Some interesting background and story behind Andrew Forster’s The Horse Whisperer

What do Cesar Millan, Robert Redford, vampires, Phantom of the Opera, an unsolved 1945 murder and Frankenstein’s Monster have in common?

Andrew Forster’s The Horse Whisperer! 

I love this poem. I love it because it’s so sad and also because this one man represents a whole group of people who had been terrorised in the past. Think Salem Witch Trials, Pendle Witch Trials, The Crucible and so on.

Did you know, though, that horse whisperers really existed, and really used frog’s pelvis bones as well as the spongy tissue from a foal’s mouth to work their magic?

You can read about the Horseman’s Word secret society here

Remember that people who had rapport with animals were often seen as outsiders, ‘weird’, ‘odd’. No lovely Dr Doolittle, but crazy old cat ladies. You might remember at the beginning of Macbeth that the witches have a cat (Greymalkin) and a toad (Paddock) and that these were called ‘familiars’. The devil was believed to be able to inhabit animals, or appear in human or humanoid form, or even as a ghostly spirit. Crazy old cat lady would have been muttered about as a witch, no doubt. I talk to my chickens and no doubt that would set me aside as a witch.

Medieval villages often relied on what they might sometimes view as ‘witchcraft’ and we might view as old wives’ tales. Have a toothache, suck on a clove. Have a backache, drink some willow bark tea. In the past, this was ‘mystical’ and magical. Now we know that willow bark contains salicylic acid, a type of aspirin. You can buy clove oil in the chemist for toothache. It contains a mild antiseptic and a mild anaesthetic. This works wonderfully until someone has something happen and then the ‘witch’ gets blamed. If you can work good ‘magic’ (even if it’s magic that was subsequently shown to have some positive medicinal effect) then that’s okay. You can live in your little cottage on the edge of the moors with your 21 cats. But as soon as someone has a miscarriage or their milk goes sour, or a cow dies, expect to find yourself hanged as a witch.

In fact, much of what we believe about midwives (sage-femmes in France, literally, ‘wise women’!) comes from history. Now they are respected nurses with scientific qualifications, but in the past they would just have been women with lots of experience delivering babies, having got a few tricks up their sleeve from doing it so often, or having heard stories themselves, like a herbal remedy to give an easy childbirth or massage to help with pain. Unfortunately the very-male church decided this was against the Bible and against God since Eve’s punishment (and all women’s punishment afterwards) for eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden was a painful birth. In fact, the Catholic Church required that midwives registered with the bishop and promised not to use ‘magic’.

We modern westerners find it hard to understand how ‘magic’ came to have such power, or ‘witchcraft’. We even accept the ‘placebo effect’ – that we feel better because we think we’re  taking medicine. That would have been witchcraft! If it really worked (like cloves, or willow bark) then that’s definitely witchcraft. In short, if you knew some tricks to stop a headache and you owned a cat and you were a woman who lived on her own, if things went wrong, you were blamed.

Horse whisperers had a similar fate. In fact, their ‘tricks’ seem half-animal psychology and half trick. They would calm horses with a combination of rosemary and cinnamon, or other smells (aromatherapy for horses!) and the scent of a newly born foal. And they would frighten horses with the smell of tainted meat. They’d rub this on a frog’s pelvis bone. I can understand why a horse might be frightened of the smell of rotten meat, but I think the frog’s pelvis bone is a bit of pretend-voodoo, personally. It wasn’t unknown for so-called horse whisperers to rub stable doors with a barely perceptible scent so that the horse wouldn’t come out of the stables without a horse whisperer to come along with another scent. Talk about making business for yourself!

The Horseman’s Word group did themselves no favours, because they practised several initiation ceremonies that were seen as black magic, like reading bits of the Bible backwards. So when the end came – tractors – they were quickly outcast.

And now it’s a ‘dead’ tradition. Partly because animal psychology has taught us a lot about pack animals (like Cesar Millan – he’d definitely be a witch in the past!)

Now some people disagree with Cesar Millan’s methods – and this isn’t intended to be a treatise on dog behaviour. When our little spaniel was weeing everywhere, that was psychology. She’s stopped now. Why? Because I learned that she wees because she’s afraid when we greet her. She has to be submissive and show us she’s afraid, so she wees. Now we ignore her and greet her when she’s got used to us again. Witchcraft in the past, modern animal psychology today. And whether you agree with Cesar Millan’s process or not, that video is pretty awesome in terms of how fast he got that dog to calm down. And if you didn’t get the explanation of how he did it, you might think that was magic.

