While Hughes’s longstanding interest in animals, birds, and fish does not always provide him with positive imagery—one thinks of his macabre “Crow” poems, for example—this early poem portrays horses in an admirable light. Horses, in fact, stand up better to Hughes’s scrutiny than most other creatures. They seem to represent a strength of will and a natural grace that humans would do well to emulate.
Cold and darkness are initially supplanted by the feverish brilliance of red and orange light. Then the horses, lit by these fiery hues, give the revelation some substance. They are stoic figures capable of surviving brilliant light as well as gray silence, and the narrator seems to identify with them. He wants to remember their resilience, their ability to endure.
This poem is, in retrospect, rather poignant, because not much of Hughes’s later work provides for redemption. Many of his poems, in fact, contain grotesque analogies highlighting human shortcomings and self-degradation. In “Crow’s First Lesson” (1970), for example, God attempts to teach the bird to say “love.” The experiment is an abject failure, as these two strange lines suggest: “Crow retched again, before God could stop him./ And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened.” Unlike the majestic horses, the crow evokes all that is sordid and unresolved in man’s relationship with God, as well as in men’s and women’s relations with each...
(The entire section is 495 words.)