‘Hunter Trials’ by John Betjeman is an eight stanza poem. The stanzas are quatrains, meaning they all contain four lines. Betjeman chose to give this piece a very simple, and consistent, rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of ABAB CDCD, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit.
There are a number of techniques used by Betjeman throughout ‘Hunter Trials’ but one of the most common is consonance. This technique requires the repetition of a consonant sound. One great example of consonance is in stanza three with the repetition of “c” and “s” sounds.
Before beginning this piece one should take note of the title and the kind of competition it refers to. A Hunter Trial is a competition to test the horse and rider’s ability to navigate a course at a “hunting pace.” In this particular poem, it appears the rider is competing alone rather than in pairs or teams of three.
Summary of Hunter Trials
The poem begins with the speaker telling her mother about the bad luck one rider had. The horse swallowed something she needed and now the girl, Diana, needs to borrow the same item from someone else. Kindly enough, the girl offers. In the next lines, she goes through a number of other riders. She speaks poorly about everyone’s performance and shows true overconfidence.
In the last stanzas, the girl worries over her own turn, and then sulks about her bad performance. The poem ends with the girl breaking her “silly old collarbone.”
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Hunter Trials
It’s awf’lly bad luck on Diana,
And frightened them all into fits.
In the first stanza of ‘Hunter Trials’ the speaker begins by describing the “awf’lly bad luck” that Diana had. She is one of many competitors and has not had a great day. The girls in the poem are competing is an equestrian event known as Hunter Trials.
During these events, Diana’s pony swallowed “their bits,” probably a reference to some part of the bridle. Whatever it was, the girl had to, “fish down their throats with a spanner.”
So now she’s attempting to borrow.
But to-day I‘ll be wanting them too.
In the next stanza the speaker explains that the girl was looking for some bits to “borrow.” The speaker’s relationship to the scene gets clearer in the second stanza. They are another participant in the sport. Due to the fact that their “Mummy” is there, this person is also meant to be very young. She asks that her mother to lend the girl the parts that she needs. The speaker says she’ll lend her own “bits” tomorrow. She needs them today.
This extends the information a reader has about the competition. It is a multi-day event with many participants. This is made even clearer in the next lines as the speaker goes through some of those participants.
Just look at Prunella on Guzzle,
And tighten the breach in his girth?
The third stanza introduces another participant in the events of the day. There is “Prunella” who is riding a pony named “Guzzle.” The girl describes the pony as being the “wizardest… on earth.” This funny adjective gives the reader a little more insight into the speaker. She has a passion for the sport and for the animals, but is also from a certain class, and definitely from England. Also, the fact that she knows all the participants’ names and the names of their animals says something about how much she cares.
It is not just the animals and riders she is familiar with, it also what she thinks are the best techniques of the competition. She watches Prunella and wonders aloud why she doesn’t “slacken his muzzle / And tighten the breach in his girth?” This young speaker knows a good bit about the sport, or at least thinks she does. A reader should contrast her confidence in these lines with the turn of events in the final stanza.
There is a moment of rhyme within the text in lines three and four with the words “slacken” and “tighten.”
I say, Mummy, there’s Mrs. Geyser
Was hit on the hock with a brick.
The speaker tries to call her mother’s attention to “Mrs. Geyser” who looks “pretty sick.” This is not a good thing, she is struggling through the competition. The speaker is very confident about why this is the case. She asserts that it is because the horse, whose name is “Mona Lisa” was “hit on the hock with a brick.” This refers to the point halfway down the horse’s back leg.
There is another moment of rhyme within the text with the word “hock” rhyming with “sick” and “brick.” This kind of rhyme is known as a half, or slant rhyme. It corresponds with the other two words due only to their similar consonant sounds. Betjeman also uses anaphora in this stanza by stating lines one and three with the same word, “I.”
Miss Blewitt says Monica threw it,
So Monica’s sulking alone.
The fifth stanza of ‘Hunter Trials’ has another competitor doing poorly. Someone named “Monica” was told that she “threw it.” It is not clear exactly what this means, but it’s not a good thing. She did something wrong and perhaps lost that particular part of the competition for herself.
The person who told the speaker and Monica this is someone named “Miss Blewitt.” Perhaps this is one of the coaches. Consonance is used in the first line with the use and reuse of the “t” sound. The general repetition in these lines also gives the stanzas an interesting rhythm.
And Margaret failed in her paces,
And now all her fetlocks are loose.
Another girl, Margaret, did poorly as well. By this point it is clear that the speaker is taking pleasure in the failures of her peers. Perhaps she believes this bodes well for her own chances. The speaker goes through a number of parts the horse and riding gear in the next lines. These are dense with terminology that would be unfamiliar to an outsider. The lines come across as if the speaker is trying to show off how smart she is.
She mentions the “withers” of the horse, or the upper shoulder area. There is also a reference to the “coronets,” or upper portion of the hoof, and the “traces” or part of the straps or ropes around the horse’s sides. Last, the “fetlocks” were “loose,” another reference to the horse’s foot. It is with these lines and the confusion between what is part of the horse and what is part of the equipment that the girl’s knowledge should be doubted.
The use of consonance is prominent in these lines as the “s” or “c” sound is used over and over again.
Oh, it’s me now. I’m terribly nervous.
Her Pelham is over one eye.
The girl’s confidence is gone in the seventh stanza of ‘Hunter Trials.’ She admits that she is “terribly nervous” for her turn. One of her fears is that “Smudges” her horse, “will shy,” or move to one side. She thinks this is likely as the horse’s “Pelham,” a kind of bit for the horse’s mouth, is “over one eye.” This is another instance where one might consider the girl’s knowledge about horses to be less than adequate for the bragging she wants to engage in.
Oh wasn’t it naughty of Smudges?
And my silly old collarbone’s bust.
Unfortunately for this overconfident speaker she did not do as well as she wanted. Rather than blame her own performance, she blames the horse. She is “sick with disgust at how “naughty” Smudges was.
The girl was thrown from the horse in front of the judges and she broke her “collarbone.” The way that the girl humorously refers to her collarbone as “silly” and “old” reinforces how unserious ‘Hunter Trials’ is.