Horses by Edwin Muir, Analysis, Summary & Themes

"Horses" by Edwin Muir is a contemplative and nostalgic poem that explores the speaker's fascination with horses as they work in the fields. It delves into the horses' powerful and enigmatic presence, evoking a sense of magic and awe. Through vivid imagery and vivid descriptions, the poem captures the horses' significance as they transform the landscape and create a mystical atmosphere. Ultimately, it reflects on the fleeting nature of these captivating moments and the longing for the return to a mysterious and hauntingly beautiful world.

Horses Poem

Those lumbering horses in the steady plough,
On the bare field - I wonder, why, just now,
They seemed terrible, so wild and strange,
Like magic power on the stony grange.

Perhaps some childish hour has come again,
When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain,
Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill
Move up and down, yet seem as standing still.

Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down
Were ritual that turned the field to brown,
And their great hulks were seraphims of gold,
Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.

And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done,
They marched broad-breasted to the sinking sun!
The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes;
The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes.

But when at dusk with steaming nostrils home
They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light,
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine
Again for the dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.

Critical Analysis

"Horses" by Edwin Muir is a poem that explores the transformative power of nature and the complex relationship between humans and the natural world. Through vivid imagery, the poem conveys a sense of awe and fear, portraying horses as enigmatic beings that possess both beauty and danger.

One of the key themes in the poem is the loss of a mystical and hauntingly beautiful world. The speaker reminisces about a time when the horses held a profound presence, turning the fields brown with their ritualistic trampling. However, as the poem progresses, this vibrant image fades, leaving the speaker longing for the return of a once-fearsome and wondrous landscape.

Muir employs a range of literary devices to convey the horses' power and mystery. The similes and metaphors used to describe the horses as "seraphims of gold" and "mute ecstatic monsters" elevate them to a celestial level, evoking a sense of awe. The personification of the horses' hooves and manes adds to their ethereal quality, emphasizing their wild and untamed nature.

The poem also presents a contrast between the human perspective and the horses' natural essence. While the speaker is initially frightened by the horses' wildness and unfamiliarity, there is an underlying admiration for their strength and purpose. The horses' labor in the fields is seen as a sacred ritual, transforming the landscape and creating a sense of reverence.

The apocalyptic imagery in the later stanzas, with the horses' eyes gleaming with a "cruel apocalyptic light," suggests a foreboding sense of impending doom. This highlights the profound impact that the horses' presence has on the speaker, evoking a mixture of fear and fascination.

In terms of structure, the consistent rhyme scheme and rhythmic flow of the poem contribute to its musicality and reinforce the sense of enchantment. The use of iambic pentameter gives the poem a steady and measured pace, reflecting the plodding movement of the horses in the fields.

The "Horses" can be seen as a reflection on the sublime power of nature and the longing for a world that is both beautiful and unsettling. Through its vivid imagery, the poem invites readers to contemplate the transient nature of awe-inspiring moments and the deep connection between humans and the natural world.

Summary

  • Part 1 = Stanza 1 to 4 (Day time)
  • Part 2 = Stanza 5 to 6 (Dusk falls and emotions change)
  • Part 3 = Stanza 7 (Persona pulls away from memory and returns to reality

    Stanza 1: The speaker observes horses laboring in the ploughed fields and wonders why they suddenly appear terrifying and unfamiliar. The horses possess an aura of wildness and strangeness, akin to possessing magical power over the barren landscape.
    Stanza 2: The speaker suggests that this perception may be linked to a childhood memory, possibly of watching the horses in a storm. The horses' hooves, resembling pistons in an ancient mill, move up and down in a rhythmic motion that appears both dynamic and static, as if they are simultaneously in motion and standing still.
    Stanza 3: The horses' powerful hooves, which trampled the stubble in the fields, symbolize a ritual that turned the land to brown. Their immense bodies are likened to seraphims (angelic beings) made of gold or silent ecstatic monsters on the earth.
    Stanza 4: The speaker expresses the joy and awe experienced as the horses completed a furrow and marched confidently towards the setting sun. The light reflects off their muscular sides in patches, while the furrows behind them appear to writhe like struggling snakes.
    Stanza 5: When the horses return home at dusk, their steaming nostrils and giant forms make them seem even more enormous in the dim light. They emit a mysterious, glowing fire that illuminates their smoldering bodies in the mud.
    Stanza 6: The horses' eyes shine brilliantly and seem as vast and dark as the night itself. They possess a cruel apocalyptic light, foretelling of impending doom. Their manes, caught in the fury of the wind, rise with an invisible and blind rage.
    Stanza 7: The vivid image of the horses gradually fades away, leaving the speaker in a state of longing. They yearn for the return to a pristine and ominous land, where empty fields and solitary trees held a profound presence of brightness and fear.

