Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In its imagery and its contained events, “The Horses” focuses upon communication, both failed and successful. At least initially, silence represents the former. The war itself starts with stillness and silence without the violence and clangor normally associated with major conflicts. Its first result, moreover, is added silence: The radios fall quiet. The passage of the warship and the falling of the plane seem noiseless events in Muir’s emotionally muted, or numbed, lines. By the time the horses arrive, the survivors have already made a “covenant with silence” and have reached the point of preferring that the radios do not speak again. Muir conveys the anxiety with which they regard the notion of working radios and, by extension, the return of the technological world in emphatic lines of repetition: “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.” No sounds are mentioned in the poem before the arrival of the horses except for a few words, presumably spoken by one farmer to another. The words relate to the return to soil. People are returning to the soil as farmers, and their old machinery is doing likewise in a more literal way: “’They’ll moulder away and be like other loam,’” one says of the old tractors. Sound returns forcefully with the horses, beginning with an insistent tapping, followed by drumming and then the “hollow thunder” of their hooves.
In discriminating between the failed and the successful, Muir suggests there may be two kinds of communication. One kind, which relates to intellectual and technical knowledge, is represented by the radios, now fallen silent. This kind of speaking, and this kind of knowledge, has let down the survivors. War has transformed it to silence. The second kind, relating to the communication between people and their world, is, ironically, also represented by silence, even though it is ushered in by the stamping of hooves. The farmers do not, and cannot, speak with the strange horses, after all. The ancient relationship between humankind and horses restores itself without words. A new silence replaces the old. In this silence, however, the people are no longer alone.