The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Edwin Muir’s “The Horses,” a free-verse narrative poem of fifty-three lines, opens to the reader a future that may have seemed all too possible at the time of its composition in the 1950’s. In the opening lines, “Barely a twelvemonth after/ The seven days war that put the world to sleep,” Muir ushers the reader out of the realm of the everyday. Brief wars have occurred in the past, but have such wars put the entire world to sleep? The notion seems outrageous. Yet that sense of outrage in itself helps to color the passages that follow and put them into perspective. The reader learns, line by line, that things in the world have gone seriously awry. Technology has reached an impasse. “On the second day,” Muir’s narrator says, in chronicling the war, “The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.” The nature of the calamity comes gradually clear. “On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,/ Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day/ A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter/ Nothing.” An enormous but quiet disaster has overcome the world. In a dreamlike state, the weapons of war appear to the survivors less as machines than as mysterious signs of new times. When the warship appears, no pursuing ships follow. No enemy planes land to disgorge conquerors. The survivors of the “seven days war” emerge into a world in which only defeat is visible. They see no victors. From these cues, readers of Muir’s poem may guess...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While “The Horses” is a speculative poem in that Muir uses a poetic narrative form to speculate into the future from an existing situation in the world, the poem may also be read as a conceit or an extended metaphor. The future world that has been brought to stillness and silence by technology may be none other than the contemporary world in which humans have become so divorced from their “natural,” or at least traditional, modes of living that they are no longer fully in touch with their own true nature. Rather than being a future danger, the rift between humankind and the world has already grown wide.

Muir uses the narrative to take a hopeful view of the situation. By having the horses return to the farmers of their own volition, he suggests that humans may look to the world itself for the closing of the rift. A natural order may reestablish itself, even at a time when people appear unwilling to make the effort on their own. The narrator of the poem makes clear the attitude of the survivors toward the horses: “We did not dare go near them.” The horses, nevertheless, offer their “free servitude,” which allows the survivors to then rediscover their own place in nature. Muir gives depth and resonance to his free-verse lines with a series of intertwined repetitions and contrasts. Using the same adjective in the first three occurrences of “horses” in the poem, Muir emphasizes the dilemma of the survivors through a subtle oxymoron: The very animals that should have...

(The entire section is 612 words.)