‘Horses’ by Pablo Neruda is a wonderful example of the pet’s skill with language. Throughout this piece, readers are treated to beautifully crafted images of the drab and cold winter season as well as the experience of a fiery juxtaposition—the horses. They bring with them an excitement and light that makes this poem hard to forget.
Summary of Horses
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker spends time discussing the dark Berlin winter. It’s a terrible time to be in the city. The air is like “white wet bread,” and everything is drab and colorless. In a moment that stands out beyond all others to the speaker, he looks down at horses in the city. These horses, which are actually part of a fountain, depict freedom, strength, and beauty in a way the speaker had never experienced before.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Horses
In ‘Horses,’ Neruda engages with themes of hope, light, and darkness. In contrast to the sorrowful winter darkness of Berlin, his speaker presents the light of the “horses.” They speak to him of something warm, burning, and free. He compares it to the feeling one might get when they look in a prisoner’s eyes—an all-consuming desire to break down barriers. As the speaker takes in the sight of the horses, he feels transformed. He experiences them in a way he never thought possible and opens his eyes as he ever has before. This new “light” allows him to break through the winter darkness and into a new kind of enlightenment.
Structure and Form
‘Horses’ by Pablo Neruda is a twenty-nine-line poem that is divided into stanzas ranging from one line to five lines in length. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, this doesn’t mean the poem is without either. Close readers should be able to find examples of half-rhyme throughout ‘Horses.’ For example, “pride” and “eyes” in lines seventeen and eighteen as well as “fountain” and “heaven” at the ends of lines twenty-five and twenty-six. This technique can help a poem written in free verse feel more like there are examples of rhyme throughout.
Readers should also remember that any sounds in the text of ‘Horses’ are there due to the English translation. The original Spanish version is different.
Neruda makes use of several literary devices in ‘Horses.’ These include but are not limited to examples of caesura, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, a caesura, is a pause in the middle of a line of poetry. This might occur due to the poet’s use of punctuation or because there’s a natural pause in the meter. Line eleven is a good example. It reads: “empty till then. Perfect, ablaze.” Another example is line twenty-four: “I looked. I looked and was reborn.”
Alliteration is a kind of repetition that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “fire” and “flared forward” in line nine and “white” and “wet” in line four.
Enjambment is a common formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before it’s natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines two and three, as well as lines nine and ten.
Analysis of Horses
From the window I saw the horses.
The air was white like wet bread.
In the first lines of ‘Horses,’ the speaker begins by stating very simply that he “saw the horses” from his window. He was in Berlin, Germany, and it was winter. The immediate alliterative connection between “window” and “winter” in the first lines helps to create the feeling of a rhythm between the lines. It’s made clear in the next lines, through Neruda’s creative manipulation of language, that it was a dark winter. There was little to no light, and the “sky had no heaven.” The last phrase is suggestive of something deeper and darker than a simple lack of light. In the fourth line, he adds that the “air was white like wet bread.” This is a wonderful example of how imagery can be used to help the reader imagine a scene and a speaker’s experiences.
And from my window a vacant arena,
bitten by the teeth of winter.
Suddenly driven out by a man,
ten horses surged through the mist.
with manes like a dream of salt.
In the following lines, the poet uses more examples of figurative language to describe the scene around him. He uses personification to describe winter as something with “teeth” that can bite. This is a familiar and relatable way of depicting the cold. In juxtaposition to the cold is the “fire” of the horses. They were “like ten gods,” the speaker adds, “with manes like a dream of salt.”
Neruda uses simile after simile and metaphor to depict these powerful animals and their striking contrast against a drab winter backdrop. The introduction of the hoses into his “eyes” made him feel as if they’d been entirely empty before. It was like he was seeing and feeling for the first time.
Their rumps were worlds and oranges.
Their color was honey, amber, fire.
Their necks were towers
cut from the stone of pride,
and behind their transparent eyes
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.
The next lines are spent depicting the horses in greater detail, from the color of their “rumps” to the shape of their necks. The speaker feels “pride” and energy radiating from the eyes of the animals. He uses a simple to compare the animals and their energy to that of a prisoner longing to break free. The horse represented something completely at odds with the life the speaker was living at the time. They were “inciting treasure of life” and making him feel more alive than he had.
I looked. I looked and was reborn:
I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.
I will not forget the light of the horses.
It’s in the final lines of the poem that the speaker reveals that he’s been looking at a fountain in the middle of Berlin. He “looked” and “looked and was reborn.” He felt as though everything changed at that moment. He finally saw the “fire that lives in beauty.” Now, as he looks back on this time, he remembers the horses and their “light” but not the “dark Berlin winter.” While this poem might focus on one experience or the poet’s fictionalized thoughts about an experience, it represents more. It’s a reminder that light can exist in the middle of darkness and fuel one’s heart in a way that didn’t seem possible.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Horses’ should also consider reading some of Pablo Neruda’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘Tonight I Can Write,’ ‘Here I Love You,’ and ‘Ode to My Suit.’ These three poems represent a good array of Neruda’s work. The latter is exactly what it sounds like, an ode to the speaker’s suit. In the poem, the poet focuses on the beauty of mundane objects and their outsized importance in one’s life. ‘Tonight I Can Write’ is a poem about writing poetry. In ‘Here I Love You,’ Neruda explores the plight of long-distance lovers and the speaker’s fears about losing his partner.