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Is My Team Ploughing by A. E. Housman

“Is My Team Ploughing” was published as number XXVII in A. E. Housman’s best-loved cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad. It presents a conversation between a deceased lover and his friend. Housman’s other poems from the collection evoke the themes of doom and disappointment and the untimely death of youths. Similarly, this poem stirs the stock themes of the collection and explores how a speaker grieves over worldly things, including his beloved. Ironically, the friend he is talking to is now in a relationship with his beloved.

Is My Team Ploughing by A. E. Housman


Summary

“Is My Team Ploughing” begins in the form of a conversation between two speakers: a dead lover and his friend. The imaginary conversation starts like in the question and answer format. One speaker asks questions from the grave. The other speaker replies to it in prickly terms. Instead of soothing his friend, he rather highlights how the world is still in its glory, even though he is lying in the grave, not being able to notice the beauties anymore.

The first speaker asks of his team of horses, the football match played by the river, and the mental state of his beloved. Replying to each of his interrogations, the other speaker replies that everything is continuing at their own pace like before. While his lady is now with him, happy and content.

Meaning

The title of this piece is taken from the first line. It contains a reference to the horses tied to a cart that the dead man used to drive while ploughing. He asks his friend whether his horses are still ploughing. In reply, his friend talks about how they are still ploughing and jingling their bells as usual. In the following lines, the dead speaker asks about the things he used to take pleasure from. His friend, without feeling a bit of sadness, replies in a rather carefree tone, everything is fine and in continuance. From this conversation, Housman contrasts the stillness and mundaneness of death with the happiness of life.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

The structure of “Is My Team Ploughing” follows a conversation scheme. Housman includes two voices: one belongs to the dead lover and the other is that of his friend. Their conversation constitutes this poem. It consists of eight quatrains or four-line stanzas. Two stanzas form a pair. The first one poses a question and the following one contains the answer. The overall poem follows the traditional folk ballad form. Regarding the narrative scheme, it fuses the first-person and third-person points of view together.

Rhyme Scheme

Housman’s poem contains the ABCB rhyme scheme. It is also called the ballad rhyme scheme. This scheme is followed throughout the poem. In this form, the first and third lines rhyme together and the rest of the lines do not rhyme. For example, in the first stanza, the rhyming pair of words are “drive” and “alive”.

Meter

This piece follows a specific syllabic count per stanza that is 5-6-7-6. It means the second and fourth lines contain the same number of syllables. Whereas the first line contains a syllable less and the third one has one syllable extra. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first two stanzas that gives an overall idea of the meter of this poem.

“Is my/ team plough/-[ing],

   That I/ was used/ to drive

And hear/ the har/-ness jin/-[gle]

   When I/ was man/ a-live?”

Ay,/ the hor/-ses tram/-[ple],

   The har/-ness jing/-les now;

No change/ though you/ lie un/-[der]

   The land/ you used/ to plough.

So, the poem “Is My Team Ploughing” is composed of the iambic trimeter. The first and third lines of each stanza are hypermetrical (ending with an unstressed syllable). Besides, the second speaker’s speech begins with “Ay” separated from the rest of the line by a comma. So, the stress naturally falls on this syllable making it an acephalous or headless line.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Housman’s poem “Is My Team Ploughing” consists of the following literary devices:

