Study Guide

A Blessing Analysis

By James Wright

  • Sound Check

    Music was important to James Wright. "You can endure almost anything as long as you can sing about it," he said. The music in "A Blessing" is subtle but powerful, created in part through the rhythms of the lines (see "Form and Meter" section). As free verse, the poem doesn't wear its sounds on its sleeve. There are no obvious rhymes, and other sound devices work their magic almost invisibly within and across the lines of the poem.

    There are only two instances of rhyme in the poem, and both are inconspicuous internal rhymes. Line 8 contains the exact rhyme "they" and "day," while line 12 contains the slant rhyme (or "almost" rhyme) of "there" and "theirs." Shmoop admits to missing both of these rhymes the first couple of times we read the poem. And even after we noticed them, they seemed pretty inconsequential at first. But when we paid closer attention, some interesting effects emerged.

    In line 8, the long A sound in the rhyming words "they" and "day" recurs in the word "grazing." Is there any connection between this repeated sound and the meaning of the line ("Where they have been grazing all day")? Grazing is a pretty repetitive activity: if you're a pony, you use your lips and teeth to gather one tuft of grass, then another and another, while you slowly stroll across the pasture.

    Line 12 is about "loneliness," and the slant rhyme in this line reinforces the idea of being closed off or self-contained. Almost identical in sound, the words at the beginning and end of the line ("There" and "theirs") form a kind of closed circle. Just another example of how this poet's super-sonic devices fly under the reader's radar!

    Once you're sensitized to Wright's subtle use of sound, you start hearing musical effects throughout the poem. The first two lines of the poem are woven together with short O sounds ("off," "Rochester," "softly") and long I sounds ("highway" and "Twilight"). In lines 3 and 4, repetition of the long I sound emphasizes the "kindness" in the ponies' "eyes." Alliteration links the next two lines ("willows" and "welcome"). Line 20 is tightly stitched together with both alliteration ("light […] long," "moves […] me") and assonance ("breeze […] me").

    In lines 21 and 22, the poem switches abruptly from physical description to abstract imagery. Notice how Wright uses alliteration to ease this conceptual transition. Bridging the gap are the repeated S sounds in "skin" and "Suddenly" and the repeated R sounds in "wrist" and realize."

    Midway through "A Blessing," and again at the end, alliteration amplifies key themes of the poem. In lines 11 and 12, the L sound in "loneliness" carries a melancholy echo of the L sound in "love" (for more on this, check out the "Calling Card" and "Themes" sections). In the last two lines of the poem, the triple alliteration of "body […] break […] blossom" just might blow your mind or make your brain explode! (For more on this, see "Transformation" in the "Themes" section.)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of Wright's poem has strong religious connotations. As a verb, the word "blessing" means "the act of making something holy." As a noun, it most often refers to a religious act involving God's help. The word "blessing" can also refer to a prayer of gratitude before a meal. But the poem itself seems to be about ponies, not churches. Plus, Wright has publicly stated, "I don't believe in God." So what's up with the religious title?

    Many folks who don't go to church or don't even believe in traditional concepts of God still describe themselves as spiritual, and they often use religious terms such as "blessing" in non-churchy ways. For example, James Wright once described an experience he had while visiting the farm of fellow poet Robert Bly. Wright spent much of the day quietly hanging out with a swaybacked palomino horse named David. Later, Wright commented that he "felt blessed" by the experience.

    Based on this anecdote, it's tempting to conclude that the title of "A Blessing" similarly refers to the spiritual effect of the ponies on the speaker. But, of course, we all know not to equate the writer of a poem with the speaker of a poem, right (Wright?)? Check out the "Speaker" section to refresh your memory on how tricky this issue can be.

    So we should probably keep an open mind about this title. Yes, the speaker may feel blessed by the ponies. But couldn't the blessing travel in the opposite direction? After all, the ponies seem awfully happy to see these human visitors: maybe the ponies feel blessed by the people. Or maybe some larger, loving force in the universe is blessing both the ponies and the people. Like all good titles of all good poems, this title just gets more interesting the more you think about it.

