Explore the ways in which Vachel Lindsay in ‘The Flower-Fed Buffaloes’ expresses change so effectively
Vachel Lindsay uses the key symbol of the buffalo to represent a time that has passed in North America through his poem The Flower-Fed Buffaloes. The idea of the extinct buffalo herds is linked to the egression of nature and the disappearance of the Native American tribes as a result of the colonisation that has occurred throughout America over the nineteenth century. These thoughts are portrayed with a number of effective language techniques to express the change that has occurred so effectively.
The first five lines set the reminiscent tone of the poem as Lindsay looks back on and conveys the enormous freedom that the buffaloes once had. The opening line and of course the title of the poem illustrate the harmony that the buffaloes have with nature by the term “flower-fed”, the alliteration of which also carries positive connotations. After establishing the link between these two ideas, the natural imagery used throughout the first five lines is associated with the buffaloes and thus the “the days of long ago.” Words such as “spring” and “blooming” give the impressions of new life and tie in with the use of the word “flowers.” In this way, Lindsay aligns these past days with the thought of rejuvenation and hence begins to cast them in a positive light. The poet continues to do this through the words “ranged”, “prairie” and “tossing”, all of which carry a sense of freedom to move. The word “ranged”, in the past tense, also helps to reinforce the reminiscent tone that is being set and suggests that whilst in the past the buffaloes have been spread all over a vast region, this is no longer the case. The current state of this environment is introduced as a place where “locomotives sing,” a rather sarcastic concept in order to emphasise the harsh sounds that these machines really make. Furthermore, the personification in this phrase contrasts these cacophonous locomotives to the living, pleasant, nature-aligned buffalo and thus makes clear to the reader that the change that has occurred is a detrimental one. Reinforcing this is the description of the flowers that now “lie low”, a phrase that suggests both seclusion and a lack of energy, juxtaposed to the previous freedom and liveliness in the environment. By presenting the past in a highly positive light and then contrasting this to the modern atmosphere as it is gradually introduced throughout these five lines, the poet clearly expresses the terrible change that occurs as both the importance and beauty of nature deplete.
The current milieu is explored in more depth in the next three lines, firstly as the previously pleasant “perfumed grass” is replaced by “wheat”. The involvement of the sense of smell helps to further involve the reader and create a more effective understanding of the change that has occurred. The scented and refreshing grass has become the odorless and purely economical item of wheat. The phrase “swept away” helps to illustrate how inexorable and decisive this transformation has been, as does the repetition in the next line as “wheels and wheels and wheels spin by.” Lindsay does, however, present some hope in the following line as the idea of the rejuvenation that occurs “in the spring” is again mentioned. The phrase “still is sweet” leads the reader to believe that nature will endure these hardships induced by man and that this change may not be as definitive as it seems. The poet thus makes absolutely clear the fact that this vicissitude is unfavourable, but does leave some promise for change back to the way life was.
Despite this prospect, the poet reminds the reader that the buffalo herds are gone as the last seven lines end the poem rather depressingly. The word “but” instigates this change of mood and Lindsay goes on to stress that the buffalo have “left us.” The euphemism here helps to make the buffalo seem more human and allows the reader to further sympathise with these living beings. The energetic descriptions of these creatures over the next couple of lines also help to evoke this sympathy. The verbs “gore”, “bellow” and “trundle” are all highly energetic and lively, but furthermore highlight specific elements of the buffalo. “Bellow” is almost a cry of pain, presumably during the decline of the buffalo, whilst the onomatopoeia in “trundle” links the animals to trains, and thus creates yet another contrast between nature and the civilised world. During these two lines the phrase “no more” is repeated three times to make the disappearance of the buffalo absolutely explicit and noteworthy. Moreover, this repetition does not fit in with the rhythm and rhyme scheme established throughout the rest of the poem and reinforces the sudden and depressing departure of the buffalo herds. Following these lines the link created with the “Blackfeet” and “Pawnees,” two extremely proud Native American tribes that seemed to dissipate as the buffaloes did, again helps to humanise the buffalo and also provides another effect that the colonisation in the United States has had. The repetition of the phrase “lying low” three times over the last three lines has a very sinister tone to conclude the poem with a warning that if this urbanisation does not end, then more elements of nature will become subject to the fate of the buffaloes.
Not only does Vachel Lindsay effectively use symbols and language to express the effect that man has had on nature in The Flower-Fed Buffaloes, he also makes clear that this change has been for the worst. In doing so, Lindsay reminds people of the disappearance of a number of elements of nature in the past and reminds the reader that there is an opportunity for this change to end, lest the state of the world gets even worse.