  • Rhetorical Question: In this poem, the dead man poses four rhetorical questions in the first, third, fifth, and seventh stanzas. Each interrogation depicts how he badly misses the things he used to enjoy.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds in succession can be found in: “hear the harness”, “has he”, “better bed”, and “lie as lads”.
  • Onomatopoeia: In the first stanza, the word “jingle” resonates with the sound of the bell tied to the harness of a horse.
  • Irony: Housman uses situational irony in order to portray the contrast between one’s perception and reality. For example, the dead lover thinks that his lover is tired of weeping after his death. In contrast, she is happy and well-contented with her new life partner.
  • Litotes: It is a kind of ironic understatement in which a speaker hints at the affirmative by the negative of its contrary situation. For example, the dead man’s friend says, “She lies not down to weep”. It means she does not weep at all. Rather she is happy with him.
  • Metaphor: In the fourth stanza, the line “Ay the ball is flying” contains a comparison between the football and a bird or a flying object. Here, the “keeper” is a metaphor for the dead man’s friend. Who now keeps the “goal”, a metaphorical reference to the “dead man’s sweetheart”.
  • Personification: It occurs in the following lines: “Is football playing”, “Ay the ball is flying”, and “The goal stands up”. Here, inanimate objects are invested with the idea of playing, flying, and standing up.
  • Anaphora: It occurs in the second and third lines of the fourth and eighth stanzas.
  • Sarcasm: In the last line “Never ask me whose”, the speaker uses sarcasm in order to say that he is romancing with his dead friend’s sweetheart.


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Stanza One

“Is my team ploughing,

   That I was used to drive

And hear the harness jingle

   When I was man alive?”

First, scan all the stanzas from the text. There is a clear difference between the two voices. The first stanza within the quotation marks contains the remark of a dead man. While the second stanza, without quotations, is of the second narrator, ones of the first narrator’s friends. Readers can see all the lines are enjambed in order to pose a single rhetorical question with interrelated ideas. Each stanza emphasizes the main idea (composed of other references) which is complete in sense.

The first stanza is about how the dead man misses his work life. He used to go ploughing with his horses. The sound of the bell tied to the harness (a set of straps by which a horse or other cattle is fastened to a cart) keeps resonating in his mind. He asks his friend whether the harness still jingles like before when he was alive. Then he had the body and senses to enjoy everything closely. But, now he has turned into a negligible object, only has the ability to communicate with the second speaker.

Stanza Two

Ay, the horses trample,

   The harness jingles now;

No change though you lie under

   The land you used to plough.

It seems the second speaker is the poet himself. He describes this imaginary conversation from an omniscient point of view as no living being can hear a dead man’s voice. However, scholars think that the second speaker represents the dead man’s friend.

Listening to his friend’s query, the speaker replies in the affirmative. He replies with “Ay” meaning “yes” and goes on to describe the things his dead friend mentioned are still continuing at their own pace.

The horses still trample the ground whole ploughing and the bells tied to their harness jingle. It means another person has replaced his place. Now he goes to plough with his horses.

There is no change at all. Ironically, he is buried beneath the land he used to plough. The course of life goes on. Tragically, he cannot see or sense it. In this way, Housman contrasts living with death.

Stanza Three

“Is football playing

   Along the river shore,

With lads to chase the leather,

   Now I stand up no more?”

In the third stanza, the dead man asks about the game he played along with his friends. He asks whether the lads play football along the river shore. When he was alive, he used to stand up as the “keeper” and guarded the “goal”. He can visualize how his friends chased the “leather”. Here, Housman uses synecdoche in the usage of the word “leather”. It is a reference to the ball which was bound with leather.

Stanza Four

Ay the ball is flying,

   The lads play heart and soul;

The goal stands up, the keeper

   Stands up to keep the goal.

In reply to his query, his friend says that the ball is flying. It is a use of personification but it sounds like hyperbole. His friend has no regrets over his death. He exaggerates things in a way that it seems he is trying to make him feel more depressed. However, Housman uses a cheerful tone to portray how life goes on.

The second speaker is a symbolic representation of life. While the first speaker represents the gloomy and depressing death. That’s why there is such a difference in their tones. The dead man only visualizes the pessimistic side of life. While the second speaker shows the optimistic side.

In this stanza, he describes how the lads play with their hearts and soul. The goal stands up, so does the “keeper” to keep the goal. Here, “goal” is a metaphor of the precious the first speaker’s life that he protected throughout his life. It is none other than his sweetheart. Without his presence, the goal is not unguarded at all as his friend has taken his place. Now, he keeps the metaphorical “goal”.

