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(15 May 1887 – 3 January 1959 / Orkney / Scotland)

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The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
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. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll molder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003
Edited: Monday, November 13, 2006


Read poems about / on: sea, world, sometimes, sorrow, war, silence, summer, children, sleep, lost, father, horse, change, child

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Comments about this poem (The Combat by Edwin Muir )

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  • Dianne Aslett (9/21/2012 9:35:00 AM)

    People in this poem are scared of their own breathing because this takes them back to the bare essentials of 'LIFE', how vulnerable life is, how alone individuals really are. Silence is often scary and particularly in our world which with all the noise and haste involved in a technological age is quite a rare thing and not sufficiently explored or valued.They cannot, and do not want to hear the radio's news again as it only announced bad news, and fearful news about violence and destructiveness... They also realise how destructive the technology they have created can be, and when they see the horses they feel guilty that they ever SOLD them to BUY TRACTORS. The tractors themselves are now experienced as frightening because they represent the dangers, the terrors of techological development also. They are 'couched and waiting' and they 'leave them to rust'. ~The HORSES are 'natural life', they represent natures power which is also scary, and the people at first fear their 'wildness' and do not appreciate that they can once again be of help to man, they can once again serve man. The poem ends with a sense of gratitude for the return of companionship and 'free servitude' of the horses, and how the human's lives can now have hope in them once again, and a new future.The moral of the story is: do not neglect nature. We are part of nature and we need to value her and seek relationship with her. She can offer healing and helpful and regenerating properties to us. We ignore and rape her at our peril. The natural world is essential to our survival and always will be...Do not become so obsessed with technological advances and kudos that you forget your enormous dependency and gratitude to Nature. Techo whiz kids/obsessives TAKE NOTE! ! .~ Dianne A.

    27 person liked.
    14 person did not like.
  • L. S. (6/9/2012 9:49:00 PM)

    Guys, it's not about technology being our doom or how technology is basically evil and unreliable and that we should all go back to using horses. If anything technology is double sided sword; with great power comes great responsibility. This poem is about the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic event and how we possibly would need to fall back to more primitive times for specific reasons, such as no electricity. Go figure, who would of guessed that radios don't work without electricity? Maybe it's a misunderstanding of technology in our older generations that leads to the assumption that all technology is just plain garbage.

    Great poem by the way!

  • Tom Adams (4/7/2010 5:13:00 AM)

    This is one of my favourite poems, James Grant put some music to it on his album 'I Shot the Albatross' Well worth a listen. I think the underlying message is that we, by our nature, do tend to ruin the world we live in, be that with our technology, our attitude or even apathy, In the poem we are waiting to hear something from the radios, it takes the intervention of the horses to show us the way and bring us into action. Perhaps the message could be that no matter what we do, nature will come through for us in the end, maybe then we realise what we had in our forefathers time. It is an optimistic point of view, perhaps the message is to change our ways before this happens. I don't believe all is lost, I just think we have to consider what we are doing more carefully, Muir knew this even then, perhaps we have not learned as yet.

  • Cassie Best (11/20/2007 12:08:00 PM)

    The poem The Horses is one of the most descriptive and imagery poems i have read in a while. The horses symbolized the way of life that our grandfathers lived and then over the years we become more dependent on technology. It showes a how we have evolved from buggies and wagons to tractors and other machines. Even though we have left the horses behind and forgot about them they were there for us when the technology (machines let us down) . I also thought the part about the radios was really bold and discriptive part.
    'The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
    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. The radios dumb;
    And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
    And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
    All over the world. But now if they should speak,
    If on a sudden they should speak again,
    If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
    We would not listen, we would not let it bring'
    After reading this part i had this image of 1984 and how they had to only listen to a certain person. When i was done reading the peom i had almost drew this whole sketch of what he was discribing and i love that about poems.

  • Kelly Boyce (11/20/2007 12:05:00 PM)

    This poem showed me how dependent the world is on technology and if we even see something of Grandfathers time such as the horses, how much of a stranger they are to us. I wonder if we didnt have the advanced technology we have today if we wouldnt have so much problems.

  • Annamarie Yang (11/19/2007 5:48:00 PM)

    I feel that this poem symbolizes how humanity progresses. Like the novel 1984, I think this poem can be seen as a warning to the past, present, and future. As we grow more reliant on technology, we start to care less about how things were done before technology existed and gradually forget altogether. While I was reading, I could picture the images Edwin Muir was describing and understand what feelings he was conveying throughout the poem. People usually only start to act after something tragic happens to them or when it's almost too late. In the poem, the people experienced the loss of their friends and family, and the destruction of the world as they knew it. It was only then that they realized how much they regretted trading their horses for tractors and believing that technology would make their lives easier. The horses symbolized a new beginning to the people who wanted nothing to do with technology anymore.

  • Catherine Tomaszewicz (11/19/2007 5:23:00 PM)

    I really enjoyed this poem. I think the poet used creative words to describe the images he wished to portray. I like how Edwin Muir repeated words when describing how the radios were still kept in the kitchens of the speakers. Repetition helps make that message clear and memorable. Although a pessimistic view, I don't believe that the world would recreate itself for the better if destruction were to occur. Unfortunetely, our society relies just too much on technology to do without it. The notion of peace is enticing but not realistic. Even though this poem lacks any strict metre, I find that it 'flows' in a way that is quite enjoyable to read! : D
    ~ Catherine

  • Brad Rihela (11/19/2007 2:18:00 AM)

    This poem was written well with very exclusive description. I do not quite agree with the concepts that i feel are being conveyed in this poem, I feel that this poem only shows the negative aspects of the technology in the world today. However it also does a good job of showing the beauty of simplicity in life. Sometimes a simpler world would be a better world in certain aspects. Far less crime would occur, but also far less medical advancements and such would ever have been made. One thing i quite enjoyed about this poem was that i felt as though i was a part of it. i felt as though i was right in the middle of the thundering hooves; the details were very extravagant.

  • Meghan Pool (11/19/2007 2:02:00 AM)

    I enjoyed this poem because its like a warning of what is to become of the world. People nowadays are so heavily dependant on technology that they sometimes forget how much nicer things were before. As I read the poem, the picture I had imagined in my mind was dull and grey during the first part. As I read further, things seemed to brighten up as if the coulds were parting to allow the sun to shine through. I think that technology represents all evil in our lives and the horses are representative of purity and the way things used to be. I believe that people do need to get back to their roots to truly dicover who they are and who they want to become. The poem for me, was a real eye-opener on how dependant I am on technology and how liberating it might feel to live like my grand-parents or great-grandparents lived.

  • Kayla Murphy (11/18/2007 11:34:00 PM)

    Upon first hearing this poem, I was overcome with a nostalgic feeling of reading books about animals when I was a child. This is fitting because the whole idea of this back-to-basics perfect world is very childlike in and of itself. The end result of this poem is that humans live in harmony with the horses, and the world is oh so wonderful. This cannot work in real life. Real life demands balance. They cannot have all the people live in harmony without conflict. Imagine day but never night, safety but never danger, loud but never quiet, agreeing but never opposing. The world in which everyone agrees with eachother is world not worth living in.
    On another note, the choice of horses as the saviors was both a good and a bad choice. It worked well with the mechanics of the poem (remaining humans wanting help and companionship) , but as soon as I heard it was about horses, I prejudged it and already had in my mind that it was going to be like every other piece of horse literature out there.
    In conclusion, this poem has good intentions, but is not possible is real life. But hey, isn't the whole point of fictitious literature to escape the real world?

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