“The Horses” is a thirty-eight-line poem in free verse, written mostly in two-line stanzas. Like many of Ted Hughes’s poems, it reflects his fascination with nature, especially animals—their appearance and behavior, their own peculiar places in the world. The poem begins with the narrator in a bleak state of mind. Taking a walk in the dark before dawn could be invigorating, but he perceives “Evil air, a frost-making stillness,” and his breath leaves “tortuous statues in the iron light.” In these first few lines, Hughes paints a stark, dreamlike picture in black and gray.
Horses, a familiar enough sight during the day, become strange when the narrator sees ten of them in the gathering dawn. They do not react when he passes by. They seem to be objects, not living beings, chiseled out of a frigid landscape: “Grey silent fragments/ Of a grey silent world.” The narrator, who listens “in emptiness on the moor-ridge,” appears emotionally depleted. His spiritual emptiness leaves him vulnerable to the morning breaking dramatically around him. He hears a bird (a curlew) cry out in the stillness. He sees the sun light up the landscape in orange and red. The single sound and the vibrant colors expose a new world—complete with water and distant planets in the sky—lurking immediately below the winter night’s seemingly impenetrable surface.
In this poem, the sun does not rise; it erupts: “Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,/ Shook the gulf open, showed blue,/ And the big planets hanging.” As is often the case in Hughes’s poems, a familiar occurrence in nature takes on a muscular force, a startling violence. The narrator, having watched the landscape erupt into color, turns again to the horses. Like the landscape, they are waking up. Their stony stillness gives way to small signs of life: “Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves/ Stirring under a thaw.” The horses, however, remain stoically silent, at one with their surroundings.
The horses shape the observer’s memory of the scene. He is overwhelmed by their appearance in a landscape transformed so swiftly from icy desolation to apocalyptic beauty. Described early in the poem as “huge” and “megalith-still,” the horses are powerful creatures with the will to remain controlled and quiet even as the “frost showed its fires.” While the narrator has described himself as empty and stumbling about as if he were “in the fever of a dream,” the horses appear calm, sure of their place in the world, able to endure all things. The poem ends with the narrator hoping, in a sentence construction reminiscent of prayer, that he will always remember the horses. Significantly, he now identifies them as “my memory.” They have become something both personal and abstract, and they seem to embody a spiritual resilience of which the narrator did not seem capable in the first lines of the poem.
“The Horses” is somber in style as well as content. Its many monosyllabic words help create its weighty, serious sound. It is necessary to pause repeatedly in a monosyllabic line such as “The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.” The rhythm is further slowed in this instance by the long vowel sounds and the full stop in the middle of the line. Frequent alliteration adds to the poem’s intensity. The repetition of initial sounds (“draining the darkness,” “making no move,” “hung heads patient as the horizons”) creates a solemn, lingering echo.
The repetition of key words is also significant to the poem’s overall effect. In stanza 6, for example, Hughes describes...
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the horses with their “draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,” and in stanza 15, he again mentions their “draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves.” The repetition of words and images heightens the horses’ unchanging quality. They have a permanence about them that is both unnerving and awe-inspiring.
Hughes also repeats the word “still” to great effect. It first appears as a noun in the second line, “a frost-making stillness,” paradoxically suggesting a kind of active stasis. Then the horses are portrayed as “megalith-still.” Though alive, the animals seem as fixed and static as enormous stones. After the sun rises, the description of the horses (“still they stood”) suggests resilience as well as lack of movement. The next time they are described as still (“But still they made no sound”), the word evokes restraint, the power to resist the upheaval of the overwhelming sunrise. In its last use, “still” describes the poet’s desire to remember the horses’ quiet power (“May I still meet my memory”).
Such a shift in usage is a subtle analogue to the shift in the poet’s perceptions of the horses and the landscape. One can see a similar effect in Hughes’s use of color imagery. In the poem’s opening lines, everything is black and gray, dark and empty. Then the sunrise brings violent orange and red into the picture and exposes the blue gulf.
The colors are so powerful that the poet attempts to retreat to the dark woods where he had been earlier. Outside the woods, however, he sees the horses calmly tolerating the exposure that comes with daylight. In this new context, “the red levelling rays” and, in the last stanza, “the red clouds” are transformed into images as beautiful and memorable as the horses.
For a poem so loaded with visual images, “The Horses” places an intriguing emphasis on listening. This emphasis is underscored by the poem’s own echoes and solemn rhythms. Yet the landscape described is profoundly silent, except for the curlew’s cry in stanza 9. At the end, the speaker (in the “din of the crowded streets”) wants to remember not only “hearing curlews” but also “Hearing the horizons endure.”
The silent horizon, paradoxically, becomes an enduring sound in the poet’s mind. Sight and sound, sound and silence, shape his memory of a scene. Hence his memory—to continue the process of silence naturally evolving into sound—becomes the poem that is read silently yet heard in one’s own mind.