Now, largely thanks to the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer, we see the soft, gentle and animal-understanding side, not the frog bones and spongy foal spit.

It’s ironic that when people more in tune with others, be they midwives, herbalists, vets, animal trainers or whoever, are welcomed and needed, their methods are just accepted. As soon as something goes wrong, boom. Outcast. And if there’s a whiff of something magic about it, they were in league with the devil.

That’s what happens in the poem. It’s a thin line.

Not only that, but the poem is recent. The horse whisperer’s demise is linked to the tractor. The tractor arrives, horses are put to pasture and the horse whisperer isn’t needed. Mechanics become the new voodoo practitioners, except their ‘magic’ is comprehensible and scientific. It’s accessible to anyone who wants to learn, not a secret like horse-whispering was. He is not only out of a job, but an outcast.

The image of the villagers with pitchforks is also evocative – it puts me in mind of Frankenstein – an angry mob. The Phantom of the Opera uses it as a stock scene, as do lots of 1930s ‘horrors’. This silent movie clip from the end of Phantom of the Opera (1925) shows you what a stock image it is.

Watch the beginning of the trailer for the 1931 version of Frankenstein…

In short, if you had a creepy, unnatural individual hanging around, sending a village-full of pitchfork-and-blazing-torch-wielding would-be killers around to put things right was the sure-fire way of bringing it all to a natural ending. And you don’t think this is real…

In 1945 a man was murdered with a pitchfork. There were literally hundreds of rumours about his death – that he was a ‘witch’ – he had a legion of toads to pull a plough through his vegetable patch, that he was a horse whisperer. There’s no real suggestion that the man was a witch or that he was killed by an angry mob, or his death had anything to do with witchcraft, but it’s definitely in keeping with the poem.

So… to recap…

You have an outsider whose ‘magic’ and trickery are tolerated as long as it is needed and not considered a threat

You have a village turning against someone

You have an outsider who has a hint of magic about him.

I’ll be publishing a new kindle ebook (download to your PC!) in the next couple of weeks with further analysis of The Horse Whisperer. What you have here isn’t analysis as such, just some things that diverted me along the way. Interesting to know, but don’t turn your essay into a history essay. You aren’t being assessed on what you know about horse whisperers or death-by-angry-pitchfork-wielding-mob, but your understanding of how Forster creates an image of an outsider who is turned on when he no longer conforms to what is socially acceptable.

I just thought it was some interesting background!

Is John Agard’s poem ‘Flag’ set out like a flag?

Errrrr….. no!

This is precisely what I’m fighting against! Is it set out like a flag? I guess you could say so. It’s flat down the left side. Mind you, so are most poems. Are they about flags too? Rubbish!

Maybe it’s set out like a pennant?




Err…. NO! Hardly any countries have a non-rectangular flag. Two have square flags and only Nepal has a pennant flag. And it looks like this:

Most are rectangular, like this:





You might as well say that the poem looks like lava, looks like waves, looks like a weird vase on its side. What IS this preoccupation with saying a poem looks like something else?!

And where did I read this? In a Hodder Education revision guide. Note to kids: don’t believe everything you read. And if you write that this poem looks like a flag, I will cry. This is why I only trust my own word on things 😦

Dear Lord of English teachers, give me strength.

Does it look like a flag fluttering in the breeze? Only as much as most poems do. Did Agard WANT it to look like a flag? Not unless he’s never seen a flag before. Does he write concrete poetry like Herbert and Edwin Morgan. No. Please think before you take statements like this into the exam room, and please read my post on Flag which I hope is based much more on sensible things to say.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £10.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

How to write a GCSE English Literature poetry essay

I get a few hits for this, and I’ve marked a lot of papers, so I thought I’d give you an insight into my own process. I really hate those ‘teachers’ who never have a go themselves. Whilst I understand you don’t have to be great at something to be a great coach (see Alex Ferguson and the Man United team!) I think you should be able to articulate the process of what good essays do. You might not think that’s very humble of me – here’s my great work of art essay! – it’s not. It’s average. But it’s a starting point for you. Many of us never actually see what it is we’re ever asked to produce at the end of reading all these poems. It’s like someone gives you all the nuts, bolts, panels and cogs to make a car, but you’ve never seen a car – and what you produce might not look like ‘a car’. That would be fine if some examiner didn’t then compare what you’d made to a car and mark it on how much like a car your thing was. So that’s why I’m saying this is an example of how I do it. It’s one way. Plus, it ticks all the things on the mark scheme.

