Imagine my surprise when, a week or so ago, I found myself in an unlikely argument about just who was the most under-appreciated poet from the Orkney Islands. My contender was Edwin Muir, my worthy opponent, John Matthias, supported George Mackey Brown for these dubious laurels. Matthias may well be right: after all, it’s not like either of us has a Poetic Appreciation Meter we can wave in the air to take measurements — “Richard Aldington at 10.3, Abbie Huston Evans barely registering at .04…” etc. In the aftermath of the dispute I went searching in my bookshelves for my copy of Muir’s poems, only to discover (and perhaps this is evidence for my side of the dispute) that I didn’t have one. I ordered a copy posthaste from Amazon, and when the sharp-looking old Evergreen Press edition of the Collected Poems arrived I turned to what I thought would be Muir’s best-known poem, the post-apocalyptic nightmare “The Horses,” not his best poem but the only one anyone seems to read any more. What I found, though, was another, much earlier poem, called simply “Horses.” I’d never read it before, but I think it’s worth discussing since it shows some of Muir’s best qualities. It appeared in the book First Poems in 1925, when Muir was 37, and it starts like this:
Those lumbering horses in the steady plough,On the bare field - I wonder, why, just now,They seemed 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 millMove up and down, yet seem as standing still.
Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble downWere ritual that turned the field to brown,And their great hulks were seraphims of gold,Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.
Not long ago Steve Burt made a useful distinction between foreground and background rhyme — rhyme that asks to be noticed and rhyme that barely registers. The rhyme here is pretty insistent, being full, often monosyllabic, and coming in couplets without any significant enjambment. You can have pretty heavy rhyme in a poem and still have it stay in the background (as in, say, Philip Larkin’s “Mr. Bleaney”) but that’s not what’s happening here. Not everyone nowadays is going to stand for this kind of fulsome rhyme, but that’s a matter of presentist bias, and I’m with David Hume on this issue when he says:
The poet’s ‘monument more durable than brass’ must fall to the ground like common brick or clay, were men to make no allowance for the continual revolutions of manners and customs, and would admit of nothing but what was suitable to the prevailing fashion. Must we throw aside the pictures of our ancestors because of their ruffs and farthingales?
So I’m a farthingale-retainer, not a farthingale-despiser, and I’d urge anyone who doesn’t want to be narrow-minded to be the same. But we’re missing all the real action in the poem, which takes place in the relation of the speaker to the horses. We begin with a couple of different moments in time: the present, when the speaker suddenly sees some ordinary “lumbering” farm horses in a new aspect, as something “terrible” and “wild and strange,” like a “magic power.” This isn’t just the common or garden variety of defamiliarization, people: it’s the unheimliche: the uncanny moment when something is familiar yet at the same time alien. Trust me on this: when I was gooned on Oxycontin for a few weeks after breaking my leg, the whole world had that feel, as if it was an exact yet unaccountably malevolent copy of the real thing.
Of course in the case of Muir’s poem the unheimliche nature of the horses isn’t unaccountable. The speaker immediately develops a hypothesis about why those horses seemed so strange and terrifying: they open up a kind of sense-echo with his own past experiences, playing a kind of chord on time. This is our first clue that we’re poaching on Wordsworth’s poetic territory, where the present experience of a place or thing can open out into a memory of the prior experience of that thing (think “Tintern Abbey,” where Wordsworth contrasts his present, abstract experience of his old haunt with the immediacy of his childhood experience of the place).
What’s different from Wordsworth, though, is the way that the journey back to one’s own childhood perception is also a journey back through historic time. That is, when Muir remembers the horses of his childhood, he doesn’t just remember the way they looked to him when he was little and impressionable. He sees the horses as if they were manifestations of previous historical eras. First he sees them as parts of early industrialism (when “Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill /Move up and down, yet seem as standing still”) where you can really see those black, greasy, cast-iron pistons. Then he sees the horses as part of something even further back, as part of the pre-industrial agrarian past, when their “conquering hooves… trod the stubble down.” Since this is described as a “ritual” and the horses “great hulks were seraphims of gold,” we get a sense of something pagan, pre-monotheistic, and truly archaic.
This sense of the evolving state of both the individual mind (the child who sees horses as terrifying versus the grown man who barely notices the lumbering beasts) and of the nature of civilization (from pagan agrarian through early industrial to modern) is typical of Muir. In some ways it is typical of his generation — born in 1887, he inherits both the Romantic sense of the developing individual’s bildung and the late-Victorian sense of historical belatedness. It is also something he, in some meaningful sense, lived through. He was born to a family of small-time farmers in the Orkney islands who were run off their land by a rat-bastard of a landlord and moved to industrial Glasgow, where both of Muir’s parents and two of his brothers soon died, such being the condition of the working class in that time and place. So his personal experience includes different phases of socio-economic development, and his sense of personal developmental time and civilizational time are often conflated. The poet and critic J.C. Hall put it best when he said Muir “is deeply implicated in the labyrinth of his past, which is the past of all mankind.” Hall also said “the aim of all spiritual endeavor is to find a way out of this labyrinth towards the light, to rediscover the ‘drowned original of the soul” — but more about that later. Here’s some more of the poem:
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 steaming nostrils homeThey came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,And warm and glowing with mysterious fireThat lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.
Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as nightGleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light,Their manes the leaping ire of the windLifted with rage invisible and blind.
There’s the stuff. The broad-breasted horses in the light of the setting sun, the light coming off of them in flakes, the steaming nostrils, the smoldering heat of their bodies in the cold mud: it’s specific, and has the feel of the truly-observed. It’s like Moortown Diary-era Ted Hughes, and every bit as good. Maybe better. And it’s not just physical description, either: the snake-like furrows prepare us for the Biblical imagery of the “cruel apocalyptic light” (and for the Fall from Innocence coming soon after this passage). The whole effect is a kind of sublimity, in that old Kantian sense of fearfulness-without-fear. That is, we feel in the horses a physical force greater than us, something that we could not resist if it were to turn against us — but we also feel that we aren’t in direct danger, that these creatures probably don’t mean us harm. And in standing next to something that could terrify us, but doesn’t quite make us run away, we feel not only the greatness of the external force, but also the power of something in us, something that isn’t afraid, but can appreciate the beauty of the powerful force of the horses. We overcome our own fear, and our own sense of self-preservation, just a little bit, and experience the world from a position greater than our base interest in self-preservation. That’s ex-stasis, or standing-outside-oneself — the ecstacy of the sublime. You don’t find it every day.
But about that Fall from Innocence: we get it in the last stanza:
Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine
Again for the dread country crystalline,Where the blank field and the still-standing treeWere bright and fearful presences to me.
Here the idiom is pretty heavily Romantic, both in the superficial sense (the “ah” and those explanation points) and in the profound sense of a Wordsworthian feeling for the loss that comes with age, a loss of immediacy in perception. To rediscover this lost kind of perception is, as J.C. Hall put it, to "rediscover the 'drowned original of the soul.'" Indeed, it is for Muir as it was for Wordsworth, in that our older, more immediate perception can be recovered only in the memory of our earlier selves, and the best way to trigger that earlier memory is to see something — an old ruined Abbey, a lumbering horse — that punctures the distance between past and present, and allows for the spontaneous overflow of a powerful feeling. Muir contains within himself this Romantic set of conventions, the Victorian sense of historical belatedness, and a modern emphasis on presentation in images rather than talky discursivity. We would do well, I think, to contain within our own rather different poetics a sense of a poetry like Muir’s.