I quoted a brief poem by Charles Reznikoff back in 2003; I thought I’d provide a larger sampling, a couple of sections from his 1969 poem “Jews in Babylonia”:


Plough, sow and reap,
thresh and winnow
in the season of the wind;
a woman is grinding wheat
or baking bread.
In the third watch of the night
the child sucks from the breast of its mother
and the woman talks with her husband.

Plough, sow and reap,
bind the sheaves, thresh and winnow;
shear the sheep,
wash the wool,
comb it and weave it.

Wheat and barley,
straw and stubble;
the cock crows, the horse neighs, and the ass brays;
an ox is grazing in a meadow or straying on the road
or rubbing itself against a wall
(a black ox for its hide,
a red one for its flesh,
and a white one for ploughing);

plough, sow, cut, bind, thresh, winnow, and set up a stack.


The bread has become moldy
and the dates blown down by the wind;
the iron has slipped from the helve.
The wool was to be dyed red
but the dyer dyed it black.

The dead woman has forgotten her comb
and tube of eye-paint;
the dead cobbler has forgotten his knife,
the dead butcher his chopper,
and the dead carpenter his adze.

A goat can be driven off with a shout.
But where is the man to shout?
The bricks pile up, the laths are trimmed,
and the beams are ready. Where is the builder?

To be buried in a linen shroud
or in a matting of reeds—
but where are the dead of the Flood
and where the dead of Nebuchadnezzar?


  1. A minor point, but I’ve never found that a goat can be driven off with a shout. The enticement of food off in the distance is the only thing that really works.

  2. Have you tried a vuvuzela ?

  3. What does he mean by “meadow”? If he means it precisely, that is as a field intended for a hay crop, then does he seek to imply:
    (i) the ox is grazing there because the field is used as pasture before the grazing animals are driven off to allow the grass crop to mature. No, there’s no other hint of the poem being about the early part of the year.
    (ii) The ox is grazing on the aftermath i.e. the grass growing back after the hay crop has been harvested – could be, that might be suitably autumnal.
    (iii) The ox is in the meadow when it shouldn’t be, trampling the grass crop – it’s time for Little Boy Blue to do his stuff. There is a compatible hint in “straying”, but that nonetheless seems less likely to me than
    (iv) The writer is unfamiliar with the distinction between meadow and pasture and so means nothing in particular, just an undifferentiated patch of grass. That would be a pity: poems are assembled from words that, often, are meant to carry subtle implications. But perhaps that distinction doesn’t exist in Amerenglish anyway?
    AJP might like to tell how Norwegian distinguishes pasture from meadow. I’ll bet that French makes the distinction. German too?

  4. John Emerson says

    I suspect that the distinction between meadow and pasture is local, and professional and not literary. To me it just means a flattish grassy area which is not too marshy or brushy or wooded.\, and is more likely to mean a pasture or a natural undeveloped area than a hayfield. Around here hay (alfalfa) is cultivated just like any other crop.
    Someone with more energy than me could sort through these links to see how the word “meadow” is used by Keats and Wordsworth. My hunch is that few of the British poets were really up on ag terminology. Keats in particular was a city boy like Reznikoff.

  5. In my corner of Wobegon, “meadow” and “pasture” are not interchangeable. A “meadow” occurs naturally, generally in a clearing in the forest or on a hill where there is enough light for wildflowers, but I suppose it could be any uncultivated area like a prairie too, although there is little virgin prairie still left. The “pasture” is specifically for cows (or horses) and is fenced. A pasture often has some undesirable feature, like a creek running through it, that makes it unsuitable for cultivation. The pastures do not move as they are usually next to the barn, while corn fields, soybean fields, and alfalfa fields might be planted in different places different years.
    I can’t speak to the ox in the poem as I have never seen one–historically the work animals in Wobegon were horses–but anything in the cow family would be fenced off, once by the fence around their pasture and again by the fence around the farmhouse that kept out everything but cats, dogs, and the occasional chicken. A cow-type critter that wandered into a meadow or by a wall or heaven forbid, onto a road, would be a very bad sign indeed that fences had not been mended, a very basic farming survival task.
    Of course Reznikoff might have been more hat salesman than farmer.