  • Setting

    In one sense, there's no great mystery about the setting of "The Blessing." We know exactly where and when the action occurs: in a "pasture" along "the highway to Rochester, Minnesota" at "twilight" in the "spring." The highway reference clearly suggests a modern setting. The pasture, too, seems unexceptional; enclosed in "barbed wire," it supplies grazing land for two ponies.

    But in another sense, the setting is suffused with mystery. For the speaker, this random pasture becomes a place of "happiness" and "love" and "loneliness." Why does the speaker experience this simple horse pasture as such an emotionally charged, almost dream-like environment? How does the presence of the ponies transport the speaker to the threshold of an out-of-body experience? Throughout the poem, the speaker is attuned to the mysterious magic of the setting, which by the end seem to have figuratively inspired him: "if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom" (23-24).

  • Speaker

    Though all poets write from their own experience, it's important to distinguish the poet from the speaker in the poem. That said, the desire to seek out possible connections between a poet's personal life and the words on the page can be irresistible. In the case of "A Blessing," there's an interesting biographical backstory, but, before we get to that, let's try to make an unbiased assessment of the poem's speaker.

    So what do we know about the speaker? Well, we don't find out until line 6 that the poem is narrated in the first person ("my friend and me"). Who these people are we don't know, though we may suspect that they are taking a road trip together. There is no indication of their gender.

    Even before the speaker self-identifies in line 6, the earlier descriptions suggest that he or she is a sensitive soul, someone who reflects on the quality of twilight and who notices the kindness in a pony's eyes. Clearly an animal lover, the speaker closely observes and interprets the ponies' behavior. The speaker appears deeply touched by one pony's willingness to make direct contact, responding with a "caress." In the final lines of the poem, the speaker's emotions intensify, culminating in a kind of mystical vision.

    So, back to that backstory: in his memoirs, Robert Bly, a fellow poet and close friend of James Wright, gives the following account of the events surrounding Wright's composition of "A Blessing."

    One day James and I were driving back to Minneapolis from a visit with Christina and Bill Duffy at their farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Christina loved horses, had been a rider in Sweden, and continued to keep horses here. So horses were very much on both our minds. Just south of Rochester [Minnesota], James saw two ponies off to the left and said, "Let's stop." So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called "A Blessing."

    Interesting, yes? But does this account change your perception of the poem's speaker at all? Speaking just for ourselves, Shmoop has to admit that from now on we may visualize "my friend and me" as two men.

    Here's another, possibly more revealing, biographical tidbit for you. In an interview, James Wright once referred to the imagination as "that mysterious and frightening thing." During the same interview, he offered the following comment. 

    Sometimes there is a force of life like the spring which mysteriously takes shape without your even having asked it to take shape, and this is frightening, it is terribly frightening. It has happened maybe a few times to me—times when I've been able to get the poem finished in almost nothing flat. 

    When the interviewer asked which poem Wright was referring to, the poet cited "A Blessing" and one other poem. "Where did they [the poems] come from?" mused Wright. "If you were to ask me that question, I would have to say, how should I know?"

    In these remarks, Wright seems to suggest that the process of writing a poem sometimes involves a mysterious external power that operates through his own imagination. He seems to find this power frightening because he does not understand its source and, perhaps, feels out of control. Since he specifically cites "A Blessing" in this context, it could be intriguing to consider whether the speaker of this poem itself reflects any of those ideas (and fears). For more thoughts along these lines, check out "Transformation" in the "Themes" section.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    "A Blessing" is set in Minnesota, and most of Minnesota consists of flat prairie. Not surprisingly, there are no mountains featured in the poem, and there are no huge obstacles to comprehending the poem, either. Using familiar, conversational language, the speaker leads readers along the path of a simple story. Still, when you turn the final corner and reach the end of the path, an unexpected sight awaits you. That final vision just might lead you to reconsider everything else you saw along the way.

  • Calling Card

    Loneliness and Love

    James Wright is widely admired for his brilliant use of free verse. Early in his career, he relied on conventional rhyme schemes and metrical systems, but when he switched to free verse, he really came into his own as a poet.

    Yet the essence of a great Wright poem lies as much in its themes as its style. It is no coincidence that the words "loneliness" and "love" both appear in "A Blessing," for his calling card arguably lies in the conjunction of these two themes. In Wright's poems, nature often offers the antidote to loneliness, momentarily healing the suffering caused by isolation and offering a glimpse of love. For example, check out his Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio or Northern Pike (And for more on these themes, see the discussion in the "Themes" section.)

