The Horses

The Horses

Edwin Muir was born at the end of the 19th Century on the tiny island of Wyre in the Orkneys. Mechanisation had not come to the island: he grew up in a little world that had not changed for hundreds of years. It was a magical childhood: no doors were locked and there was a kindness and trust between people the like of which he never experienced again.

But the family fell on hard times and had to move to mainland Orkney first of all, and was then plunged into the horrors of industrial Glasgow. One after another, the closest members of his family died until he alone was left. The trauma of what he experienced in those first years never left him, nor did his yearning for the Eden of that island home. Essentially through all the rest of his life as a poet he was searching and searching for Wyre, and for all that he had lost.

In the last years of his life he wrote a deeply haunting poem entitled ‘The Horses’. It’s a poem of the new nuclear age: a devastating war has destroyed the nations, and a little huddle of people are left on what might be an island. Their tractors lie useless in the fields: their radios are dumb. They wait in the silence, wondering what will happen next.

And what happens is that a great wave of horses flows into their midst. They have come unbidden, horses having been sold for tractors long years before. But the horses come of their own volition, as though in answer to some unheard call. They come willing to pull their ploughs and bear their loads.

I believe that through this poem Muir finds his way back to the island of his childhood. The paradox is that he finds it through the imagining of nuclear winter and a post apocalyptic state. For that is the only way the detritus of our modern clutter can be cleared away and there can be a beginning again. This is what is necessary for a healing to happen, for the noise to be stilled and for listening to begin.

Find the poem and read it as an Easter meditation. And my programme on the whole story of Muir’s life, and on the poem, will be broadcast this Easter Sunday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. If you miss it, the programme will be available for a number of days via Listen Again.

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