  6. I’ll bet that French makes the distinction. German too?
    Eine Weide is a pasture, eine Wiese is a meadow.

    Kühe weiden auf einer Weide
    Cows graze in a pasture

    Ein Bauer bringt Heu von der Wiese und vom Feld ein
    A farmer harvests hay from the meadow and the field

  7. I seriously doubt that many of Reznikoff’s readers would know the difference between meadow and pasture.
    Besides that, ‘pasture’ doesn’t work as well in the line.

  8. If he means it precisely, that is as a field intended for a hay crop
    I think you’re being too precise for the English language. M-W says: “land in or predominantly in grass; especially : a tract of moist low-lying usually level grassland.” Nothing about hay crops. I’m sure it’s often used that way, but you can’t really hold Reznikoff to a specialized local meaning.

  9. AJP: It was the goat that decided me to include section 4.

  10. “local”, Hat?
    One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.
    Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,
    The sheep’s in the meadow……
    It’s what the words mean in Brenglish.

  11. It was the goat that decided me to include section 4.
    Thanks, I like to make myself useful in a poetry discussion.

  12. Stu: Have you tried a vuvuzela ?
    I was thinking your comment was spam, but that’s Viaga and you meant one of those horns. No, I wouldn’t. Goats can give you a really withering stare if you do something they consider to be silly.

  13. One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.
    I’m not saying you can’t use a meadow for hay, just that not all meadows are used for that, and therefore an ox grazing in a meadow is not necessarily a perplexing phenomenon that needs special explanation.

  14. Yes, I realise that you are saying that, but for Britain you are wrong. A meadow is for hay. That’s why Little Boy Blue should sound the alarm – because the meadow is being grazed.

  15. A meadow, even a properly British one, doesn’t have to be strictly for mowing–it can be for enjoyment or biodiversity or whatever. On the other hand, you can mow something that isn’t a meadow, like a ditch, or in Hat’s neck of the woods, a salt marsh, or my personal favorite, a lawn. I too would be alarmed if a meadow was being grazed–it means a very pricey animal is not where it is supposed to be, and someone needs to go check up on the farmer to make sure they are okay. But our poet is not so fussy. In the first part of the poem at least, the animal in the meadow is being used to evoke bucolic and picturesque country life, not to foreshadow something gone amiss.

  16. for Britain you are wrong.
    Hence the “local.” (Reznikoff, of course, was American.)

  17. There is an interesting question under there: why do the Brits, Krauts (and no doubt Frogs) find the meadow/pasture distinction useful, but the Yanks not? To the extent that they get a little shirty when it’s pointed out to them.

  18. why do the Brits, Krauts (and no doubt Frogs) find the meadow/pasture distinction useful, but the Yanks not?
    Possibly because it belongs to an underperforming past in the USA. Making hay while the sun shines is not a paying proposition. In contrast, gigantic fields of genetically modified monoculture are lucrative, especially when the plant material was stolen from poor South American farmers. At any rate, that’s what I see on German tv and BBC.

  19. I think of a meadow as a low-lying wet sort of place, but now I realise that I must be thinking of a water-meadow. My uncle had a meadow in Cambridgeshire (Balsham) that was listed in the Domesday Book; it was full of wild flowers.

  20. michael farris says

    Nijma, I think your distinction between meadow (a natural, generally pretty, flat uncultivated area) and pasture (fence in for grazing animals) is the general American one. It’s certainly mine from a very different part of the country.

  21. why do the Brits, Krauts (and no doubt Frogs) find the meadow/pasture distinction useful, but the Yanks not?
    Presumably a hard-working Yankee farmer cares about the distinction between a hayfield and a pasture; he just doesn’t call the hayfield a meadow.

