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Analysis of Poem "A Blessing" by James Wright

James Wright (left) with fellow poet Robert Bly

James Wright (left) with fellow poet Robert Bly

James Wright and a Summary of 'A Blessing'

'A Blessing' is based on an actual experience James Wright had whilst driving home one late afternoon with his friend Robert Bly, a fellow poet. They pulled off the highway and stopped to admire two Indian ponies.

The poem gradually builds up with a series of observations and interactions until the speaker, almost overwhelmed, faces the prospect of transcendence. There is an acknowledgement that a human can go beyond mere sensual experience when in contact with nature.

James Wright, teacher and professor, won the Pulitzer prize in 1972 for poetry that depicted post-industrial midwest America, marginal types and the effect of humans on nature.

'A Blessing', published in 1963 in Wright's book The Branch Will Not Break, has become one of his most popular and can be found in many anthologies.

  • Many have noted the underlying influence of both Wordsworth and Shelley in the last three lines of the poem when the speaker suddenly feels a need to break out, to blossom and thereby transcend the limits of human physicality.
  • This communing with nature's 'unseen Power', with the 'Spirit of the Universe' is given an overtly sensual edge - the speaker having touched the soft ear of one pony - plus, there is an uncertainty on behalf of the speaker, for they only think this mystical oneness will happen.

There is no doubting the near romantic tone of the poem, which for some creeps towards old-fashioned sentimentality. For example, the phrases Twilight bounds softly forth and They love each other and I would like to hold the slenderer one could be said to give the poem too soft an underbelly.

And can a pony, or any animal, have kindness in their eyes? To us humans, animals can certainly appear happy, but can they appear to be kind? These are issues to be debated over but certain critical questions have to be asked :

Do these romantic elements fit into the overall scheme of the poem?

Is the poem more or less successful because of such phrases and lines?

'A Blessing'

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken with kindness.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness

That we have come.

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear

That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

Analysis of 'A Blessing'

'A Blessing' is a free verse poem, with no set, regular rhyme scheme or meter (metre in British English). It is 24 lines long and the lines vary in length and syllabic content.

Whilst essentially a poem of transformation and transcendence through communion with nature, the epiphany arriving at the end, 'A Blessing' is built on a series of opposing elements:

  • Light and dark, black and white, male and female, togetherness and loneliness, physical and metaphysical.

The synergy between all of these elements helps make this poem greater than the sum of its parts, just.

As the reader progresses there develops a definite sense of anticipation, the two humans making eye contact with the ponies in the fading light, stepping over the barbed wire from the human world into the wild world of the ponies.

  • Perhaps this barbed wire is also a threshold, a darker symbol of the industrial man-made environment just off the highway, a gateway so to speak into the beautiful world of nature.
  • Note that the first fourteen lines, made up of unrhymed couplets, create an aura that is gentle and feminine in character. The language is comforting, creating harmony - softly forth, kindness, gladly, welcome, happiness, bow shyly, love, young tufts of spring...and the repetitious lines reinforce this to a degree...They have come/they have been/they ripple/they can hardly...

This message, one of harmonious welcoming, is juxtaposed alongside the elements that oppose and yet strengthen. What results from this is a mild confusion, embodied in the second part of line 11 and the whole of 12:

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

Together yet lonely. How can that be? The speaker projects human qualities onto the ponies, suggesting that these two are in love, yet uniquely lonely. Is this where metaphor comes in? Are the ponies really humans in the mind of the speaker, peripheral, lonely, because they're not understood? On the other side of the barbed wire.

One of the ponies is singled out because it displays what to the speaker is affection and comes over to nuzzle the hand, whilst the breeze informs the speaker's actions and he touches the long ear, which is as soft as girl's wrist. This second simile (shyly as swans is the first) comes at an opportune time, for we're nearing the transcendent last few lines of the poem.

  • The speaker's obvious need for a connection with nature, primarily moved by the welcoming stance of both ponies, and strengthened through physical interaction and pure observance of eyes, ears, mane and feeding action too, is interpreted as a conscious move out of the physical body and into a different metaphorical dimension.

Enjambment is used throughout this poem but in the final three lines it comes into its own, used in conjunction with a bonding alliteration - body I would break/Into blossom.

And with this final blossoming, the creative expression is partly fulfilled (can it ever be wholly fulfilled?) and the speaker seems to do justice to the poet's title - for this is experienced as a blessing, from the divine, from the mysterious 'messenger of sympathies'.

This wanting to leave the body, to become a spirit of nature, was an idea James Wright explored in several of his poems. It's an imaginative leap into the metaphysical, an attempt to connect mind, intuition and the untamed energy pulsing through nature.


© 2018 Andrew Spacey