This poem is highly unusual but is, in many ways, characteristic of Dickey’s work. Many of his poems, like ‘May Day Sermon’ and ‘Adultery,’ deal with taboo sexual topics that readers are unlikely to expect to find in poetry. In this case, Dickey wrote about bestiality, specifically alluding to sexual acts between young boys and sheep. This poem was first published in 1966 in Atlantic Monthly.
Explore The Sheep Child
‘The Sheep Child’ by James L. Dickey is a shocking poem about bestiality and legend.
The poem begins with vague descriptions of a half-human, half-sheep child that was created through a sexual assault on a farm animal by a farmer. This child is said to be residing in a museum in Atlanta, and the concept of it circulates around farms in the area, scaring young boys from attempting to relieve their sexual frustration on animals. The second half of the poem is told from the perspective of the sheep child. It describes its own creation, birth, short life, and death and the purpose it serves today.
Structure and Form
‘The Sheep Child’ by James L. Dickey is an eight-stanza poem that is written in free verse. The stanzas vary in length from one line up to fifteen. The poem is also divided into two sections, the first five stanzas and the final three. The last three stanzas are in italics, which visually sets them apart from the first five stanzas. These lines are relayed from a different speaker than the first few stanzas.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. They include:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza seven and lines two and three of stanza six.
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line of verse. This is usually seen through the use of punctuation but can also occur because of a natural pause in a metrical pattern. For example, “ Staring. From dark grass I came straight” at the end of stanza seven.
- Simile: a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, “Sheep like a woolly baby.”
Farm boys wild to couple
With anything with soft-wooded trees
With mounds of earth mounds
Of pinestraw will keep themselves off
Animals by legends of their own:
In the hay-tunnel dark
And dung of barns, they will
Say I have heard tell
In the first lines of ‘The Sheep Child,’ dickey presents readers with a shocking image that’s likely to make many second guess what they’ve just read. He describes “farm boys” who are desperate to have sexual relationships with anything, from trees to earth. But, there is a taboo that keeps them away from “Animals” by “legs of their own,” the speaker says.
The specific legend that the speaker is talking about takes readers to a new setting—a museum in Atlanta. They speak about this legend in dark places suited to the topic and their upbringing, such as within barns and around the “dung” of animals.
That in a museum in Atlanta
I heard from somebody who …
They talk to one another about something terrible, something that no one wants to have happen to them. There is something in that museum that’s only “half / Sheep.” It’s a “woolly baby” that is the result of a sex act between a man and a sheep. It didn’t survive and is in the museum, pickled in alcohol “because / Those things can’t live.” This line indicates that this sheep child is a result of something terrible; it’s a creature that the natural world would not allow to exist. This suggests that it violates natural law in a fundamental way.
No one has seen the child themselves, these lines also indicate. Everything they know about it, including the fact that it’s impossible to look at, comes from rumor. The line “I heard from somebody who…” is meant to represent the repeated phrases used by young boys to share the rumor of the sheep child.
But this is now almost all
The third stanza alludes to themes of growing up and maturing. The young farm boys age and move away to the city with “true wives” (not the lustful partner of their youth, whether they be trees or mud or animals, as the poet alluded). The sheep, once the boys leave, are “safe in the west hill / Pasture” with no one to violate them.
The narration turns inward as the speaker uses the pronoun “we” to discuss the rumors that circulated during their youth. Those who grew up in the area, like the speaker himself, still aren’t sure about the veracity of the rumor. They all still feel the same hint of terror when they think about what could be hiding in the dust of a museum.
Stanzas Four and Five
Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may
The next two stanzas are two lines each and provide a transition between the speaker’s narration and his imagined internal monologue belonging to the sheep child. From inside his jar, the sheep child’s eyes (if one were to look at them) seem to be saying the same thing forever (indicated by the repetition of the word “saying).
I am here, in my father’s house.
To carry me. I woke, dying,
There is a very clear transition between the previous sections of the poem in the final stanzas. Stanzas six through eight are written in italics, meant to signify the imagined words of the sheep child. They are very clearly set apart from the first five stanzas.
The sheep child refers to himself as “half of your world” and half of another. The sheep child’s mother was a sheep in the pasture, and their father was a human being. She “stood like moonlight” in the pasture, listening for what she thought was her only threat—foxes.
But, something from another world “seized her” and forced himself upon her sexually. This is the sex act that created the sheep child. The female sheep gave herself up without argument to that “great need” and heard sobbing, originating from the man (who is likely crying in shame over what he’s done). The sheep began doing the only thing she could, carrying the child inside her.
In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes
Staring. From dark grass I came straight
When the child was born, the lines indicate, they saw for a moment the “great grassy world” that they were to belong to and looked around them with eyes that were “more than human.” The sophisticated nature of the language in these lines and suggestions of the creature being “more” than human indicate that the sheep child is not a useless abomination like the children in the first stanzas believed. Instead, they were something special that couldn’t live in the world with its natural rules.
The child ate one meal as both sheep and human, hands and hooves clasped together in unity, and then died. Their life was incredibly short. They got to experience the world in a unique way, a way that no one else had ever seen before passing away.
To my father’s house, whose dust
Whirls up in the halls for no reason
Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.
In the final stanza, which is one of the longest of the poem, the speaker describes being taken to their father’s house after they died. The sheep child is dead, preserved forever in their “immortal waters” (the pickling solution used to preserve the body).
They are alive in this way and in the minds of the farm children who know better, now, than to seek out a sexual release with farm animals. It is the sheep child’s existence, at least in fantasy, that keeps the young boys away from the “hound bitch and calf.” They go into the woods instead and take care of their sexual needs on their own, too afraid to violate a universal taboo for fear of creating another sheep child.
The cycle goes on like this forever, the sheep child indicates, until they marry and raise their “kind.” This last line again reminds readers of the sheep child’s difference from human beings. It’s on its own, with no one of its own species around. Its only role in life is to instill fear in the minds of young boys who might, on a dark night, turn their lust toward the animals on their farms.
The purpose of this poem is to examine the dark, taboo side of sexuality and how legends influence actions. The poem also indicates that the sheep child’s existence, and its suffering, serve a single, good purpose—to protect other sheep on farms around the area.
‘The Sheep Child’ is about a half-sheep half-human child that resulted from a desperate farmer violating a sheep on his farm in the middle of the night. The sheep child is an idea that scares the farm boys away from violating any sexual taboos.
‘The Sheep Child’ is a unique free verse poem that could also be considered an elegy, as it focuses on someone, or something, that has died. It describes the sheep child’s life and death and its influence on local legends.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ by T.S. Eliot – the first poem to feature the morally degraded, spiritually hollow, and libidinous character of Sweeney, who, in this poem, is seduced by prostitutes in a pub.
- ‘Calypso’ by Olga Broumas – contains an allusion to the mythical character of Calypso mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. It is about a speaker dreaming of having intimacy with her imaginary companions.
- ‘The Forbidden Banns’ by Thomas Hardy – tells the tragic story of a doomed marriage, foreshadowed by the death of the groom’s father.