Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Edwin Muir’s poem, “The Horses”, is a mysterious, haunting masterpiece

I was leafing through various poetry anthologies at the weekend, looking for something suitable to read at tomorrow’s Pass on a Poem gathering in Chiswick. Almost inevitably, I found what I wanted in The Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, edited by Phillip Larkin, which is crammed with relatively unknown gems: “The Horses” is one of the very best.

Published in 1959, when the Cold War was in full swing, Edwin Muir’s post-apocalyptic theme is hardly original. But, as with so many of the poems Larkin chose for his great anthology, much of its power derives from the effective use of visual imagery – the bodies piled on the deck of a passing ship, the plane plunging into the sea, the radios standing mute in the corners of kitchens, the tractors waiting in the fields like “dank sea-monsters”, and, of course, the white horses “strange to us/As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield”.

Muir, born in 1887, enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the Orkneys, but that ended when his father lost his farm and the family moved the mainland. A poet, novelist and translator who travelled a great deal, Muir spent the rest of his life yearning to return to the Eden from which he had been expelled.

“The Horses” by Edwin Muir
Barely a twelvemonth after
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 with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll molder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
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.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

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