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‘The Horses’ by Edwin Muir

‘The Horses’ by Edwin Muir is a poem that explores the subject of war and destruction of the environment due to technology. Muir uses negative and unpleasant descriptions of the world after war in the first stanza and highly contrasts this to the new beginnings with the horses in the second stanza. This contrast is a key aspect of the novel that contributes to its effectiveness of the poem as a whole.

In the first stanza there is emphasis on the destruction of the world after a nuclear war; Muir expands on how the influence of the language used is negative – ‘put the world to sleep’ – he emphasizes that the war was so destructive it was world wide and cataclysmic. He uses connotations with everything being silent and motionless, ‘so still’, and ‘covenant with silence’. To contrast this Muir uses loud percussive and climactic language ‘tapping’, ‘deepening drumming’ and ‘hollow thunder’. He shows that the entrance of the horses is powerful yet unthreatening as they are the saviors of the war-ravaged land.

Contrast is again evident when Muir extends on the catastrophic number of deaths and the abundance of new life it is compared to in the second stanza. ‘Dead bodies piled on deck’ Muir proves that the souls that were killed during the war are now carelessly man-handled, but this also shows the mass destruction. In comparison, the second stanza poses a different approach, there is an optimistic and natural outlook given through Muir’s use of language. He states that there were ‘half a dozen colts’ meaning future generations have a supply of dutiful and loyal ‘steeds’ to look after them.

Muir describes technology and machinery as formidable and the only way to overcome them is for a new start. ‘Swallowed its children quick’ – this is the dark nature of Muir’s depiction of technology; he also describes it as ‘dank sea-monsters crouched and waiting’. His hatred towards the machinery is so intense that he relates to them as demon-like and threatening. However he suggests that with the atonement of mankind, the world can be saved, thanks to the heroic horses. The horses are labeled as ‘fabulous steeds’ and ‘knights’ regarding them as mythical forms of saviors. This notion ties in with the continuous relation to the Bible; for example he mentions that the destruction of the world only took seven days, similar to the theory that the world began in seven days.

Loss is highlighted in stanza one, the loss of lives, machinery and any sound or motion at all: but stanza two explains the uplifting renewal of everything. ‘Impenetrable sorrow’ shows that mourning one would have over a loved one, and in this case hundreds of thousands. In spite of this, stanza two mentions new life and friendships regained from the past – ‘archaic companionship’ that could ‘pierce our hearts’. This adds to the emotional attachment that mankind shares with the horses, almost like the unconditional love a parent shares with their child. The hard-working horses are also compared to the now, useless machinery, which was defunct long after the war. In stanza one the machinery was decaying – ‘let them rust’, whereas the horses willingly offered ‘free servitude’, glorifying them even further.

‘The Horses’ is a poem that portrays the theme of war and destruction brilliantly, and without the evident contrast that Muir expresses, the poem would not be as effective. The idea of the redemption of humanity is optimistic and pleasing, but it still conveys its message that humans should not abuse the use of technology.