EDWIN MUIR HORSES MUIR’S EARLY LIFE Muir was born in 1887 on a farm in the Orkney Islands, where he lived a happy childhood. In 1901, at the age of 14, he moved with his family to Glasgow after his father lost his farm, which he came to regard as ‘a descent from Eden into hell.’ His father, two brothers, and his mother died within the space of a few years after arriving in Glasgow. His life as a young man was a depressing experience, and involved a raft of unpleasant jobs in factories and offices, including working in a factory that turned bones into charcoal. A biographer wrote of him; "He suffered psychologically in a most destructive way, although perhaps the poet of later years benefited from these experiences as much as from his Orkney 'Eden'.” - The Poetry of the Scots THE ORKNEY ISLANDS GLASGOW 60-SECOND TASK German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” List three possible ways that a childhood of suffering might ‘benefit’ a young poet like Muir. READ THE POEM ALOUD Take note of the following: - Syllable count Rhyme scheme Alliteration Assonance Metaphor Sensory language Emotive language Personal pronouns Exclamations READ AND ANNOTATE – METAPHOR AND PERSONIFICATION • Underline the words and phrases that have connotations of strength and power (eg: lumbering, conquering, terrible etc.) Make a list of them and read the list aloud. • What emotions do these words conjure up in you? • Do such metaphors and descriptions make the horses seem beautiful? Frightening? Horrible? Explain your answer. READ AND ANNOTATE – STRUCTURE AND PERSPECTIVE The poem reflects Muir’s awe at the sight of horses in a field. He mainly recites the poem retrospectively, meaning he is looking back on his past experiences. For him, the fading light of dusk and the muscular bodies of the horses themselves combined to create an impression of power and strength that both excited and intimidated him. - Which stanzas are set in the present, and which are remembering the past? - With this in mind, how are the first and last stanzas different to the others? How do the first and last stanzas of the poem ‘frame’ the content of the middle stanzas? READ AND ANNOTATE – IMAGERY, TONE AND ATTITUDE There is a supernatural, otherworldly tone to the poem. The horses are given godly and/or demonic characteristics. The poet is both enchanted and afraid at the sight of these powerful beasts. - List as many examples of supernatural imagery from the poem as you can. What religion(s) do they refer to? How do these supernatural metaphors and descriptions alter how you feel? How do they alter the mental ‘picture’ you paint in your mind as you read? - Homework: Explain the meaning of the words ‘rapture’ and ‘apocalyptic’. How do these words contribute to the supernatural atmosphere of the poem? MESSAGE? There is a lesson to be learnt by reading this poem. It involves: - The importance of imagination in terms of how we approach the world around us - How our emotions affect our perspective and our state of mind - How the rhythms of nature (bloom and decay – sow and reap etc.) can embolden and inspire us - How civilisation depends upon harnessing the raw and wild power of nature In two or three sentences, sum up the lessons you have learnt about the world from reading this poem. COMPARE TO TED HUGHES’ ‘PIKE’ Both poems focus on the intimidating, predatory and awe-inspiring aspects of nature. Both poems focus on strength and wildness being personified in bestial form. Both poems essentially make the reader feel small. Why would/should anyone *want* to create a piece of art that would make people feel small and powerless when compared to nature? Explain your answer in detail. STANZA 1 Those lumbering horses in the steady plough, On the bare field – I wonder why, just now, They seemed terrible, so wild and strange, Like magic power on the stony grange. EXERCISES – STANZA 1 Look up the meaning of ‘lumbering’ and then consider the way it contrasts with the description in lines 3 – 4. Look closely at the meanings of ‘terrible’, ‘wild’ and ‘strange’. These are of course words common in everyday usage, but precise dictionary definitions of these words might yield unexpected and original ideas. Why is it significant that the horses are ‘lumbering’, whilst the plough is ‘steady’? STANZA 2 Perhaps some childish hour has come again, When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain, Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill Move up and down, yet seem as standing still. EXERCISES – STANZA 2 Notice the 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 Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down Were ritual that turned the field to brown, And their great hulks were seraphim of gold, Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould. EXERCISES – 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’. STANZA 4 And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done, They marched broadbreasted to the sinking sun! The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes; The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes. STANZA 5 But when at dusk with streaming nostrils home They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam, And warm and glowing with mysterious fire That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire. EXERCISES – STANZAS 4 AND 5 What do you make of the tone in stanza four? Explore the words used to describe the horses, and consider what they reveal about the speaker’s attitude. What contrast is signalled by the use of ‘But when at dusk…’ at the beginning of stanza five? What do you make of ‘mysterious fire’ here and the ‘magic power’ attributed to the present-day horses in stanza one? STANZA 6 Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light. Their manes the leaping ire of the wind Lifted with rage invisible and blind. EXERCISES – STANZA 6 Analyse the effectiveness of the imagery: the ‘cruel apocalyptic light’ of their eyes and the personification of the wind. STANZA 7 Ah, now it fades! It fades! and I must pine Again for that dread country crystalline, Where the black field and the still standing tree Were bright and fearful presences to me. EXERCISES – STANZA 7 Before considering the final stanza and reaching a judgement about its effectiveness, read the whole poem again. Having studied closely the previous stanzas, how do you now feel that the final stanza should be spoken? How does the tone here differ from the tone in other parts of the poem? GLOSSARY • 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. GLOSSARY (2) • 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.