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The Huntsman by Edward Lowbury

Edward Lowbury’s “The Huntsman” is a ballad based on an African folktale. It follows the story of a huntsman named Kagwa who finds a talking skull and eventually ends up turning into one. Lowbury’s poems are known for their characteristic mystique and storytelling. The theme of this poem is “talking”- to be done when necessary and within a limit, as suggested by the poet. This piece deals with the uncertainty of human life and how short life is.

  • Read the full text of “The Huntsman” below:
The Huntsman
by Edward Lowbury

Kagwa hunted the lion,
Through bush and forest went his spear.
One day he found the skull of a man
And said to it, ‘How did you come here?’
The skull opened its mouth and said,
‘Talking brought me here.’

Kagwa hurried home;
Went to the king’s chair and spoke:
‘In the forest, I found a talking skull.’
The king was silent. Then he said slowly,
‘Never since I was born of my mother
Have I seen or heard of a skull which spoke.’

The king called out his guards:
‘Two of you now go with him
And find this talking skull;
But if his tale is a lie
And the skull speaks no word,
This Kagwa himself must die.’

They rode into the forest;
For days and nights, they found nothing.
At last, they saw the skull; Kagwa
Said to it, ‘How did you come here?’
The skull said nothing. Kagwa implored,
But the skull said nothing.

The guards said, ‘Kneel down.’
They killed him with sword and spear.
Then the skull opened its mouth;
‘Huntsman, how did you come here?’
And the dead man answered,
‘Talking brought me here.’
Analysis of The Huntsman by Edward Lowbury


Summary

“The Huntsman” follows the story of a lion hunter, Kagwa. He is out hunting one day and comes across a skull. Upon asking the skull what it was doing there, the skull replies, “talking got me here.” Baffled by the discovery of the talking skull, the hunter goes to the king to report the incident. Naturally, the king does not believe him at first. Out of his curiosity, he orders two guards to go along with Kagwa in search of the talking skull. If the skull fails to speak, Kagwa will be sentenced to death.

This turns out to be true. When the hunter persistently begs the skull to speak, but there is no response, and eventually, Kagwa is killed. He becomes another talking skull who replies to the former skull’s query, “talking brought me here.”

The moral of this poem is that one should think and consider their audience before speaking. They should speak only if it is necessary.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

“The Huntsman” is a ballad, a poem that narrates a story using short stanzas. The poem consists of five stanzas, with six lines each. It is written in the third person point of view, where Kagwa, the huntsman, is the main character.

The poem does not have a set rhyme scheme. There are occasional rhymings; for instance, in the first stanza, “lion” imperfectly rhymes with “man,” and “spear” rhymes with “here.” In some instances, Lowbury uses the exact words for the sake of rhyming.

There are five to seven words on average per line, and the poet has used line breaks and spacing to emphasize the scenes taking place in the poem. Besides, readers cannot find a regular metrical pattern in this poem. It mainly consists of the iambic meter with a number of variations.

Literary Devices & Poetic Techniques

Lowbury uses several poetic devices to achieve effortless storytelling. Readers can find the use of the following poetic techniques in “The Huntsman”:

  • Personification: Lowbury describes the skull as “talking,” giving it human characteristics to emphasize the theme of the poem. In the line, “Through the bush and forest went his spear,” the narrator personifies the inanimate object, “spear.”
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds in neighboring words can be found in “Kagwa hurried home,” “forest, I found,” “said slowly,” “my mother,” “skull which spoke,” etc.
  • Consonance: It occurs in the lines, “Kagwa hurried home;/ Went to the king’s chair and spoke:/ ‘In the forest, I found a talking skull.’/ The king was silent.”
  • Allegory: The poem is based on the Nigerian folktale where a hunter becomes the hunted for foolish talking. Through this piece, Lowbury persuades readers to be more cautious of the words they speak and who they speak to.
  • Irony: At the end of the poem, the hunter has the same fate as the “talking skull”—this showcases the situational irony of the human life that the speaker tries to shed light on. 
  • Symbolism: Being a lion hunter, Kagwa was a man of courage, fierceness, and strength. However, none of those attributes make up for his lack of wisdom and discretion. Here, “Kagwa” is a symbol of flawed human nature. A simple flaw can cause cracks in the overall human stature.
  • Rhetorical Question: In the last stanza, the skull rhetorically asks, “Huntsman, how did you come here?” This line injects humor into this piece.


Stanza-by-Stanza Critical Analysis & Explanation 

Stanza One

Kagwa hunted the lion,

Through bush and forest went his spear.

