The Huntsman - Edward Lowbury (1913-2007)

Kagwa hunted the lion,
Through bush and forest went his spear.
One day he found the skull of a man
And said to it, ‘How did you come here?’
The skull opened its mouth and said,
‘Talking brought me here.’

Kagwa hurried home;
Went to the king’s chair and spoke:
‘In the forest, I found a talking skull.’
The king was silent. Then he said slowly,
‘Never since I was born of my mother
Have I seen or heard of a skull which spoke.’

The king called out his guards:
‘Two of you now go with him
And find this talking skull;
But if his tale is a lie
And the skull speaks no word,
This Kagwa himself must die.’

They rode into the forest;
For days and nights, they found nothing.
At last, they saw the skull; Kagwa
Said to it, ‘How did you come here?’
The skull said nothing. Kagwa implored,
But the skull said nothing.

The guards said, ‘Kneel down.’
They killed him with sword and spear.
Then the skull opened its mouth;
‘Huntsman, how did you come here?’
And the dead man answered,
‘Talking brought me here.’

Common Misconceptions of the poem

The Genre of the poem

Is it a ballad?

No, The Huntsman by Edward Lowbury is not a ballad. A ballad is a narrative song that is orally passed down through generations. Now let us compare the differences and similarities between the characteristics of a ballad and the poem “The Huntsman.”

Characteristics of a ballad The Huntsman
A narrative poem
Yes
Pass down through generations orally
No
Usually contains Quatrains
No
Traditionally the authors are unknown
No
Dramatically emphasizes tragic/comic/heroic events
Yes
Contains refrains
No, but there are repetitive events
Contains Dialogues
Yes
Presented in third person objective narration
Yes

“The Huntsman” by Edward Lowbury is not a ballad by definition, but a poem that contains certain characteristics of a ballad.

Is there a rhyming scheme?

Yes. “The Huntsman,” of course, has a rhyming scheme. However, it is not the conventional style of a rhyming scheme, but a crafty one that only those with an open mind can see.

About The Poet

Edward Lowbury

Edward Joseph Lister Lowbury was a British poet and an expert on hospital infection who was assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to Kenya in 1943. While he was in East Africa, he took a particular interest in witch-doctoring and folk medicine. 

kagwa hunted the lion-the huntsan by edward lowbury analysis

The Topic

The Huntsman

  • The poem is based on a Kenyan folk tale, and the poet adds significance to the subject, the huntsman with the usage of the definite article [The]

Stanza 1

Line 1

Kagwa hunted the lion, 

  • The name of the main character is a significant one. Even though the poem is written for a British audience, the name “Kagwa” immediately establishes the African setting in which the storyline takes place.
  • The closest English translation of the East African name “Kagwa” is “fall”. It makes perfect sense that the entire literary work is about the fall of the mighty huntsman.
  • The tense of the first verb, “hunted,” is simple past. It indicates that the action has no connection to the present period of time while establishing the third-person objective narrative style of the poem.
  • Kagwa The hunter did not simply hunt a lion-he hunted “THE lion”. The crafty definite article emphasises the significance of the lion, which elevates the might of the hunter. Later in the poem, the elevated esteem of the hunter contributes significantly to generate a significant blow to the reader when he is unjustly murdered.
  • Even though the reader finds a responsible political body later in the poem, it is Kagwa who arbitrates the threat of “the lion.” Little does he know, the have-a-go hero thus poses a political threat to the king.
Through bush and forest went his spear.

Through bush and forest went his spear…

how did you come here-huntsman by edward lowbury

Line 2

Through bush and forest went his spear.

  • The “spear” is a symbol of Kagwa’s power
  • bush and forest” metaphorically indicates the geographical span of Kagwa’s power-as “bush” refers to the nugatory and “forest” to the significant.
  • The powerful throw of the spear, which made it traverse the “forest,” hyperbolically emphasises the physical strength and robustness of Kagwa.
  • Moreover, the poet achieves the slow-motion effect by making the spear travel a longer distance.[Through the forest]

Line 3-4

One day he found the skull of a man
And said to it, ‘How did you come here?’

  • “One day” indicates the narrative style of the poem.
  • The tense still continues to be simple past. The absence of the connection to the present period of time eerily connects to the upcoming death of Kagwa.
  • Even though ‘How did you come here?’ is a casual remark, it questions the emotional stability of the protagonist. Throughout the poem, the reader does not encounter any family or friends of Kagwa, and his efforts are neither recognised nor appreciated, instead being doubted. Thus, it is no surprise to see the socially and politically discriminated protagonist trying to talk to inanimate objects he randomly finds in the forest.
  • The direct speech section of the line, “How did you come here?” functions as a dialogue, which enhances the liveliness of the poem and the timelessness of the figurative message conveyed.
  • Note: “How did you come here?” is not a rhetorical question as it is immediately followed by an answer.

