"The Horses" by Edwin Muir reminds the reader of fear of an atomic holocaust prevalent in the 1950s when the poem was written. This free verse poem describes the potential aftermath of an apocalyptic war. In the beginning each line portrays how the world has suffered from this frightful war. Muir advises that metaphorically “the nations were lying asleep.”
The poet’s description begins with the fear of the unknown. Waiting by the radio for news—everyone wants to know what to do next. Watching the end of civilization as it was before, the survivors decide that even if something comes on the radio that silence is best. No one wants to replay the war. Silence has become a way of life.
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
The narrator explains that they no longer use their tractors for which they ironically had sold their horses to buy. Describing how the survivors have returned to the simpler life of their ancestors, now they use oxen to plow the fields.
One year after the war, the narrator's world is unexpectedly interrupted. A herd of horses invade their silent lives. The silence is broken first by the tapping, then drumming, and finally thunder which brings the horses. Over the year, nature has provided colts. Initially, the survivors are fearful of the horses. Like the days of yore, the horses represent a time that is long past. What do they want?
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning
Eventually, the narrator realizes that the horses represent hope. Then finally, the understanding comes that the horses will provide a new creation—man can reestablish a connection with nature. Despite the terror and the loss from the war, a new but old relationship commences. Life will no longer reflect the devastation of war, but the inauguration of a new civilization. That is the duality of life in the poem.