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    When James Wright first started writing poetry, he often used conventional metrical systems, but in his later work, including "A Blessing," he switched to free verse, which lacks consistent patterns of meter or rhyme. But the rhythm of poetry remained important to him. In fact, he explained that, for him, the process of writing a poem typically began with "a rhythm and not an idea."

    In "A Blessing," Wright varies line lengths (ranging from two to eleven words) to achieve a natural, conversational rhythm, using straightforward vocabulary. It's easy to imagine yourself hanging out with the speaker, as he quietly shares this personal story. Some lines are end-stopped and others are enjambed, further supporting the music and meaning of the poem. The use of a single stanza provides unity of thought, reinforcing the speaker's single-minded focus on the ponies.

    In several instances, Wright's use of punctuation plays an important role in conveying meaning. In line 8, for example, the word "alone" is isolated at the end of the line, tightly bracketed by a comma and a period. This technique highlights concepts of solitude and loneliness that are thematically relevant to the poem. (For more on this, see "Isolation" in the "Themes" section.)

    In line 9, Wright uses a run-on sentence to enhance the impression of anxious anticipation conveyed by the phrases "ripple tensely" and "hardly contain." Hastily linked by a comma splice, the two clauses in line 9 create a run-on sentence that runs right off the end of the enjambed line, landing softly in line 10's comforting clause, "we have come."

    Line 11 is a verbal dance, complete with a formal "bow." The two periods produce two full stops, dividing the line, almost symmetrically, into two formal clauses that mirror each other like the mirrored image of two wet swans or the mirrored love of two Indian ponies.

    Lines 22 through 24 display a final, brilliant use of poetic form. The lines comprise a single sentence, punctuated only by a final period. The distribution of words across the three lines plays a crucial role in conveying meaning. By limiting line 22 to three words ("Suddenly I realize"), the poet builds drama and suspense. We can't wait to hear what's coming next!

    Line 23 doesn't disappoint, as it presents two genuinely startling ideas: the unexpected notion of stepping "out of my body" and the alarming suggestion that "I would break." But the enjambed line doesn't leave us dangling for long, as line 24 trickily reconstitutes "break" into the expression "break into blossom." In this way, the poet handily maneuvers his unsuspecting readers into the great mystery that ends the poem.

  • Darkness and Light

    As symbols, darkness and light should be old friends to you by now. You've probably encountered them in any number of poems. Often, light has positive associations—life, hope, love—while the absence of light symbolizes all kinds of bad stuff, such as fear, despair, and death. Like almost every other poet in the history of the world, James Wright uses darkness and light as symbols, but not in the way you might expect. Instead of assigning clearly positive or negative values to light and darkness, he blends images of darkness and light to convey an "in-between" state of mind, setting the stage for a mysterious shift in awareness.

    • Line 2: Long ago, before the word "twilight" was forever linked to vampires, and even before the spooky television series The Twilight Zone (ask your parents), "twilight" usually just referred to the period of half-light after sunset before night. Though often considered beautiful, twilight is also associated with uneasiness, as the dim light can play tricks on your eyes. When "Twilight," in personified form, "bounds softly" into line 2 of "A Blessing," its unexpected presence establishes a tone of mystery and even magic that suffuses the rest of the poem.
    • Line 4: Eyes can "darken" for various reasons, not all of them pleasant; "darken with anger" is one common turn of phrase. So it's a little surprising to learn that the eyes of the ponies are darkening with "kindness." See what we mean about Wright's unconventional use of light and dark symbolism?
    • Line 8: The phrase "grazing all day" conjures up the image of long, sun-drenched hours preceding twilight. Such a pastoral scene often connotes quiet contentment, and the following line does include the word "happiness." But line 8 ends abruptly with the word "alone," foreshadowing the "loneliness" in line 12. So rather than having purely positive connotations, the light associated with "day" conveys a mixed mood. 
    • Line 14: Ah ha, darkness again! But again, it doesn't have the negative symbolism we might expect. In fact, the prepositional phrase '"in darkness" literally contains the positive symbol of "spring" (see the "Spring" section), with all of its hopeful connotations of youth ("young"), growth, nourishment ("munching"), and hope.
    • Line 18: While twilight blends darkness and light, creating a kind of gray light, the ponies' "black and white" markings create an alternating pattern of darkness and light, not unlike the symbol of Taoism, an ancient Asian philosophy (see an example here). The black and white markings of the Tao symbol represent the balance between opposing forces in the universe as well as the universal energy that flows through all things. (If you're interested in these ideas, check out the discussion in the "Title" section.)
    • Line 20: When you first see the word "light" in line 20, you might expect more light vs. darkness symbolism, but then you realize that the word is being used as an adjective to modify "breeze," so it means "gentle." Still, poets love words with multiple meanings, and nobody is going to stop you from momentarily considering "light" as a visual as well as tactile image, further reinforcing the positive associations of the breeze which leads to the speaker's mystical vision.
  • Ponies

