In "The Sheep Child," Dickey once again depicts the relationship between rational man and irrational nature through a bizarre image. Though Georgia farm boys admit the masturbatory function of nature in their wild need "to couple with anything" (1.12), their fear of the product of complete irrationality in man, the sheep child, forces them to be civilized. Like the legend of the kudzu, the story of the "woolly baby pickled in alcohol" (11.17-18) in an Atlanta museum serves as a grim reminder of what happens when the irrational takes control. Such "things can't live" (1.13) because man and nature pose two extremes which are seemingly irreconcilable. Yet Dickey frequently "focuses on the earth's beasts as a means to the angels." Though the creature's eyes are open, no one is able to face that vacant stare. To do so would be to acknowledge the possibility of the animal in man. Such demonstrations of irrationality, however imaginary, are best left to dusty corners. In fact, the civilized urban society momentarily forgets as the boys take "their own true wives in the city" (1.19). But the poet remembers and wonders if the story is merely fiction.
In the figure of the sheep child, Dickey credits himself with having created the most unique persona in literature. This grotesque combination of two worlds, the world of nature and the world of man, speaks "merely with his eyes" (1.25), perhaps a Platonic reference to the dwelling place of the soul. In describing his conception and birth, the sheep child stresses harmony in nature. His mother stands "like moonlight" in the pasture, an image which implies union among all things. Indeed, Dickey calls the female sheep a heroine "who accepts the monstrous conjunction and bears the monstrous child because in some animal way she recognizes the need it is born from." Despite its mindlessness and irrationality, nature willingly serves man. When she is seized from behind, the sheep child's mother gives "her best / self to that great need" (11.34-5). Having conceived, she assumes human qualities and sobs "at what she must do" (1.38).
In the dying moments of his birth, the sheep child looks with "eyes more than human" (11.40-1). A part of both worlds, he can momentarily know their truths, and in viewing "man and beast in the round of their need" (1.43), he senses a fullness, an overall completeness not apparent to the merely human. According to George Lensing, Dickey actually believes "that animal life, in its natural and instinctive wisdom, is one to which humans may aspire and in which they may find their own heightened identity." Yet, despite his knowledge, the sheep child cannot live, and with his death, those truths become only faintly detectible behind staring eyes.
From the harmony of the pasture, the dead sheep child is brought to his "father's house" (1.49), a dusty, unvisited museum. In contrast with the world of nature, the world of man seems empty and sterile. Pickled in his "immortal waters" (1.52) the sheep child's eyes confide his truths to the "sun's grains," the only visitors to his "hellish-mild' corner" (1.51). Unlike a two-headed kitten or some other freak of nature, he does not attract the curious for whom his existence would bear testimony that man is also fallible. Such unnatural creatures seem to parody a world which, in his delusion, man believes he controls rationally and absolutely. Consequently, the lesson which the sheep child teaches is resisted. Like the kudzu, however, he is remembered and in the memory there is an admission of need. Dickey uses the imaginary sheep child to represent nature denied and man diminished as a consequence: "What I intended was that this contra naturum creature born from this monstrous clandestine marriage between a human being and an animal is not contra naturum but very much naturum." The fear which keeps farm boys from coupling with animals and forces them "deep into their known right hands" (1.60) is civilized man's rejection of the irrational within himself. The memory of the sheep child drives man to marry and to raise his kind, and, in doing so, it becomes a civilizing tool. Yet as Laurence Liberman points out in "The Worldly Mystic," he is now ever-conscious, caught "in a haunting, if inexpressible certainty that a much larger, grander, demonic world—compounded of Heaven and Hell—lies just the other side of the limits of his known, calculable existence."