Good and Evil in The Horses
The concepts of good and evil resonate throughout the work of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir. In Muir’s important poem “The Horses,” guilt and innocence, good and evil, are also in the plainest view. But the poem is not sabotaged artistically because of it, as so many such poems are. “The Horses” is about the unexpected return, after an apocalypse, of new horses that restore the “long lost archaic companionship” with the surviving humans. The narrator condemns the “old bad world” that wreaked the damage:
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 convenant 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. But 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 . . .
Have Armageddon and its aftermath ever been more powerfully, more palpably imagined? And yet, I do not think that the poem’s extraordinary vividness is the greatest strength of “The Horses.” Its special power is in the way cataclysm evokes Muir’s most abiding theme: the renewal of that “long-lost archaic” bond between life and the world even in the face of catastrophe (“Our life is changed; their coming our beginning”). “The Horses” is not a topical antiwar poem, as some have seen it to be, but a perfect consummation of Muir’s faith in the poetic vocation. Anyone who thinks Muir’s imagination deminished after his visit to Rome hasn’t read “The Horses.” The question Muir formulated long ago—do we have to share the writer’s point of view to like his poetry?—could be asked here. The answer, though, is clear: one doesn’t have to share Muir’s religious faith to appreciate this poem.
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