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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Edwin Muir: Horses


Horse Frightened by a Storm
: Eugène Delacroix, 1824 (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)

Those lumbering horses in the steady plough,

On the bare field -- I wonder why, just now,

They seem terrible, so wild and strange,

Like magic power on the stony grange.

Perhaps some childish hour has come again,

When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain,

Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill

Move up and down, yet seem as standing still.

Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down

Were ritual that turned the field to brown,

And their great hulks were seraphim of gold,

Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.

And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done,

They marched broad-breasted to the sinking sun!

The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes;

The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes.

But when at dusk with streaming nostrils home

They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam

And warm and glowing with mysterious fire

That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as the night

Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.

Their manes the leaping ire of the wind

Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine

Again for that dread country crystalline,

Where the black field and the still-standing tree

Were bright and fearful presences to me.


Rearing Horse: Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1504 (Royal Library, Windsor)

Jaguar attacking a Horseman Frightened by a Storm
: Eugène Delacroix, c. 1855 (Národní Galerie, Prague)

Edwin Muir (1887-1959): Horses, from First Poems, 1925


Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece. "The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes;/ The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes." I like.

Your post coincides with my happening upon late last evening this clip of the opening scene in Belá Tarr's latest (&, so it is told, final) film, The Turin Horse. I think you might appreciate.

TC said...


Grand clip. That poor old tired horse. One thinks of Au Hasard, Balthasar. Bela Tarr, a vast genius. I have never seen the universe explained so wonderfully as in this opening scene:

Werckmeister Harmonies.

Edwin Muir by the way, along with his wife Willa, brought the work of Franz Kafka over into English.

This poem recalls origins. Edwin Muir came from Deerness in the Orkney Islands, a place that figures in his poetry in mixed lights, sometimes as a kind of Eden, sometimes, as here, curiously otherworldly in a somewhat spooky way.

Anonymous said...

eyes again:
"Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as the night"...!!

Anonymous said...

Yes... I know that clip from W. H. very very well. I was thinking about Tarr last night, after re-watching it in fact.

I did not know, however, the relationship between Muir & Kafka. That is interesting, and something I will follow up on further.



Edwin Muir's dream-like vision (from his childhood it seems?) of those mighty beasts ("Their hooves like pistons . . . march[ing] broad-breased to the sinking sun! . . . light flow[ing] off their bossy sides in flakes" marching through these lines in such a steady beat, together with Delacroix and Leonardo's drawn visions -- wow. . . .


pink cloud in pale blue sky above still
shadowed ridge, towhee calling on fence
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

portrait on paper, evidence
suggests that figures

words so formed participate,
take part, that there

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
cloudless blue sky to the left of point

TC said...


Thanks, glad you appreciated the Delacroix. I had built a file of fields and horses in the neighbourhood of the "action" of the poem, but then finally, the hallucinated quality ("flowing", transformational, passing strange) of the remembered vision seemed to call out to Delacroix... and Delacroix was listening!

Yes, the poem recalls childhood scenes, watching big plough horses trampling stubble in the fields.

Muir, like his mother before him, was born in a tiny Orcadian hamlet called Haco (after a Norwegian king -- of course the history of this part of the world has more to do with Vikings than with Anglo-Saxons).

Wild, remote, beautiful landscapes.

Recalling perhaps traces of the history, here is the chambered cairn, hard by Haco's Ness.

TC said...


You're right, once again -- the eyes have it -- so wild, disturbed, disturbing -- Delacroix too must have seen this (in life? in a dream?): brilliant and as wide as the night

Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.

29 January 2012 04:15

ACravan said...

Even without the film clips, which add fascinatingly to what was already going on here, the material was so rich. The images are remarkable (it's especially good to be reminded of Delacroix and horses) and I love both the Muir poem and learning the facts of his life and background, including the professional positions he held while working on his poems and translations. The thought of possible Pictish ancestry really fills the head with strange thoughts about time and its meaning. Curtis

TC said...


Perhaps in saying Edwin Muir's Kafka translating was done in company with his wife, I ought to have added that she was German, née Willa Anderson.

A most remarkable couple.

On the subject of "time and its meaning", this extract from Muir's 1937-1939 Diaries tells much:

"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day's journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time."

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Just wanted to let you know we have Kandinsky’s St. George and his horse right over our bed, protecting us from all sorts of (d)evil dragons but what does all this have to do with his legend?

TC said...


After seeing that Kandinsky, and looking up a number of more "graphic" (i.e. gory) representations of George doing his thing to the dragon -- Moreau's and Raphael's versions, in particular, chilling stuff when viewed from a dragonesque POV -- one's Georgian sympathies, if they ever existed, are sorely tested.

The cliché word of the year has to be "iconic" (it's even been popping up in jewelry shop adverts here, of late), so one may as well jump on the bandwagon right now and suggest that this Bulgarian Orthodox icon of Georgie slaying the vile adversary looks pretty darn... iconic.

That pint-size miniature angelic harpist mounted just aft of Our Hero's saddle is an interesting detail. (Possibly a reversed hood-ornament?)

And yikes! George's white stallion has its tail tied in a curlicue knot!

(Let us hope there were not plans afoot to make bacon of the noble steed, once the slaying work was done.)

All in all, having reviewed the artistic evidence, all one can say is -- somebody ought to contact the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Dragons!



Yes, "Wild, remote, beautiful landscapes ... chambered cairn, hard by Haco's Ness." -- it could be somewhere around here (except for those Orkney Island rocks.

TC said...


Yes, I thought that too. The isles of Orkney might make one think of the Point Reyes Light, or the Farallones. But at the latitude of Sweden. And more remote. And wilder. And colder.


Nin Andrews said...

Beautiful! I love the poem and the paintings. I've always loved watching the horses on our farm. But se didn't have anything like these, these real workers--like clydsdales--
I remember watching them compete at the fair, pulling those huge loads . . .

TC said...


Those apocalyptic horses haunted Edwin Muir's imagination. Thirty years later he envisioned them again, appearing on his remote northern shores as strange sentinels or harbingers of an unknown future, after a global nuclear holocaust.

Gods of fate willing (and that's a touch wood, always -- tonight the old man is nursing scrapes from a nasty fall on pavement in the dark)... I'll put up that later poem here, tomorrow.

TC said...

Well, the recovery-time estimate proved a bit overoptimistic (tempting those gods, never a good idea)... but better late than never: and so, here 'tis.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

Had forgotten about his "Deerness", the name of it. The name alone, gets to me, in a sweet, kind way, of course and not those fearful apocalyptic horses with their pistons sparking the stones.

Thanks ever,