    The "Horses" portrays the speaker's fascination with the horses' power and mystery, their ability to transform the landscape, and the transient nature of these awe-inspiring moments. The poem combines vivid descriptions and vivid imagery to evoke a sense of wonder and longing for a world that both captivates and frightens.

    Major Themes

    The poem "Horses" by Edwin Muir explores several major themes:
  • Nature's Power and Mystery: The poem delves into the transformative and enigmatic power of nature, particularly embodied by the horses. They are depicted as majestic beings that possess an awe-inspiring presence, capable of turning the landscape into a sacred and haunting realm. The horses evoke a sense of wonder and reverence, highlighting the immense power and mystery inherent in the natural world.
  • Loss and Nostalgia: The theme of loss pervades the poem as the speaker reminisces about a past time when the horses held a profound significance. There is a longing for the return of a pristine and fearsome world, one where empty fields and solitary trees were vibrant and unsettling presences. The poem explores the transient nature of captivating moments and the yearning to recapture the past.
  • Fear and Awe: The poem juxtaposes fear and awe in the speaker's perception of the horses. Initially, the horses appear terrifying and strange, evoking a sense of fear and unfamiliarity. However, as the poem progresses, this fear transforms into a mixture of admiration and fascination. The horses' power, beauty, and their ability to transform the landscape elicit a profound sense of awe in the speaker.
  • Human-Nature Connection: "Horses" explores the complex relationship between humans and the natural world. The horses' labor in the fields is depicted as a sacred ritual, symbolizing the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. The speaker recognizes the horses' purpose and strength, highlighting a deep connection and appreciation for their role in shaping the environment.
  • Transience and Impermanence: The poem touches upon the transitory nature of captivating experiences. The vivid imagery and powerful presence of the horses gradually fade away, leaving the speaker with a longing for their return. The poem suggests that moments of awe and wonder are fleeting, emphasizing the impermanence of such encounters.

    These themes intertwine to create a nuanced exploration of nature's power, human emotions, and the longing for a world that simultaneously captivates and unsettles. Through its rich imagery and evocative language, "Horses" invites readers to contemplate the beauty, mystery, and ephemeral nature of the natural world.

    Language

    Few and reiterating stylistic devices however very powerful and impactful
  • Oxymoron: ‘great hulks were seraphim of gold‘ & ‘bright and fearful’
  • Simile: ‘like struggling snake‘ & ‘as brilliant and as wide as night’
  • Hyperbol: ‘gigantic in the gloam' Horses metaphorized as:
  • Steam train: ‘pistons’, ‘steaming nostrils’, ‘warm and glowing’, ‘smouldering’
  • Soldiers: ‘conquering’, ‘marched broad-breasted’, ‘struggling snakes’
  • Magical creatures: ‘magic power’, ‘seraphim of gold’, ‘cruel apocalyptic light’

    Structure

    The poem "Horses" by Edwin Muir follows a structured and consistent form. It consists of seven stanzas, each containing four lines, and follows an ABAB rhyme scheme. The lines are predominantly written in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables per line and a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables.

    The poem has a narrative quality, as the speaker reflects on their observations and memories of horses working in the fields. Each stanza builds upon the previous one, gradually developing the speaker's thoughts and impressions of the horses.

    The structure of the poem aids in creating a sense of rhythm and musicality. The consistent rhyme scheme and metrical pattern contribute to the poem's overall flow and coherence. Additionally, the four-line stanzas allow for concise and focused expressions of the speaker's reflections.

    The structured form of the poem enhances the poem's lyrical quality, supports the development of its themes and imagery, and creates a cohesive and engaging reading experience.

    Sound Devices

  • Constant rhyme pattern similar to the trot of hooves of the horses
  • Sibilance for weaker (weak sound): ‘struggling snakes‘ & ‘flowed off ... in flakes’
  • Strong alliteration when describing horse: ‘broad-breasted’ & ‘gigantic … gloam’

    Attitudes/feelings

  • Threatened by horses: ‘terrible’, ‘wild and strange’, ‘watched fearful’
  • Strong and deceiving: ‘hooves like piston’, ‘yet seem as standing still’
  • Impression changes to ‘rapture, when, one furrow done’
  • Admiring strength/beauty: ‘marched broad-breasted’, ‘light flowed off their bossy sides’, ‘gigantic in the gloam’, ‘warm and glowing’
  • Fears intensely: ‘brilliant and as wide as night’, ‘cruel apocalyptic light’, ‘leaping ire of the wind’, ‘rage invisible and blind’
  • Conclusive, back to reality: ‘Ah now, it fades! It fades!’,’ pine again’.

    Linking poems:

  • Hunting Snake’ and ‘Pike’ shares the fear for subject
  • Pike’, ‘Cockroach’, ‘Hunting Snake’ all poems focus on just one animal
  • Pike’ and ‘Hunting Snake’ as they are memories
  • Summer Farm’ and ‘Pied Beauty’, all on the same setting; farm
  • Pike’ which has distinct parts with many diverse emotions
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