‘Bull Song’ by Margaret Atwood is a six stanza poem which is made out of sets of lines which vary in length. The first, fifth, and sixth stanzas contain five lines, the second and third contain five, and the fourth stanza contains six. The poem does not conform to specific rhyme scheme.
A reader will immediately take notice of the point of view of this piece. One might be able to discern from the title, or at least from the first two stanzas, that the speaker of the poem is a bull. The bull is meditating on his current situation and why it is he has been brought to this place.
The poet has chosen to write from this perspective to increase a reader’s empathy for the animal. When one is able to hear the pained descriptions straight from the one who is suffering, the situation is much more realistic. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Bull Song
‘Bull Song’ by Margaret Atwood describes the short life of a bull who is forced to fight in a ring against human “gods.”
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is looking down at the “wet dust,” listening to the cheering of the “flies,” or spectators, and analyzing the pain in his shoulder. It is clear from the second stanza that the speaker is in fact a bull who has been forced to fight matadors and picadores in a ring.
The second half of the poem focuses on the bull’s confusion over why he ended up in this place and what reason these “gods” would have to taunt him with “sinews of red and silver.” The bull eventually succumbs to his wounds and is taken out of the ring. His body is cut up and given to the victors.
The speaker is able to analyze his own death and see its pointlessness. The final lines condemn the human “gods” for their malice and lack of care for beings other than themselves.
Analysis of Bull Song
When beginning this poem a reader may or may not have an understanding of who the speaker is and what the poem is going to be about. (There is a brief overview of the point of view in the introduction of this analysis.) Depending on one’s experience with poetry, particularly poems which revolve around “songs” for other beings or organism, one might come to the correct conclusion that this poem will be told from the perspective of a bull.
The bull’s situation is not entirely clear at first. The first stanza outlines a few of the more visceral sensations which are a part of the bull’s world. It does not state in clear language where the animal is or what he is experiencing. One should be able to discern that he is not living somewhere, or through something, pleasant.
The first line states that “For me there was no audience.” This is a strange opening line as one is trying to suss out where audiences would congregate around bulls and why, for the bull, the audience doesn’t exist.
In addition to a lack of audience, there is also no “brass music.” These things exist for the human beings in the equation but not for the animal. The elements of the world which mean something to the bull are the…
wet dust, the cheers
buzzing at me like flies,
These are factors which will not be acknowledge by the human audience, but they are all the bull can concentrate on.
In the second stanza the reader will get a clearer idea of what it is the bull is going through. He is “dizz[y]” at this precise moment underneath the “sun” in the sky and the anger within the bull’s own head. All of the elements around the animal are coming together to worsen its situation. These are things which the bull has no control over and must suffer through at the hands of the humankind.
The next line makes the situation even worse. The bull has been injured. There is a “cut” on his “neck muscle.” This injury is not a slight one. There is blood falling to the ground.
A reader might be able to assume at this point that the bull is within a fighting ring. He has been used by those it will later refer to as the “gods.” The next lines give additional detail as to when this fight is taking place and under what circumstances.
The third stanza expresses the bull’s sorrow over his own situation. Contrary to what a human being might perceive, the animal is completely aware of where it is and the fact that it was taken there against its will.
The bull asks the reader “Who” it was who…
brought [him] here
To fight against walls and blankets
From these two lines a reader understands that this fight is taking place is a modern bull fighting ring. It has been forced to contend against impossible adversaries like “walls” and ones which should be negligible like “blankets.” It is through this process that the bull was injured.
In the last two lines of this section the bull refers to the matador or picador who is within the ring. In the eyes of the bull the man is a god. He does not understand who this person is or why they are made of “sinews of red and silver,” a description of their clothes, or are able to “flutter and evade.”
In the fourth stanza, which is the halfway point in the poem, the bull “turn[s]” and charges into the “blackness.” His horns meet nothing, he has made a mistake. It is not only his recent action which was a mistake, he is able to analyze his whole existence and determine that he never should have been a bull in the first place.
The speaker understands that he is suffering and believes his life would’ve been better if he has not “shut” himself in “this cask skin.” Instead, he thinks,
I should have remained grass.
In the fifth stanza the speaker begins by describing the end of his life. He has collapsed on the ground amongst the “wet dust” and the spectators cheer. He again refers to him a “flies” as they are small, seemingly uniform, and noisy. They “rise and settle” as they celebrate his death.
The bull is “dragged,” exiting from the arena. He is now nothing more than a…
Of lump flesh.
Those who triumphed over him are spoken of as gods. They have won and are “awarded / the useless parts of my body.” The animal is being portioned up and given to the victors. In an effort to continue the narrative and maintain sympathy for the speaker, Atwood has chosen to extend the animal’s ability to narrate its life. The bull can describe his own death from a place of rational thought.
The last stanza finishes the fighting in the ring. It also concludes the bull’s life and story. The bull states that everything which has happened up has been a “game” to the humans. His life is part of the game—it means nothing to them.
In the last three lines the speaker tries to see past the facade behind which the “flies” and “gods” disguise their ugly practices. They put out an effort to hide it with “grace” and it is this invented grace which “justifies them.” The humans do not need to feel bad for the animal because the “game” is seen as a necessary, beautiful, tradition.