The Black-Faced Sheep

The Black-Faced Sheep

by Donald Hall

Ruminant pillows! Gregarious soft boulders!

If one of you found a gap in a stone wall,
the rest of you—rams, ewes, bucks, wethers, lambs;
mothers and daughters, old grandfather-father,
cousins and aunts, small bleating sons—
followed onward, stupid
as sheep, wherever
your leader’s sheep-brain wandered to.

My grandfather spent all day searching the valley
and edges of Ragged Mountain,
calling “Ke-day!” as if he brought you salt,
“Ke-day! Ke-day!”

*         *         *

When the shirt wore out, and darns in the woolen
shirt needed darning,
a woman in a white collar
cut the shirt into strips and braided it,
as she braided her hair every morning.

In a hundred years
the knees of her great-granddaughter
crawled on a rug made from the wool of sheep
whose bones were mud,
like the bones of the woman, who stares
from an oval in the parlor.

*         *         *

I forked the brambly hay down to you
in nineteen-fifty. I delved my hands deep
in the winter grass of your hair.

When the shearer cut to your nakedness in April
and you dropped black eyes in shame,
hiding in barnyard corners, unable to hide,
I brought grain to raise your spirits,
and ten thousand years
wound us through pasture and hayfield together,
threads of us woven
together, three hundred generations
from Africa’s hills to New Hampshire’s.

*         *         *

You were not shrewd like the pig.
You were not strong like the horse.
You were not brave like the rooster.

Yet none of the others looked like a lump of granite
that grew hair,
and none of the others
carried white fleece as soft as dandelion seed
around a black face,
and none of them sang such a flat and sociable song.

*         *         *

Now the black-faced sheep have wandered and will not return,
even if I should search the valleys
and call “Ke-day,” as if I brought them salt.
Now the railroad draws
a line of rust through the valley. Birch, pine, and maple
lean from cellarholes
and cover the dead pastures of Ragged Mountain
except where machines make snow
and cables pull money up hill, to slide back down.

*         *         *

At South Danbury Church twelve of us sit—
cousins and aunts, sons—
where the great-grandfathers of the forty-acre farms
filled every pew.
I look out the window at summer places,
at Boston lawyers’ houses
with swimming pools cunningly added to cowsheds,
and we read an old poem aloud, about Israel’s sheep,
old lumps of wool, and we read

that the rich farmer, though he names his farm for himself,
takes nothing into his grave;
that even if people praise us, because we are successful,
we will go under the ground
to meet our ancestors collected there in the darkness;
that we are all of us sheep, and death is our shepherd,
and we die as the animals die.

Summary of The Black-Faced Sheep

  • Popularity of “The Black-Faced Sheep”: This is poem is written by Donald Hall, one of the greatest American poets and writers. The poem The Black-Faced Sheep is a superb literary piece famous for the theme of death. It was perhaps published in 1990. The poem speaks about the inevitability of death while illustrating how people blindly follow others. He also adds that many people do not try to be different and eventually lose their own way.
  • “The Black-Faced Sheep” As a Representative of Death: This poem is about the cunning nature of mankind, constantly trying to modernize the world and destroying nature. The poet recalls ancestors recycling their tattered clothing and his grandfather, spending his time at the valley looking for and after the sheep. Their wool was used to make clothes, rugs and other items. He reflects how three hundred generations from the African Hills to New Hampshire were engaged in farming. Unfortunately, those lands are now barren and are occupied by the industries.
    The poet compares the new generation with the black-faced sheep who have wandered, never to return as they have abandoned farming. Sadly, their pastures are used for construction.
    The poet sits with his cousins at South Danbury Church, where their great grandfathers once occupied the forty-acre farm, which has now become extinct. While talking about the transience of life, the speaker says though we recall the great farmers with their lands that they named after them, they took nothing to their graves.
    No matter how successful, influential and strong we become, we have to meet our ancestors in the world hereafter. No matter what position we attain in society, one day we will have to face death as equals.
  • Major Themes in “The Black-Faced Sheep”: Nature, the transience of life and death are the major themes of this poem. Throughout the poem, the speaker reflects on certain aspects of human beings, including our characteristics to blindly follow the footsteps of others. The speaker presents the startling view of the world that is constantly evolving due to the efforts of human beings. They have changed the face of the earth with modern technology and reformed social values. Unfortunately, no matter how far we wander in life, one day, we’ll be caught in the hands of death. Everything including name, fame, and status ends as death treats humans and animals equally.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in The Black-Faced Sheep

Literary devices are tools that represent writers’ ideas, feelings, and emotions. It is through these devices the writers make their words appealing to the readers. Donald Hall has also used some literary devices in this poem to make it appealing. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem is listed below.

  1. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /i/ in “Ruminant pillows! Gregarious soft boulders!” and the sound of /o/ in “followed onward, stupid”.
  2. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sound of /th/ in “that the rich farmer, though he names his farm for himself,” and the sound of /s/ in “they sang such a flat and sociable song.”
  3. Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a word or expression in the first part of some verses. For example, “You were not” in the seventh stanza of the poem is repeated to emphasize the point of what the person does not possess as a character trait.

You were not shrewd like the pig.
You were not strong like the horse.
You were not brave like the rooster.”

  1. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break; rather, it rolls over to the next line. For example,

“Yet none of the others looked like a lump of granite
that grew hair.”

  1. Imagery: The use of imagery enables the reader to understand the writer’s feelings and emotions. For example, “that the rich farmer, though he names his farm for himself”, “and we read an old poem aloud, about Israel’s sheep” and “and we die as the animals die.”
  2. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between the objects that are different in nature. The poet has used metaphoric expression in the twenty-sixth line “In the winter grass of your hair.” Here, he compares grass with hair.
  3. Simile: It is a figure of speech used to compare something with something else to make the meanings clear to the readers. The poet has used this device in many places in the poem. For example, “Yet none of the others looked like a lump of granite/ that grew hair” and “White fleece as soft as dandelion seed.”

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in The Black-Faced Sheep

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Free Verse: Free verse is a type of poetry that does not contain patterns of rhyme or meter. This is a free-verse poem with no strict rhyme or meter.
  2. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. This is a long poem divided into six sections and each section has different numbers of stanzas.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below are useful while talking about the unavoidable death that no matter how far we go, always traces us.

“we will go under the ground
to meet our ancestors collected there in the darkness;
that we are all of us sheep, and death is our shepherd,
and we die as the animals die.”