22 May, 2010

Edwin Muir's "The Horses"






When I was a teenager, I read Orcadian poet Edwin Muir's "The Horses" during the height of Cold War paranoia, in the decade leading up to
Perestroika. In popular culture of the decade, there was much imagination about The End: Mad Max films, The Day After tv show, Sting's "Russians" that features the sound of a clock ticking down to Armageddon, or that Genesis video for "Land of Confusion" with a puppet of Ronald Reagan pushing the Button. I even played a role-playing game called Gamma World. I read Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero-- post-apocalyptic mutant animal narratives. Hiero had telepathic abilities to speak to a bear with a human brain, and he carried an old school muzzle-loading rifle and rode a morse, a mutant cross between a horse and a moose. Basically, I was of two minds about The End. First, I was terrified of The End. It's hard now to imagine the kind of nuclear hysteria of the time (though we should still be concerned about nuclear proliferation now). Just read this summary of the reception to the tv movie The Day After (thanks, Wikipedia):
On the night of its television broadcast (Sunday, November 20, 1983), ABC and many of its local TV stations opened several 1-800 hotlines with counselors standing by to calm jittery viewers. During the original broadcast, there were no commercial breaks after the nuclear attack. ABC also aired a live and very heated debate, hosted by Nightline's Ted Koppel, featuring scientist Carl Sagan, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft and conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr.. Sagan argued against nuclear proliferation, while Buckley promoted the concept of nuclear deterrence. During the debate, Sagan discussed the concept of nuclear winter and made his famous analogy, describing the arms race in the following terms: "Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger."
On the other hand, The End seemed fun: movies, books, and games. The poem tapped into both sides for me. I found Muir's mythopoetic end-of-the-world appealing.
I liked the poem because of its subject matter; I admit it didn't occur to me to consider the language or the form of the poem. I wrote a paper that followed a thesis about the logistical facts of the poem--how the nuclear war had leveled us back to the beginning of technology, and how the statement of optimism at the end of the poem was actually understatement suggesting The End was beginning again--with the harnessing of the horse as a technology. The harnessing of nature would lead to the harnessing of the atom again. It didn't matter it was a poem, per se; it only mattered that I connected with a poem, and that I was having a positive experience with a poem.


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, headed 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 crouched 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,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

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