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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.

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