  22. John Emerson says

    In the U.S. hay is grown in fields in an alfalfa monoculture, like any other crop. There are no hay meadows. I don’t think that the word “meadow” is used around here at all, except poetically and when speaking of landscapes and undeveloped land (esp. mountain meadows.) But undeveloped land in this particular area is brushy or marshy (which we call “swampy”) and is used for pasture, woodlots, and hunting preserves, if anything.

  23. I’ve just remembered that there are meadows in my own life: The country road (or lane*) where we spend vacation time is overseen by the Point Meadows Association (which we informally call the Lane Association). That little part of town, near the end of a point of land by an estuary, used to be called Point Meadows, and farmers from higher up on the point used to go down there, by special right, to cut hay in the salt marsh and take it back to the farm.
    *”lane” may also be a sore spot for BrE vs AmE

  24. The London streets that are called lanes (Drury Lane, Park Lane, White Hart Lane, Marylebone Lane etc.) were country lanes when they were named, don’t you think?
    Manhattan has Sheep Meadow in Central Park. And on the opposite side of the Hudson are New Jersey’s Meadowlands.

  25. And I think it was Robert Moses’s Meadowbrook Parkway, to Jones Beach, on Long Island, that he built with very low bridges. That was so it wouldn’t be possible for poor people to take buses to the beach, and make the sand all messy for everyone else.

  26. michael farris says

    Searching for google images with ‘meadow’ and ‘pasture’ will give you a very good idea of the Amnerican values of those words.
    ‘lane’ is clogged with celebrities… but I think the Norwegian front rounded vowel was thinking of lanes on a highway (which I thought were called something else in Britain).

  27. Ah, you’ve pinned Ø down to a descriptive name that you don’t need to be a math prof. to recognise — just as long as you know some Norwegian, that is.
    But I’m pretty sure they’re called lanes in Britain.

  28. John Emerson says

    “Lane” and “Meadows” are words you will still find in the US labelling suburban development tracts.
    I suspect that whatever meadows there ever have been in US West of Ohio and after 1850 were called prairies. Prairies can extend to beyond the horizon but they can be more limited too.

  29. I’m not sure what I meant about “lane”. I wasn’t thinking of highway lanes. The rural vs urban question, but what was the answer?
    Certainly many Americans have lost the distinctions that words like street, lane, avenue, boulevard (used to) represent, or rather lost the use of those words to make those distinctions. Maybe we can blame it all on the road-namers.
    In some parts of North America prairies are huge flat grasslands; in others they are smaller wet places.
    Years ago, when my housemates were advertising for one more housemate, I took a phone call from a charming man newly arrived from Poland. He asked, in a pretty heavy accent, whether there was a meadow nearby. I think he just wanted to know that the neighborhood was not so urban that you couldn’t find a green park-y place to walk in. I supposed he had learned some of his English vocabulary out of old-fashioned books.
    (The others vetoed him. He was just too weird for them.)
    I obviously use road as the generic term.
    We did “creek” last year, didn’t we.

  30. We did “creek” last year, didn’t we.
    Yes, we did.

  31. Meadows have rarely even been tilled,
    reserved for the lush green grass and reserved for milkmaids and their lovers along with the buttercups.
    Pasteur, land tilled land used to feed, usually cycled with other crops in rotation.
    1. a. A piece of land permanently covered with grass to be mown for use as hay; (gen.) a grassy field or other area of grassland, esp. one used for pasture. Also (regional): a tract of low well-watered ground, esp. near a river (cf. WATER-MEADOW n.).
    1653 I. WALTON Compl. Angler ii. 40 Look down at the bottom of the hil, there in that Meadow, chequered with water Lillies and Lady-smocks. a1657 W. MURE Misc. Poems in Wks. (1898) 4 A blooming meadou. 1717 LADY M. W. MONTAGU Let. 29 May (1965) I. 361 The rest of our Journey was through fine painted Meadows.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Have you tried a vuvuzela ?

    Weide: pasture. Not necessarily fenced, though of course usually is fenced in practice.
    Wiese: any not too large piece of real estate with grass on it. Does not normally include Weide, but does include Rasen “lawn”, a word that is rarely if ever used colloquially over here.
    Is meadow related to mow? German mähen “mow” and Mahd “act of mowing” suggest this, I think.

