In ‘The Old Horse in the City’ Lindsay explores themes of freedom, confinement, and the lives of animals in four short quatrains. He makes use of an unusual narrator, a horse, and tells a brief story about that horse’s life and dreams. While confined, the horse looks into the distance, hoping for a different future, one in which he isn’t beat or underfed.
The tone is solemn, but also hopeful as the horse considers his predicament. The mood is somewhat optimistic in the second stanza but by the end of the poem, it takes a darker turn again. It is very likely that the horse’s situation is never going to change.
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Within the poem, the horse discusses the setting, the appearance of the moon, peace, and pain. The men beat the horse until he is “sore” and he determines that one day he’s going to “break the halter-rope / And smash the stable-door” and escape. He will run free and see the moon, “a peck of corn” in his mind, and the rest of the world as he didn’t before.
‘The Old Horse in the City’ by Vachel Lindsay is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Additionally, the lines appear visually similar on the page. The first and third lines of each stanza are longer than the second and fourth. This makes sense due to the fact that they are structured with different numbers of syllables.
The odd-numbered lines conform to the pattern of iambic tetrameter. This means that each contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed. The even-numbered lines are different. They each have three sets of two beats, with the same pattern of stress and unstressed syllables. This is known as iambic trimeter.
Lindsay makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Old Horse in the City’. These include, but are not limited to, metaphor, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, metaphor, is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example in the first line. It reads: “The moon’s a peck of corn”. This equates a certain amount of corn to the shape and size of the moon. It is part of the horse’s fantasy of freedom and the world outside his grasp.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “beat” and “break” in lines two and three of the second stanza and “years and years and years” in the final line of the poem. There are also examples of sibilance. It is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. For example, “supper sweet” in line four of the first stanza and “smash the stable-door” in line four of the second stanza.
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.
The moon’s a peck of corn. It lies
Heaped up for me to eat.
I wish that I might climb the path
And taste that supper sweet.
In the first stanza of ‘The Old Horse in the City’ the speaker, a horse, begins by describing the moon as a “peck of corn”. This metaphor is a simple, yet surprising one. As it comes from the perspective of an animal its unusual nature makes sense. The horse sees the moon as being approximately two dry gallons of corn. This speaks to its size and importance to the creature.
From where he is he would like to climb up “the path” and taste it. The moon looks just like something he’d like to eat. As a reader will soon learn, the horse can’t do as it pleases. It is not a simple thing for him to climb up the path.
Men feed me straw and scanty grain
And beat me till I’m sore.
Some day I’ll break the halter-rope
And smash the stable-door,
In the second quatrain of ‘The Old Horse in the City,’ the horse-speaker lays out more details about his life. The men he is controlled by don’t feed him corn as he’d like to eat but give him the bare minimum of “straw and scanty grain”. This line makes it seem as though there is never quite enough of either.
They also treat him poorly, beating him until he’s sore. He hopes that one day he’s able to “break the halter-rope” and “smash the stable door”. The use of sibilance in this line helps the reader envision, and even hear, the sound of a stable door being smashed open.
Run down the street and mount the hill
Just as the corn appears.
I’ve seen it rise at certain times
For years and years and years.
In the final stanza, the horse fantasizes about what he’ll do when he finally gets out of his stable. He’d “Run down the street and mount the hill”. This will finally allow him to reach the “corn” (the moon) as it appears in the sky.
His fantasy of freedom has been with him for a long time. That whole period he has stared at the moon, dreaming of what it will be like when he finally reaches it.