One day he found the skull of a man

And said to it, ‘How did you come here?’

The skull opened its mouth and said,

‘Talking brought me here.’

Edward Lowbury sets a fierce and suspenseful mood at the beginning of “The Huntsman.” He paints a picture of a strong and courageous hunter who raves through the forest in search of the lion. Instead, he finds the skull of a dead man and unwittingly asks the skull how it ended up there. To his surprise, the skull answers vaguely, saying, “talking brought me here.” The poet uses personification to illustrate the skull’s mystery. It gives an overall eerie feel to the poem.

Stanza Two

Kagwa hurried home;

Went to the king’s chair and spoke:

‘In the forest, I found a talking skull.’

The king was silent. Then he said slowly,

‘Never since I was born of my mother

Have I seen or heard of a skull which spoke.’

In this stanza, Kagwa is portrayed as a simple man who cannot keep things to himself. Without thinking of the consequences of his actions, Kagwa reports the incident to the king himself. He is not worried whether the King will believe him or not. The narrator tries to inform the readers about how impulsive decisions can lead to terrible outcomes by making the hunter take such a drastic step.

Stanza Three

The king called out his guards:

‘Two of you now go with him

And find this talking skull;

But if his tale is a lie

And the skull speaks no word,

This Kagwa himself must die.’

The tone of the poem slightly shifts in this verse. Lowbury’s focus is off from Kagwa and now on the king. The narrator draws upon the difference in their authority by showing how a simple truth can lead to a person’s entire life being taken in a snap. Naturally, the king does not believe the hunter but orders two guards to verify his story. This section shows how an absurd amount of importance given to one person’s statement can easily demean something as big as someone’s entire life. Besides, the huntsman’s life is as worthless as any of his subjects. It shows the typical nature of the kind.

Stanza Four

They rode into the forest;

For days and nights, they found nothing.

At last, they saw the skull; Kagwa

Said to it, ‘How did you come here?’

The skull said nothing. Kagwa implored,

But the skull said nothing.

The poet stretches out their quest for the skull to show how even truth can be challenging to find, and if it is found, it won’t necessarily convince anyone. In this verse, Kagwa is seen begging a skull for an answer, which from a reader’s perspective seems futile, as the guards see it, but to Kagwa, this one mistake would cost his entire life. The irony of this situation is that the skull that previously said, “talking brought me here.” Now it refuses to speak. This section shows how Kagwa failed to notice the skull’s implied message.

Stanza Five

The guards said, ‘Kneel down.’

They killed him with sword and spear.

Then the skull opened its mouth;

‘Huntsman, how did you come here?’

And the dead man answered,

‘Talking brought me here.’

In the last verse of “The Huntsman,” the guards kill Kagwa with a “spear,” using which he set out to hunt a lion at the beginning of the poem. The dynamics of power continue onto this verse as the guards are seen following instructions as told, and Kagwa has accepted his fate. In the end, the skull asks Kagwa the same question, and the hunter’s response is “talking brought me here.” So, finally, he learns his lesson. In this way, Lowbury successfully illustrates the hazards of talking without thinking about what to say or whom to speak. Overall, the tone of the poem is humorous, suspenseful, and light-hearted.

Themes

The Ethics of Talking

Lowbury mentions the phrase “talking brought me here” twice in the entire poem. This emphasizes how speaking to the king is what brought Kagwa into trouble in the first place. Through this poem, Lowbury indirectly advises the readers to consider a few things before talking – to think about what you are going to say, to consider how you’ll phrase it, what tone will be used, and lastly, to think about who you are talking to. If Kagwa had revealed this secret of a “talking skull” to a friend or a fellow hunter, he probably would have been called a liar or made fun of. However, he would still be alive.

The massive difference in authority, the fact that a mere hunter knew something a king was not privy to, was what took Kagwa’s life. The implication of the last few lines, where the skull asks the hunter how he got there, and Kagwa reiterates, “talking brought me here.” This remark truly captures the theme of the poem.

The Turn of Fate

The poet reflects upon the idea of fate throughout the poem. Kagwa was the one to see the talking skull, and being someone of his nature, he told this to the King, which led to his demise. Lowbury paints the poem in a full circle, as Kagwa repeats the words of the talking skull, “Talking brought me here.” From the beginning, this might have been evitable for the strong and brave hunter, who eventually became the hunted for his mere foolishness.

