‘A Sheep Fair’, by Thomas Hardy, is a three-stanza poem, the last stanza of which stands as a postscript. This poem has a rhyme scheme that greatly adds to its rhythm and unity. It is as follows, a,b,a,d,c,c,c,c,d,b. This same basic pattern, with a change in the words that are used to rhyme. The second to last line of each stanza rhymes with the others.
This poem is a vivid depiction of one day in the life of someone in the countryside. The reader can presume that an attendee of this fair has farmed their sheep throughout the year and has brought what amounts to their savings to be sold at this “Pummery Fair.” Hardy begins by describing the terribly rainy weather on the day of the “autumn fair,” he speaks about how the sheep, auctioneer, and all the attendees were soaked through. Even though the weather is so awful, everyone must be there, to buy or sell what they can. The sheep are said to be in even worse conditions, crammed into enclosures, thousands pressed together uncomfortably; they strain against their barriers. The poem concludes with a postscript that looks back, many years in the future, on that day at Pummery Fair. Hardy remembers all that was seen that day and speaks on how all of the sheep are now dead, as is the auctioneer who sentenced them. This poem is really a depiction of the harsh reality of living in the countryside and trying to make a living for yourself and your family. Country life is hard for all who participate or are forced to participate, sheep included.
Analysis of A Sheep Fair
Hardy begins this poem like a story, he starts by providing a setting, time of year, and even weather. The first two lines of the poem are utilized solely to orientate the reader and allow them to become a part of Hardy’s world.
The day arrives of the autumn fair,
And torrents fall,
Hardy uses the word torrents in the second line of the poem to describe heavy rainfall. The rain was falling in torrents. He continues, after having provided this picture of unfortunate weather, to say that even though it’s raining heavily, the autumn fair must go on, and ten thousand sheep, “in throngs are gathered there.” Throng can be defined as a dense crowd, oftentimes used to refer to people, but in this case, it refers to the multitude of sheep gathered together.
Though sheep in throngs are gathered there,
Ten thousand all,
Hardy continues to paint his bleak picture by describing the sheep as sodden, they are soaked through with rain. One can imagine their thick wool heavy with water, and most likely mud from the ground. Hardy’s imagery is clear and even though it was written over 90 years ago, easy to imagine. The sheep are sodden, and have been fenced in by “hurdles round them reared.” The hurdles are described as being “reared” because the autumn fair is not permanent, and the barrier was set up fairly recently. In the next line, Hardy describes that “lot by lot” the sheep are being “cleared.” It becomes obvious what he is referring to as the poem continues.
Sodden, with hurdles round them reared:
And, lot by lot, the pens are cleared,
The sheep are being auctioned off by an auctioneer who also seems to be soaked by the rain. From this, the reader can infer that it’s not just sheep standing out being soaked by the torrents but also the auctioneer, and all of the men and women there to purchase or sell their sheep (and most likely other products as well). The auctioneer “wrings out his beard,” it’s soaked through with water. As is his book, which Hardy describes as being “bedrenched and smeared.”
And the auctioneer wrings out his beard,
And wipes his book, bedrenched and smeared,
The auctioneer wipes the rain “from his face with the edge of his hand” as the torrents of rain continue to fall. It’s clear now that this is not a pleasant day to be outside. No one, who didn’t have to be there to make a living would not want to be.
And takes the rain from his face with the edge of his hand,
As torrents fall.
The second stanza begins with a further description of the sheep. The wool of the ewes, or female sheep, is said to be “like a sponge” all soaked through with the daylong rain. They appear to not have had a reprieve from this downpour all day.
The wool of the ewes is like a sponge
With the daylong rain:
Hardy continues with the sheep description, drawing some pity from the reader for the plight of the sheep. The speaker emphasizes the confines in which the sheep have been kept all day. They are so closely packed together that they cannot turn, “or lie, or lunge, / They strive in vain.” All-day they have been struggling to get out of their enclosures, all in vain.
Jammed tight, to turn, or lie, or lunge,
They strive in vain.
The horns of the sheep are said to be as soft as finger-nails. This comparison to something that is familiar and human, makes the plight of the sheep more accessible. Everyone will understand the smooth texture of a fingernail and will be drawn in one step further into Hardy’s world. For the first time in the next line, Hardy mentions the shepherds. They are said to “reek against the rails.” This could meanings that they have been outside all day and have started to smell bad.
Their horns are soft as finger-nails,
Their shepherds reek against the rails,
Hardy also gives a line to the dogs, who are soaked through and have their tails tucked between their legs. The buyer’s hats have filled up around the brim with water. Which, as they try to move around, they may be as crammed in as the sheep are, the waterfalls in a cascade from their hats.
The tied dogs soak with tucked-in tails,
The buyers’ hat-brims fill like pails,
Which spill small cascades when they shift their stand
In the daylong rain.
The last stanza of the poem is the postscript, a fairly unusual addition to a poem. In Hardy’s postscript, many years have passed since the terrible rainy day at “Pummery Fair,” referred to at the start of the poem as the “Autumn fair.” He is looking back on what the day was like. He remembers the “panting thousands,” or the sheep, and how their wool was so wet.
Time has trailed lengthily since met
At Pummery Fair
Those panting thousands in their wet
And woolly wear:
The solemn darkness of this poem comes to its climax here as he meditates on the fate of all of those thousands of sheep, and the men and women who attended the fair. All in those flocks of sheep “long since has bled,” they have all been slaughtered. The “dripping buyers” of the sheep have moved on, whether into death or away from the countryside. The auctioneer with his dripping wet beard has died, just as he at the fair had consigned “to doom” all of the thousands of sheep.
And every flock long since has bled,
And all the dripping buyers have sped,
And the hoarse auctioneer is dead,
Who ‘Going – going!’ so often said,
As he consigned to doom each meek, mewed band
At Pummery Fair.
About Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was born in the village of Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, England in 1840. Hardy spent most of his life in Dorset where he would find the inspiration for his novels and his poetry. Hardy is best known for his novels, “Tess of the D’Urbevilles,” and “Jude the Obscure” both of which he completed in the 1890s. These two books, while extremely popular now, were given negative reviews upon publication, perhaps leading Hardy towards poetry. Hardy published eight volumes of poetry throughout his life and has been extremely influential on poets such as Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, and Philip Larkin. He died in 1920 and his ashes were placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.