I’m going to take the hardest type of Literature essay (the one that candidates avoid like the plague and examiners wonder why they didn’t choose to do it…) – the ‘say whether you like or dislike this XXXXX poem and compare it to another one’ essay. Here’s a made-up example based on one from the specimen GCSE English Literature paper.

Readers like poems and dislike others. Write about whether you like or dislike Mametz Wood and compare your response to one other poem you either like or dislike. Remember to write about how the poems are written.

This type of question often foxes people in the middle or lower grade bands. It’s easy to say you dislike it, if you do, but it’s hard for a GCSE candidate to articulate why they might dislike it. Often, it’s the subject matter that is hard to explain your dislikes. Sometimes it’s just a gut reaction.

Remember, you are not a poet and it’s easy to criticise what is written; it’s more appropriate to say that you like it, or to find three or four things about it that you can live with, unless you are VERY, VERY good at poetry critique. Most sixteen year olds don’t like poetry. Fact. Survey 200 and you’ll find 100 really don’t like it (hint: they’re the ones that groan when the Anthology comes out) and only 10 really like it. I’m with the ‘really like it’ group. Always have. I know. I’m a geek.

Where’s all this going?

Say you like it, even if you don’t. My thoughts when I read an essay if someone has criticised the poem ‘I don’t like this bit and this bit is crap, the poet could have done this bit better’?

Really? You’re sixteen and you think you know best! Published any poetry recently have you? AH, the arrogance of youth! I bet you’d tell Ferrari they don’t know how to make cars and criticise Marc Jacobs’ new fashion line! 

I’m going with why I like the poem here. Some teachers avoid this question and many students often avoid this type of question, because it asks you to put your thoughts on the line. Instead of being marked on poetry analysis, you THINK you are being marked on your views. You aren’t. You’re still being marked on your analysis. In fact, this type of question lends itself really well to A and A* grades because if you say you like something and explain, you’re ‘evaluating’ – a word from the higher grades on the mark scheme. Also, you can pick out what you like about the poem and focus on that.

I’m going to talk you through how I’d think about the response first… all of this goes on in my head, and a little bit on paper before I start writing. Good essay writers think first and then write. You’d be amazed by how many people miss the thinking step out.

To start… I pick four things I particularly like about the poem, remembering the golden rule to focus on the form of the poem if it’s helpful, and the organisation – the way the ideas build up or are revealed. And then I pick another poem that has similar qualities. In this case, I’m going to pick The Golden Palm by Minhinnick, because it’s another of my favourites.

I start by thinking about what I want to write about:

3 language things and 1 thing to do with form (minimum)

  • The way the poem builds up to revealing the grave – a bit like the way the skeletons are revealed themselves – over time (form)
  • The idea of the earth being like a person with secrets that it needs to reveal – that image of the foreign body being worked out like a splinter
  • The ‘mid dance-macabre’ line – which reminds us of the brevity of life
  • The idea of the soldiers being linked in death, the care, the way it evokes real thought

And then I think about other poems that compare well. Do any other poems build up and reveal? I guess Bayonet Charge does. If I want to look at The Yellow Palm which I really like, does this build up? I think so.

  • The way Minhinnick builds up to the child – the future – and it blessing the cruise missile, and the way he builds up this surreal image of chaos and unnatural sights

Then I have to think about the ideas revealed – so what is Sheers revealing? What’s his central idea? I’ve got other poems where nature is used quite profoundly – like The Fallen Leaves and Futility where the poet uses nature to contrast with conflict. So what’s the idea?

  • The idea is that we don’t get the whole story – just clips of scenes of confusion, a world out of balance

I’m not quite sure of the connection, beyond ‘the idea’ but it’s enough to frame a paragraph. I guess the idea in Mametz Wood is quite well-formed and he uses the simile to help us understand, whereas The Yellow Palm doesn’t do that – it’s just frightening fragments, (actually like the bits of bones revealed…. there’s a connection… and it never builds up to reveal the entire thing – the whole picture – and although we finally see the entire corpse row in Mametz Wood, we don’t get to know the whole story, only guess at it. That’s the same idea.)

You see how thinking allowed me to find the connection. If I’m writing, I’m not necessarily going to stop and go down that route.

The next one is easier: the brevity of life is easy to find. There are no young men in this poem, and the children remind us of the problems yet to come.

  • The way the poet uses what’s not there, just like the story behind the linked arms, to reveal something profound: the men are missing.

Finally, I have to think about what idea I can compare with the idea of the linked soldiers. That’s a little harder. I have to think about what story this tells, what thought is provoked. I’m going to go with the utter chaos and fragmented sense of things, in this ballad form. I like the use of this quite jaunty form with this nightmarish scene. I want to write about that.

