The Horses of Edward Muir: An Ecological Perspective

By Eleanor Dye, Second Year English Literature Undergraduate.

Edwin Muir’s poetry is in many ways biographical. He distinctly recollects his troubled youth after moving to Glasgow in 1901, drawing sharp contrasts to his idyllic childhood on the Orkney Islands. Muir also comments on the dangers of the threat of nuclear warfare after the Second World War. His contemporaries dubbed him repetitive and rather irrelevant, but from a twenty-first century perspective of an impending ecological crisis, it is interesting to revisit Muir’s poetry. The works contain powerful visions of ecological disaster created by mankind, in a surprisingly anachronistic manner. 

Muir’s poem “Horses” is an early example of the anxiety he faced when remembering his lost childhood and his early life on the Orkney Islands:

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.

[Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com.]

Reflections on Muir’s childhood can be seen in the poem. The awe felt for the horses of his childhood throughout the poem culminates in the penultimate stanza with the half rhyme of “wind” and “blind”, showing the horses’ power both in doing the impossible task of uniting with the elements and in breaking the established rhyme scheme prevalent in the rest of the poem. By physically having the power to break the structure of the poem, Muir shows his wonder at these creatures, as described in his autobiography as “a stationary terror and delight”. These are the horses of Muir’s childhood; the horses he watched his father farm whilst on the isle of Wyre. But the wonder of Muir’s childhood cannot last as in the final stanza he contrasts his previous awe with “blank field” and “still-standing tree”, acknowledging that this wonder was only due to his childhood imagination which cannot be regained. This early poem shows the agony of what Muir considered to be his personal fall from the ideal landscape of Orkney and deals with his grief at this.

Therefore, in Muir’s later poem “The Horses” in 1956, we see a clear development from the personal anxiety of “Horses” to an apocalyptic vision of destruction in the Cold War:

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.

[Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

Gone is the simple and regular form of ‘Horses’. Muir begins the poem by describing “the seven days war”, alluding to the biblical creation story in Genesis and subsequently showing man’s audacity in undoing the work of an all-powerful God, and reflecting contemporary fears of ‘mutually assured destruction’ in the Cold War. Poets such as Seamus Heaney have dismissed Muir’s poetry as “low wattage” but here Muir seems to suggest an imminent and real danger of global devastation.

From a twenty-first century perspective, what Muir once saw as an impending danger of atomic catastrophe can now be seen to reflect ecological concerns. Muir ends the poem on a point of hope – the arrival of the horses is described as “their coming our beginning”. Ironically, a new start is formed out of destruction and the unity of “their” and “our” shows that mankind has an opportunity to renew their bond with nature, the horses and an ecological idyll. But Muir makes sure his readers know that this is only a vision, and it is the destructive world that murdered its inhabitants in “one great gulp” and the technology of our tractors appearing as “dank sea-monsters” which the modern day reader has to contend with and face responsibility for. Muir now offers his readers a post-pastoral insight into a new estrangement and violence of nature with the foreign monstrous imagery. Muir therefore gives us an early example of eco-awareness in his poetry by describing the corrupting influence of technology on our planet. Before his time, Muir seemed to be an ecological mouthpiece for our post-nuclear society.

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