‘The Horses’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied poems by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959). The poem (not to be confused with Muir’s early poem ‘Horses’) was published in his 1956 collection One Foot in Eden. You can read ‘The Horses’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
Before we come to the analysis, it’s worth providing a summary of ‘The Horses’. Muir tells us about a war that lasted seven days and ‘put the world to sleep’. Barely a year (‘twelvemonth’) later, ‘strange horses’ came. Muir then immediately goes back to the immediate wake of the war, when humans were first confronted with a silence so unnerving and new that even listening to the sound of their own breathing made people afraid.
Muir then describes the other things that happened after the war: the radios stopped working, intensifying the silence. Technology breaks down. Many are dead. A plane drops out of the sky into the sea.
Although many people leave their radios in their houses, even though they are no longer broadcasting, the speaker of the poem tells us that if they did start broadcasting again now, a year since they went ‘dumb’ – if the radios should ‘speak’ again after such a long period of silence – people would not listen. They would not want to listen to the radio now, because they have changed their attitude to technology since the war that destroyed everything: they can discern a link between something like the radio (radio technology was, after all important for military communication in the recent Second World War) and the atom bomb.
Such is people’s suspicion and dislike of all technology since the war, they even fear the tractors in the fields, viewing them like sea monsters – the Kraken, perhaps – which are ‘waiting’ there to devour the people who once used them. No: people will now use oxen to plough their fields, as they did before the industrial revolution and the rise of technology – technology which, eventually, led to nuclear warfare.
Then the horses returned, coming up the road and making a tapping noise on the ground that gradually rose to a sound like the rolling of thunder. People were scared of the horses at first, because they had turned their backs on the creatures – the previous generation had sold theirs to buy tractors, replacing the trusty animals with modern machinery. But now the horses are returning. Now we get an insight into why the speaker began the poem by describing the horses as ‘strange’: people had lost their bond with the animals, with nature, in their rush to embrace new technology. It’s as if people are now reconnecting with an alien and long-lost world of medieval chivalry, in which horses were depicted on knights’ shields and or in books about medieval knights.
Although people were reluctant even to go near the horses at first, eventually they approached them and rediscovered their relationship with them, a relationship based on ‘servitude’ (the horses are, after all, put to work in the fields) but also, more positively, ‘companionship’. The return of the horses signals the ‘beginning’ of a new way of life for the survivors in this post-nuclear landscape, as men and horse become a partnership once more, returning to pre-industrial farming and forging anew the old bond between man and nature.
It’s important to bear in mind that ‘The Horses’ was published in the 1950s, when fears over nuclear annihilation during the Cold War were beginning to increase. Although he doesn’t specify that the was imagined in the poem was a nuclear one, the scale of devastation and the fact that such destruction was caused in just seven days provide a clue.
‘The Horses’ moves from a bleak, post-nuclear landscape towards a more positive ending whereby people learn to rebuild their lives in the wake of mass war, not by returning to technology but to simpler ways of living and working. Although this undoubtedly is more positive, the end of the poem still sounds an ambivalent note, since the horses are being used by the men to pull their ploughs. But at the same time, the horses seem to seek out the human survivors, and to miss the ‘companionship’ – an important word in the poem – with humans which the industrial revolution severed by making horses obsolete. The tractors rendered horses and oxen unnecessary in the fields; the invention of the motorcar rendered horses obsolete for conveying people from one place to another. Horses were left with little purpose, save for recreation for posh women and racing in the Grand National. One can see why the horses welcome the chance to rebuild their links with their human masters.
‘The Horses’ is written in blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter – as we can see in the following line: ‘Or ILL-us-TRA-tions IN a BOOK of KNIGHTS’. However, as it’s a modern poem, Muir departs from this blank verse pattern in many lines, varying the metre (‘Stubborn and shy’ begins the line with a trochee rather than an iamb, for instance) and even the line length (‘We saw the heads’ being one example). This metre is entirely appropriate for a poem about human beings recovering the lost rhythms of their old way of life, while the lack of rhyme makes the language the speaker uses more natural – again, an appropriate word for this poem.