“Horses” and “The Horses” – two equine poems by Edwin Muir

"Dark Horses" by Marion Brady

“Dark Horses” by Marion Brady

Which poem do you like better? Feel free to leave your vote and a brief explanation of your choice in the comments.


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.

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.

Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down
Were ritual that turned the field to brown,
And their great hulks were seraphims of gold,
Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.

And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done,
They marched broad-breasted to the sinking sun!
The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes;
The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes.

But when at dusk with steaming 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.

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.

Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine
Again for the dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.

Edwin Muir (15 May 1887 – 3 January 1959)

Edwin Muir (15 May 1887 – 3 January 1959)

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.





  1. I liked the first because it rhymes and has meter (or is it metre?). But I don’t know why modern people bother writing poetry. We believe in nothing. The world began by mere coalescence and will end, absent violent collision, by incineration. And all the poetry will not matter one iota. Of course there’s still the neurophysiological response which is an accident of the random assembly of our nervous systems. To those who can, by sheer force of will, still get a charge out of this, so much the better for them. For the rest of us, it would be better if the poets would simply shut up.

    • I’m not sure which of the two I like best, but I obviously like them both, or I wouldn’t have posted them! And I don’t think all non-rhyming, non-metrical poetry is bad. There are other poetic conventions that are more subtle (such as internal rhyme and meter, just to name to examples) which can redeem a work of poetry. Granted, there’s a massive amount of cockamamie out there for which even the term “free verse” is much too much of a euphemism.

      As for your dour appraisal of the moderns…you’re right, mostly. And I certainly sympathize. But in a very real sense, it has ever been thus. The City of God and the City of Man subsist sometimes in an uneasy peace, sometimes in open war, but never in true harmony. At least now the distinction between them is clearer than it has been at other times in history, such as in Luther’s day, when Christendom and the Church were so identified that the bishop of Rome wielded more temporal power than the emperor. Or think of how crestfallen the fifth-century Christians were at the sack of Rome, perceiving the fall of that city to the Visigoths to be a sign of divine disfavor against the Church! Indeed, it was this misperception which inspired St. Augustine to write The City of God.

      I’m going to post some essays by C. S. Lewis today that give voice to the same lament that you take up here. I would also point you towards the work of the early twentieth-century social critic, Joseph Wood Krutch. Though himself an agnostic, Krutch did not see modernism (and nascent post-modernism) as some bellwether of human happiness or triumph of the human spirit. Before him, the late Victorian poet Matthew Arnold reflected upon the same cold promises of modernism in his poetic masterpiece, Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse. But do not give up hope! On earth we have no abiding city, for we are waiting for the City which is to come.

  2. Thanks, Trent. After I posted my reply I thought you might be mad at me for being so “negative”. It surely seems like end times and at such times all expressions of beauty can seem futile if not mockery. Of course, there are some poems that I like. But I am a victim of public education and so I viewed reading poems as little more than a school exercise which, again considering the nature of public education, it most likely simply was. There’s another reason why I tend not to like poetry–modern poetry at any event. That’s because of our modern sensibility that “creative people” are semi-divine. They are the “sensitive people”, which is to say the real people. I, on the other hand, am just a work-a-day schlub. The sensitive people get to make or rather, in the modern context, dictate the world in which I live. And that world is decidedly different from the world I would prefer to live in. Not that I’m utopian but they definitely are, and their vision is literally hellish. Their future is our (or my) end times. And so I hate them, which is likely not fair because there probably are good poets out there who lack pretention and write because they love poetic expression for its own sake and not because it gives them “the lifestyle” of the poet. But for the most part, to me, poetry hardly seems worth the effort especially given all the other things I like to read and study. However, I am grateful for your poetical postings because they give me a window to a terrain I have so far only glimpsed at.

  3. Quick follow up to Admin’s mention of Joseph Wood Krutch. I read Krutch’s biography of Samuel Johnson. But more interesting is the fact that I have a photograph of Mr. Krutch “in the all together.” That’s right, naked! No, I do not collect nude photos of public intellectuals! It’s in a book I have on communism and socialism in America. It seems that Krutch was cajoled to spend some time at a nudist retreat by the very affable and persuasive Max Eastman. Eastman, who appears in the photo to be quite “at ease in the breeze” as one might put it, is depicted joyously engaging a much less comfortable Krutch who seems to be out of his element. But, in those days, all smart people were either nudists or sympathetic to nudism; and socialism, eugenics, Dadaism, and Mussolini. It no longer surprises me. Forty years ago I was into Zen, New Age and Macrobiotics. Thought it would be around forever…

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