In Foxes Among the Lambs, Ernest Moll takes us on a farmer’s journey, where he discovers some lambs savaged by foxes out in the fields, and documents his reprisal. He challenges the notion of the unsentimental farmer by his response to the fatally wounded animals, and his desire to enact vengeance. All three verses begin with the word ‘each’ followed by morning, afternoon and evening. This reminds us the reader that his act of barbarism was not a one-off event, rather something to which a farmer must steel himself and endure. We quickly see an unpleasant aspect of this profession, dispelling any romantic notion of the job. You can read the whole poem here.
Structure and Form
The poem is divided into three stanzas of eight lines each. It follows a simple ABAB, CDCD rhyme scheme throughout and the rhyme scheme is iambic pentameter.
Foxes Among the Lambs Analysis
We are plunged into the action by the first image of the ‘lambs with bloody mouth.’ This is especially upsetting since lambs are synonymous with innocence and kindliness, so to see them thus brutalised is difficult to stomach. We learn then that the reason for the blood is barbaric indeed as they have been victims of an attack and had: ‘Their tongues cut out by foxes’. The use of the passive to convey the savagery actually accentuates it. The caesura pause after ‘foxes’ almost lets us catch our breaths to process the horrific scene. Though grievously injured, the lambs have the sense to find shelter from the rain, but their attempts will be in vain.
Almost everyone has seen a clip from television, or perhaps in reality, of a baby animal taking its first uncertain steps. So with this idealised notion in mind, the image on line four of the lambs attempting to stand is pitiful: ‘They’d rise to run but fall on wobbly knees’. The alliteration of ‘rise to run’ has an upward inflection which almost gathers momentum, but alas they are unable to support themselves, and fall. The farmer is stricken with horror at the next step he knows he must take, which is to euthanize them. The line ‘only death could cure them of their ills’ is striking since it seems ironic to put the words ‘death’ and ‘cure’ together.
The speaker’s deft method of dispatching the lambs is conveyed by the onomatopoeic word ‘smash’, which suggests the violence entailed. We sense the potency of his rage as he completes this grim task, while thinking of the perpetrators of the crime. The harsh ‘c’ sound in ‘curse’ emphasises his disgust.
The metaphor ‘red marauders’ to describe the foxes is a convincing choice, since marauders typically hide outside the villages, only appearing at night to loot and plunder. This use of personification suggests that the foxes committed this crime out of malice, as though they were aware of the cruelty of their actions. In the light of this the farmer’s actions in the next verse are understandable.
In farming life it is standard practice to set traps for pests, but the speaker in this poem does not seem to feel at ease with this, and though he intends to take action against the foxes, he is secretive about his method. He feels the need to conceal himself from prying eyes and only sets about his task: ‘…..safe in a sheltered nook/Behind the smithy,’. The sibilance of the repeated ‘s’ sounds compound the sense of secrecy since they are almost uttered in hushed tones; it is almost as though the farmer is confiding in the reader. He is assailed with strong emotions which discombobulate him. We imagine that at heart he is a gentle soul, who is surprised when his ‘fingers shook/With the half-frightened eagerness of hate.’ This is a very evocative description to show his inner conflict.
What follows is an exact, precise description of how he prepares ‘the bait’. Like himself, concealed from others, he places the poison in a ‘hidden rift’. The incision is made with a ‘knife-point in the piece of liver’, which seems an apt choice for the bloodthirsty predators, who have a taste for offal. The rhythm in the last two lines of the verse seem to accelerate in speed which conveys his impatience to kill the foxes and exact his revenge. Retaliation is a theme here, since he cursed the foxes so he hopes they will ‘take the gift’ and ‘curse the giver’. There is a palpable sense of anger in the beat of the final line, with the stress falling on each second syllable, adding an extra visceral punch to each word.
After morning and afternoon we reach the evening and the climax of the poem. There is a juxtaposition in the speaker’s situation; though ‘sleepless’ he is safe in bed, and the ‘steady patter of the rain’ creates a feeling of warmth and security, conveyed by the reassuringly gentle onomatopoeic description. This is in distinct contrast to the harsh monosyllabic ‘first sharp yelp’ when the fox finds the bait. The consonance of the ‘r’ and ‘s’ sounds combined with the plosive ‘p’s, succeed in recreating the fox’s shocked reaction to the poisoned meat.
The speaker refers again to the excitement he felt in the second stanza, as here he is ‘breathless till it rang again’. The poet is an expert in creating suspense, through his use of punctuation, the reader is waiting too for the piercing cry to ring through the night. The line: ‘While something in me waited for the leap’ shows that there is a sense that he cannot define what emotion overtakes him at this moment. It is uncertain whether there is a slight revulsion in himself, for being thrilled by this ‘wild cry with death and terror in it.’ The use of the words ‘rang’ and ‘leap’ contain a shrill energy which we can almost hear shattering the surrounding stillness.
The final line shows that the speaker is a bit mystified by the deep-seated relief he feels, knowing that his plan has worked. The dashes give the line a contemplative air, and the concluding exclamation mark shows his surprise that he can now rest, despite the suffering he has caused.
About Ernest G. Moll
Ernest G. Moll (1900-1997) was born in Australia where he had first hand experience of the life of a sheep farmer which enabled him to write with such insight and truth on the subject of nature. He moved to the United States in 1920, where he lectured at the University of Oregon for many years.