Horses Poem – Edwin Muir

Edwin Muir
in First Poems, 1925
Notes Compiled and Edited by RI

First Reading
• The sight of horses now, in the present, leads the speaker to consider his feelings towards horses when he was a child: ‘Perhaps some childish hour has come again’.
• Main focus:
– The various descriptions of horses and the speaker’s
feelings towards the horses
– An other-worldliness about them, something magical
– Admiration and fear are mixed
– A clear Romantic feel about the poem: e.g. ‘And oh
the rapture…’

Stanza 1
• ‘lumbering’ gives the impression that the horses are moving in a slow, heavy and awkward way

Stanza 2
• Pistons in the machines in an ancient mill are used to describe the movement of the horses’ hooves as the child ‘watched fearful’
• The use of imagery drawn from the early industrial age is interesting in what it tells us about the child’s fear

Stanza 3
• The word ‘conquering’ suggests a reference to an even earlier age
• The word ‘ritual’ and the descriptions ‘seraphim of gold’ and ‘ecstatic monsters’ hint at something pagan or pre-historic

Stanza 4
• The ‘rapture’ conveys a Romantic sense of worshipping these natural creatures: see lines

Stanza 5
• ‘glowing with mysterious fire’ links with the ‘magic power’, which describes the horses he sees in the present day (in the first stanza)

Stanza 6
• The powerful force of the horses is captured in the eyes gleaming with a ‘cruel apocalyptic light’
• The religious imagery follows on from the ‘struggling snakes’ of stanza 5

Stanza 7
• The repetition of ‘it fades’ suggests loss, straightforwardly the fading of his memory
• ‘Pine’ means to feel a lingering, often nostalgic

• To assist a closer reading of the poem as a

Stanza 1
• Task 1
– Look up the meaning of ‘lumbering’ and then
consider the way it contrasts with the description
in lines 3 – 4

Stanza 1
• Task 2
– Look closely at the meanings of ‘terrible’, ‘wild’ and ‘strange’
– These are of course words common in everyday usage, but precise dictionary definitions of these words might yield unexpected and original ideas
– Note that the horses are ‘lumbering’, whilst the plough is ‘steady’

Stanza 2
• Check that you have understood the shift in time.

• The rest of the poem deals with the speaker’s recollection of his feelings as a child.

• What impression do you feel is created by the simile of the ‘pistons’?

Stanza 3
• The references in this stanza are to a preindustrial age. • Consider the effects of these words:
‘conquering hooves’, ‘ritual’, ‘seraphim of gold’ and ‘mute ecstatic monsters’.
• You should consult a dictionary where

Stanzas 4 and 5
• What do you make of the tone in stanza four?
• Explore the words used to describe the horses, and to consider what they reveal about the speaker’s attitude?
• What contrast is signalled by the use of ‘But when at dusk…’ at the beginning of stanza five?
• What do you make of ‘mysterious fire’ here and the ‘magic power’ attributed to the present-day horses in stanza one?

Stanza 6
• Analyse the effectiveness of the imagery: the
‘cruel apocalyptic light’ of their eyes and the
personification of the wind.

Stanza 7
• Before considering the final stanza and
reaching a judgement about its effectiveness,
you might read the whole poem (perhaps
working in pairs).
• Having studied closely the previous stanzas,
how do you now feel that the final stanza
should be spoken?
• How does the tone here differ from the tone
in other parts of the poem?

• In order focus on the sounds of the poem, you
might in pairs or small groups practise reading
the poem aloud.
• Try to capture a suitable voice for the speaker as
you read, and vary the tone as appropriate.
• Finally, annotate a copy of the poem, indicating
briefly the effects created by imagery and sound
• Select an example of a device used in a
particularly striking or vivid way; explain what it is
that makes it striking for you.

Thematic links with set poems
• Nature: Pied Beauty, Hunting Snake, Pike, The
Woodspurge, Upon Westminster Bridge,
Summer Farm
• Time: A Different History, The Cockroach, The
City Planners, The Planners

• Past memories
• Surpassing reality
• The poet reminiscing one of his childhood
– Horses ploughing during a rainy day

Power of Nature
• Expression of the power of nature
• Language techniques
– Simile
– The “mechanical” metaphor
– Oxymoron
– Negative connotations

Vocabulary of nature
• Horses
• Field
• Blackening
• Hooves
• Stubble
• Hulks
• Monsters

Bossy sides


Figurative Language
• Similes
– Hooves
• ‘like pistons in an ancient mill’
– Image:
» Their hooves are like machines
» They keep on moving up and down, ploughing the whole

• Struggling snakes – Snake-like furrows
– Prepares us for the biblical imagery
» ‘cruel apocalyptic light’

• Eyes
– As brilliant and as wide as night

• Wind
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind

• Dusk
• The broad-breasted horses in the light of the
setting sun
• The light coming off of their bodies in flakes
• The steaming nostrils
• Their warm, gigantic bodies glowing with
mysterious fire
• The smouldering heat of their bodies in the cold

• Metaphors
– “Conquering”
– “Great hulks”
• Mechanical
• Industrial age
• Comparing a horse’s power to that of an engine
– E.g. car engine
– Reader can visualize and sense the physical power of the animal
– Powerful image of the horses
– Appreciation of the beauty of the powerful force of the horses

• Oxymoron
– Horses described as ‘mute ecstatic monsters on
the mould’
– Horses being presented as ‘terrible, so wild and
strange’, yet with ‘magical power’
– Leading the reader to ponder the poet’s message:
• The idea of nature fading away and life becoming
– Followed by the disclosure of his dislike of modernisation

• Negative connotations
– Dark side and despair
• Through negative connotations
– The “smouldering” bodies of the horses
» Their eyes gleaming with a “cruel apocalyptic light”

• Here the poet expresses his emotions towards
the arrival of evil, or apocalypse and his world
turning dark

The right words
• First half of the poem
– Words like “seraphim” and “gold”
• Emphasis on strong presence and value in nature

• End of the poem
– “black field” and “still-standing tree”
• The poet introduces a dark, sad tone
– As he expresses his realisation
» faded nature
» loss of its presence

• Memory
– Struggle
• Light and darkness

• Symbolic
– Expresses aspects of nature
• Wildness
• Innocence

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