What is most striking about the poem "Horses" by Edwin Muir?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edwin Muir’s poem “Horses” looks back at a childhood memory.  The first person point of view employs a flashback for the narrator to recall a memory of his father’s horses.  Some critics believe that Muir was writing about himself as the narrator.

As a young boy, the speaker observes a team of horses plowing a field. What is striking in the poem? The stark images of the horses described by the boy make the horses come to life.  The poet’s adjectives and verbs perfectly fit the horses as they work at turning the ground for planting.

The horses must be a large breed.  They seem to almost be Clydesdales with their huge feet.  On the other hand, the young boy may perceive the horses as larger than they really were.

1st stanza

The horses are lumbering through the barren field plowing it. As the speaker looks back, he wonders why he perceived the horses as terrible and strange. As they worked, the horses seemed to have magical powers over the land.

2nd stanza

Perhaps some childish hour has come again,
When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain,
Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill
Move up and down, yet seem as standing still.

The speaker feels as though he is back as a child observing the horses. The boy was fearful when he watched the horses.  The rain fell and it seemed black.  Using a simile to describe the rhythmic movements of the horse’s feet, the poet compares them to the pistons in an engine moving up and down. To the boy, the horses almost seemed to stand still.

3rd stanza

The horses appear to conquer the earth as they plow.  It was almost ritualistic.  The boy compared them to angels of gold or silent, joyful monsters on a green, mossy area.

4th stanza

When one row is completed, the horses march together with the light reflecting off their sides like flakes.  The plowed rows look as if they were wriggling snakes

5th stanza

At the end of the day, the horses look as though they are huge in the fading light.  Their bodies exude steam because of the heat generated from their hard work. The steam is like a fire without a source. They poet uses the word smoldering to describe the steam rising from their bodies.

6th stanza

The horses’ eyes are shiny and wide.  The world is involved in some kind of chaos that makes the light which shines on the horses cruel and prophetic.  Their manes are blowing with the fury of the wind which is unseen.

Suddenly, the memory begins to fade away.  The speaker longs for this time again with the clear but feared countryside. The fields were empty but for one standing tree. This time is bright but frightful to the narrator.

The reader is unsure about the reason for the fear of the boy as he looks. It is the eerie imagery that is most striking in this poem.

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