My next step is to write the essay!

You will be able to find this actual essay in my new Kindle book (which you can download to PC too if you don’t have a Kindle or e-reader) AQA GCSE English Literature Poetry: Conflict – contemporary poems. In the meantime, here’s a link to my guide to the Literary Heritage Conflict poetry. It’s fabulous, if I do say so myself. I would say that. I wrote it. But it’s got all of the poems and the most in-depth analysis you will find on the web. That’s not a lie. Most other guides touch on each poem but you won’t find such a detailed analysis of each poem. I’ve tried to cover everything in there – far too much to write about in 45 minutes – but I know some people want to know everything inside out. If you find a bit I’ve missed, email me, I’ll add it and credit you, of course!

The Contemporary Poetry version will be out in about a week.

If you don’t ‘get’ these poems, if they don’t make sense, or even if they do – and you just don’t know what to write or how to write, then this might help you. Remember, it’s just my view – if you think something else, let me know and I shall endeavour to add it and credit you.

Yesterday, one of my students enlightened me about Crooks in Of Mice and Men. I’ve taught that book to over 500 students, and still 16 year olds teach me new stuff about it.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

Sample GCSE English Literature poetry essay

So, what should you write? How should you write? You’ve got 45 minutes to write about two poems, answering a given question, like this one:

Compare how the results of war are shown in Futility and one other poem from Conflict

I start by making sure I’ve written about both language and structure. Usually, I try to make four big points. One of these is usually about structure.

I also try to make sure I keep using the words of the question and make sure that both the beginning of each paragraph and the end of it goes back to the words of the question as well. This makes sure I stay focused on the question. I’m not supposed to just write about the two poems.

I try to focus on the connections, not the differences. Of course the poems are different. Otherwise they’d be the same. Duh! So I start with what they do the same, and then I say how they’re different, so I do both.

I try and write confidently and back up what I say with quotes. Usually, I’ve got the quotes highlighted before I even start.

I make sure I pick another poem that helps me answer the question. I like to compare Futility with The Fallen Leaves or next to of course god america i but it didn’t fit. Neither of those poems are really about the ‘results’ of conflict – whereas Come on, Come back is really about the results – the aftermath

I tried to make sure I had a conclusion that brought everything together and I picked out the four key ideas and rephrased them in my answer.

This is my 45 minutes to show off to the examiner. This is it. My one chance. I need to make sure I have the right vocabulary to express what I think. So I’m going to use words like nihilistic and existence because they’re better than any alternative I’ve come across. I get nothing by dumbing down.

I know the mark scheme inside out. I know what I need to show and I know if I can’t, I can’t get the full range of marks. So, I know I need to explore the poems and analyse the language and/or structure and/or form.

I know I need to use quotes to support my response. And I know I need to pick out the best quotes – something really insightful. If it’s not that important in the poem, why am I including it?

I know I need to write about ideas and/or themes.

I need to compare analytically and compare ideas/themes/language/structure/form.

This is my response:

In Futility and Come on, Come back, we see the results of wars past and wars future. Futility shows how war affects the living, how it makes them contemplate life, how it makes you question everything, particularly existence. In Come on, Come back, we see how war devastates the mind, how it leaves people longing for peace and salvation, even if they can’t remember what it is they have done or seen.

Owen uses the structure of Futility to convey a single event and the subsequent thoughts it evokes. He uses the simple sonnet form to find the essence of what a death brings to him – the feeling of utter pointlessness. Even though it is much more brief than Come on, Come back, he epitomises the feelings of nihilism and emptiness that death can bring. He uses half-rhyme to create a disjointed, unnatural feel that makes the poem feel strange and creates a strange disjointed harmony. It doesn’t quite sound right. This is superbly appropriate for the subject itself. Even though the dead soldier looks as if he is just sleeping, he isn’t. It isn’t quite right. He also builds on the series of questions he asks in the poem to build up to the most profound of all: “Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil/to break earth’s sleep at all?” Here we see how he cannot understand why the universe bothered to raise anything, to build a civilisation, when it is all for nothing. We destroy each other.

Although Come on, Come back is a narrative poem, it still uses the structure to build up to a climax, just as Owen did. The line lengths and the way the lines fall, as well as the odd rhymes of ‘stone’ in the first stanza are also disjointed and fragmented. Thus we see how the poet uses rhythm and rhyme (or half-rhyme in Owen’s case) to create a sense of a fragmented, confused, disharmonious world.

