The Horses – Edwin Muir

Picture an apocalyptic nightmare, set far into the future where man has finally pushed himself over the technological edge to such an extent that he leaves himself only a handful of compatriots to share his self-regret. Picture the panic and chaos ensued at battlefields across the war stricken world, as technological marvel destroys technological wonder in an abundance of innocent and worthless deaths. Picture the abandonment of the ways things used to be, in years of hard graft, manual labour, and honesty, and decency. Then, turn your attention to Edwin Muirs’ superb poetic warning of the terrors that await technology and man – ‘The Horses’.

Written in 1952 by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, it attempts to emphasise the somewhat neglected bond between animal and man and the simplicity of days gone by. Muir takes a narrative approach to this seemingly mammoth task, and this would appear to give the most effective approach available. The lines of the poem are arranged in a continuous manner, with only one break of passage in the entire 53 lines. However, Muirs use of commas and colons is recurrent, and therefore suspending his message and allowing the reader to ponder its meaning before progressing.

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As mentioned in the introduction, the poem focuses on the relationship between technology, man, and animal. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, the world is on its knees, man’s obsession with developing exotic technologies has finally brought about his own end, albeit for a few survivors. It is one such survivor whose thoughts and stories are the sole content of the poem and are expressed one year into man’s sorry existence. He describes events in graphic detail, and makes the reader all too aware of the sheer carnage and violence and gore in the world in which he exists. Yet, despite the gloom and misery experienced, the title of the poem remains ‘The Horses’ and it is in these creatures that the speaker of the poem finds solace, an optimistic turning point on which he can build for the future. In the speakers’ time of desperate need, Muir summons the horses in an almost mystical fashion; they appear to offer (for a long time unheard of) a return to simple yet honest values.

Absolutely no use of rhyme is made. My suspicion is that Muir felt he wanted this subject to be taken seriously by all who read it therefore deciding not to use the light hearted effect that rhyming sometimes brings. Instead, he talks of what he truly believes and this adds a more sophisticated feel to the poem. Rhythm however, is used in large amounts to strikingly good effect, building up tension, suspense, and anticipation. The following is a prime example of such usage:

“We heard a distant tapping on the road,

A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again

And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.

We saw the heads

Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.”

The images that these five lines conjure are simply amazing. Edwin Muir could not have given a clearer, more concise picture than that he has etched into the mind of the reader in this instance.

It may be argued that the poem has a variety of tones, and that I believe, would be correct. It is evident that the break in passage indicates the change between a solemn, remorseful, regretful tone – to that of a more optimistic outlook with the arrival of the horses. The horses have opened a new chapter, a time for optimism and hope:

“Our life has changed; their coming our beginning”

Muir is extremely clever in his choice of wording, to the extent that he uses biblical references to show the ever-thoughtful reader of the way things God intended for them to be. This is illustrated in the following context:

“The seven days war that put the world to sleep,

Late in the evening the strange horses came.

By then we had made our covenant in silence,

But in the first few days it was so still.”

Muir proposes that, if the world was supposedly created in seven days, it can just as easily be destroyed in the same duration of time. It serves as a stark warning, that the Christian story of creation can be compared to such harsh and unpleasant images as:

“On the third day a warship passed us heading north,

Dead bodies piled on deck.”

Muir clearly shows which opinion he is of, that of nature and a rejection of technology:

“Nothing, the radios dumb:

If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,

We would not listen, we would not let it bring

That bad old world that swallowed its children quick.”

Yet, if man is blindly destroying his own world, the poet finds it strange and quite probably ignorant that no action is being taken to prevent such monstrosities. The sheer horror of his images when describing the dreadfulness of the world around him, contrast sharply with those rhythmical, eerie descriptions of the horses offering their services.

‘The Horses’ is possibly one of the most reflective and thoughtful poems I personally have had the great pleasure to read. Alas, I am not convinced the severity of Muirs warning is powerful enough, indeed his optimistic closure to the poem distracts away from the warning that several developed countries would do well to take heed of. If ever a situation did arise – we would only have ourselves as human beings to blame.