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Analysis of Poem 'The Horses' by Edwin Muir

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Edwin Muir and a Summary of 'The Horses'

'The Horses' is one of Edwin Muir's best-known poems. It has strong imagery, simple language and a profound message—following an atomic war 'that put the world to sleep' the survivors can start life again, tend to the earth with the help of the horses.

In 53 lines, Muir creates a kind of modern neo-Christian fable, describing in literal and symbolic terms the devastated world and the arrival of the horses. The narrative follows the collective mind of the survivors as they put the past behind them and look to the future.

Though there is no definite timeline, the speaker is looking back to the evening when the horses appeared, some of the narrative seeming to part-echo the Book of Genesis and the creation story.

The horses are seen as heroic and vital; they in effect rescue the humans and the whole of humanity because they have innate knowledge of the plough. Only through working the land with companionship to the fore and without machinery can the new future be sustained.

The main theme is that of Nature against Civilisation and Progress. The more sophisticated scientifically humankind becomes, the more the propensity for violence and war (MAD = mutually assured destruction).

Reconnecting with Nature at an instinctive level can sustain peaceful existence and hope for the future. It's fascinating to note that contemporary events experienced globally—pandemics and such—leave humans struggling to connect to the natural world for psycho-spiritual reasons. For many, mental health can be restored when individuals spend time 'in the elements'.

There is no country mentioned in the poem. The setting could be anywhere close to the sea. So geography is irrelevant. What counts is the placement of spirit within human endeavour, as represented by the horses.

Muir's poetry typically is about loss, regain, change, renewal, mythology, love and Nature. Formal, rhyming verse with rich iambic lyric is his hallmark, but he also writes free verse narrative. He wrote novels and earned a living as a teacher and lecturer, writing critical reviews and articles too.

He was born on the island of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, and enjoyed an idyllic childhood on the family farm.

My childhood all a myth

Enacted in a distant isle;

In an ancient culture, ballad singing was a tradition and this no doubt influenced his work. He wrote in his autobiography:

'This supernatural world embodied for the peasantry their sense of the mystery surrounding them, in which they saw in one glance and with no incongruity, Christian revelation and natural magic.'

Life changed drastically for him at the age of 14 when the family had to leave the island farm and move to industrial Glasgow. Tragedy followed. In a bleak spell of five years, he lost his mother and father and two brothers and had to work hard to survive.

He came through eventually. Childhood for him had been an Eden; his teenage years seemed a hell. The dissonance he experienced can be found in many of his poems.

I try to fit that world to this,

The hidden to the visible play.

'The Horses' (not to be confused with an earlier poem simply titled 'Horses', written in 1925) was first published in his final book One Foot in Eden, in 1956. T. S. Eliot called it 'that great, that terrifying poem of the atomic age'.

'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 moulder away and be like other loam'.

We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,

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 ploughs and borne our loads,

But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.

Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Line-by-Line Analysis of 'The Horses'

The 53-line narrative is straightforward enough, prose-like, with plain language in mostly iambic lines, the syntax (the way clauses and grammar work together) controlled and formal.

The speaker is a spokeperson for a group of survivors. They tell of the strange horses come to renew their hope, symbols of the natural spirit, innocence and strength.

Lines 1–3

The war is over, the whole world quietened and strange horses have arrived. This is the opening image which would surely suit a movie or documentary, with the text as commentary. The recent past is about to unfold.

It's unusual to see an adverb start a poem and to discover an archaic word in the same line, twelvemonth, a dialect word which means a year. There's a mix of the matter-of-fact and the fairytale—twelvemonth/seven days . . . put the world to sleep and then the strange horses appeared.

Enjambment, where one line runs on into the next without punctuation, occurs immediately. The seven days war has ended (not that long for a war), and it must have been devastating because the world is no longer awake.

This is no conventional war, this is atomic or nuclear war.

Lines 4–6

To make a covenant is to make a deal or agreement. In this context the survivors must have come to some sort of collective decision—the silence was all they had, and they agreed to accept it, to bond with it. Perhaps they agreed that such a war should never happen again.

This act indirectly calls up the old testament story of Noah's Ark. Noah built the ark to save the animals from drowning in the flood, sent by God to cleanse the world of sin. When the flood waters receded Noah saw a rainbow—this was God's sign, covenant, that never again would the earth be flooded.

So silent was their world they could hear their own breathing and this frightened them. Is this factual or figurative? Once the noise of war had died down, the silence must have been disturbing, especially since everything had been killed? Animals, wildlife and the majority of humankind?

Lines 7–8

The radios failed on the second day we are told in a short line that is cut off prematurely. Power of communication to the outside world is lost. Electrical technology is of no use.

