Oh God (or whatever other supreme being you choose to follow), please don’t let this come up in the exam! I’ll confess, I don’t really love this poem and I’ve found it quite hard to break it down and have had to evaluate some other analysis from various web depositories… and then scrap most of it for my own interpretation.
I think this poem is similar to Hunting Snake and Pike in that we are glorifying the majesty of one of god’s creatures (I’m not just being flippant with the reference to god as you’ll see below), but also appreciating its power and thus implied threat. However, I see it as having a much deeper meaning under the surface.
It seems to me that the poem yearns for a more simple past and laments the fact that the world has had to change and the demands from industry have outstripped these proud beasts (… the horses).
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.
Edwin Muir (1887-1959)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Muir was born at the end of the 19th century (1887-1959) on the Orkney islands. If you don’t know (and why the hell should you?) they are a small group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. They are extremely remote, even today, and are renowned for being a little bit backwards or behind the times: think a rural village that perhaps doesn’t have the latest technology or shops.
However, the islands are naturally beautiful as a result and are often viewed as some sort of idealist escape from city life and industry. In Muir’s case his life worked in the opposite way and he moved from this naturalistic existence in childhood (elsewhere he writes about the Orkney’s as an Eden) to an adolescence and earlier adulthood life working in factories and offices and by all accounts was suffered from some form of depression relating to his experiences.
This poem is about the difference between his more simple life on Orkney and the grind and horror of heavy industry that seemed to be taking over his world.
I’ve already suggested that this poem can be linked to Hunting Snake and Pike because of its depiction of beauty and power in nature, but it would also be possible to link it on the theme of anti-urbanism or negativity towards cities in poems like The Planners and City Planners.
The poem is a nostalgic glance back at Muir’s childhood (we see this in the final stanza). It starts with a detailed appreciation of the horses he used to see pulling the plough. At first they are presented as being as being ‘terrible, so wild and strange’, which makes us think the poet is slightly scared of them, but also in awe. Remember this is him reflecting on his youth, so imagine how big and dangerous a horse would seem to a little kid, particularly a working shire horse.
The next stanza skips us forward. I’ll discuss how specific phrases move us forward in language and technique, but notice the obvious comparison to the pistons of a machine and the darker mood of the stanza. Here he is recognising a similarity between the horses of his childhood and the machines he is working with, but notice there is no awe any more, rather everything seems quite bleak and depressing.
Stanza three continues this comparison, but here I get a little confused, so you’ll have to decide whether you find my ideas convincing or not. The pistons and the horses are both the conquerors and notice the impact they have on the field, the natural imagery is now dirty and unpleasant. However, the horses retain a semblance of beauty as they are linked to angels (‘seraphims of gold’), whereas, in my reading, the machines of industry are ‘mute ecstatic monsters’ – quite the contrast.
I think we then jump back to Muir’s nostalgia as stanza four and five praise the old ways/world, but they arel overshadowed by the ‘gloam’ of industry taking over the world. The horses are not only seen as being magnificent, but also a proud beast and one that takes satisfaction in hard labour and are romanticised by the poet. The last line of stanza four is a suggestion that they are unable to fulfil the needs of the modern world though as they leave behind ‘struggling snakes’. Also the fact their bodies are left ‘smouldering’ at the end of their day on the surface shows us how tired and hot they are, but deeper may suggest that they are on their way out, burning on the fire because they are not needed by the world any more.
I hope you’re still with me.
This continues into the sixth stanza, the dual appreciation of the horses and the lamentation of their demise in the world. Their beauty is linked to an apocalypse (theirs or ours?) and to anger and rage.
The final stanza takes us back to Muir in the present. His nostalgic ponderings disappear an he is left with a longing for the old world which is again linked to danger, but also beauty and simplicity.
Language and techniques
I’m starting to regret writing this analysis before my dinner has arrived (Mexican quesadillas, if you’re interested). I’m now going to go hungry trying to get through all the important analysis here.
There are a million things to mention in this poem. I think the most crucial is the serious of contrasting images and ideas about the natural world and the industrial world.
Okay, let’s think about the horses and how the poem presents them initially. ‘Lumbering’, ‘steady’, ‘conquering’ all suggest the power of horses, but also their limitations in terms of speed and stamina. They are given a sense of majesty by being described as ‘terrible, so wild and strange’ and ‘like magic’. These phrases suggest that as a child he was a little in awe of the beasts and almost couldn’t comprehend their power as being natural, but was wary of it as well.
Later the horses are made semi-divine as ‘seraphim of gold’, which could be literally interpreted as shiny angels… don’t write that in your exam. The completion of their daily work is link to the ‘rapture’ which is the time people/things transcend to heaven. So they seem in some way holy or magical in Muir’s eyes.
Contrast this with the industrial images. Again we have the suggestions of phenomenal power with phrases such as ‘pistons in an ancient mill’ and ‘mute ecstatic monsters’. However, in the word ecstatic we should also get a sense of frenzy and something lacking the elegance of the steady strength of the animals. Although Muir is wary of the horses, when talking about industry he is ‘fearful’, which twinned with the use of ‘monsters’ makes the machines seem altogether less wonderful.
Wonderful Mexican sustenance!
The contrast between their beauty and their demise as a part of human industry. The horses are ‘broad-chested’, ‘warm and glowing’ with ‘brilliant’ eyes, suggesting they are proud and noble creatures, but they are consumed in the ‘gloam’ (fog or mist) of the new world and their bodies are ‘smouldering’ as if on a funeral pyre. Not only this, but they seem unhappy to be losing their role as they are filled with ‘rage’ and ‘ire’.
The poet also uses small phrases to suggest the negative impact of the industrial world. It is definitely not a thing of beauty when it is associated with monsters or gloam as mentioned above, but also consider phrases such as ‘blackening rain’ and ‘cruel apocalyptic light’. The prior is a clear suggestion of pollution caused by heavy industry, while the latter goes much further to link the transformation of the world to the end of the world. Nice!
The final thing I’d mention would be the last paragraph. The repetition of ‘it fades’ suggests the dismay of the poet who is losing even the memory of this more idyllic existence to the extend he ‘pines’ or longs for the time gone like you’d do for a lost lover.
We’ve talked about the progression of time, not very obviously through the stanzas. From the ‘bare field’ of his childhood, to the ‘blackening rain’ of industrial pollution, right through to the death of his youthful world with the ‘apocalyptic light’ and the ‘rapture’.
The other thing I would mention is the pace of the poem. Notice at the beginning we have a nostalgic use of enjambment as the poet slowly ponders about his youth, but this quickly changes and the stanzas that explore the impact of industry uses caesuras to speed up the pace and almost reflect an anger or bitterness towards the developments. Right at the end we return to a piece of enjambment in the first line of the last stanza. This slows us down again and makes us linger on the poet’s regret that this simple world is gone, never to be seen again.
I think there are two clear tones in this poem. At the beginning and then the end of the poem we are really filled with regret and longing for the past, but in the middle of the poem there is anger built into the nostalgia.