"Afternoon with Irish Cows" was written by the American poet Billy Collins. Composed during an academic stay in Ireland, the poem's subject is exactly what the title suggests—some cows in a field. The speaker relates how these cows are part of the daily fabric of life, often visible from the window of the speaker's cottage. Most of the time the cows are chewing grass or merely sitting. Sometimes, however, the cows aren't there, which puzzles the speaker. And on other occasions one of the cows will let a cry so strong and imposing that the speaker feels one of them must be in pain. Rushing out to see the cows, the speaker reinterprets these cries as the cows stamping their authority on their environment—proving their own "cowness."
There were a ...
... the soft grass,
though I would ...
... to another country.
Then later, I ...
... waiting for rain.
How mysterious, how ...
... of the afternoon.
But every once ...
... an apple with
and walk across ...
... a long spear.
Yes, it sounded ...
... laboring upward
laboring upward as ...
... her gaping mouth.
Then I knew ...
... the blue bay,
while she regarded ...
... wild, shocking eye.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Animal Poems — A "greatest hits" of poetry that takes animals as its initial subject matter.
Collins Reads the Poem — A 2008 reading of "Afternoon with Irish Cows" by the poet himself.
Collins in the Paris Review — An interview with Billy Collins shortly after he was appointed poet laureate to the Library of Congress.
Collins's Bio and More Poems — A valuable resource from the Poetry Foundation on Collins's life and work.
Ten Unusual Facts about Cows — There's a lot to learn about these fascinating creatures!
1There were a few dozen who occupied the field
2across the road from where we lived,
3stepping all day from tuft to tuft,
4their big heads down in the soft grass,
5though I would sometimes pass a window
6and look out to see the field suddenly empty
7as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.
8Then later, I would open the blue front door,
9and again the field would be full of their munching
10or they would be lying down
11on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
12facing in all directions, waiting for rain.
13How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
14they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.
15But every once in a while, one of them
16would let out a sound so phenomenal
17that I would put down the paper
18or the knife I was cutting an apple with
19and walk across the road to the stone wall
20to see which one of them was being torched
21or pierced through the side with a long spear.
22Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
23the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
24her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
25laboring upward as she gave voice
26to the rising, full-bodied cry
27that began in the darkness of her belly
28and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.
29Then I knew that she was only announcing
30the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
31pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind
32to all the green fields and the gray clouds,
33to the limestone hills and the inlet of the blue bay,
34while she regarded my head and shoulders
35above the wall with one wild, shocking eye.