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On "The Sheep Child"

James Dickey

Let me begin by making one general point. In talking about my poems, I donít want to preclude anybody elseís interpretation. I think its absolutely essential that everyone should have his own interpretation of my poems, or anybodyís poems. I have been asked on this occasion, though, what my poems are supposed to be about from my standpoint, and what I have tried to do in them. But let me emphasize that Iím not trying to impose an official interpretation on the poems; that would be the last thing I would want to do. As one reader of my verse and as the person who happened to create the poems, I offer the following remarks for whatever interest they have to people who want to look at the poems from my standpoint as well as their own.


"The Sheep Child" comes out of the most horrible thing anybody ever told me in my childhood. A boy named Dick Harris once gave me to understand that a man and a sheep can conceive progeny. I asked him if that was really true and he said, "Oh sure, everybody knows that! Way down on the south side of Atlanta thereís this museum, and way back in the corner where nobody would ever look, thereís this little thing like a woolly baby in a bottle of alcohol, because those things canít live. I could probably find out where it is, and take you down there and show it to you." He never did, thank God! To this day Iím afraid to run into him again, because he might still take me down there and show it to me! But one day I thought this was a possibility for a poem, and so I wrote it. I took the situation seriously and tried to discover some of the implications of what such beings might be like.

I believe that farm boys develop a kind of private mythology that has the effect of preventing too much of this sort of thing from going on. It doesnít prevent all of it, you understand, but it keeps it within reasonable boundsówhatever they might be. The first part of the poem is a recounting of the farm boysí legend of the sheep child in the museum. But the second part of the poem is supposed to be spoken by the sheep child himself from his bottle of formaldehyde in the museum. I donít know what other defects or virtues this poem might have, but I think it can hardly be faulted from the standpoint of originality of viewpoint, at least in the latter section!

I intended no blasphemy or obscenity by this poem at all. I tried to the best of my ability to write a poem about the universal need for contact between living creatures that runs through all of sentient nature and recognizes no boundaries of species or anything else. Really the heroine of the poem is the female sheep who accepts the monstrous conjunction and bears the monstrous child, because in some animal way she recognizes the need that it is born from. I tried to give the sheep child himself a double vision of the destiny of man and animal.

[quotes ll. 41-48]

What I intended was that this contra naturum creature born from this monstrous, clandestine marriage between a human being and an animal is not contra naturum but very much naturum. It is evidence of the blind and renewing need for contact between any kind of living creature with another kind. This need is much larger than and transcends any kind of man-made, artificial boundaries. And yet, because of menís minds and attitudes, men develop a mythology to keep it from happening. Paradoxically, itís probably just as well that they do. But when things of this sort happen, it seemed to me to be evidence of this larger need that I was attempting to comment on.

From Self-Interviews. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1970. © 1970 by James Dickey.

Joan Bobbitt

In "The Sheep Child," Dickey once again depicts the relationship between rational man and irrational nature through a bizarre image. Though Georgia farm boys admit the masturbatory function of nature in their wild need "to couple with anything" (1.12), their fear of the product of complete irrationality in man, the sheep child, forces them to be civilized. Like the legend of the kudzu, the story of the "woolly baby pickled in alcohol" (11.17-18) in an Atlanta museum serves as a grim reminder of what happens when the irrational takes control. Such "things can't live" (1.13) because man and nature pose two extremes which are seemingly irreconcilable. Yet Dickey frequently "focuses on the earth's beasts as a means to the angels." Though the creature's eyes are open, no one is able to face that vacant stare. To do so would be to acknowledge the possibility of the animal in man. Such demonstrations of irrationality, however imaginary, are best left to dusty corners. In fact, the civilized urban society momentarily forgets as the boys take "their own true wives in the city" (1.19). But the poet remembers and wonders if the story is merely fiction.

In the figure of the sheep child, Dickey credits himself with having created the most unique persona in literature. This grotesque combination of two worlds, the world of nature and the world of man, speaks "merely with his eyes" (1.25), perhaps a Platonic reference to the dwelling place of the soul. In describing his conception and birth, the sheep child stresses harmony in nature. His mother stands "like moonlight" in the pasture, an image which implies union among all things. Indeed, Dickey calls the female sheep a heroine "who accepts the monstrous conjunction and bears the monstrous child because in some animal way she recognizes the need it is born from." Despite its mindlessness and irrationality, nature willingly serves man. When she is seized from behind, the sheep child's mother gives "her best / self to that great need" (11.34-5). Having conceived, she assumes human qualities and sobs "at what she must do" (1.38).