    When Shmoop was little, we begged Santa to bring us a pony. Even though we never got one, we still dream about ponies sometimes. Many people who don't own, or even ride, horses are still fascinated by these beautiful animals. How about you? Would you pull off a busy highway just to observe some ponies in a pasture? Even if you didn't know the biographical backstory of "A Blessing" (see the "Speaker" section), you could probably tell that the writer of this poem had some first-hand knowledge of horses, based on the realistic details in the poem. But these ponies are still poetic ponies, and they also play a symbolic role in the poem.

    • Lines 4-6: Sometimes horses aren't all that happy to see humans entering their pasture. And who can blame them? Horseback riding is probably more fun for the rider than the horse. Still, many folks will tell you that their horses are kind and loving. The ponies in Wright's poem certainly display "kindness," and they "welcome" the humans "gladly." In this sense, the ponies seem to symbolize the generous beauty of nature and the joy it offers humans who take the time to appreciate it.
    • Lines 7-8: To fully appreciate the natural world, humans must first step out of their artificial, man-made environment. As a symbol of this boundary, the barbed wire in line 7 separates the humans from the inviting natural world inhabited by the ponies. The barbed wire also confines the ponies, leaving them "alone" and blocking their desire to join the human visitors.
    • Lines 11-12: The ponies demonstrate affection for each other as well as for the human visitors. In fact, the image of swans bowing "shyly" even has symbolic associations of romantic love. Line 12 links the idea of "love" to the idea of "loneliness" (for more on this, see the "Themes" section). 
    • Lines 13-14: In line 13, the image of the ponies' pasture as a kind of "home" suggests that the humans have been fully accepted into this mysterious world of nature that may represent their true home. 
    • Lines 15-17: In these lines, the poet develops the relationship between the speaker and the pony through the use of tactile imagery—images related to the sense of touch. As readers, we can almost feel the pony's velvety muzzle nudging us. Notice the specific detail "left hand," which intensifies the image by concentrating our attention in a particular area. Even though the speaker doesn't actually wrap his arms around the pony, he imagines doing it, so we imagine it, too. Can't you just feel the warmth of pony's body?
    • Lines 20-21: The tactile imagery continues in these lines. Touched by the "light breeze," the speaker passes along the "caress" by stroking the pony's ear. Line 21 further develops the sensation by comparing the "delicate" skin of the pony's ear to the "skin over a girl's wrist."
  • Plants

    It's a well-known fact that many people (including you?) talk to their plants. Why is that? Talking to a pet makes sense because the words generally elicit some response; but houseplants, unlike dogs, are typically unresponsive to phrases such as "walkie walkies" or "bacon snax." Still, plants, like poodles and people, are living creatures, essential partners in this precious blue biosphere we call Earth. In "A Blessing," plants are just as important as ponies, functioning both as realistic details and symbols.