.

Line 5-6

The skull opened its mouth and said,
‘Talking brought me here.’

  • The reader has to wait till the next line to find out what is said by the skull. Lowbury is, of course, playing with the curiosity of the reader to keep him engaged.
  • The inanimate object, “the skull,” that performs a deliberate action functions as a personification.
  • The word “opened” contains a sense of movement, and it can be recognised as a kinesthetic image.
  • Note the difference between the words “said” and “talking.” The word “say” is used to indicate the responsibility communicated by the skull. However, the word “talking” contains the idea of idle communication.
  • “Here” is referred to as the state of being dead. Yet it seems like Kagwa, the hunter, is not sophisticated enough to understand the connoting message of the advice of the skull.
  • “Talking” further suggests the idea of revealing confidential information. Later in the poem, the quick and inequitable decision of the king to murder Kagwa in his tale is a lie, figuratively questioning the sensitivity of the political leader towards Kagwa, finding evidence of a potential murder. Therefore, Lowbury connotes the idea of the dangers of being involved in corrupt political matters.
the king was silent-the huntsman by edward lowbury analysis
the huntsman in the forest i found a talking skull

Stanza 2

Line 1

Kagwa hurried home;

  • The stupefied nature of Kagwa is clearly revealed as he runs back home. The line gives the idea that the hunter may have a place to call “home” after all.
  • ‘hurried’ is a kinesthetic verb which contains the sense of movement.

Line 2

Went to the king’s chair and spoke:

  • Simple Past continues to be the dominant tense of the stanza while indicating the third-person non-objective narrative style.
  • Even though Kagwa “hurried home,” the reader immediately understands the superfluous connection he has to politics.
  • In a different perspective, the reaction of Kagwa to inform the king of his extraordinary finding showcases his predilection towards being faithful to the ruler.

Line 3

‘In the forest, I found a talking skull.’

  • Note the apostrophe caused by the inverted syntax of the line. It indicates the unsophisticated nature of the hunter, Kagwa. Additionally, the emphasis of the sentence shifts from “in the forest” to “I found a talking skull” due to the use of the inversion.
  • Even though the skull “said” it was talking that had brought it to the unfortunate outcome, the huntsman regarded it as a “talking skull.” Thus, it is evident by now to the reader that Kagwa has misunderstood the valuable advice of the skull. 
  • The speech pattern of the huntsman is extremely simple, and later it contrasts with the complex oral expression of the king.

Line 

The king was silent. Then he said slowly,

  • The silence of the king can be interpreted in different perspectives. On the one hand, it indicates his intelligence, as he is not quick to jump to conclusions. It further expresses how the political leader distrusts the hunter who is regarded to pose a potential threat to his reign.
  • The period (.) that interrupts the line is a caesura. It adds emphasis to the pensive reaction of the king.
  • The slow-paced speech of the king starkly contrasts with the fast-talking of Kagwa, and the contrast stresses the intelligence-gap between Kagwa and the king.

Line 5-6

‘Never since I was born of my mother
Have I seen or heard of a skull which spoke.’

  • Unlike Kagwa, who utters simple sentences, the king uses complex sentences to express his ideas. On the one hand, the complexity of the king’s speech exhibits his level of sophistication. On the other hand, it figuratively indicates his hostility towards the hunter who brought the news of the “talking skull.”
  • The inverted syntax of the lines is a good example of the usage of the poetic device, anastrophe.
  • Line five does not have a punctuation mark at its end, and the idea extends to line six. The poetic device is called enjambment. Enjambments generally increase the complexity of expressed ideas in poetry.
  • The folktale of the “skull that spoke” is common in all of East Africa, and the nescience of the king figuratively indicates his high-and-mighty character as a political leader.
  • The disbelief of the king in the irrational tale of the huntsman further reveals his non-credulous character.

Stanza 3

Line 1

The king called out his guards:

  • The stanza continues to maintain the third-person objective narration.
  • The poet again keeps the reader on his toes with the suppression of the immediate revelation of information as the decision of the king is revealed in the last line of the stanza.

Line 2-3

‘Two of you now go with him
And find this talking skull;

  • Dialogues are again introduced into the stanza to increase the liveliness of the situation.
  • The single-lined, simple sentences uttered by Kagwa continue to be contrasted with the complex speech patterns of the king. The complexity of the syntax of the king is highlighted through the continuous use of enjambments.
  • Two guards and Kagwa create a group of three. Three as a digit is a general ominous symbol in English Literature, as well as in many communities that cling to superstitious beliefs.
  • The tone of the king further emphasises his disbelief while questioning the involvement of military power in a “skull”. From a different angle, the behaviour of the king depicts a corrupt and punitive political leader.

Line 4-6

But if his tale is a lie
And the skull speaks no word,
This Kagwa himself must die.’

