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The Horses Poem Edwin Muir Analysis Essay

This is a lesson I did with a Cambridge IGCSE student for her anthology Songs of Ourselves where we spoke about Edwin Muir's 'Horses' and Alan Curnow's 'Continuum'. Scroll down to get the essay on both poems.

This is a horrible pair of poems to analyse together, and at first we couldn't figure out what 'Horses' really meant. Why was Muir getting so worked up about carthorses and seeing 'seraphim of gold' and other 'ecstatic monsters'? We've all had a bit of insomnia, like Curnow, but didn't feel the urge to write a poem about it.

What is 'Horses' about? Background

After a bit of research, we discovered that Muir wasn't frightened of horses; he was frightened of the Apocalypse, and the poem was really an imaginative creation of the aftermath of a third world war.

The two poems felt like they had nothing in common except that they were a bit crazy, so it was tricky to even come up with a title. This is what we used:

Essay title

Explore the ways in which both poets deal with the literal and the metaphorical?

Because it was tricky, I've explained this through a series of questions first - to track our thinking. Then there's the start of the essay.

What is the literal topic of each poem? [1] Continuum is a short narrative poem/moment in time [2] Horses is a man standing in a field looking horses (er...?)

Point of View/Tone. How does the poet put himself in the poem? First, we looked for pronoun use: [1] Continuum ‘my’ ‘myself’, ‘mine’ ‘me’, ‘I am talking about myself’ [effect - self-focussed meditative or metaphysical] [2] Horses uses 'I' three times linked to ‘wonder’ [effect - awe] ‘watch’ [effect - the passive observer] ‘must’ [effect - strong sense of duty]

Tone: Mundane vs elegaic (grand): semantic fields [1] Continuum - elegiac: ‘moon’ ‘creation’ ‘night sky’ ‘author’ ‘demiurge’// mundane: ‘barefoot it’, ‘porch’, ‘privet’, ‘back to bed’, ‘tools’. [effect - sharp contrasts day to day and metaphysical]
[2] Horses - this feels like a blurred series or list of imagery, flickering with reality: imagery of ‘apocalyptic’ fear ‘smouldering bodies’ ‘mysterious fire’ [effect - connotations of damnation]; ‘wild’ ‘strange’ ‘magic powers’ [effect - suggests metaphysical, unreal, otherworldly]

Language Used and Tone: [2] Horses - what semantic fields are there?

semantic field of power ‘pistons’, ‘conquering’ ‘gold’

semantic field of war ‘conquering’ ‘march’

semantic field of heaven and hell: ‘seraphim of gold’, ‘ecstatic monsters’


The poet uses the oxymoron, ‘washed out creation’, which links to the semantic field of God and builds up the mystical element of the poem. The oxymoron contrasts ‘creation’ [which suggests magnificence, God and newness] with a surprising mundane image of it being ‘washed out’, as if it’s faded. This builds the theme of duality, the mundane and the profound (deep, philosophical truths) and the unknowable. Literally, the pale light of the moon makes the world look dim. Metaphorically this could mean all of nature is cleaned of meaning, which is why he’s struggling to fix the ideas for the poem he’s trying to write.

Horses is full of metaphorical language. The vision of the horses shifts from bare practical details like ‘lumbering’ ‘steady’ and ‘plough’ to the more otherworldly ‘wild and strange’. The poem shifts through time and into dream: moving from the poet’s memory of horses in the industrial age - with words like ‘piston’ ‘blackening rain ‘ and ‘ancient mill’ to imaginary ‘estatic monsters’ ‘magic’ and ‘seraphim of gold’ where he uses the semantic field of heaven and hell. The mood turns dark. The phrase ‘seraphim of gold’ is almost an oxymoron - gold is earthly, representing the power of the horses, whereas the ‘seraphim’ are heavenly. This technique appears in both poems and is used in slightly different ways. In the first, we shift between reality and dream calmly, in a continuous way, like the title, ‘Continuum’. However, in the second poem, the shifts are violent, biblical and ‘apocalyptic’. 

Both poems use mythical language: ‘Horses’ uses biblical visions of the Apocalypse, as if the horses are ‘monsters’ or on ‘fire’. The horses represent the fall of civilization. In ‘Continuum’, the poet refers to the distant ‘moon’ and ‘creation’ and weather in plain language which is less emotionally charged than in ‘Horses’. Curnow uses the subjunctive ‘may’ to explore possibilities.

Both poets suggest things are happening and not happening at the same time. Curnow says the moon ‘rolls’ and ‘falls’ and ‘does neither of these things’; Muir says the horses legs ‘move up and down and seem as standing still’. Both writers ... [this was where the lesson ended]

[I have no idea why I wrote this!]

 - the plurality of the universe and possibilities - the negative ‘neither’, ‘not’ and ‘nor’ to ...

+ Get more on how to analyse poetry here, get model essays by poet here or click here for Cambridge IGCSE only
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Use the ideas but please don't just copy and hand it in. Teachers, feel free to use this with the attribution: (c)2013 Melanie Kendry  If you have your own blog, please link, don't copy. Thanks!

The author, Melanie Kendry, is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.                                                                                  

From 1937 to 1956, Edwin Muir published six collections of poetry, culminating in the Collected Poems, 1921-1958 in 1960. Muir’s poetry exists on a rather abstract and mythological level. Despite his lack of formal education, his work builds on allusions to biblical, epic, and literary traditions, and his technique is fairly traditional. The recurring themes in his poetry are the relationship of time to eternity, the role of memory in shaping and consolidating experience, and the challenges of inhabiting liminal spaces when moving from life to death, from past to present to future, from dream to waking, and from the personal, individual experience to the world of universal human truth. Muir draws especially on Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, the idea that certain ideas and archetypes inhabit the collective human mind. He also used his early experience of undergoing Freud’s new technique of psychoanalysis to explore the significance of dreams. Although Muir never embraced institutionalized religion and was hostile to his early Calvinist upbringing and ideas, in his later life, he moved increasingly toward a Christian worldview, as evidenced by poems in his later collections, The Labyrinth and One Foot in Eden. Working outside the prevailing modernist and experimental mainstream in poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century, Muir was not as critically heralded as his compatriot Eliot. However, his work contributes a thoughtful, mature, and insightful voice to English poetry of the mid-twentieth century.

Journeys and Places

Muir’s first major collection after rededicating himself to poetry was Journeys and Places, which explores the motif of the journey. The book is roughly organized into three parts: seven poems dealing with journeys or stages of the journey; seven poems treating mythological, fictional, and historical personages; and ten poems describing places or destinations.

These poems concentrate on one of Muir’s most persistent ideas: the role of the imagination in journeying through time. The mind can journey back through memory, although those memories may be lost or distorted in various ways. The tension between the urge to look backward through the history of humankind and the temptation to look forward to some ultimate destiny can at times be paralyzing. Muir’s dreamlike and mysterious journeys employ the recurring image of roads circling around hills. In Muir’s circular imagery, time becomes timeless and the end of the journey becomes the beginning. In his view, personal history is submerged into the cultural history of the entire human race. Muir traces the journeys or quests of individuals—real or mythic—who have faced loss and connects their stories to the universal experience....

(The entire section is 1148 words.)