In the dying moments of his birth, the sheep child looks with "eyes more than human" (11.40-1). A part of both worlds, he can momentarily know their truths, and in viewing "man and beast in the round of their need" (1.43), he senses a fullness, an overall completeness not apparent to the merely human. According to George Lensing, Dickey actually believes "that animal life, in its natural and instinctive wisdom, is one to which humans may aspire and in which they may find their own heightened identity." Yet, despite his knowledge, the sheep child cannot live, and with his death, those truths become only faintly detectible behind staring eyes.

From the harmony of the pasture, the dead sheep child is brought to his "father's house" (1.49), a dusty, unvisited museum. In contrast with the world of nature, the world of man seems empty and sterile. Pickled in his "immortal waters" (1.52) the sheep child's eyes confide his truths to the "sun's grains," the only visitors to his "hellish-mild' corner" (1.51). Unlike a two-headed kitten or some other freak of nature, he does not attract the curious for whom his existence would bear testimony that man is also fallible. Such unnatural creatures seem to parody a world which, in his delusion, man believes he controls rationally and absolutely. Consequently, the lesson which the sheep child teaches is resisted. Like the kudzu, however, he is remembered and in the memory there is an admission of need. Dickey uses the imaginary sheep child to represent nature denied and man diminished as a consequence: "What I intended was that this contra naturum creature born from this monstrous clandestine marriage between a human being and an animal is not contra naturum but very much naturum." The fear which keeps farm boys from coupling with animals and forces them "deep into their known right hands" (1.60) is civilized man's rejection of the irrational within himself. The memory of the sheep child drives man to marry and to raise his kind, and, in doing so, it becomes a civilizing tool. Yet as Laurence Liberman points out in "The Worldly Mystic," he is now ever-conscious, caught "in a haunting, if inexpressible certainty that a much larger, grander, demonic world—compounded of Heaven and Hell—lies just the other side of the limits of his known, calculable existence."

from "Unnatural Order in the Poetry of James Dickey." Concerning Poetry 11:1 (Spring 1978)

Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill

The first poem in Section II is "The Sheep Child," which Dickey has said is the poem on which he will "stand or fall." In it the sort of transcendent vision Dickey aspires to in fusing the human and nonhuman worlds in his two "Reincarnation" poems comes forth almost perfectly: the sheep child is the vision; it has the vision--the world of man and beast is one world: "my father's house" is the house of us all. It is a vision before which even the sun appears momentarily to quail.

It is essential, however, not to see the sheep child only as some kind of monster-example to keep farm boys away from beasts; it is, in fact, a myth that embodies the poet's (humankind's) aspiration to union with the natural world at large. And, as Jane Bowers Martin has observed, the child is of the two worlds of nature and of art: "As a creature of memory, the sheep child, in his position with relation to the poem's narrator, transcends reality, life, in the same way that his floating existence is a transcendence of life. The sheep child is born to a world of perpetual transcendence, a world it is unnecessary to live in."

Dickey likes to say, jokingly, "I don't know what other defects or virtues this poem might have, but I think it can hardly be faulted from the standpoint of originality of viewpoint." He refers, of course, to the fact that part of the poem is told by the farm boy years later, as he recalls the proscriptive effect of the legend upon the boys' slightest sexual inclinations toward the farm animals; and to the section in which the sheep child itself, in its bottle of alcohol in the museum, speaks out. Martin, again, has made a significant observation about the split-line form of Dickey's verse, especially as it relates to the roman-type narration of the former farm boy and the italic-type narration of the sheep child:

It is the farm boy's lines that depend on these breath units, that are predominantly what Dickey calls the split line. In the sheep child's lines, however, the split line appears in only three places--the first at the description of the mating of the human and the sheep, the second at the imaginative entry of visitors to the sheep child's museum, and the third, a series of breaks, at the end of the poem, as the sheep child describes the lives the farm boys choose to lead. . . . Thus, the real world of the farm boy--where pauses for breath are necessary--is placed in juxtaposition to the transcendent world of the sheep child--where even pausing for breath is unnecessary.

From James Dickey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983. Copyright © 1983 by G. K. Hall & Company.

Laurence Lieberman

"The Sheep Child" develops in two movements spoken by two separate personae, the narrator and the sheep child, a method that recalls the method of "The Owl King," in which each of three speakers views an experience from a different angle of vision. The sheep child is a vastly better poet than the narrator, exceeding him as the superhuman exceeds the human. The narrator's introductory remarks are delivered with the maundering stammer of a southern yokel spinning a ghostly yarn. In his soliloquy. . ., the sheep child maintains that the farm boy regarded his sheep-mate as a thing without being, selfless, defenseless, caught unawares. To couple with the sheep would be a mere extension of the act of masturbation, like coupling "with soft-wooded trees / With mounds of earth." Shrewdly, the sheep complies with this falsification of her role to trap the boy into completing the act of bestiality. The boy mistakes the female sheep's absorbed passiveness for indifference, for "she gave, not lifting her head / Out of dew, without ever looking, her best / Self to that great need." The ewe experiences a perfect fulfillment of being; the farm boy, "stumbling away," is sobbing, haunted, driven wildly afraid by the profundity of her experience. His fear is mixed with guilt for having committed the forbidden act.

