Themes and Meanings

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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 other.

Another perspective on Hughes’s animal poems is presented by the poem “Roe Deer” (1979). Similar to “The Horses” in its first-person consideration of animals at dawn, the poem describes two deer making their way past the narrator. Impressed with “their two or three years of secret deerhood,” he wants to enter their world but cannot do so. “Roe Deer” ends with the animals vanishing in the snow.

In the later poem, Hughes seems preoccupied with the fleeting quality of inspiration. Although the deer are depicted in a positive light, they vanish before the narrator can grasp their full meaning. “The Horses,” by contrast, depicts an emblem of endurance. Like the fleeting image of the deer, however, the horses now exist only in memory. The poet must evoke the huge, silent animals in words in order to savor that memory fully.

It is hard—particularly in the light of Hughes’s later work—to ignore the poem’s equally memorable images of despair and emptiness. The narrator’s vulnerability in the face of the sunrise and the horses is extreme. There is not much separating the sustaining image of the horses and the poem’s other images of violence and despair.

It seems possible, given the attention he pays to the frigid darkness, that he will recollect the “evil air” as often as he recollects the horses. The poem’s prayerful conclusion may also be interpreted as unfulfilled longing, since even the powerful memory of the horses may not stem the tide of noise and years.

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