‘The Farrier’ by Owen Sheers portrays the story of a farrier attaching new shoes on a female horse. The poem is often interpreted as an extended metaphor to portray the complexities of the relationship between males and females. The archetypical portrayal of the masculine and feminine within the poem convene to present Sheers’ upbringing, being from a strict background in which gender roles were clearly defined.
The poem is divided into 8 stanzas of 3 lines each. This three-line stanza is typical to Sheers’ work, and echos the traditional Welsh form named Tercets. By using this ancient Welsh form, Owen Sheers is tapping into his own History as a partly Welsh man, reflecting his own upbringing and ideas through the link to the traditional form.
The poem is often enjambed between stanzas, creating a continuous flow that pushes the poem forward. The seamless flow from one stanza to the next can be understood as a representation of the familiarity which the Farrier has with his work. The continuous practicing of the craft honing his skills, being represented through the smooth structure.
The language used and form is also used as a mechanism to reflect the character of the Farrier. The language is mostly monosyllabic and always simple, which is representative of the Farrier and the rural work he is partaking in. This is not a poem of extravagance, it is to the point, simple and easy to understand, reflecting the content thoroughly.
You can read the full poem here.
The Farrier Analysis
Stanzas One and Two
Blessing himself with his apron,
the leather black and tan of a rain-beaten bay,
for the mare to be led from the field to the yard
and the wind twisting his sideburns in its fingers.
The opening stanzas focus on the characterization of the ‘Farrier’ and the Mare. The worn description of the ‘leather black and tan’ is furthered by the suggestion that it is ‘rain-beaten’. The Farrier has been doing this work for a long time, continuously retrieving his tools and working with the horses.
The Farrier’s old fashion sense is furthered. Not only has he used the same ‘apron’ for quite some time, but his habits also suggest an age to the character. The ‘roll-up’ cigarettes that he smokes portray a rejection of the artificial, him preferring to create his own cigarettes, rather than buy them from elsewhere. The focus on his ‘sideburns’ paint a physical image of the Farrier, focusing on his facial hair is a typically masculine image, furthering the elevation of his masculinity.
The sibilance of the ‘smoke slow’ reflects the soft movements of the Farrier, he is an expert in what he does and has the routine perfected. There is no need to rush, with the steady meter of the poem reflecting his slow paces.
The focus on the ‘mare to be led’ is important for two reasons. The first is that it characterizes the horse in the poem as female, allowing for the exploration of male-female relationships within Sheers’ writing. Secondly, the fact the male is actively ‘leading’ the ‘mare’ leads to the suggestion of a power dynamic across the genders. The feminine is passive, while the masculine is active.
Stanzas Three and Four
She smells him as he passes, woodbine, metal and hoof,
careful not to look her in the eye as he runs his hand
like a man putting his shoulder to a knackered car,
catches the hoof between his knees
The mare ‘smells’ him, focusing now on the scent of the Farrier. He smells of ‘metal’ and ‘woodbine’ cigarettes, the overly masculine presentation being furthered even by the very smell of the Farrier.
The active image of the Farrier running his hand down the mare’s back is sexualized due to the reliance on female pronouns, instead of referencing the horse itself. The enjambment between ‘hand/ the length of her neck’ elongates this image of caressing, the first established contact between the two characters being a focal image of the poem. There is a certain tenderness between the two characters, represented through this intense moment of a physical connection.
The movements in the poem are his, he is ‘folding her back leg’, with the focus on the active role of the man and the passive of the woman being elevated constantly by Sheers. The silent passivity of the mare as she is moved by the man can be understood as a representation of the different levels of power Sheers focuses on between the genders.
The reference to the ‘man putting his shoulder to a knackered car’ draws upon traditional male job roles, insinuating a mechanic. This alludes to other traditionally male roles, focusing on jobs in which men work with their hands. Moreover, the physical act of ‘putting his shoulder’ suggests a strength to the man, again elevating traditionally masculine concepts.
Stanzas Five and Six
as if it’s just fallen from a table,
cups her fetlock and bends,
excavating the arrow head of her frog,
filing at the sole and branding on a shoe
The autonomy of his movements presents the practised nature of the actions he is carrying out. The smooth ‘bend[ing]’ and ‘cup[ing]’ the man demonstrates further emphasizing the fact he has done this for a long time.
An odd slip of the masculine characterization which Sheers has built up comes in stanza 5, ‘a romantic lead dropping to the lips of his lover.’ There is an element of sensitivity stemming from the man, him caressing the mare affectionately. This is a stark contrast against his previous presentation, with the stern role of farrier slipping to reveal something softer, more delicate underneath.
Yet, this is quickly reversed by the arrival of stanza six. Sheers draws away from this affection, focusing again on the practicality of the role, ‘the close work’: ‘cutting… excavating… filling’. Still, a glimmer of this spark of affection remains, the collocation of ‘moon-silver’ compounds a sense of romance, with the archetypical use of moon within romance poetry being drawn upon here.
The homophone ‘sole’ can at first be understood to reference the manual work the Farrier is performing. Yet, it can also be understood as ‘soul’, with the male imposing his will upon the female. This further reflects the constructed ideas of gender which Sheers has already suggested through the different levels of activity with the poem.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
in an apparition of smoke,
three nails gritted between his teeth,
awkward in her new shoes, walking on strange ground.
The sound of his steel, biting at her heels.
Stanza 7 sees the convening of male and female identities. The masculine, manual work of the farrier is described by the metaphor of a ‘seamstress’, typically female work. Perhaps Sheers is trying to suggest that under the masculine exterior, aspects of femininity reside within the man. The delicacy with which the farrier performs his task goes so far as to almost emasculate him. The care with which he places down his ‘tools in their beds’ feedback into this interpretation, with the Farrier being presented as oddly soft handed.
The oxymoronic ‘slap’ dispels this sense of femininity, with the act of violence being polysemic within the poem. It could be interpreted as a sign of affection, having finished his work and telling the horse to move away. Yet, it could also be a sexualized image, with the extended metaphor of power relationships between males and females being elevated within this moment. The male has the power within the poem, being the active role, slapping the mare, and forcing her to move. The imposition of male will onto female characters is one that stems throughout Sheers’ anthology, with the extended metaphor of The Farrier being the beginning of an exploration into the dynamics of gender within Skirrid Hill.