Analysis of Afternoon with Irish Cows by William James Collins (Billy Collins)

William James Collins (Billy Collins)

Afternoon with Irish Cows

Analysis of ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ – William James Collins is popularly known as Billy Collins is an American poet. He was called the ‘most popular poet in America’ by Bruce Weber in the New York Times. He was appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. William retired as a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York in 2016. He taught there for almost 50 years. William was selected as the New York State Poet three years consecutively from 2004 to 2006. William continues to teach in the MFA program at Stony Brook, South Hampton.

Billy Collins poems are famous for wit that slips into quirky lines and that which are profound or tender observation of the things happening around. His poems are generally conversational. ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ is one such poem which is an observation of the cows in the field in front of his house.

Summary – Analysis of ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’

There were a few dozens of cows which grazed in the field across the road. They were always moving from one tuft of grass to another. When they were grazing their heads were down in the grass and the poet could always see them from his window. Sometimes these cows would disappear as if they had flown away like the birds leaving the field empty. And then again he would find them back to their position munching the grass.

They would sometimes be lying down and from the words used to describe the cows it is clear they were cows that were black and white and their markings looked as if they were maps of places. They were patient, quiet and in their silence there was something mysterious. It was as if they were patiently waiting for the rain.

Analysis of “Afternoon with Irish Cows’ by William James

However, once in a while, one of them would let out a sound so phenomenal that it shocked the poet from whatever he was doing be it reading a paper or cutting an apple. He would rush to see what had happened for the cry was as if the cow had been pierced with a spear or was torched. When the poet rushed to see the reason for the cry, he got to see one of the cows rooted in the ground with neck outstretched, bellowing out. Her head which was generally down was raised high and the ‘full-bodied’ cry began from the belly and travelled through the ribs to her gaping mouth. Seeing this, the poet knew that the cry was not out of pain but just an announcement of her ‘cowness’.

The cow was pouring out the explanation of her kind to the green fields, gray clouds, limestone hills and blue bays. Amidst the bellowing she sees the poet’s head and shoulders above the wall and is shocked. She must have stopped the bellowing then.


‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ is a five stanza poem, each containing seven lines, septet stanzas. This is a new sense of order. There is no rhyme scheme in the poem. The thought in each stanza begins and ends in the stanza. The poem has a mixed meter and rhythm and this highlights the unusualness and oddness of the theme. The poem is a narrative about cows. It is written in first person, so it is a narration of the poet.

Poetic Devices

The theme of the poem is everyday observation of nature; it boils down to a simple aspect of nature – mooing of a cow. The tone of the poem is pleasurable as it innocently depicts the nature.

Since it is a poem about nature, there is a lot of imagery to make the poem picturesque. The imagery of sight is aplenty. ‘Greenfields’, ‘gray clouds’, ‘limestone hills’, ‘blue bay’ is some imagery for sight. ‘Soft grass’ is the imagery of touch. The imagery of sound is created by the usage of the words ‘full-blooded cry’. The ‘big head’ of the cow is juxtaposed with ‘soft’ grass.

For a simple poem like this, the hyperbole used in the poem seems to be a stark contrast.

and look out to see the field suddenly empty

as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

The disappearance of the cows from the field is exaggerated by stating that it seemed they had ‘flown off to another country’.

‘Black and white maps’ is the metaphor used in the second stanza. This metaphor also creates an imagery of the cows.

Analysis of “Afternoon with Irish Cows’ by William James

The amazement about the cows is brought in the lines ‘how mysterious, how patient, and dumbfounded/ they appear in the long quiet afternoons’. The repetitive use of the word ‘how’ creates a rhetoric and this figure of speech is anaphora. The same effect is created with the line ‘her neck outstretched, her bellowing head’.

The poem is very typical of Billy Collins style. He has taken a very simple theme, mooing of the cows, and made it very interesting reading. He even makes it dramatic with the words ‘pierced through the side with a long spear’ and ‘torching’. Reading the lines, one feels that the cow was going through some great pain. But the ‘volta’ or turn given to the poem was that the cow was only trying to explain to everyone her ‘unadulterated cowness’. These two words are the very heart of the poem. Cowness is an abstract noun created for the poem and unadulterated is the adjective for this noun. It is the nature of the cow to moo and she does it with pleasure.

The last two lines are also interesting. The poet is shocked on hearing the heart-rending cry and rushes to check out the reason. While peeping over the wall to take a look at the cow, the cow is shocked.

while she regarded my head and shoulders

above the wall with one wild, shocking eye.

Analysis of “Afternoon with Irish Cows’ by William James

Billy Collins has labelled himself as a ‘reader conscious’ poet. “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’ describes the interior lives of the cows and the power of its sound on humans. This is conveyed in a narrative style without talking too fast or superficially.