The speaker of the Photograph of Haymaker, 1890 is looking at a picture of a man chopping wheat in a field. Although the photo is ‘some seventy’ years old, she still feels connected to the moment captured. The poem delicately balances life and death. While the man and the wheat he is chopping are now dead, they somehow live on through the photograph. This idea of the eternal nature of a moment is the central focus of the poem, allowing Holden to play with ideas of time.
The poem is split into three five-line stanzas, without a regular rhyme scheme. The majority of the lines of the poem are enjambed, allowing the poem to still retain a sense of rhythm. The poem weaves across time periods, with the majority of the poem taking place in the past.
Two main themes are explored by Holden in the poem. The first is the representation of life and death, and an odd combination of the two. The second is the focus on the beauty of nature. You can read the full poem here.
Photograph of Haymaker, 1890 Analysis
It is not so much the image of the man
another summer’s sun, another century’s —
Molly Holden begins Photograph of Haymaker, 1890 by drawing attention directly to the main focus of the poem: the ‘image of the man’. In this stanza, she explores how the man from the photograph looked, his clothes, and how the light fell as the picture was taken.
The bulk of the paragraph is encapsulated within two hyphens, separating the man’s descriptions but still leaving them somehow connected. This strange sense of being connected, yet distant, permeates through the poem in several places.
Within the frozen image, Holden uses the gerund tense ‘pausING’ to create a sense of motion. An interesting faucet of using this tense is that it creates the idea of ongoing movement. Moreover, it can be classified into the present or past – leaving the intended tense ambiguous. For example, when written in full it could be either ‘he is pausing’ or ‘he was pausing’. Yet, the use is left up to the reader’s discretion. It is simply an action taking place in that moment. The seemingly active photograph gives life to the man. Although now long dead, Holden connects with the man, watching him work through the photograph.
The double repetition of ‘another’ breaks the sense of closeness previously emulated by the description of the man. ‘Another Summer’, ‘Another century’, reinstalls the sense of distance that Photograph of Haymaker, 1890 is exploring. Somehow these two things are existing at the same time – the distance in time, yet the proximity between the poet and the photograph she is seeing into. The final word of this first stanza compounds this sense of distance in time, ‘century’. A whole century has passed and yet the photograph still seems living. The emphasis on the final word is increased due to the hyphen end stop which follows it.
as the sight of the grasses beyond
and bent again they died before his blade.
A large portion of this stanza reflects an image that began within the first stanza, that of ‘his scythe’ The reference to ‘scythe’ relates the man to a Grim Reaper figure, standing above the wheat in the ‘moment previous to death’. The use of the semantic field of life and death feeds back into this representation of the Grim Reaper. ‘Living’, ‘death’, ‘died’, compound to create the life story of the ‘grasses’. The man cuts the field, effectively killing the wheat as he does so.
The ease of which he ‘bent’ and cut the grass is presented as a swift and thoughtless act. The ‘grasses’ ‘died before his blade’. After being so closely linked to the grim reaper, the man could be a representation of death itself looming over humanity. Perhaps Holden is presenting a metaphor for society, humanity being the grasses that can be so quickly cut. Holden evokes a sense of the futility of life, displaying the speed at which death can arrive.
As we know the man is long dead, there is a strange sense of irony that appears, him acting as a mechanism of death while he himself is now long dead. The interplay of life and death is throughout Photograph of Haymaker creates a strange arena in which all things are both living and dead. The grass and the man are now long dead, yet in this photograph they are alive and active.
Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
immediate with moon-daisies.
This stanza strays away from the philosophical question of death previously suggested. Instead, in this stanza, Holden focuses her attention on the cross-link between time periods that the photograph provides. Something from ‘some seventy years ago’ is still living within the realm of the photograph. Holden demonstrates the closeness through the enjambment, ‘ago/and yet’, with the swift following of the next line linking the past and the present.
The realism the photograph provides is astute, with even the ‘damp[ness]’ of the stems being visible. For Holden, this photograph contains something very real – a moment frozen within time. Although long past, this moment is eternal, playing out over and over within the photograph. It’s an interesting idea, how photographs can link past and present.
The physical/temporal proximity is stated further by the use of ‘immediate’. The word draws connotations of being incredibly close, almost as if Holden could reach out and touch the scene. This reality further compounds the sense of the eternality of the moment within the photograph. For Holden, looking into the photograph, the moment from the past continues in the present moment. Holden attempts to link the past and the present, using the photograph as her mechanism.
Throughout the poem, moments of rural beauty are presented – the ‘sun’ bouncing off the shirt of the working man, the ‘sweet hay’ and finally the ‘moon-daisies’. This final image is one of beauty, drawing the poem to conclude on this idea of nature. Perhaps Holden is suggesting that the beauties of nature are eternal, being sustained by each ‘summer’s sun’ as time continues to go by. Although lost to history, this moment will continue – the man, and all the beauty of nature continues existing and being in that moment. A small and subtle part of infinity.
About Molly Holden
Molly Holden was born in 1927 in Surry, England. She published 4 anthologies of poetry, spanning across the active years of 1963-1971. In 1972 she received the Cholmondeley Award for poetry. She suffered from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and died at the age of 54 in London.