Friesian Bull by Gillian Clarke is a tale of a bull that is angry at his current state of being locked in his “brick and concrete stall” since it is a paradox against the “freedom” he can “smell” from his placement. He can “[r]emember” a better existence than what he currently “knows,” and this contrast of his former pleasantness against his current harshness creates a “rage” within him that takes him beyond simply a victim of circumstance. Rather, he loses his ability to sympathize in a relatable manner, meaning his harsh reality has altered his very being into something that is as much a predator as it is prey.
The existence of the bull is complex, despite the simplicity of his physical surroundings, creating a layer of duality that matches his predator/victim combination. Overall, this confusion and the harshness that brought on that confusion are the major themes of the poem.
Friesian Bull Analysis
The setting in which the bull is placed within this first stanza is harsh and constraining, and this concept is revealed by a number of factors. What are possibly the clearest representations are the materials used to explain the confinement that keeps him enclosed. There is no wooden cage that would easily be broken, but “[a] brick and concrete stall” that includes “[s]teel bars.” These are not materials that would hastily give under pressure, and they are bland in appearance with the basics of color and fashion—nothing to give character or personality to the setting. Overall, the environment feels cold and harsh to reflect the cruel state of being in which the bull must exist. As a side note, this lack of color and character could be the first clue to the reader that the bull has lost his own character and compassion since he is surrounded by things that are devoid of such things.
Returning to the concept of revealed harshness, the chosen consonants for the description contribute to the atmosphere by being bold, like “brick,” and cutting, like “concrete.” The forcefulness of the repetition involved in “heifer’s haunches” is yet another literary choice to build the representation of an unpleasant environment since the repeating of that “h” consonant feels pressing, like the bull might feel pressed upon within his confines.
The irony, however, is that his is not the territory labeled as a “trap.” That label is given to the “heifer’s” space where she is separated from the bull. In fact, once “her trap” is noted, that particular section only criticizes the bull’s living space as being “small.” Without a doubt, the other elements at work within the stanza let the unpleasant nature of his surroundings be known, but when paired directly beside the “heifer’s” holding space, hers is the one granted the highest level of criticism.
What this could indicate is that the bull’s holding space has made him a predator as well as the victim as he will unleash his fury on another. The victim of that unleashing then is “trap[ped]” by a situation she is not making while the bull is reacting to the “small” space he has been given. Both are harsh, but each shows a different element of the bull’s situation—predator and victim.
In addition, the “small” aspect of his victimization is mirrored in the idea that “his eyes” “surface like fish bellies” “[i]n the slow rolling mass of his skull.” What this indicates is that the bull truly does have a “small” station in life since his eyes have to be located among the “rolling mass of his skull.” This shows a larger context, one in which something as significant as the bull’s “eyes” must be found in a “mass,” like “fish bellies” in a larger body of water. This idea creates a bit of sympathy for the bull even though the bull himself is void of sympathy for others since he is so lost in that larger context that very little of him even remains to find after his own victimization.
Another concept to link to this “surfac[ing]” notion is that the bull is being presented in this physical setting of harshness, but the poem begins by placing him in the midst of a “dream” that “[h]e blunders through” before “waking.” The meaning behind this surreal connection could be that the bull has more beneath his layers than just the “concrete” harshness that surrounds him, even if through something as small as memories, and these things could “surface” in a similar, insubstantial manner as “dream[s].”
Essentially, this bull has some part of his mentality connected to something that reflects a better station, though his current state of being is more real and tangible than the “dream” world he can scarcely recall. Like a “dream” is bright, but fading, so are his memories of a better life in comparison to the life he now “knows.” In fact, the “dream” world of memories is so vague that his actions are uncertain enough to label his journey through them as “blunder[ing].” This verb choice creates a disconnect between his physical being and his mental state as it shows he is not present enough in those memories to have a successful navigation through them.
Once more, the “heifer” is referenced as a victim in this situation as her “fear” is noticed, but in the context of expressing how the bull has become a predator as well as a victim. Specifically, the bull registers the “heifer’s fear,” but not in a negative manner. In fact, that “fear” is addressed as a “sweet smell,” which indicates a lack of compassion from the bull toward the “heifer.” This references a carelessness—or “concrete” mentality—that has come over the bull regarding those animals around him, as if he has lost the ability to sympathize and show compassion. Otherwise, that “fear” would impact him.
What is worse is that what was simply a lack of compassion has become something more brutal, which is indicated not only in that the “heifer’s fear” is a “sweet smell” to him, but also in the declaration that “[h]is stall narrows to rage.” On first glance, this declaration might seem to reference the physical “stall” he exists in—the one of “brick and concrete”—but “stall” is also a verb that means to delay something. From that frame of mind, the slower life he now lives is the “stall,” and as it encloses upon him, he finds himself in a “rage” about it. This takes him from a passive victim to the predator.
Worth noting as well is that this happens with his “chain[ing]” while “his floor” is cleaned, which indicates an even stricter allotment of space. He has been pushed, it seems, to something far too “small,” and those restrictions have forced him past his true self.
Still, within his recollections, he has thoughts of a life that includes more “freedom,” and these thoughts are sparked by basic elements of nature—like “winds” and “smells.” Those elements are noted as the things that contradict his “narrow” existence to make him “crazy” and full of “rage” since the difference between them is sharp and negative. Regardless of how much time and space has separated him from the more uninhibited life he once knew, he can still “[r]emember” it in his most basic of thoughts where memories are like “dreams,” and those recollections are so much grander in comparison to his imprisoned life that he cannot help but be angry. In essence, “[h]is crazy eyes churn with their vision” because his mind can conjure details of a better life that he cannot reach. This is expressed particularly with the choice of using “vision” instead of “sight” since “vision” can have a deeper connotation than just what can physically be seen. Rather, “vision” can extend into seeing what is not there, like a “dream” or memory, meaning what he recalls—not physically sees—is what is causing this “rage” and “craz[iness].”
Overall, the bull is the victim of a cruel setting, no doubt, but he has lost the ability in the face of his own memories to truly empathize with other animals surrounding him because of his circumstance. Basically, his circumstance made him a victim early on, but forced him into a predator state of being as well as the “rage” overcame him.
About Gillian Clarke
Gillian Clarke was born in 1937 and is the author of a number of works. While her poetry is potentially the most notable of those works, her creations outside of the poetic category are noteworthy as well. An example of this other style of creating is At the Source. In addition to writing, she is also known for her translating work, making her a staple in numerous areas in the literary world.