This poem was published in The Spectator in 1953. This moving poem acts as an extended metaphor, asking the reader to consider connections between the behavior of the “young steer” that of human beings. Philip Larkin taps into themes of limitations, barriers, and learned behavior in this short piece.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that even the “widest” prairies have fences around them. The speaker also says that the old cows who live there know well to stay away from the boundaries of the field. But, the young steer is less experienced and have yet to come to grips with the predetermined boundaries of their world.
In the second stanza the steer attempt to run through the fence, but end up falling victim to its shredding, burning violence. After this terrifying encounter they fall into line, transformed into “old cattle”.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Wires’ by Philip Larkin is a two stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines or quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABCDDCBA that mimics the action in the text. (The cows move towards the fence and are rebuffed and forced to return). There are also examples of internal rhyme in the text. This is a kind of rhyme that’s not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For instance, “purer” and “water” in the third line.
Larkin also makes use of several other poetic techniques. These include half-rhyme, enjambment, repetition, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “stray,” “steers,” and “scenting” in lines two and three of the first stanza.
Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “Whose muscle-shredding violence” in line two of the second stanza. All of these words make use of the “s” consonant sound.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a number of examples within ‘Wires’ but one of the most prominent occurs between the first and second stanzas. A reader has to continue the poem in order to find out what happens “Beyond the wires…”
Repetition, or the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase, is also important in ‘Wires’. It can be seen in the rhyme scheme as well as the ways the last lines of the poem reflect the first. The phrase “Young steers” is used in line three of both stanzas and “Electric” appears in line one of the first stanza and line four of the second. Other examples include the word “cattle” in line two of the first and line three of the second stanza.
Analysis of Wires
The widest prairies have electric fences,
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires
In the first lines of ‘Wires’, the speaker begins by addressing a very basic fact about prairies. They have “electric fences”. Even the “widest” have them. In fact, it may be even more important that they do as there is much more land to keep track of. The fences are not there to keep people out, although they likely accomplish that as well, but to keep the livestock in.
The “cattle” in ‘Wires’ know very well that they “must not stray” towards the wire fencing. They’ve learned from experience what happens if they push up against it. These animals do not seek to escape or adventure beyond the boundaries of their field.
But, the speaker continues, the “Young steers,” or young male cows, haven’t learned this lesson. They are less experienced and of a mind to find “purer water”. This phrase is very similar to the commonplace: “the grass is always greener on the other side”. With this in mind, the cows are personified and take on something of a human impatience and precocity to push the limits of what’s allowed.
The water the young cows are looking for is “anywhere,” except for inside the boundaries of their pasture. It’s interesting to consider while reading this piece how this state of mind shows itself in human beings. It’s very likely while Larkin was writing ‘Wires’ that he wanted to use the cows as an extended metaphor, alluding to the dissatisfied, irresponsible qualities of human beings. But, as the poem goes on, the story gets a little more complex and the young cows should win more of the viewer’s sympathy, if not empathy.
Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Electric limits to their widest senses.
The fourth line of the first stanza of ‘Wires’ is very skillfully enjambed. A reader must move to the new stanza in order to find out what happens next. As one might expect, their headstrong need to break out led them to “blunder up against the wires”. The use of the word “blunder” in this line helps the reader picture a thoughtless creature walking straight into the wire fencing, unaware of its electric qualities.
The fencing did its job though. It exerted “muscle-shredding violence” on the young animals that gave “no quarter”. It did not hold back or have mercy on those it afflicted. After experiencing this trauma the young steers’ temperaments are transformed so as to reflect those of the “old cattle”. One might’ve thought the young cows foolish in the first stanza to “blunder” so mindlessly into the fencing. But, the fact that all vibrancy of personality and desire to explore was burned out of them is dark.
This speaks to a larger theme of limitations, rebellion, escapism, and barriers. Specifically, those set by humans in order to control other humans. The poem also reflects on situations in which one person with the will to push back against an established boundary is painfully rebuffed, so much so, they join in with those who were unwilling to rebel. The young steers’ “widest senses,” or their desire to see and experience the world more broadly were limited by electricity in that moment. They were cut off from a very human need to expand themselves.