Stanza Five

“Is my girl happy,

   That I thought hard to leave,

And has she tired of weeping

   As she lies down at eve?”

The dead man has understood what his friend is trying to convey. So, without wasting any time, he directly asks his friend about his beloved, “Is my girl happy?” He thinks his beloved would be sad after his demise. It was very hard for him to leave her. But when he died, naturally he was rashly taken away from her.

He goes on speculating about her. She might be tired of weeping so she lies down in the evening. It seems her sadness somehow provides satisfaction to the speaker. If she weeps remembering him, he might be relieved by the fact that his girl still loves him. Whatsoever, what he thinks of reality is merely his perception. What his friend says in the next stanza, how the course of life is different from his speculation.

Stanza Six

Ay, she lies down lightly,

   She lies not down to weep:

Your girl is well contented.

   Be still, my lad, and sleep.

In the sixth stanza of “Is My Team Ploughing”, his friend uses the repetition of the phrase “she lies down” to make him aware of the reality. According to him, she definitely lies down at eve but she does not take rest after being tired of weeping. It means the girl is not sad about his ex-lover’s death. She has moved on.

Furthermore, he says, “Your girl is well contented.” But with whom is she content? The speaker keeps it a secret. However, readers can understand that he is talking about himself. He tries to give his dead friend a hint about his relationship with her.

In the next line, he tells his friend to be still and sleep as what he thinks about the life above his grave, is not true. Readers have to ask a question regarding the thought process of the dead speaker. Isn’t he being a bit selfish? Indeed, one’s death is tragic. It makes his loved ones sad. At one point, they forget about what they have lost and move on. It is reality. So, why cannot he accept that?

Stanza Seven

“Is my friend hearty,

   Now I am thin and pine,

And has he found to sleep in

   A better bed than mine?”

At this point, the dead man has realized that he is being selfish. He only enquired of the things that mattered to him. After being confronted with reality, he understands his mistake. So, putting self-centered thoughts aside, at last, he asks about his friend. He enquires whether he is hearty or well.

After death, he has grown thinner. He confesses that he has only asked about the things related to him as he pines for them. Furthermore, he asks his friend whether he has found a “better bed”. Here, the poet compares the grave of the speaker to a bed. So, his speaker is asking about whether his friend has found a better place than the grave.

Stanza Eight

Yes, lad, I lie easy,

   I lie as lads would choose;

I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,

   Never ask me whose.

In reply, his friend says that he lies comfortably. He insinuates by saying, “I lie as lads would choose”. It means that he has either married a girl or in a relationship. Now, he does not sleep alone.

The following lines contain a circumlocution. Here, the speaker is hinting at the dead man’s sweetheart in a roundabout manner. According to him, now he cheers a “dead man’s sweetheart”. He tells his friend not to ask him about whose “sweetheart” he is in a relationship with. In this way, the poem ends on a sarcastic note.

Themes

Housman’s poem “Is My Team Ploughing” showcases the themes of life and death, pessimism, optimism, and perception vs reality. The main theme of this piece concerns the contrast between life and death. Housman portrays life as an adaptive entity. It adapts to changes, shapes itself, and moves on. If anyone is absent from its order, it quickly replaces it with another being. That’s why the flow of life is everlasting. Whereas death eliminates a worn-out piece from the machinery of life. Another important theme of this piece is perception vs reality. The dead man’s speculations and his friend’s contrasting answers portray this theme.

Symbols

This poem includes a number of symbols that hint at specific concepts. Let’s have a look at the important symbols present in this piece:

  • Dead Man: The first speaker is a symbolic representation of pessimism. His remarks point at the pessimistic view on life.
  • The Friend: While, his friend, talks about life as it is. His tone reflects hope and a sense of satisfaction in life. Hence, he is a symbol of optimism as well as life.
  • Ploughing: This activity is a symbolic representation of life.
  • Goal & Keeper: The “goal” symbolizes the most valuable thing of one’s life and the “keeper” is the person himself. From the dead man’s perspective, his “goal” is his sweetheart and he is the one who guarded her while he was alive.
  • Bed: It hints at the grave where the first speaker sleeps.


