Printless as eyelight.

I came upon this haunting poem again, and though it seems I must have posted it here many times before, the evidence shows that I have restrained myself. Today, I indulge myself instead. I’m sharing the photo and thoughts from a previous post, because nothing has changed, except my readership.

I continue to wonder about layers of meaning in the poem… “printless as eyelight” is a phrase appropriately elusive to me. Are they “beautiful flocks of the mind” only because their image stays with us as memory, or because they represent some of our own less dull thoughts?


Shy in their herding dwell the fallow deer.
They are spirits of wild sense. Nobody near
Comes upon their pastures. There a life they live,
Of sufficient beauty, phantom, fugitive,
Treading as in jungles free leopards do,
Printless as eyelight, instant as dew.
The great kine are patient, and homecoming sheep
Know our bidding. The fallow deer keep
Delicate and far their counsel wild,
Never to be folded reconciled
To the spoiling hand as the poor flocks are;
Lightfoot, and swift and unfamiliar,
These you may not hinder, unconfined
Beautiful flocks of the mind.

-John Drinkwater

When my grandson asks what is my favorite animal, I have to say it is the deer. To watch one bound away after it is startled in the forest is a captivating sight, none the less that it is normally quite a brief glimpse, of great strength and speed combined with grace.

[In 2009] we visited a farm where white-tailed deer are kept as livestock, and viewed the corrals where the lovely animals are kept but evidently not tamed (“never to be folded reconciled”). The deer in the pen closest to us seemed to be frightened at our presence. The farmer was not there at the time and I don’t know if his presence is any less disturbing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the deer zigzagging nonstop in its cage; to watch that beauty without it disappearing into the trees was very odd. We weren’t there long enough for me to get used to the vision that is usually so rare. Nor did I begin to feel reconciled myself to coming near upon their pastures.

The photo of deer above was taken while walking down the street in an Oregon neighborhood. Perhaps those deer are calm because they are still “keeping their counsel wild.” No one is threatening them. If I’d had my camera that day at the corral, I might have taken a sad video of a wild animal from whom I was at that moment stealing something. In that moment I wasn’t thinking about these things; I didn’t think there was anything wrong with breeding wild deer. But since I came home and read Drinkwater’s poem again -– I have treasured it and worked at memorizing it for decades -– I am reconsidering.

11 thoughts on “Printless as eyelight.

  1. I love your photo and your poem. It is a lovely poem and it makes me want to go read Bambi. Not Disney ever!! 🙂

    Have a lovely day, Are you having lots of rain today? It hasn’t made it here but will tonight. I am glad you aren’t near flooding places.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I watched the film “The Queen” the other day. Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth at the time in her life when Di had been killed. For me the most poignant and memorable scenes in the film were the queen’s encounters with a majestic 4-pt stag her husband and Di’s sons were stalking. The gorgeous creature eluded the royal family but was killed in a neighbor’s estate by some paying guest. He had been shot in a painful way and had to be chased wounded for quite some time.

    There is something about deer that is so endearing. Their eyes.

    As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. Psalm 42:1

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely poem….There are many deer who live in and around my property, Virginia white-tailed deer who look rather different from the ones you photograph…Printless as eyelight – who knows what the poet meant but to me it suggests they don’t leave footprints as they move, they are as in the moment as the light in your eye or the brief dew (and actually dew is not so fugitive)…

    To me, the idea of penning up deer is horrible. But their life can be fraught, in any case. We have coyotes in the area and they will kill a young deer, our highways terrorize them if they are caught on one, and there are so many in our area, possibly because of the National Park, that they often starve in winter.


    1. Tavi, thank you for sharing this poem, so heartbreaking. I’m saving it. It reminds me somewhat of this one: Do you know it? The meter expresses the frantic feeling of the compassionate human.

      In “Death of the Deer,” I was startled at how the meter seemed to disappear in the the stanza beginning, “But laws have lost their relevance….” Is it the same in the original? I can’t see why it would be an intentional device at that point in the poem.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s probably not the same change–I just reread it now. However, there are some changes in the poem even before, I think–I mean in the original.

        Looking for it now, I found a musical interpretation of the poem. It is in Romanian, but you may find it interesting:

        Thank you for the poem you mentioned. I did not know it. These encounters with rabbits seem to be recurrent. Fr. Stephen Freeman, of whom you may know, mentioned once how he “murdered” a rabbit. My blog is connected with the death of a rabbit as well :).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This favorite William Stafford poem,, presents a darker version of the same idea expressed in Drinkwater’s poem, especially how certain animals do (and some think, should) “keep/ . . . Their counsel wild”

    Never to be folded reconciled
    To the spoiling hand as the poor flocks are

    It seems good, what the poet-or-speaker did. But hard. In this light, we are all in some way “Traveling Through the Dark.”


  5. Interesting poem. The first thing that struck me over and over is how awkward it is to read, and that’s because so many of the phrases are inverted. The first line is a good example, as is “There a life they live” — They live a life there. It’s so consistent that the poet must’ve intended it. In a poem one would never do that by accident b/c every word placement is chosen so carefully. I wonder if the inversions are meant as a visual/auditory representation of the movement of the deer, the unexpected, the flight, the zigzag back-and-forth dashing away.

    Printless as eyelight seems to me to hark back to the previous line where he talks of the deer’s treading. They walk but leave no prints, just as our eyes see things but leave no indication afterward that they’ve seen it — no “print” upon the seen object. Rather like you described yourself when you went to see the wild deer in their cages. You felt you’d stolen something from them, just by looking at them. Sight makes a difference. By looking we can steal something (beauty, privacy) and leave no trace of having looked.


    1. M.K., Thank you for these thoughts. Maybe the inverted phrases are what have made the poem hard for me to memorize. It’s like the deer in that way, too, that I can’t capture it with my mind.


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