The Horses by Edwin Muir

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‘The Horses’, by Edwin Muir, is a poem which forced me to think about the unthinkable – the annihilation of humankind as a result of a nuclear war. Paradoxically, however, Muir seems to me to take an optimistic view of such an event. In my essay I intend to give a synopsis of the poem and discuss some of the techniques that Muir employs to get his message across. I will discuss his use of Biblical language and imagery, the structure of the poem, his rhythm and rhyme and his use of symbolism.

Muir imagines a world brought to an abrupt end by a nuclear war. The poem was written in the 1950s during the period known as ‘The Cold War’. This was a period of our history when people had real concerns about the possibility of a third and final war. Muir’s description of a post-nuclear world really helps us to imagine what it might be like.

The poem is set “barely a twelvemonth after the seven days war that put the world to sleep” and it offers a day-by-day account of the destruction of the world. There are few survivors and their first reaction is one of shock or disbelief that the world they knew so well should have vanished before their eyes: there is no communication from the radios, which are “dumb” and stand “perhaps turned on in a million rooms all over the world”. Such pessimism, however, turns quickly to optimism when Muir, speaking for the survivors, insists that they would not wish a return to their previous world which had progressed so far that it had developed the technology to self-destruct. He describes how the people determined to begin all over again and create a new world. Muir suggests that they were offered assistance in this with the arrival of the “strange horses” which had been sent by “an old command” to help them start again. The “old command” is surely God himself.

Such a brief synopsis does not do the poem justice. I found it to be an impressive poem and it is Muir’s skill as a poet that...
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