“Horses to be Broken”

I’ve recently been thinking about the poem from Carey McHugh’s American Gramophone that my group observed in class this week. The poem was “Death (as a Woman) Comes for the Draughtsman” on page 54. I remember we pointed out the idea of “stopping,” particularly in the first couple lines: “But there are horses / to be broken”. Then I realized something. The term “breaking a horse” means to train it. A broke horse is one that’s safe to ride. Here’s a description I found online:

“A well broke horse is one that is well trained and understands more than just the basics of go and whoa. A horse that is said to be broke to saddle or harness indicates what the horse has been trained for. Saddle breaking is training a horse to carry a rider, and harness breaking is training the horse to pull a vehicle.”
(You can read more from this link: https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-broke-horse-1886596.)

So I was thinking that, in addition to “stopping,” there’s a sense of this person’s desire to continue living. Breaking a horse is something that takes time. Then there are other examples of things to be done in the other two stanzas: “A partial sketch / curled on the table” and “bulbs sat out to be buried”. As we found before, a draughtsman (or draftsman) is someone who draws out sketches and plans. So this person also has plans to finish. And finally, we have these bulbs. The poem talks about death, but then brings in a hint of life through bulbs that are to be planted and grown. Using the word “buried,” however, might distract readers a little and keep them focused on the idea that an end is coming for this person. I think the same thing can be thought of the word “broken” used in place of “trained.” To sum it up, “planted” and “trained” are simple and light, while “buried” and “broken” sound darker.

I don’t remember if someone already mentioned any of this, so I thought I’d bring it up. These are just some additional thoughts I had about the poem, and I was curious to know what others think.

2 Replies to ““Horses to be Broken””

  1. I think the differentiation in word choice is really important, like you said. I agree with you. These darker words lead us to understand that Death is not just paying a mid-life visit; she is coming at an inconvenient time, when the draughtsman was continuing “breaking” horses and “burying” bulbs, not expecting that he would soon be the one subject to these sorts of things, against his will (just like the horses and the bulbs did not choose their fate, neither can he).

  2. To be honest, this was my favorite poem from Carey McHugh’s collection. I love the characterization of the woman with the “proud/ cold copper” locks.
    Not to sound like a know-it-all, but rather to add to your insight (and partially explain my obsession with this poem,” one of the first rules of horseback riding is to keep your heel down. By placing the ball of your foot on the stirrup and driving your heels down, your leg acts as a “shock”-absorber for the horse’s movement. Similarly, this gives you the most secure seat, which is even more vital when riding horses that are not broken yet, as the character is doing.
    Her experience also seems to be acknowledged by the “wintered,/ calloused” appearance of her heel. Her strong leg and experience gives her a good foundation when riding young horses. Her capability is then able to manifest itself as pride.
    Thank you for blogging about this poem! I love it too!

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