The personas in the two poems are also different: Owen’s is a first-person narrative whereas Come on, Come back is third-person narrative. Owen’s use of a persona is helpful: it is insightful. We get to see into his mind and see his thoughts. This helps us empathise with him and gain an insight into his feeling of utter despair and despondency. In Come on, Come back Stevie Smith writes about ‘Vaudevue’, the ‘girl soldier’. Using this persona is interesting and thought-provoking. A ‘girl soldier’ is something unusual. Women often don’t fight on the front line, as this girl has, mainly because women are seen as not being able to cope with the front line and what they see. We’re instantly thrown into wondering if it’s acceptable for women to see such things, and if it isn’t, is it any better for men to see such things. Not only this, but Smith calls her a ‘girl’ – something more fragile, more innocent than a man. Naming her makes her identifiable. Unlike ‘him’ in Futility, a soldier who could represent anybody, Vaudevue has a name and we see her actions. Both are powerful. One makes us think that the dead soldier could be anybody. It could be our brother, our father, our husband. The other makes it personal. In fact, Owen doesn’t even say that this man is a soldier, or even that he is dead. There are several things we can take from this. One is that he doesn’t even know who the soldier is – which shows us the absolute tragedy of war. This man will not be remembered as an individual. It is not personal. Either we all mourn his death or nobody does, because he is nameless. The other thought is that by keeping the soldier anonymous, Owen is deliberately trying to show that he could be anyone. Both show the effect of war – one by using an anonymous man to show Owen’s own thoughts, therefore the effect on him personally. Smith shows the effect on one individual. Both take one individual and show the consequences of conflict on them – and by seeing one person, we learn about the effects of war on the individual. It becomes more personal.

The effects in both poems seem largely psychological. In Futility, the damage done by conflict is in how it makes Owen question everything: mostly, it makes him question our existence, the whole point of our lives: “was it for this the clay grew tall?” – in this God-forsaken man-made war, he cannot see God, or the point of existence. Science gives him no comfort. Yes, the sun gave conditions on earth the ability to generate life. And that work all seems pointless. It leaves Owen desperate for answers and despondent about life. In Come on, Come back, Vaudevue comes to the same conclusion. She too asks: “Aye me, why am I here?” and although the question is ostensibly about her memory loss, we sense something much deeper. Conflict has left both Vaudevue and Owen with a profound sense of pointlessness.

The war seems to have more of an effect on Vaudevue, however. She doesn’t just stop at questioning her existence. Her next action is to go to a lake. She removes her uniform, ‘lunges’ into the water and lies, ‘weeping’ before letting the ‘waters close over her head’. Here, Smith uses a deep symbolism. We have the symbolism of the water – something that soothes and cleanses. Water purifies. Water is used in many cultures and religions as a way of cleaning yourself. Indeed, in Christianity, water is the symbol of baptism, whereby the holy water washes away sin and leaves you reborn. Yet this water is ‘black’ like her mind. This water does not clean her or wash away her sins. When the ‘enemy soldier’ calls her back and carves out a pipe from the reeds, we get a sense of something more primeval – something pre-Christian, something pagan. This, too, is a Godless world. Without religion, we have no sense of anything after death, so not only do both question their existence, but without the promise of eternal life, life is completely pointless. Vaudevue, even without a memory, is so affected by her ‘black’ mind that she seeks comfort and protection from the water, which envelops her and protects her from the world, just as the lake did with Syrinx when she sought to escape from Pan. She is safe there. War has left her in need of comfort and solace – something she finds only in death. In contrast, in Futility, Owen is left in need of comfort and solace, though this is provoked by death which provides no comfort and solace at all.

Finally, both poets use natural images to show war and the results of it. In Come on, Come back Smith shows that the natural world is left behind once the war passes over. It might be ‘rutted’ but the moonlight, water and meadows remain. Nature is what consoles Vaudevue, giving her sanctuary. We see how, once war has passed, nature is left. It’s almost as if Vaudevue is the last human on earth – apart from the enemy sentinel. Nature softens the wounds that war makes. In Futility, this is different. Nature doesn’t offer consolation or solace or hope or safety; it simply reminds him of the pointlessness of life. The sun, a powerful and evocative image of life, has no power. Unsown fields remind Owen of the wasted potential of the dead soldier’s life. He is reminded that nature is powerless and pointless against war.

In summary, both poets show similar results to war. War destroys the mind, war provokes nihilistic questions about the whole point to life. War reminds us of our pointlessness and the brevity of our lives. Both poems show how war fragments and fractures, its psychological effects. War leaves us questioning life, questioning existence. Whilst nature may be left, this is cold comfort to Owen, although it comforts and protects Vaudevue.