‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ by Edward Thomas is a narrative poem that was written in 1916. It is a thirty-eight line poem that is contained within one block of text. The poem is written in blank verse. This means there is no rhyme scheme but the lines conform to the pattern of iambic pentameter. Therefore, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
The careful rhythm of the poem was not a mistake. It makes sense that Thomas chose this metrical pattern as it mimics the steady up and down, back and forth, rhythm of the plough, as well as the conversation.
Explore As the Team's Head Brass
This piece is one of Thomas’ best-loved and most commonly studied. It begins with the speaker sitting down under a fallen elm tree. The man strikes up a conversation with the ploughman who is going back and forth through the field with his team of horses. They talk first about the weather but quickly move on to the war and how it has changed the farmer’s life.
He tells the speaker that many from the area have gone to fight and ended up dying. His “mate” was one of them. If this hadn’t happened, the farmer tells the speaker, then he would’ve been able to help the farmer move the tree. The speaker understands where the farmer is going with the conversation and adds that then, he would never have been able to sit down and they wouldn’t have had the conversation. The First World War has touched everything and everyone and not for the better.
The most important theme of ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is war. It is the subtext and the main-text. After the speaker and the ploughman discuss the weather they both turn towards the war. It is all there is to talk about. This is due to the fact that it has penetrated everyone’s lives so completely. In the last ten lines, this is seen most poignantly as the speaker and the farmer walk through all the things that would be different about that very moment if the war had never happened.
The informal and colloquial diction used by Thomas in the text lends the conversation the realism it needs to be believable. If the two had spoken in lofty language, while sitting beside, and working, a field, it would’ve been much more difficult for a reader to relate to the snippets of information they exchange.
Although there is no pattern of rhyme, there are moments of full, as well as a half, or slant rhyme. The latter is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, the words “Fallow,” “yellow” and “narrow…” in lines four and five. Another example is in line eleven with “brass” and “flashed,” both make use of the short “a” sound.
Another technique used in the text is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. This can be seen throughout the poem, but a few examples include line ten with the words “Scraping” and “share” and line eighteen with “minute more”.
Enjambment is used by Thomas in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ to increase the rhythmic nature of the lines and further emphasize the movement of the plough. It is a technique that is very commonly used in poetry. It occurs when a line is cut off before it’s a natural stopping point. This choice forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Line twenty-two is a great example as the speaker contemplates what he would and would not be willing to lose if he is sent to fight.
Analysis of As the Team’s Head Brass
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 an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock […]
In the first lines of ‘As the Team’s Head Brass,’ the speaker makes use of the phrase that later became the title. The word “brass” in this context refers to the metal bridal around a horse’s head. These are the pieces of equipment that allow the horse to be lead, in this case, around the field. The “team” is the pair of horses that pull the plough, and are led by the farmer. Two things happen at once in the first two lines.
The team of horses “flashed on the turn” and “the lovers disappeared into the wood.” The “lovers” are an interesting addition to the poem. They do not return again until the end, after the conversation is over. Thomas does not make clear what role these two are meant to play. But possibly, they are fleeing from the discussion of the repercussions of war. There is a third character, the speaker. He is sitting under a “fallen elm” tree.
[…]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 speaker was out taking a walk and decided to rest there beneath its boughs, or hanging branches. His seat is adjacent to the “fallow”, or the ploughed and harrowed farmland. From where he sits, he can watch the plough narrowing a “yellow square /of charlock”. This is a kind of yellow flower that is commonly found as a weed in fields. The plow is slowly turning up the soil, getting rid of these wildflowers. Every time the farmer leads the horses back towards the speaker, he leans down “Upon the handles to say or ask a word”.
The two talk sporadically about the weather and what’s going on in the war. This is the first, but certainly not the last, mention or allusion of the war. Thomas’ speaker is referring to the First World War, a topic that Edward Thomas, author to the poem AdleStrop too, wrote extensively on. Thomas was a soldier, and was killed in action in 1917. The first set of lines ends with the speaker giving more detail to the movements and progress of the plough and ploughman.
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
In the next set of lines in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ the speaker describes how the elm under which he sat was “failed” or knocked down, by “the blizzard”. By using the word “the” in front of “blizzard,” the speaker is suggesting that the reader should be aware of this particular storm. It was noteworthy, probably for its strength, therefore it didn’t need any other time or place description.
In reference to the tree, they discuss when and how it fell and most importantly when (or if) it will be taken away. The answer is only when the war is over. It was with these two statements that the back-and-forth conversation began. Between each sporadic conversational exchange, there was “an interval of ten” minutes. This is how long it took the farmer to get down to the other side of the field and back up again. They would speak for another minute, and then the farmer would be gone for another ten.
The section ends with an exchange regarding whether the speaker has been “out”. This is also in reference to the war, and in consideration of whether he has fought in Europe.
“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
The speaker of ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ informs the farmer that if he knew he could come back, he would go. But, he’s worried about losing his leg and being so badly maimed that he couldn’t go about his life when he returned. He does add that he could “spare an arm” if he needed to. He also considers what it would mean if he lost his head, or was killed in action any other way. After considering it for a minute, he decides that if this was the case, then he would know nothing about it. He would want nothing more at that point.
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 conversation has turned from the weather and to something much darker, but just as unifying. The speaker asked the farmer if many have gone to war from this area. The farmer answers “yes” and that a good few men have been lost. He goes on to tell the speaker that his life on the farm has been impacted by these losses. The war has interrupted his work and the speed at which he is able to complete it. He also tells the speaker that two teams were able to work on the farm this year, alluding to the fact that in the past that there have been many more. He also adds that his “mate” is dead. This person, who is not defined, was killed on their second day in France.
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 friend’s death corresponded with the blizzard that felled the tree the speaker is sitting under, in fact. The farmer goes on to tell the speaker that if the war had not started, then his friend would not have been killed, Then he would’ve been there to help the farmer move the tree. But, as was made clear at the beginning of the poem, the tree is still there, and it will likely not be moved until the men return from fighting. The speaker picks up where the farmer left off adding that if the tree had been moved, then he would not be able to sit under it.
Everything about this scene in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ that they are now participating in would’ve been different. This microcosm of loss and death, caused by the war, is a perfect representation of how every aspect of everyone’s life was changed in some way. Even the simplest things were acted upon detrimentally. The farmer picks up the dialogue again, saying that it would’ve been a better world if the war had not started.
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.
The poem concludes with a reference to the lovers who were first spoken of in the second line. They emerge from the woods again. At the same time, the horses started back into the field for the last time. The poem has no final definitive ending. It seems to drift off, leaving a reader to wonder what is going to happen next, and where these characters are supposed to go from here. The speaker sits and watches the team of horses and the plowshare move across the ground and the “clods crumble”.