Laura Gilpin

Two-Headed Calf by Laura Gilpin

‘Two-Headed Calf’ by Laura Gilpin is a moving poem that evokes the reader sympathy for a doomed two-headed calf. It alludes to the value of all life, no matter if it conforms to humanity’s opinion of what is right and wrong.

Through the short lines of this piece, the poet does a wonderful job creating imagery that allows readers to clearly imagine the calf in his happiest moment, alongside his mother in the north field. At the same time, the poet strips that beautiful image away and replaces it with one in which the animals’ corpse is used as an attraction in a museum. 

Two-Headed Calf by Laura Gilpin


Summary 

Two-Headed Calf’ by Laura Gilpin is a powerful poem that describes the fate of a two-headed calf.

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker acknowledges what will happen to the two-headed calf tomorrow. The animal does not have a bright future ahead of it. It will be wrapped in a newspaper and brought into town as a freak of nature. But, the second stanza adds, tonight, the cow is living peacefully alongside its mother in the north field. It is enjoying the elements of nature and staring up into the stars, of which there are twice as many as usual.

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Form 

Two-Headed Calf’ by Laura Gilpin is a two-stanza poem that is divided into one set of three lines, known as a tercet, and one set of six lines, known as a sestet. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The words that end each line do not correspond with perfect, half, or other types of rhyme. But, the poem does have a visual unity. This occurs through similar length lines and the poet’s choice to use the same kinds of punctuation.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • 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 the first stanza. 
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting examples and descriptions. Imagery should trigger the readers senses, inspiring them to imagine the scene in great detail. For example, “the moon rising over
    the orchard, the wind in the grass. And / as he stares into the sky.” 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “boys” and “body” in lines one and two as well as “stares” and “sky” in line five.
  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line of text. This may be done through the use of punctuation or through the use of a natural pause in the meter. For example: “field with his mother. It is a perfect.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this

(…)

in newspaper and carry him to the museum.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by utilizing a technique known as in medias res. This refers to the way in which a writer can bring a reader into the story in the middle of the action. There is no introductory material to provide readers with the background information. When this occurs, it is up to the readers to use the context clues that they are given to interpret the setting, characters, and more. 

In this case, the speaker immediately begins talking about “tomorrow.” They refer to a “freak of nature” and how the “farm boys” will treat his body. With the information that readers already have in the title, it should be obvious that the poem is about a two-headed calf. 

Between the first and second stanzas, readers should take note of the poet’s use of some juxtaposition. They use the language of others, those who will see the calf as a freak and want to take advantage of its life to make money, and juxtapose it against their speaker’s perception of the animal as a gentle, loving creature that deserves to be happy.

Stanza Two 

But tonight he is alive and in the north

(…)

twice as many stars as usual.

The speaker knows what is in the calf’s future. It’s not a bright one (no matter if one interprets the previous lines as alluding to the farm boys taking the calf’s life themselves or the calf passing away naturally due to its unusual form). 

Despite the darkness that’s ahead and the inhuman way that the speaker believes the calf is going to be treated, for the moment, everything is peaceful. “Tonight,” the calf is alive “in the north / field with his mother.” Throughout, the speaker uses the male pronoun “he” to describe this calf. They could’ve used “it” or “they” but decided to use one that gives the cow a more specific identity as a living, breathing being. This is furthered through the speaker’s reference to the cow’s “mother.” 

In the final lines of the poem, the speaker spends a few moments describing the setting. It’s a “perfect / summer evening” and the cow is out looking at the stars. There are “twice as many stars as usual,” the poem concludes. This is a thoughtful way of reminding the reader of the fact that the cow has two heads without describing it as a “freak” suggesting it is a sideshow that should be stared at. Rather, the speaker suggests that the cow’s perception, and therefore its life, is something beautiful. The cow should be appreciated as a unique living creature who has the same needs and wants as all living things. 

But, with the information the speaker provided in the first lines, it’s clear that this isn’t how the cow is going to be regarded. 

FAQs 

What is the tone of ‘Two-Headed Calf?’

The tone is considerate and peaceful. Throughout the short lines of this poem, the speaker acknowledges what is in the cow’s future and peacefully describes the moments that the cow has, with his mother, before “tomorrow.”

What is the theme of ‘Two-Headed Calf?’

The theme is the beauty and temporary nature of all living things. The speaker spends the two stanzas of this poem describing first how the world is going to treat this calf and second how they see this animal. He is “tonight” “alive and in the north / field with his mother.” Through their use of personal pronouns and the description of the cow looking up into the sky, they humanize the animal and therefore emphasize his life and how he deserves to keep it. 

What is the purpose of ‘Two-Headed Calf?’

The purpose is to describe the unique life experiences of a two-headed calf and make readers feel as though this animal deserves to be treated as a living being rather than a freak of nature. The juxtaposition between the first and the second stanzas is extreme and is meant to invoke the reader’s sympathy for the animal.

Who is the speaker in ‘Two-Headed Calf?’

The speaker is someone who is aware of what is going on at a particular farm. They have a great deal of sympathy for the two-headed calf and presumably all the animals that may be under their’s or someone else’s care. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some related poems. For example:

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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