‘A Country Life’ by Randall Jarrell is a fifty-two line poem that does not follow a specific pattern of rhyme. There are a great number of rhyming lines throughout the piece though. A reader will immediately notice the repetition of rhyming couplets, beginning with the first two lines. They are interspersed throughout the text in order to help the speaker’s points come across easily.
A reader should also pay attention to the overwhelming theme of rural life. On top of this setting is the greater theme of life and death. The speaker makes his way through the different elements of these forces, as well as loneliness, in his depictions of solitary farmers, birds, and unanswerable questions.
Summary of A Country Life
The poem begins with the speaker noticing a bird he has never seen before. Form these lines he moves to describe the surroundings of the bird. They are in farmland, a place that represents life but just like everywhere else, is plagued with death. He considers asking someone what this bird is doing there but fears the answer. This is something that will be repeated later on as the speaker analyzes humanity’s questioning of their own place in the world.
The following sections speak on farmers “jailed” in their breasts and “secrets” that should not be “let out” of the soul. In conclusion, the speaker describes how all the questions cease when one dies. One’s place beneath the ground, under a “mound” becomes a source for a new life.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of A Country Life
A bird that I don’t know,
Hunched on his light-pole like a scarecrow,
In leaf-green and shade-violet,
A standing mercy.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by opening the poem with a rhyming couplet. He is describing seeing a bird that he doesn’t “know.” The speaker is unable to recognize it as a species common to the area. From where he is, the speaker can see the bird on “his light-pole like a scarecrow.” From this statement, a reader can assume that the speaker is in the countryside. Here, there are scarecrows, but there are also “light-poles.” This means that there have to be some modern conveniences.
The bird remains important to the speaker throughout the next lines as he tries to come to terms with its relationship to the field and to himself. It is described as looking “sideways out into the wheat.” The bird seems to be contemplating its own station as well. From its position, it could see the “wind waves under the waves of heat.” The day is hot, so much so one can see it in the air. Additionally, there is the wind blowing the wheat—these two forces are interacting.
In the following lines, Jarrell uses vivid language to describe the field. It is “yellow as egg-bread dough.” This is a very specific reference that further outlines the speaker’s life. While the field might be this very specific yellow, there is a moment that doesn’t conform. This is represented by a “locust” which is “leaf-green and shade-violet.” It stands out, breaking the beautiful monotony of the field. It’s so perfectly placed it seems as if “they,” a reference to the farmers, chose to let it remain even though it is a pest more than capable of destroying crops.
The bird calls twice, “Red clay, red clay”;
Or else he’s saying, “Directly, directly.”
To the black, rowed evergreens below.
They know and they don’t know.
In the next set of lines, the speaker returns to the bird on the “light-pole.” It begins to call out, making sounds that resemble the words “red clay” or perhaps “directly.” The speaker is unsure which it is, as both the bird and the sound are new to him. He considers asking someone, but there is no one around. This is somewhat frustrating to him as he expects “Around here all of them must know.”
This statement is of particular interest in that it reveals the speaker is not from the area. He has come to this particular plot of farmland for a reason. His thoughts continue on to state that they “all” must understand the ins and outs of life and death. Throughout this piece, the speaker returns to these moments of contemplation over death and loss. Jarrell is laying out a series of emotions overtop of the country landscape. They are embodied in the various elements the speaker comes into contact with.
In the last lines of this section, the speaker asks a long multi-line question regarding why a “lagging heron” flies as it does. He wants to know why it moves from the “little creek” to the “black, rowed evergreens below.” These two depictions seem to represent life and death in that the bird moves from a “parched” life to a “black” death.
To ask, a man must be a stranger —
And asking, much more answering, is dangerous;
Asked about it, who would not repent
Jailed in his breast; and, just as I,
Has grunted, in his old perplexity,
A standing plea.
In the following lines, the speaker returns to the possibility of asking someone about the nature of the world around him. He knows that asking any questions concerning the movements of the heron, or the type of bird that is calling nearby, “is dangerous.” The speaker contemplates what answer he might get if he did ask. This might make him think of “life and its distresses” and the bliss of home as “accident[s].” Depending on what answer he got his perspective might be altered negatively. This is a dangerous aspect of the situation.
The next section of lines describes how all people, even the farmer in the field,
[Have] felt a longing, lone urbanity
Jailed in his breast;
The speaker knows that everyone feels the same way eventually. Loneliness comes to the surface in a variety of different ways but all end up with “a standing plea” for an answer.
From the tar of the blazing square
The eyes shift, in their taciturn
Or the once-too-often washed wash dresses?
They are subdued to their own element.
The following section of lines speaks further on the states of life, death, and loneliness and what it would be like to give into their representing words. Jarrell’s speaker paints a scene that enhances the feelings of solitude in this piece. The farmers who are out in the field, are spoken of as being in a “blazing square” under the sun. From their position they look around, unsure what their next move should be.
There is an impulse within their breasts to speak words that should not be spoken. If one was to give into these words then they would “dim” the “weathered heads” of the farmers and the heads above the “too-often washed wash dresses” of their wives. These people do not speak of their own emotions, instead, they spend their energy involved in their “own element[s].’
The red, clay face
Is lowered to the naked clay;
Is kindled for the mourner, man.
The angel kneeling with the wreath
Sees, in the moonlight, graves.
In the final lines of this piece, the speaker describes the last moments of one’s life. Then goes on to depict what happens immediately after burial. He is speaking of the moments in which,
The red, clay face
Is lowered to the naked clay;
The repetition of the word clay here makes clear that he sees humanity and the earth as coming from the same source. One returns to the clay they came from and the “body is forsaken” soon after a few words are spoken.
From the form that is buried in the earth “Life” comes. The cemetery, placed in a “grove under the spire,” is the source of shining stars. In this place one, such as an angel, can see both the life that death promises and the “graves” themselves.