‘The Animals’ by Edwin Muir is a three-stanza poem which is separated into one set of six lines, one of seven, and one final set of eight. It was originally published in the first part of Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. The poem follows a rhyming pattern that changes from stanza to stanza.
The initial sestet follows a rhyme scheme of abaccb. The pattern changes with the addition of another line in the second stanza, following a pattern of ababcdd. Then finally in the last eight-line stanza the lines come close to rhyming, abbcddaee. There are a few instances throughout these end rhymes that, either due to pronunciation or word choice, the rhymes are only half, or slant. This does not greatly interrupt the flow of the piece though. A reader should also note that Muir has chosen not to imbue this piece with a consistent pattern of meter. Although, the lines are close to uniform in length.
Summary of The Animals
The poem begins with the speaker stating that animals live in a world that does not feel the touch of time. They are elevated above humanity and remembered as they were before God made humankind. Additionally, he makes it clear that they have a weakness. They are unable to speak for themselves. This factor has made their lives more tenuous.
In the following stanzas, the speaker describes the creation of the world. He is recalling or imagining the day on which all manner of elements existed and animals were created. It was here, before humans were made, that there was peace. Animals moved freely, without restraint throughout the world. Although one cannot return to this time, it is possible to imagine.
Analysis of The Animals
They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by making a sweeping statement about “They.” This group does not “live in the world.” They are not a part of “time and space.” These two opening phrases are somewhat cryptic. At this point, one should refer to the title to understand that the “they” refers to animals. The narrator is going to continue to speak about “they” throughout the three stanzas without ever explicitly using the word “animals.” The only note one has of this being the subject comes from the title.
Immediately the animals are placed on a different plane than humanity. While humankind may “live in the world,” the speaker sees animals as being different. They are elevated in some way above the “world” that humankind inhabits. This is likely a reference to the general nature of modern life. Animals do not participate in the worries that so consume humanity.
Additionally, the speaker says that they are not included in the progression and rules of “time and space.” He is describing the animals as being immune to the pull of time. This is another way to elevate them above humanity. In the next three lines, the speaker describes the weakness that sets them apart from human beings. They are unable to speak. He states that they do not have a “word’ they can use. There is nothing for them to depend on as a way to state their own presence and consciousness. He concludes by saying there has never been a place alongside humanity in which animals were able to function as strong members of their group.
For with names the world was called
By the articulate breath.
In the next set of lines, the speaker explains how animals came into being. From this point on there is a distinctly religious tone to the text. It is clear the speaker is relying on a Christian world view to examine life and death.
He begins by describing the “call[ing]” of names that brought everything into the world. This is a reference to God creating each part of the planet. At first, there was nothing, and then into the “empty air” came “names.” These names were used to build up all manner of creatures, forms, and materials. There is now “Line and circle and square.” These pieces of the world have come into being alongside “Dust and emerald.” This process of creation is focused on the base materials of the planet.
By illuminating the beauty of their becoming one should be able to transfer that same beauty to non-human animals. Muir is also drawing up some interesting contrasts between “emeralds” and “dust.” It is with great specificity that the poet chose these elements. The final line of this section explains that the world was “snatched” from the possibility of non-existence by God. He made possible that which now exists, from the simplest of materials to the most complex.
But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.
In the concluding octave or stanza of eight lines, the speaker describes what this world was like and how the animals and the elements that came before them, operated. There was never a return to the “familiar track.” The world was always in motion with creatures moving from place to place. There was no routine to be worried about.
The day the speaker is referring to is later mentioned as the “fifth great day of God.” This is when the world existed before humans had a chance to interfere. Here, “All is new and near.” The world has just been created and there is not even a hint of human concern. It’s clear the speaker is relishing in the imagined memory of this day. It is a time that will always exist inside his head. The “fifth day” will “remain the same” in the progression of time. There is nothing that can take it from the history of the earth or force it to “pass away.”
The speaker has tapped into, and created, a memory of the past. It is something that no human can know. He celebrates the peaceable kingdom that existed before God made humanity.