The Dynamics of Power

Lowbury makes subtle and unhinged commentary on the absurdity of power dynamics throughout the poem. Firstly, Kagwa’s mistake was to think to inform the King himself as opposed to a friend or another hunter. Secondly, the king’s ego takes a hit when he realizes that Kagwa, the mere hunter, might have found something that he had never seen in his life. So, he ordered Kagwa’s death if his tale turned out to be a lie. Thirdly, the guards who followed Kagwa for days killed him without a second thought because it was an order directly from the king. Thus, Kagwa had to accept his fate. Though this is not the primary theme, subtle hints are made to this theme throughout the poem.

Historical Context

Edward Lowbury was an English poet born in 1913. He was a pioneering pathologist and medical bacteriologist who dedicated his life to medical research. Lowbury is known for his seven poetry collections that were published during his lifetime. Some of his most renowned collections are Selected and New Poems 1935-1989, Collected Poems (1993), and Mystic Bridge (1997). His poems are best known for their suspense, thrill, morals, humor, and paradoxes, as seen in the poem “The Huntsman.” This poem is based on Kenyan folklore, which Lowbury heard while he was posted to Kenya.

Questions and Answers

What is the “The Huntsman” poem about?

Edward Lowbury’s poem “The Huntsman” is about a hunter named Kagwa, who comes across a talking skull while hunting for a lion. He reports the striking incident to the king. Despite believing in Kagwa’s story, the king orders two guards to check it out. If his story were to come out to be false, he would be sentenced to death. Lowbury illustrates the implications of talking in this poem.

What role does fate play in the poem “The Huntsman”?

The idea of fate is subtly highlighted throughout the poem. Kagwa is the only one who finds the “talking skull.” In the end, his end is the same as the skull – as if it was inevitable. The strength, courage, and bravery that Kagwa had as an established lion hunter did not matter because he could not escape his death. His unwitting decision to disclose the incident to the king is what brought upon his downfall.

What do you know about Kagwa in the poem “The Huntsman”?

The poem is based on the African folktale where the “hunter” becomes the “hunted.” This piece sees the same end as Kagwa, the lion hunter, ends up like the talking skull because of his own wrong decision to inform the incident frivolously to the king. Overall, Kagwa was a man of courage, unmatchable strength, and agility, but he was not as smart as required in specific circumstances. He had not listened to reason or questioned the decision of telling the matter to the king. This led to his death and the same fate as the “talking skull.”

What is the main idea of the poem “The Huntsman”?

The main idea of this poem orbits around the ethics and implications of talking. Lowbury persuades readers to think before speaking and to consider their audience before talking. Otherwise, there would be implications that they cannot undo.

What is the tone of the poem “The Huntsman”?

The tone of the poem is humorous, free-spirited, ironic, and sad. Lowbury injects humor in several instances. The overall tone shifts at the end, where Kagwa dies for his unwitting decision.

What is the form of “The Huntsman”?

This poem is written in ballad form. A ballad is any poem or song that narrates a story through short stanzas. There is no specific rhyme scheme or meter in the poem. Besides, the poem is told from the perspective of a third-person narrator.

What are the literary devices used in the poem “The Huntsman”?

The literary devices used in this poem include personification, alliteration, irony, epigram, rhetorical question, etc. Each device makes the story more appealing to readers.

What is the moral of “The Huntsman”?

The moral of the poem is that we should think twice before talking. We should not act upon a single thought without heeding to reason and common sense.

Describe the use of humor in “The Huntsman.”

Edward Lowbury makes use of poetic techniques such as irony, insinuation, and wordplay in order to create a humorous tale. His poem “The Huntsman” is all about a hunter named Kagwa who died for lack of common sense and mindless blabbering. The first instance where humor impregnates readers’ hearts is the line, “Talking brought me here.” Lowbury uses this line again in the last stanza to heighten the intensity of the laughter. Besides, the lines, “This Kagwa himself must die” and “The guards said, ‘Kneel down.’” contain an essence of dark humor.


Similar Poems with Life Lessons

  • What is Life?” by John Clare — This poem not only explores the meaning of life but also taps on its uncertainties.
  • [little tree]” by E. E. Cummings — It’s a sweet little tale of a tiny Christmas tree brought to the speaker’s house.
  • Marrying the Hangman” by Margaret Atwood — This darkly humorous tale is based on an actual event where two convicted decided to marry for the sake of saving their lives.
  • Butter” by Elizabeth Alexander — This poem humorously talks about how the poet’s mother applied butter to each food item she cooked.


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