The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)