‘The War Horse’ by Eavan Boland was published in 1975 and written by the poet after several experiences with a horse on her own street. In Object Lessons, Eavan Boland describes her interactions with the horse, focusing specifically on the horse destroying crocus bulbs. These memories were transformed into ‘The War Horse’ through which she sought the “oppositions of force and formality” as well as “an intrusion of nature – the horse – menacing the decorous reductions of nature that were the gardens”.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that nothing “unusual” was happening in her town. This changed very quickly though as a horse came down the street from a camp. It was moved slowly, but powerfully. So much so that it made the speaker apprehensive. As the poem progresses, and the horse does a little damage to the speaker’s flowers, it becomes a symbol. The horse represents a conflict or the rumor of conflict.
As the animal moves down the street everyone has the same reaction. They’re too scared to confront it head-on and close their blinds. From the speaker’s tone and the poet’s used irony, it becomes clear that she does not believe what she has been professing. In reality, she is not so careless with her thoughts and actions. The poet does not believe one should be a passive onlooker in times of strife or ignore the loss of the rose. To do so would be a betrayal.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The War Horse’ is a thirty-line poem that is separated into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These couplets follow a very simple rhyme scheme of AA BB CC DD, and so on, changing end sounds as Boland saw fit. Depending on one’s pronunciation, some of these “perfect” rhymes are closer to half, or slant rhymes. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance.
This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, in the “care” and “fear”, “Road” and “head” and “done” and “torn”. There are also moments in which this occurs within the lines themselves. Such as, “Blown” and “growth” in the sixteenth line.
Boland makes use of a number of poetic techniques. These include alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, and irony. The latter is perhaps the most important on this list. The speaker makes her larger point about war, death, and loss through the use of this poetic technique. She says one thing, but it’s very clear she means another.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “short” and “street” in line twenty-one. Onomatopoeia is used when a word or words sounds like the noise the words are describing. “clip, clop” in the second line is a great example.
Last is simile, or a comparison between two things using “like” or “as”. There is a strong example in the third and fourth lines when the horse’s hooves are compared to a “mint”.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem. They serve to move the reader through the poem at a faster pace than each line was long, weaving and filled with punctuation. Prime examples can be seen in the transitions between lines five and six, as well as twelve-fifteen.
Analysis of The War Horse
This dry night, nothing unusual
About the clip, clop, casual
Iron of his shoes as he stamps death
Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth.
In the first lines of ‘The War Horse,’ the speaker begins by describing the setting. She is in her home, looking outside, and reporting on the actions of a horse. Boland uses alliteration and onomatopoeia to describe the “clip, clap” sound of the horse’s iron shoes as it moves down the street. An interesting contrast presents itself immediately, with the speaker stating there was nothing “unusual“ about the sound moving down her street. At the same time, the horse is described as stamping “death / like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth”.
The simile utilized in the third and fourth lines compares the power of the horse’s hooves to the press of a mint, used for creating new coins. In this case, the earth is “innocent” and the horse is acting upon it. The animal has the power in this equation, as will be demonstrated throughout the text.
I lift the window, watch the ambling feather
Pass, his breath hissing, his snuffling head
In the next two lines, the speaker describes how she lifted her window and watched the horse walking down the road. Boland utilizes words like “hock and fetlock”. These refer to parts of the horse’s leg. While the horse is described powerfully, the speaker also states that it was “ambling“ down the road, taking its time.
It came from the “tinker camp”. This is probably a reference to a gypsy camp, in this case, located on “the Enniskerry Road”, outside Dublin.
The horse has become “loose from his daily tether”. It shouldn’t have been wandering down the street as it was, a fact that contributes to the foreboding tone the speaker takes up for much of the poem. Usually, the horse is tethered, or tied up. But, some unknown event has occurred, allowing it to move freely through one of the town’s populated streets. The event in itself does not feel dangerous, but it is obvious that the presence of the horse alludes to something far more menacing.
The horse is presented in the eighth line with “breath hissing” and “a snuffling head”. The use of these two words, “hissing” and “snuffling”, as well as “Hock” and “fetlock” earlier on in the poem, is an example of internal rhyme.
Down. He is gone. No great harm is done.
Only a rose which now will never climb
The horse’s head was down, looking at the ground. All of a sudden, he passes. The situation felt tense for a moment, as a speaker was unsure what was going to happen, but now she knows that there was “no great harm…done”. The only physical damage inflicted on the speaker’s yard was a torn leaf from the “laurel hedge”.
The speaker is not overly concerned with this loss, as a reader will find out later, it was only a rose that fell to the ground. The loss of the single flower, and the attitude with which the speaker describes its life, death, and placement on the ground after the horse has passed, alludes to a larger theme.
The stone of our house, expendable, a mere
Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead.
It is clear in the next lines of ‘The War Horse’ that the speaker is describing more than just her own home and the damage that was and was not done to it. She is speaking more broadly about war, conflict, and the front lines.
She states that the “stone of our house” was “expendable”. Even if the horse, as an embodiment of war itself, had done something, it would’ve been okay. The speaker could’ve accepted the damage, the loss of metaphorical life, and moved one. The stone wall, or the soldiers who stand first in harm’s way, or the principles that first come under attack, are like the flower that’s fallen to the ground.
These lines are dark and suggest that the speaker cares nothing for those who put are at the most risk in a conflict. But, it is certainly the opposite. The speaker takes this position outwardly by speaking about life and death so flippantly. But, Boland is using irony to make a statement about war. As well as the way that those in positions of relative safety are careless with the lives of those who are not.
But we, we are safe, our unformed fear
Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated?
Boland’s speaker goes on describing how she, on the other side of her stone wall is “safe” from anything that occurs beyond it. She says outright that she thinks that “we”, (those at a distance from war and strife) should not have to care about “a rose, a hedge a crocus” and if they are “uprooted”.
The speaker’s, and poet’s, true position is revealed in the twentieth line through the repetition of dark, destructive words. She is exaggerating this state of mind in order to show the reader how absurd this way of thinking really is.
He stumbles on like a rumour of war, huge
Thankfully passing us. I pause, wait,
The speaker returns to the horse in the twenty-first line. Here, she describes how the animal “stumbles on” from the front of her house as though he is “a rumour of war”. This is another powerful simile. The fear of war and the threats it brings with it are embodied in the horse and carried from one house to the text. As soon as the speaker’s home is “passed” she breathes a sigh of relief. The same is true of all those along the road. Each neighbour uses “the subterfuge / of curtains” to try to avoid contact with even the idea of war.
The fear these characters are showing, and their inability to face up to the horse is the reason why violence will continue on unchecked.
Then to breathe relief lean on the sill
A cause ruined before, a world betrayed.
In the last lines, the speaker describes how her blood was “still / With atavism”. Or, the recurrence of traits from the past. In this case, the speaker was thinking about previous conflicts and how that fear never leaves one’s body. She thinks back to the far past, to “burned countryside” and to an “illicit braid” worn by those fighting for the Catholic cause.
The poem concludes with the speaker describing how the “cause” was “ruined before” and a “world” was “betrayed”. As stated in the introduction, this piece comes directly from the poet’s own perspective. It is important to consider that she was writing before, during and after the “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. This final line is a reference to the past. As well as to a history of violence that had yet to find a good resolution. The world has been “betrayed” before. She thinks it might happen again as people hide in their houses behind their curtains.