On “Cow Song” by Elena Karina Byrne

Click here to read the poem.

The poem “Cow Song” by Elena Byrne is not really anything like its title. What do you think of when you hear “Cow Song”? One thing you definitely won’t think of is a man who is very lonely and maybe has even lost his life. Traditionally, a cow song is used as a call for cows, or to scare predators like bears and wolves from the cattle, however, it is used differently in this poem. In this poem the symbol of death is represented in the shape of cows guiding a man towards death’s doors as he reminisces on the gloomy and lonely life he led.

The first line of the poem immediately sets the dark and sorrowful tone of the poem and also brings death to light. “I heard them, far-off, deep calling/ from behind death’s invisible floor door” (1/2). When the poet says far below it sets a dark and desolate scene almost as if it’s pitch black. “Deaths invisible doors” makes me think of a dark room with death on one side and life on the other. What if the cow’s, who are calling to him, represent angels coming to collect him after he has died. Those cows are crossing the boundary of life and death and as they do the narrator can hear them calling to him, urging him toward that boundary.

Now the narrator begins his journey following the deep moo of the cows and begins to reminisce on his sad and lonely life. He takes in the scene around him and in line eight he becomes fearful almost as if he can’t control his own body. “ Dumbfounded … dumb and found by the time frame of my own fear, surrounded at dusk.”(8) I see this because when the narrator says dumb and founded I can imagine a man moving wherever his body takes him, amazed and astonished by what’s going on. Whilst walking he sees an empty plastic bag and describes “its ghost body cornered/small against a tree.”(10/11) This imagery is representing the life he led. He is the empty bag, lonely and wandering aimlessly like a ghost. As the cows edge toward him and he trudges toward the cows, he begins to sense “Their heavy bodies slow toward me.” (13) It is almost as if he has been waiting for those cows to come collect him.

Coming toward the end, the narrator hears the protective hum of the cow song and finally comes across death’s floor doors being the barrier between his life and death. “Kulning is a Swedish song for cows, not a pillowcase pulled over the head.” (15/16) In this poem, I believe the cow song is being used not to scare off literal bears and other predators from the cows or even as a call to the cows. Instead it is used to scare off the demons of the underworld, and the opposition to the angels. This song keeps them away and creates a pathway straight to “an abandoned physics, a floor door.”(17) Finally, guided by the low moo of the cows, the narrator has reached his final destination, deaths doors.

No one really knows what goes on through a man’s mind as reaches the final moments of his life. However, in this poem we get to look at just that. As the narrator’s clock winds down, he begins to see how empty his life was. Maybe those cows were just in his head, a dream to represent his death. And although this might have been the case, these cows represented more than that. They also represented his life.


When reading and researching “Cow Song” I wanted to figure out what the poet was using cows to symbolize. What did they represent and what made cows the perfect choice? To figure this out, I read the poem again this time taking notes on each stanza trying to understand the meaning behind them. After taking these notes, I realized that the cows were angels coming to collect a man whose life had been lonely and sad. As he journeyed towards the door between life and death, the poet gave us imagery to show us a glimpse of what his life was. This is important because for this man death couldn’t have come at a better time. The last stanza of the poem was a message being sent to a loved one he lost and it shows the he wants to be with her even if it is in the setting of the dead.

Works Cited

Wikipedia contributors. “Kulning.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Jun. 2017. Web.
 26 Sep. 2017

Byrne, Elena Karina. “Cow Song by Elena Karina Byrne.” P oetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/143937/cow-song.

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