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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Edwin Muir: Post-Apocalyptic: The Horses


Highland Ponies, Isle of Muck
: photo by Chris Booth, 3 July 2008

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.

Highland Ponies on the beach, Isle of Muck
: photo by Chris Booth, 3 July 2008

Edwin Muir: The Horses, from One Foot in Eden (1956)


Nin Andrews said...

Wow! A very haunting piece. Beautiful!

TC said...

Thank you Nin. Something about falling on one's face in the street on the night before a Big Primary always puts one in mind of End Times. Ah the nostalgia. Wake me when it's all over and the trumpet blows.

Edwin Muir's 1956 poem, returning to the 1925 "primitivist" Horses vision through a sea-changed glass, always evokes a certain acutely tense Cold War period feeling; perhaps captured here as successfully as anywhere, though there were a few select contenders.

For once upon a time it was impossible not to be moved every so often to thoughts of the civilization-ending, planet-dooming incipient inevitable post-nuclear-apocalypse end of the world -- by such artistic vehicles as, to take another good example, the 1957 Neville Shute novel On the Beach.

Stanley Kramer's movie version, with Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Tony Perkins, and photographed by the great Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (Rocco & His Brothers, The Leopard) still stirs considerations of What Might Have Been.. or yet could be...

The Waltzing Matilda orchestral variations give way to the prophecy of a Chernobyl- or Fukushima-like dead zone, at 5:15 here:

On the Beach (1959)

If for nothing else, the film is memorable for a cuddly Tony Perkins doing an Aussie accent -- and getting a reprieve from a love scene with Donna Anderson thanks to the radioactive cloud looming over Melbourne.

(A terrible date movie this proved, by the by.)

(Ava Gardner is to have said of Melbourne, "the perfect place for a film about the end of the world" -- what on earth could she have meant?)

Also wonderfully out of character (the schizoid casting director should have got an Oscar) is Fred Astaire, voicing the up-to-this-point unspoken truth: "We're all doomed y'know, the whole drunken silly pathetic lot of us!"

TC said...

By the way, that little guy in the crash dummy suit arriving on a moped in the upper left corner of the top picture has just arrived to tell the awful news about the radiation levels. But those Isle of Muck horses have already survived the Chernobyl plume, so what should they care?



Stirring stuff, that orchestral "Waltzing Maltida" as the sub comes up, goes on, then goes back down again. My parents took me to see On the Beach when it first came out -- memory of looking across the bay at city empty of people, very strange (what did it mean, one wondered). Now we know, "We're all doomed, y'know" -- even those ponies on the beach on Muck Island, or maybe they'll survive it. . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed bird standing on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

the whites those of similar
one, number and place

in one of the last and most,
left hand, is lifting

sunlit white edge of fog against ridge,
cormorant flapping across toward point

Susan Kay Anderson said...

I like how everything is happening in this poem. A crisis but not showing loose ends. A folding back over. Horses as herd animals with a bunch of young ones.

It will take me the rest of my life to comb through these on your blog.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

I'm glad wild, wild horses couldn't drag you away--though you were swaddled in bandages--from this apocalypse. As for On the Beach,I, too, remember the whole drunken silly pathetic lot a lot of us (or the whole lot?) are doomed to become.

ACravan said...

This is just superb. So is your 10/24/11 Precession post at Collected Photographs. Curtis

William A. Sigler said...

The best return to Eden poem ever in my book. I want to thank you so much for turning me on to Muir, who I shockingly had never heard of before your Sunday post. Now I can almost ride without training wheels. Don't think your efforts go unnoticed.

As a minor quibble, the Orkneys are called the horse islands, yet you picture Hebrides horses. Here are some Orkney horses simulating the action in the poem (as long as you ignore the barbed wire).

TC said...


So, how have we managed to evade that apocalyptic prophecy this long?

It can't have been virtue.


Well, yes, the bandages.

Self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps -- falling on one's face due to woolgathering over End Times?


Many thanks. Happy you've found your way back to Precession.

(My backwards version of "going forward".)


A folding back over, yes, that helps -- it's been something of a shoveled-under period here, but there is always the good thought of composting and recycling.


Well, yes, of course, those

Zoomorphising Norse

Named Orkney after a horse --

And little luck

One must confess

Seeing a horse on the Isle of Muck

From Deerness

Though on a clear day

One might make out The Horse of Copinsay.