‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ by Billy Collins is a five stanza poem that is separated into sections of seven lines. The stanzas are not structured through any particular rhyme scheme, but each one does contain at least one complete phrase. In all of the stanzas, expect for the second, the poet has chosen to stretch one sentence over all seven of the lines. This forces the reader to complete an entire stanza before coming to the conclusion of the thought. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Afternoon with Irish Cows
‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ by Billy Collins describes one speaker’s presumptions about the interior lives of cows and the power that sound has over human understanding.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he is able to see a cow field from his house, and the cows that live in it, everyday. The field is more often than not filled with a “few dozen” cows which are there to greet him as he comes and goes.
Sometimes though, they seem to disappear. One moment they are grazing happily, and the next they are gone. As quickly as they disappeared, they return and are back to eating and lying on the ground “waiting for rain.” The speaker does not see much use in being a cow, he is confused by their apparent patience and simplicity.
The next stanzas describe how he sometimes hears a horrifying sound coming from the fields. This “bellowing” emerges from the “dark” depths of a female cow who, he realizes, is declaring her “cowness.” He sees the sound as being the embodied essence of what it means to be a cow and is moved by the humanness of the moment.
Analysis of Afternoon with Irish Cows
Afternoon with Irish Cows begins with the speaker describing a particular location he is very familiar with. The exact area of the speaker’s interest is not made clear, but using the information supplied in the title, and only that which is spoken in the first line, the reader can come to a fairly clear conclusion about where the poem is taking place.
The first line describes the speaker seeing “a few dozen.” This enigmatic “dozen” is not defined any further for the time being, and if one did not read the title, it would not be completely clear that the speaker is describing seeing cows.
The cows are close to the speaker, so much so that he sees them everyday from where he lives. They are “across the road” and he can observe them from the window of his house. This makes the animals a crucial and repetitive part of the speaker’s everyday life. It would be unusual for him to walk out his door and not see these animals, a fact which comes up in the following lines.
He continues on to describe how the cows spend the entire day, “stepping…from tuft to tuft.” Their lives seem simple to him, and their appearance is summarized in this stanza through the size of their heads. Throughout ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ the speaker gives a bit more detail, one line at a time, about what the cows look like. The trickling in of context would slowly reveal to one unable to see the title, what the animal the speaker sees is.
The lines continue on, and the speakers describes how usually the cows are always there, but sometimes he looks out the window and it is if they have “taken wing” and somehow managed to “fly off to another country.”
Many readers will be able to relate to this strange phenomenon, whether through bird watching, or other large animals like horses and sheep. One moment the cows are there, and the next they seem to have vanished.
The second stanza of ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ brings the reader further into the speaker’s day. It is later on in the same afternoon and he is describing another moment where after seeing the field without cows, he looks out the “blue front door, “ and sees that the field is “full of their munching.” They are back where they’re supposed to be, “lying down” on their sides. They are doing no more than they were previously. Perhaps, the speaker thinks, they are “waiting for rain.”
The final two lines of this stanza describe how the speaker sees their interior lives. He is unable to penetrate their thoughts and the only conclusion he can come to is that they are “patient and dumbfounded.” He sees them as being incredibly quiet and “mysterious.”
In an effort to make real the world of cows in which he is living, the speaker jumps to another moment of observation that has to do with sound. Not only are they visual mysterious, they are also strange in the noises they make.
He describes how “every once in a while” he will be engaged in a simple task, like cutting up an apple, and suddenly jump at a noise coming from the field. The sound seems to him to be one of intense pain. He imagines that a cow is being killed or, “pierced through the side with a long spear.”
The speaker says that he often walks down to the field to check on the animals, just to make sure that none of them are injured.
The origin of the mysterious noise that the speaker heard and investigated in the third stanza is revealed in the fourth. Once he has walked down to the fence surrounding his neighbour’s property, he sees “the noisy one.” It is a female cow and she is “anchored” to the ground on “all fours.”
He states that “her neck” is stretched to its limit and she is “bellowing” to the sky. Her sounds are “full-bodied” and seem to have originated from the “darkness of her belly.” The noise is simply the essence of cow. It is a “bellow” strictly possessed by cows and expressed as only they can. It cannot, and should not, be understood by humans.
In the final stanza of this piece the speaker continues to describe the sound that the cow made and his thoughts about her during its aftermath. He no longer fears that the cow is in danger. Instead, he comes to the conclusion that she “was only announcing…herself.” She was expressing her “unadulterated cowness.” The noise contains, as state previously, all that it means to be a cow.
The noise represents more to the speaker than he initially thought. As he contemplates its depth, beauty, and purpose, he sees it stretching beyond this particular cow to all of her kind. It expands along “all the green fields” and up into “the gray clouds.” There is no force on earth, nor barrier, that can stop its progression.
In the final two lines the speaker is brought back to the reality of the moment, and shocked by wildness of the cow’s expression. He now sees in this animal much more than he did previously. All it took for him to change his opinion of the mental capacity of this creature was to look directly into her eyes and consider for a moment why she was really doing what she was doing.