    • Line 5: Instead of referring to generic trees, the poet refers specifically to "willows." The image of ponies emerging from willow trees at twilight enhances the poem's dreamlike tone. The word "willows" also makes Shmoop think of "weeping willows," foreshadowing the poem's melancholy undercurrent of "loneliness." Since this poem is about Indian ponies, the idea of weeping even makes Shmoop think of the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokee people (see "Shout Outs" section). What do you think—has Shmoop strayed too far from the actual words of the poem?
    • Line 14: Back in line 2, "grass" appeared as a realistic detail of setting. But in line 14, instead of referring to "tufts of grass," the speaker refers to "tufts of spring." This poetic device is known as a metonym—the replacing of a word with a closely associated word. This one small change subtly influences our perception of the ponies: instead of viewing the ponies as animals in the real world, we perceive them more as mythological figures that graze on an entire season instead of just munching on blades of grass (see "Symbols: Ponies" for more discussion of the ponies).
    • Lines 23-24: Up to this point in the poem, we've seen a progression from realistic description of plants (grass, willow trees) to more symbolic imagery ("tufts of spring"). The poem ends with the image "break / Into blossom." (For further discussion of this image, see the "Detailed Summary" section, as well as "Symbols: Spring.") One weird thing about this visual image is that it's not really visual. Shmoop can easily visualize a bush breaking into blossom, but no matter how hard we squinch up our eyes and try to imagine a bloomin' human, we just can't seem to picture it. If you have the same problem, we should probably classify this as an abstract image, designed to convey an experience that is spiritual rather than physical.
  • Spring

    What's your favorite thing about spring? The Easter egg colors of tiny crocuses shouldering aside the chilly soil? The warmth of sunshine on your bare arms for the first time in months? The faint, insistent cheeping of baby birds in well-hidden nests? During winter, life seems to shut down, so when spring arrives, we naturally think of rebirth. James Wright once said that, "there is something about poetry in the human imagination that is like the spring." He also referred to "a force of life like the spring which mysteriously takes shape without your even having asked it." (For more on this, see the "Speaker" section.) Though the word "spring" appears only once in "A Blessing," the idea of spring as a creative force informs the entire poem.

    • Line 14: When you first started reading this poem, what assumptions did you make about the season? Initially, all we have to go on is the reference to grass in line 2, which suggests spring or summer, though grass also grows in Minnesota during early fall. The metonym (see "Symbols: Plants" for more) in line 14, however, identifies the season as spring. This is the only time the word "spring" appears, but spring as a symbol of renewal and transformation (see "Transformation" in the "Themes" section) is central to the meaning of the poem. 
    • Lines 23-24: Even though the word "spring" does not appear in the final lines of the poem, all of those symbolic associations of creative energy and transformation and rebirth pour right into the mysterious image "break / Into blossom."
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    Approved for general audiences, this poem doesn't contain any racy references. But it does include sensual imagery ("delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist"). The poem also uses language and symbols associated with romantic love (the two ponies are like "swans" that "love each other").

  • Allusions

    Historical References

    Why are the ponies in "A Blessing" referred to specifically as "Indian ponies"? The term refers to a particular breed—a small hardy horse of North America that sometimes has black and white markings (like those of the pony in the poem). This may be the only meaning the poet intended.

    But as soon as the word "Indian" enters the poem, it's kind of hard to get the word out of your mind, and James Wright must have known that. So he probably wouldn't hold it against us if we explore the possibility of an historical allusion to Native Americans in this poem. Plus, a number of his other poems, such as "I Am a Sioux Brave, He Said in Minneapolis," do contain explicit references to Native American culture.

    During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, expanding European-American populations forced Native American tribes from their homelands. In this context, "barbed wire" (7) suggests the imposition of European notions of privately-owned land, as the western prairies were carved up into private farms and ranches. The sharpness of the barbed wire also connotes pain and violence, bringing to mind armed conflicts, brutal confinement, and forced relocation of Native Americans.

    In line 19, the speaker refers to the "wild" mane of the Indian pony. In this context, the word "wild" may remind you not only of the Wild West, but also of positive ideas associated with wilderness, such as the beauty of a pristine landscape. Wilderness can also imply freedom from the constraints of urban society—the kind of freedom, perhaps, that we often associate with the Native Americans' traditional way of life.

    So are you buying any of this? Maybe you think these shout-outs to Native Americans are plausible. But what does any of this have to do with the situation described in the poem?

    Let's not forget that this poem is called "A Blessing" (see the "Title" section for more on this). In the poem, the speaker moves from an urban world (the highway) to the more "wild" setting of the pasture, where contact with an Indian pony appears to trigger a mystical vision. Native American traditions include belief in a spiritual power that connects all things, including people, ponies, and plants. From this perspective, breaking into blossom might make perfect sense!