Why Brownlee Left
Why Brownlee left, and where he went,
Is a mystery even now.
For if a man should have been content
It was him; two acres of barley,
One of potatoes, four bullocks,
A milker, a slated farmhouse.
He was last seen going out to plough
On a March morning, bright and early.
By noon Brownlee was famous;
They had found all abandoned, with
The last rig unbroken, his pair of black
Horses, like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.
Paul Muldoon‘s poem ‘Why Brownlee Left‘ (1980), is a enigmatic narrative about an Irish farmer who abandoned his farm lock stock and barrel and was never seen or heard from again. The title sets the tone for what follows, but it is rhetorical as there is no answer or explanation given for the farmer’s disappearance.
To convey the mystery, Muldoon utilises figurative techniques like the simile of comparing Brownlee’s “horses, like man and wife” in an effort to offer a possible personal motivation as to why Brownlee left his farm. But the poem is more than just a enigma about the disappearance of this seemingly content and prosperous farmer, but it is also allegorical and suggestive of Brownlee’s need “to break free from a prescribed future” – his programmed and daily banal existence of farming life (Muri 1995, p. 44).
Muldoon seems to use Brownlee’s abrupt departure to carry a deeper undercurrent that reflects Muldoon’s own “aimless travels”, where there is “no reassuring resolution” – a sentiment that is also present in the similar Irish poem “Immram” that records a hero’s sea journey to the Otherworld (1995, p. 44).
The tone of uncertainty that flows through ‘Why Brownlee Left’ is given greater emphasis by the uneven line breaks in the second stanza, and the sad imagery of Brownlee’s abandoned and wistful horses who gaze into an uncertain future.
When I read this poem I felt that Muldoon used this folk enigma to explore our deep human need to understand our destiny, whether it is to be found in the everyday or in the extraordinary.
Allison Muri 1995, ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress: Paul Muldoon’s “Immram” as a Journey of Discovery.’
The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2. pp. 44-51, viewed 24 December, 2013.
BBC Northern Ireland Learning, ‘Why Brownlee Left’, viewed 24 December, 2013.