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The Horses (1956)

Edwin Muir (1887-1959)

The Horses was a piece from Muirs later poetry stage, spanning from The Narrow Place (1943)
to his final collection One Foot in Eden (1956): this is considered his most mature and accomplished
work. This period is also, for the most part, more positive in outlook than his early work, although,
paradoxically, the most anthologised poem of this group, The Horses, deals with his fears for the
Cold War and his growing realisation of the nuclear age. Echoing and subverting the sevenday
creation in Genesis, the poem depicts the aftermath of an unspecified world war which has rendered
useless the machinery and illusory benefits of the modern age. The radios dumb and obsolete planes
and tractors force the survivors to remember an older way of life, long abandoned; their return to the
plough seen as the revitalisation of a lost communion between man and the world, Far past our
fathers land.


While the poem is not formally arranged in two parts, it is effectively read as such, with the first thirty
lines depicting the world laid waste to atomic ruin, and the second section offering new beginnings,
symbolised by the return of the horses of the poems title.

Affinity with nature

The arrival of the horses is heralded by their alliterative soundings, first a tapping, growing to a
deepening drumming and then hollow thunder, before bursting into the silence with the promise
of cyclical regeneration. The anticipation of their appearance is further heightened by the pause, We
saw the heads/Like a wild wave charging. The vision of the horses as fabulous steeds set on an
ancient shield, emphasises their mythical qualities, symbolic of both Muirs Orkney and of a timeless
knowledge. Through refound cooperation with the mysterious beasts, that longlost archaic
companionship, there is hope for recovery and a meaningful future, acknowledged in the final line,
their coming our beginning.


Throughout the poem, there are many biblical references. Even the first line, with its anachronistic
term of twelvemonth after has a stately and stentorian tone. The nuclear war is described as a seven
days war, which is an allusion to Genesis, the creation and destruction of the world in seven days.
This idea is furthered by the use of the phrases our fathers land and our fathers time (possibly
an allusion to God the father). The word covenant has connotations of the Arc of Covenant, the
Israelites vow to God. Later in the poem, the horses are described as appearing from their own Eden
substantiating the concept of Genesis in reverse. With reference to other set poems, this motif of
religion (in particular the JudeoChristian tradition) is apparent in Dylan Thomass A Refusal to
Mourn the Death, By Fire, Of a Child in London. This piece alludes to Zion of the water bead and
the Synagogue of the ear of corn, a direct allusion to the biblical city considered the holy city of
Israel, the place where God lives with his people, the place of adoration and prayer. For Daiches, the
water bead and the synagogue of the ear of corn are primal elements, to which all return at the
end. These are considered sacramental images intending to give sacramental character to the
reality of death as the unity of all things, the unity of all creation. Death as a return to nature is
expressed in the poem by images of holiness, sanctity: images of religious significance. This affinity
with nature is echoed in The Horses.

The poem attempts to show the totality of nuclear war. Although there are survivors, the amount of
death and destruction is immense. It takes so little time to destroy the world, in a way a punishment
for mankinds vanity and arrogance. Technology, for so long thought to be a development for the
good of mankind, is the very thing responsible for the cataclysm of earth. Tractors, which replaced
horses lie about our fields, useless and wasted. And it is the horses, representative of nature, who
save earth, and not technology. The failure of technology is very important in this poem. Not only do
most of the worlds population die, the use and respect for technology (arguably mans greatest
achievement bar the written word) dies also. The radios lie dumb, a personification with resembles
the impenetrable sorrow in which whole nations lie. The author uses words like gulp and
swallowed to show that, in a way, Mother Earth had devoured her own children. This shocking
cannibalism shows just how terrifying a prospect nuclear war is. It also furthers the idea of humanity
returning to nature. In the same way the survivors return to more natural resources, returning to their
roots, so the dead too are returning to their roots. There is also a message about the relationship with,
and the abuse of, nature. This new chance for a more peaceful existence works on the assumption that
the horses are there voluntarily. This makes the newfound relationship more meaningful, less
precarious: that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Within this, there is a warning that the
world cannot work when one force is domineering, such as technology or the reign of man there
needs to be a delicate equilibrium. The poem does not only comment on nuclear war, but many issues
which todays population face. While we have the nuclear capability to destroy the world several
times over, we are also making new discoveries in genetic engineering, exploiting already dwindling
species of animals, indulging in deforestation, and almost never ending convention war (Afghanistan,
etc.). All of these are controversial issues, which threaten us, but are also redeemable as Edwin Muir