Below, you’ll find a detailed analysis of James K Baxter’s poem ‘Farmhand.
Youth, innocence, awkwardness and rural life — this poem encapsulates Baxter’s own experience as a young man living in New Zealand. Here’s a detailed breakdown of everything you need to know about the poem.
It’s tailored towards the Edexcel IGCSE syllabus, but it’s equally useful for anyone studying the poem at any level or on any exam board (AQA, OCR, CIE / Cambridge, CCEA, WJEC/Eduqas).
If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full Edexcel IGCSE Poetry course.
“You will see him light a cigarette
At the hall door careless, leaning his back
Against the wall, or telling some new joke
To a friend, or looking out into the secret night.
But always his eyes turn”James K Baxter
Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright.
Farmhand — someone who works on a farm, performing simple manual labour.
To yarn — to tell stories, sometimes over-embellishing the details (‘yarn’ is also another word for wool).
Stooks — a bundle of sheaves (usually wheat) that are collected together for farming.
We’re told that you can see the farmhand (when he’s off work) leaning against a doorway, smoking a cigarette and telling jokes, or gazing off into the night. He is always really thinking about dances, and how his own character and physique is very practical rather than romantic, music tears ‘an old wound open’ in his mind, suggesting that he may have had a painful romantic experience in the past which is preventing him from trying again to find a partner in the present. His physical and mental characteristics are well suited to farm work, and less suited to finding love — he’s an observer on the outside, looking in at the world of the dance. He has ‘awkward hopes’ and ‘envious dreams’, suggesting that part of his instincts is still inclined towards finding a romantic partner in life and that he’s jealous of those who do. In the final few lines, the speaker tells us that we shouldn’t really feel sorry for the man as he is so skilled in his work and perfectly suited to his job — he is almost beautiful in the way he lifts up stooks with a pitchfork, and the care he puts into listening to the tractor engine, his relationship with his work is almost like a marriage in itself.
There is a clear addressee in the poem that the speaker is talking to, the first word being ‘you’ (second person, direct address) — however, this addressee seems to be a general audience — he is telling us a story about a farmhand, a farmworker (the subject of the poem). This gives the poem a removed/distanced perspective — we are watching the farmhand, who is himself watching the people at the dance, so we are placed in a similar position of passivity and can empathise with how he feels.
We should cultivate a loving relationship with our work — the farmhand takes a serious and attentive approach to his work, which we should appreciate and admire rather than looking down on him as a manual labourer or thinking that the work is too simple — ‘ah in harvest watch him’ — the quotation demonstrates the speaker’s admiration for the man, he seems to be doing a job that is perfectly suited to him.
A person should remain true to their nature — the farmhand doesn’t have any guilt or shame about his job or lifestyle, which shows his strength of character and reaffirms the idea that he is in harmony with his world; he does however express a little sadness and longing for a partner, so we may hope along with him that he finds love in the end.
Not everyone is born to be ‘a romantic’ — romanticism and the world of love are represented in the poem by the ‘dance’ — a world which the farmhand feels excluded from, as he is socially awkward and not naturally suited to being romantic or following the standard rituals of courtship.
Relationships and love are not the only sources of happiness in life — though the farmhand does have hope and longing for a partner, he feels very content with his work and life otherwise and seems to take real pleasure from working on the farm.
There are beauty and grace in even simple or ‘lowly’ work — we should not look down on those who do what is considered ‘unskilled labour’, though it pays less than other jobs there is a lot of natural grace in working directly with the land on a farm, and in some ways, it is more true to human nature than an office or executive job.
Our physical appearance always reflects our inner character — there is a kind of connection between the farmhand’s work and love of farming and his appearance — he is not shown to be outwardly unattractive, but he has a ‘red sunburnt face and hairy hands’, due to his work.
Semantic field of farming — ‘sunburnt face’ ‘hairy hands’ ‘plough’ ‘crops’ ‘harvest’ ‘forking stooks’ ‘tractor engine’ — this creates a harmony between the man and his work, and places him well within the context of farming (although he is more awkward in the context of socialising), the visual imagery of these quotations also helps us to picture the scene clearly and understand the specific tasks required for a farmhand.
Simile — ‘girls drifting like flowers’ on the dancefloor — the girls are depicted as beautiful and fragile, but also a unified group rather than individual, emphasising the fact that it is hard for the farmhand to talk to them or to get to know them personally. ‘Flowers’ is also a natural image, showing that the farmhand’s appreciation for natural beauty is present when he observes the girls. However, this is also a rather cliched or standard comparison, so we could say that he’s using a basic image to understand the girls because he’s unable to formulate a more personal one — again demonstrating his awkwardness and lack of experience
‘crops slow-growing as his mind’ — this simile could be interpreted as a negative comment on the farmhand, suggesting that his mind is slow or simplistic, however, it could also suggest that he’s a late developer and that he’s immature — perhaps he is physically a man, but psychologically still a child.
Alliteration — ‘listening like a lover to the song’ — the ‘l’ sounds to create a long, drawn-out phrase — perhaps showing a sense of longing or lingering on the sound of the engine — which in itself is metaphorically called a ‘song’ that the tractor sings.
Single Stanza — the poem is one long continuous idea, demonstrated by the single stanza (although it shifts time and perspective throughout) > vignette of the farmhand.
Enjambment — ‘his eyes turn / To the dance floor’ — the enjambment here creates a pause which imitates the farmhand’s eyes as they shift focus.
Focal shift — the poem changes focus, from the image of the farmhand looking in at the dance, to details of his hands and face, then internally to the workings of his mind and finally to an abstracted image of him working in the fields.
- Pastoral genre — the poem draws from the pastoral genre of literature, which explores the idealistic view of nature and simple work that involves working directly with the earth/natural environment (such as farming, shepherding etc). Typically a pastoral poem explores how idyllic and perfect a simple country life can be, so you can see here how this is contradicted and a more balanced and realistic perspective is achieved in the poem.
- Baxter spent many years working on farms in New Zealand, so he has first hand experience of this world — we may see the farmhand as a reflective poem on his own youth, or it may be inspired by characters he met during his work.
- Baxter’s poetry often deals with sociopolitical themes — you can see this here with his treatment of class perception and work.
- Baxter had a difficult life and died young (aged 46) due to alcoholism, he became spiritual in later life and converted to Catholicism but still struggled to maintain good family relationships.
- Love/ Relationships
- Individuals vs Social Groups
- Youth / Teenage years
Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full Edexcel IGCSE Poetry course.