Horses – Edwin Muir

Published: 2021-07-18 14:10:08
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Edwin Muir was born on the remote Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland in 1887. * His father was a tenant farmer but he lost his land when Muir was fourteen. * Muir then moved with his family to Glasgow in 1901, where he remained for 18 years. The family lived in a poor part of the city. * During the early 1920s Muir travelled in Europe. * Muir wrote poetry and plays and earned his living as an editor, translator and literary critic. * He poetry is personal and often dreamlike.
The poem ‘The Horses’ describes a future way of life that will be like the simple farming life of the past. * This way of life will be like how it used to be in the Garden of Eden. There will be no industry or technology. Man will once again be close to nature and animals. * The roots of this poem lie in Muir’s experience of life. * His life as a boy on a remote island was sheltered compared to the disorder and uproar of life in Glasgow. * In Glasgow first his father, then his two brothers, and then his mother died in the space of a few years.
His life as a young man in Glasgow was a depressing experience for him, involving a succession of unpleasant jobs. * Thus he began to imagine and long for a more innocent way of life, close to the earth like in his childhood. * The horror of twentieth century world wars also influenced the poem. * Like many writers of the twentieth century Muir thought a future war might wipe out the world as we know it. * The central idea in the poem is that people ought to live a life of hard work close to the earth. * The ideas in the poem are somewhat like the strict ideas of Calvin.
Calvinism is a religion that proposes a life of strict innocence based on hard work, closeness to the soil and avoidance of pleasure. * Calvin’s ideas were central to the Presbytarian religion that Muir grew up in. * In this religion only a small portion of people would get in to heaven after God angrily destroys the world. * Muir seems to think the good people are those who live close to the earth. * Muir creates a speaker or narrator from the future who describes recent history. The descriptions of events at sea suggest he is on an island, similar to where Muir grew up. * The poem is futuristic.
The speaker is like a survivor describing the new, recovered earth after a Third World War. * It is a dream-like poem that contains farming imagery straight from the poet’s childhood on the farm in the Orkney Islands. * The poem refers to mysterious horses that come to help humans rebuild their life. * These horses represent a new world. * At the end of the bible, in the Book of Revelations, four horses were a signal for the end of the world. * In this poem, Muir imagines one world has ended and a new one has begun. * The horses that ended the world in the bible, return to help build the new world, a world close to nature.
Summary * The speaker or narrator refers to a seven-day war and to the arrival of the magical horses. They are like horses from mythology. * The speaker says the community had decided to remain silent about the past and move on. * He describes the first few days of the war when they lived in shock and fear. They were afraid of the sound of their own breathing. * The speaker mentions a few details of the war. * Their radios stopped working on the second day. * A warship full of dead bodies passed northwards on the third day. * On the sixth day an airplane fell into the sea.
After the war radios everywhere remained silent * Soon it became clear people never again wanted to hear the radios. * If the radios ever start to broadcast again people will ignore them because they represent the bad old days of war that killed children instantly. * The survivors do not want to go back to a world where entire nations were wiped out in one stroke. * The memory of that sad fact astounds them. * They ignore their disused tractors. In the light of dusk the tractors look like damp sea-monsters. * The community of survivors have decided to let the tractors rot into the clay.
Immediately after the war, they began to farm using oxen or cattle to pull the ploughs. This is the old way of farming described in the bible. * The speaker then describes the magical and mysterious arrival of the horses one evening. * At first they made a frightening noise like drums or thunder as they approached. * The speaker remembers the dramatic moment he saw the heads of the approaching horses. * He recalls how they had got rid of horses and replaced them with tractors in the old world. * The arrival of the horses was like the arrival of magical steeds from a story about knights.
At first the people were afraid of the horses. * But the horses waited, determined and shy. * People began to realise the horses had been sent to them. The horses had been sent by God’s command to find them. * It appears the horses had a mission to restore the relationship of man and horse from ancient times. * At first the people had no thought of using the horses for their work. * The group of horses contained six young horses that looked as if they had come from the Garden of Eden. * They were mysteriously dropped into the broken world to help the survivors rebuild the new world.
Since that moment the horses have helped the community of survivors with the heavy farm work. * The speaker says the people are touched by the free choice of the horses to serve them at work. * Life has changed. The arrival of the horses marked the beginning of the new world. Themes The Return To A Simple And Innocent Way Of Life Muir imagines that the real world is so evil that it will destroy itself. Mass media control the world we live in. Radio represents this fact. Our world has turned from nature to machinery. Tractors represent this. The speaker sees tractors as monsters from the sea.
He imagines a world war that will get rid of this way of life. Such a war will wipe out entire nations. Then he dreams about the survivors returning to nature and innocence: ‘We have gone back far past our father’s land’. He suggests the survivors would never again allow inventions to take over their lives. Horses will take over from tractors. He suggests humans have an ancient natural bond with horses: ‘that long-lost archaic companionship’. A new beginning will establish a world like it used to be in the bible. The horses are said to be straight out of their own Eden.
A happy rural society will form. It will be dedicated to work. He doesn’t speak of pleasure but of simple farm work. He suggests that humans will be happy only when working close to the earth. War The poem paints a frightening picture of war. Fear dominates people’s emotions. Radios go quiet. Radios were the only type of mass media in the middle of the twentieth century. But the idea of a million homes with radios standing silent creates a horrible feeling of emptiness in the homes. We presume the people are silenced too, by death. A warship passes with dead bodies. A plane crashes into the sea.
The suggestion that war swallowed children ‘quick’ or alive shows the frightening savagery of war. The poet describes whole nations massacred by war. It is like a nuclear war. The people lie dead, locked in sorrow at how they died. The poet suggests that the existence of machines and fast progress caused this war. He thinks that by replacing horses with tractors people lost touch with nature and evil gradually took over. Style * Repetition Muir uses a series of words to show the alarming noise the approaching horses made: ‘tapping’, ‘drumming’ and ‘thunder’. Notice how the words build up to a climax.
Imagery Muir uses a gruesome image of war: ‘dead bodies piled on deck’. He uses primitive images such as oxen pulling ploughs. * Symbol The tractors are symbols of industry and technology which destroyed the previous world. * Metaphor The old world is compared to an monster that ‘that swallowed its children quick at one great gulp’. * Personification By using the word ‘dumb’ Muir personifies the radios. He also personifies them by saying that they stand. This portrays the radios as evil beings waiting to resume control over people’s lives. * Simile Muir compares the disused tractors to ‘dank sea-monsters’.

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