The poet one evening happens to see farm horses, those powerful shaggy animals working the plough and something jolts his memory and he recalls his earlier fear of these animals. As a child, Edwin Muir lived in the Orkney Islands where animals like Shetland ponies were used regularly as farm animals. As a child, the poet was overwhelmed by their powerful presence especially when seen through the gloaming light of a late afternoon. When the horses pulled the plough in the pouring rain, they seemed like some kind of monsters breathing fire (their steaming breath condensing in the cold air). Their heaving bodies with light bouncing off their sides were a powerful image that scared the child. Suddenly, the poet is aware that those days have gone by and now he filled with a longing to live those untouched pristine days once again.
The main subject of the poem is the farm horses of the poet’s childhood. He was terrified of those huge powerful animals which was an indispensible part of farm life. The poet as a child was terrified of the creatures which seemed to breathe fire as their breaths condensed in the cold dank air of the evening.
“And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.”
But now as a mature that fear has gone but he is left longing for those days once again.
Edwin Muir spent his childhood in the remote Orkney Islands where ponies and horses like the shaggy Shetland were used to plough the farms. These large animals which looked like some primordial beasts filled the child with awe. Through the image of the horses the poet recalls the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Now when he is a grown man the image of those horses fills him with longing for those unspoilt days again. “And I must pine
Again for that dread country crystalline,”
The poem deals with the reminiscences of childhood days that bring in a train of thoughts flooding into the mind. Soon comes the realisation that those days have gone beyond the pale never to return and one is left with the longing for an innocent yesterday.
Technique / Craftsmanship
The poem is full of strong imagery of horses that worked in the farms in Orkney Islands. They were large animals that evoked awe in the poet as he saw them returning home after a day’s work in the evening. Their steaming bodies shone in the fading light. The words that Edwin Muir uses have a Romantic ring about them.
Edwin Muir uses a rigid structure of rhyming couplets in the poem. Rhyming couplets do not permit flexibility. The poet more than makes up for it by employing strong images of the workmanlike horses that work in the fields and scare the child by their size.
Muir chooses words carefully to convey the images of power, darkness and fear. Words like “bare”, “trod”, “gloam” have the colour of decay and degeneration of nature. The child has been removed from his Garden of Eden of childhood by the destructive forces of time and change.
Powerful images like lumbering horses”, “hooves like pistons in an ancient mill”, “conquering hoofs”, “cruel apocalyptic light” fill the poem bringing to life the images of the powerful horses of the poet’s childhood. Though they terrified him then now he is left with a longing of r those idyllic days of childhood.
Movement / Rhythm
The tight and rigid rhymed couplet pattern suits the topic with its powerful imagery of large animals with their rhythmic movements, darkness, wetness and fear.
Alliterative sounds like “gigantic in the gloam” “Ah, now it fades! It fades!” add to the sense of drama and despair the poet feels that the Garden of Eden of his childhood is lost and only memories remain.
Figures of Speech
Powerful imagery is one of the strengths of the poem. From the “Like magic power on the stony grange” to the “dread country crystalline”, the poem is dotted with metaphors that evoke many emotions in the reader. The animals are fearsome yet they do not threaten, they help man but are “mute ecstatic monsters” that do his bidding.