On Winslow Homer’s Weaning the Calf

Winslow Homer, "Weanng the Calf," 1875, oil on canvas, 23 7/8 x 38 in., North Carolina Museum of Art

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On Winslow Homer’s Weaning the Calf

by James Applewhite
Southern Cultures, Vol. 3, No. 2: Summer 1997

"I feel it melt into a world where sun conceals its shade, and seasons pass."

What shadows my happiness? The boy and calf so linked by
a rope seem to forget all else. Grass recedes to the horizon
and chickens roam free. Hay stacked richly as memory bulges
mountainously on the sky.

My wish is matched by this scene, where green reflected in
aqua and clouds lets the perspective between take sight into
a vapor refusing to be mist, a balmy air which would not weep
but reveal: two town boys in hats

and suspenders, bystanders, who also look past the other boy concealed
in a ragged shade. His brother the calf resists being hauled
from its source. Here the grass with its highlights, sunflakes like
the whites of chickens and cow and

of splashes on a boy and the calf’s legs, seems mother of everything
this vista between the framing trees, where farms and towns
hover as invisibly as sorrow is in the air, as if seasons were
only apparent. Yet the cow being

led away switches her tail, tossing her head back lyrically so
that the arc of her horns pinpoints the clouds. What forgetfulness
of vines twists this open fence not enclosing one earth-breast,
where red on a rooster’s combs and on

the farther chickens leads my eye into a landscape without limit?
I trust in it, give myself to the summer as if breathing it,
this American horizon. Yet the farmhand leaning hard to pull the cow
away remains as faceless as seasons.

His figure cannot go home, for Homer has not painted those houses
hidden by borders. The gesture of this white mother’s neck
sharpens her horns so that they pierce me with loss. The dark boy cannot
follow, as spring does winter,

beyond concern, assumed, too close to see. Part of the farm.
Now I grasp his braced legs, work-strengthened shoulders,
the curve of his back and neck, though his face is averted.
The rest is pastoral, a tale of expanse

and ease not purchased by any expense of breath. I turn away,
the points of hurt in my chest an ache after beauty: almost grasped,
like ice, composed to the last. I feel it melt into a world where
sun conceals its shade, and seasons pass.