The ewe takes her place alongside "Crazy Jane" in the gallery of mindless sexual heroines in modern poetry in English. The farm boy's amazement and terror at her unexpected passion dramatize, in an original and unpredictable way, the mystery and depth of female sexuality. Yeats provided religious-erotic motif that anticipate this poem in "Leda and the Swan" and "The Second Coming." But while Yeats molds the poem around myths taken from Bible, folklore, or literary tradition, Dickey draws on legends concocted by nonliterate, superstitious people to curb the wildness of the young. The poem combines the supernatural otherness of nightmare with Ripleyesque shock effects, but the vision is so powerfully conceived that it escapes sensationalism.

From The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey, Bruce Wiegl and T.R. Hummer, Eds. Copyright © 1984 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Neal Bowers

"The Sheep Child" stands as a model for other Dickey poems. Its sensational topic, which provoked objection from some audiences in the 1960s, still has the power to unsettle the even more tolerant and "worldly" readers of the 1980s. Focusing on the offspring of a sexual encounter between a human and a sheep, the poem definitely has "presentational immediacy," if not simple shock value. The sheep child speaks most of the poem from inside its jar of alcohol in an Atlanta museum, a narrative strategy that has led Dickey himself to say half-jokingly, that he thinks the poem "can hardly be faulted from the standpoint of originality of viewpoint."

But there is another speaker in the poem, a farm boy who has grown up believing in the myth of the sheep child and who lures the reader into the poem the way a good carnival barker pulls a crowd into the side show tent. . . .

By this point, readers are anxious to see this strange creature, and curiosity acts as the force to pull them along into the poem just as it would carry them past the gate and the tarpaulin flap at the county fair. The voice drawing them in is that of the pitchman, confident and confidential, saying what the farm boys say to "keep themselves off / Animals by legends of their own." The tone is that of the insider, of the one who has been there and knows and cannot disbelieve the legend, wondering,

Are we,

Because we remember, remembered

In the terrible dust of museums?

An irresistible momentum is created by the absence of end punctuation and by the heavy enjambment in the first two stanzas, effects that contribute greatly to the reader's involvement in the poem. An air of complicity, of being party to an astonishing revelation, makes each of us as attentive as a farm boy hearing the tale for the first time "In the haytunnel dark / And dung of barns." The entire poem leading up to the sheep child's monologue has a sotto voce quality, underscored by the repetition immediately before the creature speaks:

Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may

Be saying             saying

This is vintage Dickey style, using repetition as a suspense builder, as an eerie fanfare to introduce the sheep child we've all been waiting to encounter. If the voice here sounds like the one used by children when telling ghost stories, the resemblance is no accident. In fact, the entire poem follows the ghost story pattern, complete with the unidentified source of information whose accuracy and veracity are implicitly beyond question: "I heard from somebody who. . . ." And when the sheep child finally talks, he speaks in the other-worldly voice appropriate to telepathic communication from within a bottle of formaldehyde. The sheep child's speech is set in italics, presumably to emphasize its eeriness even further.

What Dickey employs in "The Sheep Child" and in many other poems is a kind of folk narrative, story-telling characterized by its simplicity and straightforwardness. Because of its casual directness, "The Sheep Child" disarms and engages the reader with the immediacy of an oral presentation. Anyone within earshot would probably draw near to hear such a tale, just as most who start reading the poem find themselves swept along from line to line. Dickey intends to do more than startle; he uses the opportunity, after he has gained our attention, to explore one of his favorite themes--the relationship between the animal and human worlds. The sheep child is significant not as a grotesque mutation, but as a privileged creature who "saw for a blazing moment/ The great grassy world from both sides." Having a complete understanding of both "Man and beast in the round of their need," the creature possesses the kind of unified vision Dickey seeks throughout his work.

From James Dickey: The Poet as Pitchman. Copyright © 1985 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

Henry Hart

Dickey had used a legend about sex with animals to dramatize the origin of sexual taboos and to show how a fear of breaking taboos drove men toward civilized institutions like marriage.

from James Dickey: The World As a Lie. New York: Picador USA, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Henry Hart

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