Continuing our Dabbler Verse series, Gaw recalls a horsey and hippyish poem from his youth.

Coming back from the corner shop today I heard the leisurely clatter of hooves. It was the mounted police that regularly patrol our corner of London. I always get a thrill when I see them. They were a threesome today and one, a majestic grey mare.

They always seem on a very relaxed sort of hack and I’ve never witnessed them in action. In fact, I’m not sure what action they are intended for on their regular round: A cavalry charge of some spray-can-wielding hoodies? A mounted pursuit of shoplifters? But then they’re probably not looking for action – rather, they’re an equine deterrent.

And they make a tremendously impressive sight – much more comforting to the law-abiding citizen than the sight of a flashing jam sandwich. This feeling of being comfortable in their presence reminded me of one of the poems we ‘did’ at school, by Edwin Muir. It’s spoilt a little by incorporating a measure of political didacticism (I suspect we were introduced to it by a CND-supporting English teacher) but it’s nevertheless memorable and quite striking, even moving, in parts.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Horses

  1. Worm
    September 19, 2011 at 10:32

    Excellent doom laden poem for a monday morning! Funny how the doomsday scenario that once inspired 40 years worth of a whole raft of art, writing and music is now such an anachronism.

    September 19, 2011 at 14:51

    Tried it in a Yorkshire accent, seems to work best, satisfyingly melancholic, any cheery ones Gaw?

    September 19, 2011 at 18:25

    I’ve admired this poem for years – I ‘did’ it at school too – and bits of it have found their way into my memory. Indeed, ‘They’ll moulder away and be like other loam’ is a stock phrase in our house when referring to useless junk. (‘Molder’, ‘plow’ – some American editor has been at this copy of the poem.) Sure, it’s gloomy, but the horses, with their life and their ambiguous relationship with the people, bring a complex life to the poem, which of course is as much about how the people see the horses as about the horses themselves. And Muir’s command of verse is wonderful – all those feminine endings (silence, strangeness, evening, waiting, waited, Eden) bring a yearning music to the poem.

  4. Gaw
    September 19, 2011 at 19:41

    Yes, Philip, those soft, insinuating endings – like a series of nuzzles.

    Whilst not being a rider I do like the look of horses. One of my favourite sights is the Welsh cobs being paraded at The Royal Welsh Show.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:30

    Gaw: Shire horses being let into the paddock after work, prancing, galloping and playing all over the place: one of the most wonderful sights.

    But I’m not a rider either. My father (who began his adult life working on a farm and would ride willingly if his boss wanted horses exercised, but had no chance to ride otherwise) summed it up: “Watch that lot, lad, they kick at one end and bite at the other.”

    September 20, 2011 at 22:23

    Memo to self (and Gaw).

    Idea for new feature!

    Poems (or books) we Did at school – what we thought of them then (esp during teen years); and what we think of them now.

    Anyone fancy a go – email

    jonathan law
    September 23, 2011 at 13:03

    For a post-apocalyptic poem, this is really rather cheerful, isn’t it? You might suspect that something a bit hippyish or half-baked is going on at the end, but anyone who reads Muir’s wonderful Autobiography – available for 1p on Amazon: I should really knock off a review – will see it quite differently, I think. It’s impossible not to connect the poem’s vision of a renewed harmony between man and nature (and, in particular, a restoration of the “long-lost archaic companionship” between man and beast) with what Muir says there about his own childhood.

    Autobiography gives an extraordinarily vivid account of Muir’s early life on the tiny Orcadian island of Wyre, where his family practised subsistence farming in a manner that can have changed little since the 18th century. Muir’s father sowed crops by hand and all the heavy agricultural work was done by horses – by his own account, young Edwin did not set eyes on a bicycle until he was eight or any form of mechanized transport until he was 14. At one point he makes the startling claim:

    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 day’s 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.

    Muir attributed his intense feeling for animals, and for horses in particular, entirely to this pre-industrial (in some ways, pre-Enlightenment) upbringing. In the memoir, there’s a long passage that seems to feed directly into the conclusion of ‘The Horses’ – to the young Edwin, the horses that work the farm have a heraldic quality, like something glimpsed in a dream, and he regards them with a religious awe:

    When my father and Sutherland brought in the horses from the fields I stood trembling among their legs, seeing only their great bearded feet and the momentary flash of their crescent-shaped shoes flung up lazily as they passed. When my father stopped with the bridle in his hands to speak to me I stood looking up at the stationary hulks and the tossing heads which in the winter dusk were lost in the sky. I felt beaten down by an enormous weight and a real terror; yet I did not hate the horses … for it was infused by a longing to go up to them and touch them … a combination that added up to worship in the Old Testament sense. Everything about them, the steam rising from their soft, leathery nostrils, the sweat staining their hides, their soft ponderous, irresistible motion, the distant rolling of their eyes, which was like a revolution of rock-crystal suns, the waterfall sweep of their manes, the ruthless flick of their cropped tails, the plunge of their iron-shod hoofs striking fire from the flagstones, filled me with a stationary terror and delight from which I could get no relief. One day two of our horses began to fight in the field below the house, rearing at each other like steeds on a shield and flinging out with their hind legs …

    For the young Muir, these feelings were focused in a disturbing image in a copy of Gulliver’s Travels:

    … there was a picture of a great horse sitting on a throne judging a crowd of naked men with hairy, hangdog faces. The horse was sitting on its hindquarters … its front hoofs were upraised and its neck arched as if to strike; and though the picture was strange and frightening, I took it to be the record of some actual occurrence. All this added to my terror of horses, so that I loved and dreaded them as an explorer loves and dreads a strange country which he has not entered.

    It’s terrific stuff — better than most of the poetry I think — and well worth anyone’s 1p.

    • Gaw
      September 23, 2011 at 14:26

      There don’t appear to be any copies of Autobiography left on Amazon for 1p – I’ve just bought one for £1.40. The Dabbler can move markets (albeit rather niche ones!).

  8. Gaw
    September 23, 2011 at 14:16

    These posts are worth writing if only for Jonathan’s comments!

      September 23, 2011 at 14:53

      I concur! JL’s comments are brilliant

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