Winter Horses Themes
by Barbara Pinson

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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The title of the book in which “Winter Horses” is collected suggests a provocative theme for this poem in particular: Defensive Rapture. Where does this poem reach for rapture, and where does it appear to defend against or temper it? Is it the rapture itself that menaces, or does something else underlie and necessarily disrupt rapture? Can a defensive rapture be called rapture at all? The answer might lie in the word “rapture” itself. While the word bears the generally positive definition of “transport to ecstasy,” its original Latin root, raptus (“to have been seized”), is a form of the verb rapio (“to seize”), which is the root of the word “rape.” Someone experiencing rapture has been seized, and while this feeling brings the pleasure of ecstasy, it also takes possession of one’s mind. A mind as aware of la gloire as of fortifications and wars might well find rapture impossible to maintain. Indeed, reality offers both fragments of rapture and menace, and a defensive rapture brings one not so much safety as a steady awareness that can recognize and experience both pleasure and pain, particularly through the vehicle of the imagination.

This leads to a second key theme in the poem: the relationship between reality and the imagination. People generally do not consider reality to be as fragmented as Guest presents it, which raises the question of the role of the imagination. In the poem, the reader’s imagination creates coherences between the fragments. Is this also how imagination works with reality? The poem highlights the ability of the mind or the imagination to connect seemingly disparate objects and ideas and to devise meaning, revealing what might be the mind’s partly conscious, partly unconscious work. Yet this does not imply that the poem ever loses its ability to disturb by the gaps that it leaves; one cannot merely connect the dots. Readers can make easier connections between some fragments than others. Some fragments contain more of a sense of emotional connotation than a precise interpretation. The poem’s incompleteness continues to resonate because that incompleteness produces the necessity to rewrite or reconnect with the poem with every new reading. The period that concludes the poem might well serve as an arrow redirecting readers back to the poem’s beginning to read that beginning anew in light of what the “end” has provided. As poet Tom Clark has commented, Guest’s work “mimes the tenuous, evanescent sense of shimmer or mirage that life’s splintered transparencies present us.” Readers may revel in that shimmer, recognizing Guest’s “splintered transparencies” as the view from their own lives.