Jack Thacker: The Limitations of the Plough

Some thoughts and a poem

Detail_of_Les_tres_riches_heures_-_March(March detail from the calendar Les très riches heures, 15th century.)

In Christopher Pitt’s 1753 translation of The Aeneid, Joseph Warton comments in a footnote that the ‘ancients generally marked the limits of their cities or encampments with a plough. This they drew round in a circle: hence some imagine, that urbs is derived from orbis, or urbum, which is the plough-tail’ (Warton ed., 290-291). Surprisingly, the plough – the most rustic of tools – was what Kurt Heinzelman refers to as ‘the first implement of the map-maker’s craft’ (Heinzelman, 201). Not only did it define the limitations of cities in ancient civilisations, but it may even be the etymological origin for our current conception of what constitutes the ‘urban’. Of course, the plough is also related to the origins of poetry. The term ‘verse’ derives from the Latin versus, a line or row, which itself comes from vertere, meaning to turn from one line to another in the sense of ploughing a field.

It strikes me that this tool of manual labour is both connected to our sense of the urban as well as the urbane activity of verse writing. Evidently, the ubiquitous instrument is far more sophisticated – and therefore requires more sophisticated metaphors – than we currently give it credit for. Gaston Bachelard writes that ‘clichés of the plough have masked the real power in such imagery so well that extensive psychoanalysis would be necessary to free literature from its false cultivators’ (Bachelard, 11). I’m afraid I’m not able to offer any such treatment here, but I have tried work through at least some of the implications of the technologies and measurements traced out above in the following poem.

I imposed some limitations on myself in adopting the sonnet form. The ‘corduroy path’ in line 8 refers to a section of the Wilberforce Way, a footpath stretching from Hull to York which was devised as a tribute to mark the bicentenary of the 1807 Slave Trade Act introduced by the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who was born in Hull. Corduroy roads are so called because they are made up of logs laid perpendicular to the direction of travel in order improve accessibility in low or marshy areas. This particular part of the way was originally made in 1762 following the enclosure of the commons. It now connects the campus of the University of York with the agricultural Vale of York via a remaining patch of rough pasture known as the Out Gang.


The Out Gang

Viewed from orbit, the M25 might be defined
as a wire of light, a bracelet of gold, or the wall
of a cell. In ancient times, when marking the land,
a chief would draw a circle with the plough-tail;
this would define the limits of an encampment.
I lived within sight of old city walls, between
Walmgate Bar and the A64, and sometimes went
south on the corduroy path from Heslington

out to the Vale, sleepers buried in the ground,
the marshland tamed. Eventually I’d reach
a hedgerow of sound, tyres careering on grit.
Alone and miles from any main road, I heard it
again in the trees, like waves crashing on a beach,
the roar of a distant crowd carried on the wind.


Jack Thacker grew up on a farm in Herefordshire. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Universities of Bristol and Exeter researching contemporary British and Irish poetry and agriculture. He holds a BA and MA from the University of York and is the co-founder of the York-based poetry magazine, Eborakon.


Works Cited

The Works of Virgil, in Latin and English, trans, Christopher Pitt and Joseph Warton, ed. Joseph Warton, vol. III (London, 1753)

Kurt Heinzelman, ‘Roman Georgic in the Georgian Age: A Theory of Romantic Genre,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33, no. 2, Romans and Romantics (Summer: 1991)

Gaston Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Kenneth Haltman (Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2002