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Explain the poem "Horses" by Edwin Muir, including figures of speech, tone, summary.

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nehasrivastav | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted October 10, 2012 at 5:06 AM via web

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Explain the poem "Horses" by Edwin Muir, including figures of speech, tone, summary.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted October 10, 2012 at 10:25 AM (Answer #1)

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“Horses”  by Edwin Muir brings to life a memorable time from the past. This scene has been repeated so often that it is almost like the tradition of preparing the brown earth for planting. 

The poem employs a first person narrator whose memory recalls the scene of the horses ploughing the field.  The reader learns that the poet remembers this time in a flashback when in the last stanza the memory fades, bringing the poet back to the present. 

Utilizing five stanzas with each a quatrain, the poem has a set rhyme scheme: AABB CCDD EEFF etc.  The poem is intended to be read aloud representing the rhythm of the horses and the memory of the poet passing through his mind and then back to the present.

The theme of the poem expresses the importance of reminiscences and the passing of time with no understanding of what the future may bring.  The horses represent the past when the world was not industrialized. The tone of the poem exemplifies bitterness and anger for the changed world in which the author now lives, yet he finds a strange beauty in the previous time when the horses worked to make the field come to life.

Using wonderful descriptors for his images, the reader can visualize the scene along with the narrator. Conquering, ecstatic, broad-breasted, smouldering, brilliant—all add to the memory of the horses as the man looks back to a more innocent time. The poet also uses comparisons to appraise the images. For example, these comparisons help to visualize the horses and the rows that they plow.

  • A metaphor- "And their great hulks were seraphims of gold…" The huge bodies of the horses were golden angels.
  • A simile- "The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes…" The plowed rows looked as if they were wriggling serpents.

Muir demonstrates concrete imagery when he paints the scene with these visions: "lumbering horses," "move up and down," "yet seem as standing still." Rhythmically, the use of alliteration provides the feel of the horses' actions.

They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire...

Initially, the narrator observes a team of horses performing the traditional breaking of the ground in preparation for planting.  These horses are huge palomino colored [golden] with white manes.  The poet compares them to silent monsters working in the field. The horses, greater than the farmer or the observer, come to life as they work plowing the furrows.

As the sun sets, the horses are done for the day. Contrasting images show both happiness and anger in the second verse.  The farmer may be frustrated that the day is over, but the horses are ready for rest.

As the horses return to the barn, their impressive size and the color of their coats are illuminated by the setting sun. The horses throw off steam from their heated bodies.

The eyes of the horses are bright and reflect the presents the  reader  with a post apocalyptic world in which evil triumphs over good.  As they walk back to the barn, the horses’ manes are lifted by the wind as though expressing blind rage. 

The last stanza brings the narrator back to the present.  Life has changed from the bountiful field to the black, barren land with a single tree left.

Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine
Again for the dread country crystalline…

The reader is left to wonder what happened in the poet’s life that left him feeling as though an apocalypse has ended the world that he remembers as a child

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