There is a biblical reference in this poem referring to the prodigal son. It tells us of a young man who asked his father for his share of the land early. He spends all his money on drink and ends up working for a farmer, caring for and living with pigs. He woke up one day realising he had wasted his life, and decides to go home and is welcomed home with open arms. By Elizabeth Bishop
The brown enormous odour he lived bywas too close, with its breathing and thick hair,for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the stywas plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,the pigs eyes followed him, a cheerful stare--even to the sow that always ate her young--till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with redthe burning puddles seemed to reassure.And then he thought he almost might endurehis exile yet another year or more.But evenings the first star came to warn.The farmer whom he worked for came at darkto shut the cows and horses in the barnbeneath their overhanging clouds of hay,with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,safe and companionable as in the Ark.The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.The lantern--like the sun, going away--laid on the mud a pacing aureole.Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,he felt the bats uncertain staggering flight,his shuddering insights, beyond his control,touching him. But it took him a long timefinally to make up his mind to go home.
The poem describes an alcoholic farm labourer who not only works in a pigsty but lives in the pigsty. The prodigal finds himself in appalling conditions. He lives so close to the pigs he is now unable to distance himself and view them objectively. He has lost the ability to stand back and look at his own life and see clearly how dreadful it is.
He is employed on the farm that is along away from home. He is avoluntary ‘Exile’, who would rather work in the pigsty thanreturn to where he came from.
Bishop uses detailed, sensuous imagery to bring the scene to life. There is something both wonderful and horrible in the description she uses. The floor is ‘Rotten’. The walls are covered with dung ‘The sty was plastered halfway up with glass smooth dung’. One female pig consistently devours her own children. ‘The sow that always ate her young’. Its suggested that there is something unpleasant even sinister about the way the pigs eyes follow the prodigal around the barn. ‘The pigs eyes followed him, a cheerful stare’. These animals may be regarded as appropriate companions.
The odour has so overpowered the prodigals sense of smell that hecan no longer ‘judge it’.It ‘was to close for him too judge it ’. Unsurprisingly the prodigalfinds himself disgusted or ‘sickened’ in this foul environment. Thecolour brown captures the impact of the stench.
The prodigal like many other alcohols is secretive about his drinking and hides bottle of rum and whiskey behind the pigstys planks of wood. ‘he hid the pints behind a two by four’. Some mornings the prodigal would often be drunk, in this state he watches the sun rise and the beauty it brings to the yard. The puddles seems to ‘burn’ and the mud is descried as being ‘glazed’.
This beautiful sight seems to ‘reassure’ the prodigal, making him feel as his life is worth living in the barn. The prodigal then feels he can put up with the pigsty for another year, so that he wont have to return home ‘and then he thought he might almost endure his exile yet another year or more’. He is not yet ready to turn away from alcohol and face up to the reality of his situation.
In this stanza the prodigal describes an evening in the farmyard as the sun goes down. The word ‘but’ at the start of thestanza suggests a change in mood.
A star is personified as it comes ‘to warn’ the prodigal that he is on the wrong path. The implication here may be that a wise man will heed the warning offered to him, but the prodigal is not quite ready to do that yet. It will belong ‘a long time’ before he attains enough wisdom to change his ways and go home.
His employer ‘shuts the cows and horses in the barn’ and returns to his farmhouse by the light of his lantern. As he walks away, his lantern casts an ‘aureole’ of light on the mud in the shape of a circle, that is like a saints halo and the animals are safe and sound as those on Noah’s ark.
The prodigals awful situation is emphasised by the fact that he carries a bucket ‘along a slimy board’ and is moved by ‘shuddering insights’ as he senses the bats flying around him. The bats are flight is ‘uncertain’ and ‘staggering’, reflecting the poets drunkenness and his stumbling through life without a direction.
The prodigals decision to go home does not come quickly. This is only the beginning of recovery. The lure of home is not as strong as the lure of alcohol at this stage. The ending of the poem is rather interesting, rather than finishing on a rhyming couplet, for example, the poem ends with a true rhyme. A rhyming couplet is associated with closure and finishes the poem on a neat note, there is none here. The prodigal may have made up his mind to go home, but his addictions is still not fixed.