Tone

The tone of this piece remains constant throughout. In the first, third, fifth, and seventh stanzas, the tone is pessimistic, sad, and depressing. While in the rest of the stanzas, the tone reflects satisfaction, hope, and happiness. The poet uses contrasting tones in order to portray the mindset of the dead man and his friend. The latter portrays the spontaneity of life. Whereas the former projects depressing and sad thoughts. Besides, the interrogative tone of the first speaker reveals his cynical approach of seeing reality.

Imagery

Housman uses the following types of imagery in this poem:

  • Visual Imagery: It is present in the following lines: “Is my team ploughing”, “With lads to chase the leather”, “the ball is flying”, “As she lies down at eve”, etc. Using this imagery, the poet visually depicts the scenes.
  • Auditory Imagery: The images conveying specific sounds can be found in “Ay, the horses trample” and “And hear the harness jingle”. Through these examples, the poet hints at the sound of trampling and the jingling of bells.
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: It is used in the third and fourth stanzas to portray how lads play football.
  • Organic Imagery: It is used to make readers’ feel the dead man’s internal emotions. For example, in the first stanza, readers can feel a bit sad after reading about the dead man’s loss.


Setting & Speaker

Setting

The setting of the poem “Is My Team Ploughing” portrays 19th-century English countryside. In the seventh stanza, the dead man asks, “And has he found to sleep in/ A better bed than mine?” It means that he is communicating directly from his grave. He lies under the land he used to plough. So, the poem is set in a graveyard along the farmland.

Speaker

There are two speakers in this poem. One is the dead man and another is his friend. The first speaker poses questions. His friend answers his queries.

Historical Context

“Is My Team Ploughing” is the 26th poem published along with 62 other poems in A. E. Housman’s poetry collection The Shropshire Lad. The book was first published in 1896. The reception of this collection was slow at first. Then it became extremely popular among young readers. In writing the poem mentioned here, Housman borrows from the simple traditional folk ballads. It has been set to music by several English composers, including George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Ivor Gurney. In the poems XXV-XXVII from The Shropshire Lad, Housmans features a lover’s death and his girl walking out with another.

Questions & Answers

Why doesn’t the speaker want to tell the dead man who he is with?

The speaker can understand that his dead friend is already depressed and hopeless. The things he has imagined have not come true. Everything is normal and adapted to the change. Likewise, his sweetheart is also content with her new life. So, not to depress his friend any further, he does not say with whom he is with directly. However, he hints at the fact he is with his friend’s beloved by the lines “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,/ Never ask me whose.”

What has not gone back to normal since the dead man died?

Everything except the dead man has gone back to normal since he died. He imagines that his horses, friends, and most importantly his sweetheart are going to miss him. In reality, he is replaced by someone else. In the case of his beloved, she has chosen his friend as her life partner.

What is meant by “No change though you lie under/ The land you used to plough”?

These lines mean that nothing has changed. The course of everyone’s life is continuing at its own pace. There is only one change. The person (the dead man) who used to plough the land, is now buried beneath it.

What is meant by “whose” in line 32?

In the last line, “whose” is a reference to the sweetheart of the first speaker (the dead man).

What is the meaning of the word “team” as it is used in the poem?

The word “team” means a group of horses that belonged to the first speaker. He used to plough with his team of horses.

What is the meaning of the word “pine” as it is used in the poem?

In the line “Now I am thin and pine”, the term “pine” is used as a verb. It means to miss and long for the return of something. The term also means to suffer a mental and physical decline because of a broken heart.


External Resources

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