  33. German mähen “mow” and Mahd “act of mowing” suggest this, I think
    The OED on “meadow” points to MHG matte, which seems not to derive from Mahd although is perhaps cognate´with it, see Grimm. Both entries are too technical for me to grasp.

  34. David Marjanović says

    In addition to meaning “mat”, Matte survives as a term for (rather small patches of) natural (!) alpine grassland. (Alm/Alpe applies to artificial pastures in the mountains.)

  35. A dozen years ago I somehow neglected to point out that these poems were “collaged” from translations of the Talmud, which presumably is relevant to the choice of words.

    Also, the OED bears out the distinction that became apparent in the thread between UK and US usage:

    1. a. A piece of land permanently covered with grass to be mown for use as hay; (gen.) a grassy field or other area of grassland, esp. one used for pasture. Also (regional): a tract of low well-watered ground, esp. near a river (cf. water meadow n.). […]

    2. Chiefly North American. A tract of uncultivated grassland, esp. a low-level one along a river or in a marshy region near the sea; (also) a tract of uncultivated upland pasture.

  36. Crawdad Tom says

    Focusing on hay, rather than meadow and pasture, I can report that I once worked as a hayman, and we cut, raked, baled, and stacked both alfalfa and barley hay. In other parts of California and in Oregon and Washington you can get hay made with oats, rye grass, timothy grass, Sudan grass, meadow grass, orchard grass, and probably other grasses as well.

  37. As a city boy, I used to have only a vague conception of what “hay” was, but now that I live in Western Mass. I’m used to seeing bales of hay in the fields (and I frequently have occasion to say “That corn is as high as an elephant’s eye!”).

  38. A dozen years ago I somehow neglected to point out that these poems were “collaged” from translations of the Talmud, which presumably is relevant to the choice of words.

    It would be interesting to see what translations of the Talmud Reznikoff would have been using.

    Some oxen in the meadow in the Talmud:

    There is the case of שורי גנבת והוא אומר לא גנבתי kêṣaḏ šôrî ḡānaḇt wəhûʾ ʾômēr lōʾ ḡānaftî (‘When one man has said, “You stole my ox!”, and the other says “I did not!”’), Bava Kamma 105b here (if the right passage doesn’t come up, search for swamp on the page):

    א”ל תדורא כי תניא ההיא דקאמר ליה הילך כי קאמינא דקיימא באגם

    something like:

    Rava said to him, ‘Fool! This (barraita) is taught when (the thief) has said (to the owner of the stolen ox), ‘Here it is! You have it.’ I am talking about when (the ox) is standing in the marsh (swamp).

    The word used for ‘marsh, meadow’ is Hebrew אֲגַם ʾăḡam, Aramaic אַגְמָא ʾaḡmā. (Wiktionary entry for the Hebrew word here.)

    Another instance of Aramaic אַגְמָא ʾaḡmā in ‘marshland, meadow’ Shabbat 77b here.

    מאי טעמא תורא אריכא גנובתיה? משום דדייר באגמי, ובעי לכרכושי בקי

    Why is the ox’s tail long? Because the ox lives in marshes and must fend off mosquitoes.

    Maybe Reznikoff got his translation from Jastrow?

    More discussion of Hebrew ʾăḡam and associated words here.

    Also note cattle with the word meadow translating אָחוּ ʾāḥû ‘marsh grass; reeds, rushes’ in the KJV, Genesis 41:2 (also 41:18):

    וְהִנֵּה מִן-הַיְאֹר, עֹלֹת שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת, יְפוֹת מַרְאֶה, וּבְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתִּרְעֶינָה, בָּאָחוּ

    wəhinnēh min-hayəʾōr, ʿōlōṯ šeḇaʿ pārôṯ, yəp̄ôṯ marʾeh, ûḇərîʾōṯ bāśār wattirʿênāh, bāʾāḥû

    And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow.

