Analysis: Horses by Edwin Muir

Muir was born in 1887 on a farm in the Orkney Islands, where he lived a happy childhood. At the age of 14, he moved with his family to Glasgow, which he came to regard as a descent from Eden into hell. He became a critic and translator as well as poet. He died in 1959. This poem Horses should not be confused with his later more frequently anthologised poem The Horses.

The sight of horses now, in the present, leads the speaker to consider his feelings towards horses when he was a child: ‘Perhaps some childish hour has come again’.

The main focus is likely to be the various descriptions of horses and the speaker’s feelings towards the horses. There is an other-worldliness about them, something magical. Admiration and fear are mixed. There is a clear Romantic feel about the poem: e.g. ‘And oh the rapture…’
Some archaic words are explained in the glossary. Here are other words that students might usefully probe more closely:
Stanza 1: ‘lumbering’ gives the impression that the horses are moving in a slow, heavy and awkward way.
Stanza 2: pistons in the machines in an ancient mill are used to describe the movement of the horses’ hooves as the child ‘watched fearful’. The use of imagery drawn from the early industrial age is interesting in what it tells us about the child’s fear.
Stanza 3: the word ‘conquering’ suggests a reference to an even earlier age. The word ‘ritual’ and the descriptions ‘seraphim of gold’ and ‘ecstatic monsters’ hint at something pagan or pre-historic.
Stanza 4: the ‘rapture’ conveys a Romantic sense of worshipping these natural creatures:  see lines 2 – 4.
Stanza 5: ‘glowing with mysterious fire’ links with the ‘magic power’, which describes the horses he sees in the present day (in the first stanza).
Stanza 6: the powerful force of the horses is captured in the eyes gleaming with a ‘cruel apocalyptic light’. The religious imagery follows on from the ‘struggling snakes’ of stanza 5.Stanza 7: the repetition of ‘it fades’ suggests loss, straightforwardly the fading of his memory. ‘Pine’ means to feel a lingering, often nostalgic desire. 

In Stanza 2 there is a shift in time. The rest of the poem deals with the speaker’s recollection of his feelings as a child. What impression do you feel is created by the simile of the ‘pistons’? 

Stanza 3: The references in this stanza are to a pre-industrial age. 
Consider the effects of these words: ‘conquering hooves’, ‘ritual’, ‘seraphim of gold’ and ‘mute ecstatic monsters’. 
Stanzas 4 and 5: What contrast is signalled by the use of ‘But when at dusk…’ at the beginning of stanza five? What do they make of ‘mysterious fire’ here and the ‘magic power’ attributed to the present-day horses in stanza one?
Stanza 6: Analyse the effectiveness of the imagery: the ‘cruel apocalyptic light’ of their eyes and the personification of the wind.
Stanza 7: How is the tone different?

Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Hunting Snake, Pike, The Woodspurge,
Upon Westminster Bridge, Summer Farm
Time: A Different History, The Cockroach, The City Planners,
The Planners

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