This fact means so much. Imagine having been through the most terrible of wars, surviving somehow, when all of a sudden your one hope, getting in touch with someone somewhere, asking for help, using the last piece of tech that functions . . . no longer works.

A sure sign that your modern, sophisticated world that existed prior to the war is now no more.

Lines 9–20

More sightings follow, of a warship carryng dead bodies, and a plane crashing into the sea on a final mission gone wrong. The death throes of the war are taking place, on the third and sixth days.

Their radio is definitely kaputt. But even it worked, like millions more all over the world, they wouldn't answer, they wouldn't want to engage with voices from the bad world, the previous system that developed and finally employed the worst of weaponry.

A subtle change in syntax reflects the altered tone and the repeated words If/And underline the certainty of the speaker. Now way would they wish to go back to what they had before.

Repetition of small words and phrases . . . If/And/We would not . . . helps reinforce the message of stubborn resistance. There will be no going back to the previous age.

In line 19, there is mention of children being swallowed at one great gulp by the bad old world. Muir's liking for Greek mythology is apparent here as this directly relates to the story of Cronos (Kronos) leader of the Titans, offspring of Gaia and Uranus, the earth and sky. When children were born to him he promptly ate them for fear of being overpowered or killed.

Lines 21–23

The bigger picture is laid before the reader. Like embryos forming in a womb in foetal position, nations lie asleep, victims of the war. Use of the word asleep suggests that there will be an opportunity, eventually, to wake. At least these nations are not yet dead; they have life, they are only dormant.

Lines 24–30

Another vivid image comes into focus, that of tractors, those powerful machines that formerly worked so hard on the land. Once indispensable, they are now rusting, left for the elements.

The tractors are menacing and are given zoomorphic status in a simile . . . like dank sea-monsters. Note also the one line spoken by someone in the collective, the line with moulder and loam—the tractors will rot away (moulder) and become like the soil (loam).

Perhaps surprisingly oxen are still around. They go back further than the horse in the history of farming and were an integral part of medieval working of the fields.

Lines 31–32

A repeat of the third line—those strange horses appear late one summer evening.

Lines 33–35

The collective voice of the speaker describes the sounds of the horses as they approach. First comes their distant tapping which then changes into drumming before turning into thunder at the corner of the road.

This gradual build-up and use of different verbs helps to intensify the image—here come the plough-horses running, then momentarily stopping before heading off again louder and louder towards the waiting survivors.

Lines 36–37

A shortened line brings a certain emphasis and enjambment takes the reader from the horse's heads on into a maritime simile . . . like a wild wave charging which is full of fearsome energy.

The group were afraid of the strange horses.

Lines 38–41

Mention of fathers' time gives a rudimentary historical context to the scene. Horses in the past had been sold and the money used to buy machines, tractors, to work the land. The cyclical nature of farming and growing becomes apparent.

For centuries horses had been the mainstay of power on the land, pulling the ploughs across the fields, teams of strong shire horses working day after day. Then machines came along, humans developed engines that needed oil and fuel and the ubiquitous tractor quickly took over from living horsepower.

Now the tables had been turned. Tractors were rotting away, and oxen were used instead. But the appearance of the horses took the survivors by surprise and all they could think of was ancient symbolism—horses on knight's shields or in illustrated medieval books.

This militaristic viewpoint harks back to a time when the horse was an indispensable animal, crucial to human endeavour and ironically, warfare.

Lines 42–45

The group didn't approach the horses; they were scared. The horses waited for something to happen. There's an air of uncertainty in these lines as both parties weigh each other up, and the whole situation.

Generations of humans hadn't worked with horses on the land. Horses had been mere leisure animals, for racing, for pleasure. But now in the aftermath of a devastating war here was a situation of rare quality—horse and human facing each other, the ancient bonds attempting to reunite.

The speaker's musings are understandable, if a little mythical. Mention of the old command suggests a mysterious connection between the horses and the gods, or God. They purposefully ended up in this place because, as ordered, a new relationship was to be formed, based on the old traditions.

Lines 46–47

Initially the survivors wanted nothing to do with ownership or useage—the horses were seen as equal, living beings on a ravaged planet. This sets the tone for the future.

Lines 48–50

Among the horses are colts, male foals, born somewhere out back in the wilderness. They represent the future, the new times to be. Note the biblical reference to Eden, the garden of Eden, God's garden in the book of Genesis.

Lines 51–53

The horses of their own free will now work the land, ploughing and carrying loads for the group. For these frightened survivors the horses' arrival has turned things round, changed everything. They have a new beginning. Out of war and destruction comes peace and creativity.


© 2021 Andrew Spacey