‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes is rich in imagery and use of symbolism. Each section of the poem unfolds new features of nature at dawn. The poet’s movement in the poem is also very interesting. In the darkness of dawn, he goes up to the hilltop, and after the sunrise, he descends. However, the main theme of the poem is not only centered on the horses but also presents nature as a whole. The stillness of the horses is another chief contrast in the poem. Among all the movements and changes, their spirit remains silent and stone-like as if they are not living creatures but statues created by mother nature.
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes begins with the description of the natural landscape at dawn. The poet moved through the darkness of the woods to reach the hilltop. Thereafter he observed how darkness wrapped the valleys below. From there, he suddenly noticed a group of ten horses standing together. They didn’t make any movements. Moreover, when the sun came out in the sky the poet started his journey downhill. On the way, he arrived at the place where the horses were. In the second but close encounter with those creatures, he sensed a calm stillness in them. This scene along with the curlew’s call made him so elevated that he had stumbled while he was descending from the hill. However, at last, the poet says he revisits this memory often as it still soothes his soul.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes is a free verse poem. The lines of the poem are divided into several couplets but the lines in the couplet don’t rhyme. The flow of the poem sustains by the use of repetitions and internal rhythm. The contraction and elongation of the lines reflect the movements and shifting of scenes. However, the poet employs both the iambic meter and the trochaic meter in the poem. There are also a few variations in the poem. As an example, in the first line, “dawn dark” contains two stressed syllables. This foot forms a spondee.
In several instances, the internal rhythm of the poem breaks. But, it breaks for the best. It reflects the sifting of pictures in the poet’s mind as if he is dreaming of the scene. This kind of writing is also called the stream-of-consciousness technique. Apart from that, the use of soft sounds like the “s”-sound makes the poem’s tone a pleasant one. The sound scheme utilized in the poem makes one feel the freshness of dawn just like the poet felt on that day.
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes contains several literary devices that collectively make the poet’s thoughts more appealing and thought-provoking to the readers. Likewise, in “hour-before-dawn dark” there is a metaphor. The compounding of words and connecting sense upon sense is one of the trademarks used by Hughes. The poet also makes use of several alliterations, consonances, and assonances in the poem. As the poem lacks a conventional rhyming scheme, those devices help the poet for maintaining the inner flow of the poem. As an example, “dawn dark”, “ten together”, and “hind-hooves” contain alliteration. Apart from that, there is an epanaphora in “Not a leaf, not a bird”.
Moreover, the poet uses metonymy in “iron light”. It depicts the color of light at dawn. The poet also uses onomatopoeia in the poem by referring to the snorting of horses and the curlew’s call. Moreover, the poet uses several metaphors throughout the poem. As an example, “grey silent fragments” refers to the horses metaphorically. There is also a metaphor in the use of the word “erupt” for referring to the sun’s appearance in the sky.
I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes paints the scene in the first few lines of the poem. Here, the poet appears as climbing through the woods to reach the hilltop. While describing the ambiance around him the poet uses some interesting metaphors. Likewise, in the first two lines “hour-before-dawn dark” refers to particular darkness that is only visible just one hour before dawn. The light is there in the heart of darkness but still, it’s not dawn. That’s the beauty of nature that presents a unique beauty in every second. Whereas, in the second line, “Evil air” contains a personification as well as a metaphor. Here, the skin-biting sensation of cold is referred to with these words. The poet feels that the invisible air was biting his skin like evil. Additionally, “frost-making stillness” refers to the stillness of the air.
In the next two lines, the poet refers to the stillness that casts its spell on leaves and birds on that day. Amidst this frosty weather, the poet came out above the wood. In the next two lines, he uses a metaphor in “tortuous statues in the iron light”. Here, the poet refers to the warm air he exhaled. The exhaled air being condensed in the cold outside appeared to the poet as forming “tortuous statues”. Moreover, the “iron light” refers to the silvery light at dawn. In the following line, the poet uses a personification. Here, the valleys appear as “draining the darkness”. It is a reference to the dark valley below. In the upcoming lines, “blackening dregs of the brightening grey” refers to valleys that were brightening as the sun started to rise slowly. At last, the poet saw the horses.
Huge in the dense grey – ten together –
Slowly detail leafed from the darkness.
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes talks about the horses in the section. They appeared to the poet huge for the grayish darkness around them. There were a total of ten horses standing like a “Megalith” or a huge rock statue. Those horses only breathed but neither made a move. Their manes seemed draped like cloth around their necks and their hind-legs or hind-hooves were tilted. They were standing there resembling the tone of nature.
When the poet passed them, “not one snorted or jerked its head”. They were like “grey silent fragments” of nature’s calmest song. The poet was amazed by their stillness and the horses appeared to the poet belonging to another world that is “grey” and “silent”. In the following lines, the poet first introduces sound in this poem and it was of the “curlew’s”. From the first sound, the poem takes an interesting turn in the next section.
… Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted
And came to the horses.
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes depicts the sunrise and breaks all the natural silence. According to the poet’s imagination, the sun like the lava erupted from the volcanic mountain of clouds. After the sunrise grey, the color of sadness, hopelessness, and passivity, fades away and appears the blue of life, longevity, and spontaneity. The poet could clearly see the sky and humorously the “hanging” planet in the sky like fruits.
In the next few lines, the tranced mind of the poet cajoled his legs in a manner that he stumbled. It seems like something deep inside his heart couldn’t let him go. At last, the poet descended from the bosom of the “kindling tops” and came to the horses for a closer view.
There, still they stood,
Hearing the horizons endure.
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes presents the appearance of the horses after sunrise. The stillness was still there but the manifestation had changed. They were then steaming and glistening for the first heat of sunrise. It appeared to the poet that the horses were being washed by the sunlight. Moreover, last night’s snow around their legs had started to melt and formed a thaw due to the sunrise.
In the next section, the poet uses a paradox in “The frost showed its fires”. Here, the poet refers to the warmth of life inside the horses. In contrast, they didn’t show any signs of it. The poet was surprised with such an absence of movement in the horses.
However, in “red levelling rays” the poet uses a metaphor. It refers to the egalitarian nature of the sun that casts its heat on all alike. In the last four lines, the poet presents his attachment with the scene and he says, “I still meet my memory in so lonely a place.”
‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes talks about the horses and their graceful silence. The animals which are known for their pace, are paradoxically cherished in the poem for their heart-warming stillness. However, in his early years, the poet was fascinated with such epigrammatic beauty of nature and its creatures. He wrote several poems on other animals too either depicting their beauty or their resemblance with mankind.
Like ‘The Horses’ by Ted Hughes the following poems also present a similar kind of theme and talk about the beauty of the horses.
- Horses and Men in the Rain by Carl Sandburg – In this poem, Carl Sandburg talks about horses and their resemblance to men.
- Horse Whisperer by Andrew Forster – Here, Andrew Forster presents the relationship of a horse whisperer and his horses.
- The War Horse by Eavan Boland – Here, Eavan Boland presents the horse as a symbol of inner conflict.
- The Undertaker’s Horse by Rudyard Kipling – In this poem, Rudyard Kipling depicts a malevolent horse and its nature.