is a unit, each part having its own rank and knowing what it must do.

In the sestet, we actually see him ploughing. As the plough goes ‘wallowing' over the field, so his muscles adjust to every variation of the ground to give a straight furrow. There is a natural grace to the man, flowing from his strength. The last few lines have a difficult word order, and use ellipsis. It is not entirely clear what ‘them' refers to in 1.17. Roughly it can be paraphrased as:

Look at his curly hair and how the wind forms it into a lacy pattern. Look how his grace, arising from his strength, throws (‘hurls') out the furrows (‘furls' ), with his feet bound in wrinkled (‘frowning') boots, as he races along with the iron (of the plough) under the earth, shooting up the shining earth like a fountain.'

Investigating Harry Ploughman
  • What do you think ‘quail' (1.13) means?
    • What other words or phrases give the idea of control?
  • What do we see of the man's face?
    • Would you have expected more description of that?
  • Does this picture seem very remote from you, in time and place, or does Hopkins succeed in making this man real for you?
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