  • “But” indicates a sudden twist in the king’s opinion, making the third stanza the turning point of the poem.
  • The king uses a conditional statement, and the present tense associated with it emphasises his hard and fast decision.
  • The arbitrary punishment imposed upon Kagwa-indicates the primitive, brutal, and savagely cruel governance of the tribal setting of the poem. In a different perspective, “death” magnifies the harmful consequence of “talking”—which is the primary purpose of the poet.
  • The enmity of the king towards the hunter further sets a secondary theme for the poem; the dangers of involving politics in one’s personal life.

Stanza 4

Line 1

They rode into the forest;

  • The sense of movement found in the second stanza re-appears with the word “rode.”
  • The simple past remains as the stanza’s dominant tense.
  • The word “they” refers to the hunter and the two royal guards. The ominous symbol of number three still haunts the poem, smacking on the idea of an upcoming tragedy. 

Line 2

For days and nights, they found nothing.

  • Unlike in the previous stanzas, this one contains an increased number of caesurae. They immediately indicate the tension associated with the ongoing situation.
  • The poet adds emphasis to negativity through anastrophe.
 

Line 3-4

At last, they saw the skull; Kagwa
Said to it, ‘How did you come here?’

  • The poet reveals the crux associated with the stanza at the very end of it, and he continues to build up the suspense of the reader by not immediately revealing the conclusion.
  • The confusion of Kagwa is highlighted as he still believes that the skull spoke to him earlier. His inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy functions to be a fatal flaw in his character.
  • Line four contains another dialogue of the hunter and as usual, it elevates the dramatic quality and the timelessness associated with the context of the poem.
  • Note: Even though there is no answer provided to the question asked by Kagwa, it is still not regarded as a rhetorical question.

Line 5-6

The skull said nothing. Kagwa implored,
But the skull said nothing.

  • “Skull said nothing” is a repetition, and it suggests the upcoming, inevitable tragedy.
  • The powerlessness of the mighty huntsman in front of material [the skull] is ironical. Even though it literally forms humor, the sensitive reader can still feel the helplessness of the hunter who is struggling to distinguish reality from fiction.
  • The reader is by now well aware of the fact that Kagwa is an emotionally fragile character, regardless of his physical strength.
they killed him with sword and spear-the huntsman y edward lowbury analysis

Stanza 5

Line 1

The guards said, ‘Kneel down.’

  • The blind faith of the guards who follow the sacrosanct rule of the king is visible.
  • Dialogues are yet again present in the stanza to increase the dramatic value of the poem.
  • The simplicity of the language style of the guards simulates with that of Kagwa. It further reveals how rivalry is formed among individuals who represent the oppressed party in society through corrupt politics.

Line 2

They killed him with sword and spear.

  • The subservient nature of the guards who blindly follow the orders of the king is elaborated by the poet.
  • Death is, of course, too much of a punishment imposed upon Kagwa. He is the mighty hunter who “hunted the lion” after all, and he is not habitually a liar or a deceiver. The unjust treatment he faces, on the one hand, adds emphasis to the overall message of the poem; “Speech is silver, silence is golden.” On the other hand, it sheds light on political corruption and the dangers of involving politics in one’s personal life.
  • Kagwa, who perished by “sword and spear”, the same weapon he used to spread his power “through bush and forest,” reminds the reader of the proverb, “live by the sword, die by the sword”.
  • The involvement of two different weapons, “sword and spear,” indicates that Kagwa was savagely murdered.
  • The powerful huntsman who single-handedly “hunted the lion” surrenders himself without a fight and allows the guards to unjustly murder him.

Line 3-4

Then the skull opened its mouth;
‘Huntsman, how did you come here?’

  • Third-person objective narration is fused with dialogue again to maintain the dramatic narrative standards of the poem.
  • “The skull opened” is a combination of kinesthetic and visual imagery.
  • The poet associates supernaturality with the poem with the “talking skull.”
  • The question of the skull is a mere repetition of the question asked by Kagwa in stanza one. It clarifies the intended meaning of the word “here” as a state of being.

Line 5-6

And the dead man answered,
‘Talking brought me here.’

  • The ‘dead man’, Kagwa now talks back indicating the cyclic effect of the moral message of the poem. 
  • The conclusion makes sense to the reader that the skull too had been another blindly faithful man who did not know where to draw the line between politics and personal life, who talked knowing no limits. It tried to warn Kagwa of the bitter consequences of his wrong judgements which brought him to a tragic death; but Kagwa was too blind and ignorant to understand the advise till it was too late. No sooner there will be another like Kagwa and the cycle of tragedy will continue. The circular narrative style of the poem as well as the repetitive nature of the ignorance of man are further emphasized by the oddly regular rhyming pattern as well as the similar actions which repeat in the first and the last stanzas.
  • The poem can be regarded as an allegory due the use of abstract objects, and  as the conveyed meaning is understood only at the conclusion of the poem.
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