    (Coverdale: and beholde, out of the water there came seuen goodly kyne, and fatfleshed, and wente fedinge in the medowe. Wyclif: fro which seuene faire kiyn and ful fatte stieden, and weren fed in the places of mareis.)

  39. The word used for ‘marsh, meadow’ is אֲגַם ʾăḡam (Wiktionary entry here.)

    How could you not mention the most striking element?! “Borrowed into West Semitic from Akkadian 𒀀𒂵𒈬𒌝 (agammum), from Sumerian 𒀀𒂵𒄠 (agam).” From Sumerian!

    With that off my chest, thanks for the Talmudic research!

  40. and weren fed in the places of mareis

    That last word is interesting; OED s.v. marish:

    Etymology: < Anglo-Norman mareis, marreis, marrais, mereis, mareschei and Middle French mares, marez, marais, marest marsh (12th cent. in Old French; earlier maresc, maresch (1086 in a post-classical Latin text); French marais) < post-classical Latin mariscus, marisca, marescus (as noun, from late 7th cent. in British sources, from 8th cent. in documents from the Low Countries; also as adjective from 1230 in British sources), ultimately < the Germanic base of marsh n.¹ Compare post-classical Latin maresium, maresia (frequently from c1130 in British sources). Compare Anglo-Norman maresche marshy (late 12th or early 13th cent.; also 13th cent. in Old French in an isolated attestation). Compare morass n., marais n.
    Attested in β. forms in surnames and place names from the 12th cent.

    The ending of the α. forms in /ʃ/ may derive from the Anglo-Norman and Old French forms in -sche, or may have been influenced by marsh n.¹; alternatively, they might represent a variant of marsh n.¹, though the lateness of their appearance (1327 in the surname Merischman, the earliest Middle English evidence presented in Middle Eng. Dict. s.v. mersh n.) makes continuity with the rare Old English disyllabic form merisc (beside the usual mersc) unlikely (see marsh n.¹). In γ. forms probably after Middle French marest.

    Compare Italian marese (a1348) < Middle French.

    Now poetic, archaic, and regional.

    A. n. = marsh n.¹ […]
    B. adj.¹ The ending -ish has given to the noun used attributively the appearance of an adjective (cf. -ish suffix¹), and has thus favoured the development of the genuine adjectival use.
    1. a. In attributive use: marshy; found in, characteristic of, or containing a marsh.

  41. וְהִנֵּה מִן-הַיְאֹר, עֹלֹת שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת, יְפוֹת מַרְאֶה, וּבְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתִּרְעֶינָה, בָּאָחוּ

    This biblical quotation employs the punctuation convention of Mechon Mamre, which uses five common punctuation marks as proxies for cantillation marks. This convention has gained popularity, especially in Hebrew Wikipedia. I understand the motivation for this convention, but I feel like I’m stabbed in the eyeballs whenever I see it employed.

  42. and weren fed in the places of mareis
    That last word is interesting; OED s.v. marish

    This family of words has come up before at LH, in the comments for DUMARESQ.

  43. The OED‘s recent citations for marish are dominated by the Inklings, and they are all from works of fantasy. The most recent is from Tolkien, who used the word as a proper name for the easternmost region of the Shire, west of the Brandywine River; Bucca of the Marish was the Shire’s first Thain. Two citations come from E. R. Eddison’s 1935 novel Mistress of Mistresses—one in the literal sense of the word,

    Jeronimy*… swung now south-eastward into… the open marish lakelands and streamlands,

    and one figurative

    The memory of the words had risen like a slow bubble out of the marish waters of his meditation.

    The remaining post-1900 example is from The Tragedy of Pardon by Michael Field.**

    * I have previously commented a couple of times on Eddison’s insistence on using the character names he made up as a child in The Worm Ouroboros, but I am not sure whether this explains some of the slightly less peculiar names in this other novels as well.

    ** If you have forgotten (as I had), that was the joint pseudonym of Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece/lover Edith Emma Cooper.

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