The Horses, Edwin Muir

While having a clear out recently, I came across a file of writing that had survived from my university days. I wrote this piece towards the end of my time there, having come across the poem by chance. I recall being very affected by its post-apocalyptic vision, which as the Cold War apparently wound down, seemed even more resonant. It continues to do so now, with the news full of the belligerent noises being made by North Korea and Iran. A good time to revisit then.

In his preface to the 1965 edition of the Selected Poems, T.S. Eliot describes this poem as “that great…terrifying poem of the ‘atomic age.'” The poet foresees the possibility of a catastrophic war, presumably nuclear, that will overthrow and destroy the existing “order”. He looks at the present, clearly finds it wanting, and as a result, harks back to a simpler time. This is a common desire for those uncomfortable and dissatisfied with things happening in their own time: they look back to the “good old days” when everything was apparently good and wholesome. You only have to look at certain politicians who speak with apparent reverence for “Victorian Values” and harbour desires to “get back to basics”, whatever that means.

It can be argued that such backward-looking in the face of contemporary problems is an escapist evasion, or to use a more down to earth phrase, a cop-out. Confronted with events you neither like nor think you can do anything about, you merely ignore them and look back to a time when they weren’t there. However, each age has problems of its own, many unique to that time. Eyes become blinded to this fact by the current evil, which is seen as worse than anything that ever preceded it, and all the negative aspects of the past era being eulogised are conveniently forgotten. So, is Muir doing the same in his poem?

He describes some future time when the feared apocalypse has happened: “the seven days war that put the world to sleep,” and its survivors are having to adjust to their new existence; they have “made their covenant with silence.” Evidence of the horror of what has happened comes later, when a warship passes with corpses piled on its decks, and a plane crashes into the sea. It is a world of silence and fear. The old established order has been abruptly and swiftly destroyed in the cataclysm, all technological advance suddenly halted and then reversed. This a clear demonstration of the fragility of “progress”, it has let everyone down. For all the scientific and cultural sophistication it brought, it was unable to prevent the war, and hence its own destruction.

The “strange horses” that appear so mysteriously one evening about a year after the war has ended represent that past that the poet looks to. The modern age has broken down, symbolised by the failure of the radios to work any more, and the subsequent abandonment of the tractor to rust and decay: “They’ll moulder away and be like other loam.” The radio, and anything else connected with that time, would not be admitted to the post-war world, even if they were to miraculously start working again:

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 bad old world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp.

With the repudiation of modern machinery, the acquaintance with the past, with the old ways, is renewed. The survivors have to adjust to those ways, the ways of their forbears, in order to survive. The arrival of the horses seals this relationship. They are a catalyst in the search for “That long-lost archaic companionship.” The colts that came with them are to be the new beasts of burden, they represent hope, the possibility of a new life amid the destruction, “their coming, our beginning.”

So is Muir being merely nostalgic? What is his view of the “atomic age”? He foresees the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, the ultimate fulfilment of man’s destructive nature. Yet, in Muir’s apocalypse, through their rediscovery of their past, humans survive. This takes the poem beyond mere nostalgia, and presents what is ultimately an optimistic view of humanity. Yes, we can destroy, but we can also adapt and survive. The poem is not simply a wish to uninvent the Bomb or return to the “good old days”. It is far more sophisticated than that. After its bleak descriptions of the aftermath of war, it ends on a profoundly hopeful note. It is, nevertheless, a stark warning. In a time when more and more countries are acquiring nuclear weapons, its dystopic vision is as relevant now as when it was written.

1990

The Horses

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 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.

Edwin Muir

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