Friday, February 11, 2011

The Horses

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.

Edwin Muir

This is Muir's most anthologized poem.

It captures both a moment in history: the fear of nuclear armageddon and its aftermath and eternity: a restorative relationship between man and beast that is as much myth as practice. Muir was a natural Platonist whose use of symbol at its best makes of them integral images that flow in time as they arrest time creating a window into another reality.

Our distancing from a world well lived is attributed to the power of our technologies that now have failed us by war it is implied, though other patterns of failure beckon us now. Our restoration is through a renewed relationship to earth and ways of working it that are harmoniously built within nature rather than against it: "Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads."

But there is a subtler wisdom at work here: a deeper reconciliation. For the 'horse' in Plato is a symbol of our embodied desires that unruly and misplaced undo our possibilities for harmony; that ridden well take us to the fullest expression of our potential selves, that bring us to Eden.

The poem works beautifully both on a communal level and a personal (rather akin to Plato's own constructed networked images of the ideal state that is, also, our 'ideal state': the necessary practice of our enlightenment).





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