Sunday Night Journal, July 22, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, July 29, 2018

52 Poems, Week 30: The Horses (Edwin Muir)

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, headed 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 crouched 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.

*

Leafing through Sound and Sense I've come across several poems that I had read back in freshman English, fifty years ago, and since forgotten. And I was very happy to rediscover them. This is not one of them; this is one I never forgot.

Edwin Muir is not a widely known poet, and I've never read much of his work. In fact two or three poems in another anthology are the whole of it. Several times over the years, thinking of this poem, I've looked for a collection, but anything I found was out of print and quite expensive. Looking for the text online, to save myself the trouble of typing it in, I found it posted at Slate and read by Robert Pinsky, who describes Muir as "a mysteriously neglected, gorgeous, and emotionally penetrating poet." I think I'll check again to see if there's a book available...yes, there are used copies of Selected Poems (edited by T.S. Eliot!) available for less than $5 at ABE Books.

Anyway, I think this is a terrific poem in every way. Stylistically it makes me think of some of Frost's blank verse narrative poems. It does more with the theme of nuclear apocalypse than any number of movies and novels. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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That is very powerful in a very quiet and still way.

I think about what it would be like to see something that you had forgotten and how many things you would notice that you used to pass over. I'm trying to think of an example. ;-)

AMDG

Do you mean that you find it strange? That's strange. :-) It's a fairly frequent experience for me. If I understand you correctly, which I'm not sure I do.

In this sense, I guess it is. Something you have forgotten to the point where it seems almost holy in its wonderfulness.

AMDG

I think I know what you're talking about though it isn't that intense to me. Definitely wasn't in reading S&S, more just "Oh yeah, I remember that one."

I wasn't talking about the poem, I was talking about the horses. ;-)

AMDG

Oh, I see. Yeah, that makes more sense.

Ha.

I wasn't joking, it really does.

Oh, I know.

AMDG

Excellent poem -- can understand why it stuck with you.

In an essay I read recently David Bentley Hart, recommending 25 "unknown" books, called Muir the "least-read great poet in English of the twentieth century." Based on the strength of this one, I think I'll have to get a copy of the selected poems.

Here's the Hart piece:

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/04/from-a-vanished-library

Interesting that Muir was born in Orkney, in that a friend of mine has recently been singing the praises of another Orkney writer, George Mackay Brown.

I read that DBH piece but obviously not very attentively, because I don't remember the reference to Muir.

If the number of copies available on ABE is an indication, a book of his called Scottish Journey had some popularity. In case you didn't read the Wikipedia bio, there is this wonderful quote from him. It refers to his family's move from an Orkney farm to Glasgow:

"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two-days' journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time."

Magnificent poem and great Muir quote. His finding that he'd lost 150 years in his two-days' journey from Orkney to Glasgow, made me wonder how his head would spin at the changes since his death in 1959.

That's some list of books by David Bentley Hart. I think only two or three of the authors' names were even known to me. And to say they all pretty much sound heavy-duty is putting it mildly. Love how he ends his summary of the last one, Hojoki by Kamo-no-Chomei: "it is best read just before going to sleep or dying."

Heh. I liked that last bit, too. I must say that there seemed to be a bit of posing in that piece. "Look at these exotic books I know all about that you probably never even heard of."

"I must say that there seemed to be a bit of posing in that piece."

Yeah, but he sort of covered his posterior when he wrote at the end that "lists of this sort are meant to be arbitrary, ideally even somewhat perversely so."

I think he pretty much achieved that. I have to admit, though, that there are quite a few things on there that sound interesting.

Oh, definitely. Interesting and more. But I'm thinking of bits like this: "You have, of course, read the “official” Sanskrit version of the Ramayana, and you may even be aware of certain of the heteroclite Indian dialect versions..."

See, I read that and think that's got to be a joke. Like the professor who says "You no doubt recall....", knowing full well that the students he's lecturing probably will have no idea about what he's going to say.

Yes, most likely it is a joke. I hope so.

That is what I thought.

AMDG

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