Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Horses, by Ted Hughes


The Horses is a poem that was published in Ted Hughes’s first collection, “The Hawk in the Rain”, which appeared in 1957. This collection made an immediate impact on the literary world, winning a prestigious prize - judged by W H Auden, Stephen Sender and Marianne Moore - and bringing Hughes (1930-98) to public attention as a new and original voice in English poetry.

Ted Hughes’s early poetry largely – but not exclusively – featured the natural world, particularly that of the Yorkshire moors near where he grew up. Much of it presented the violence of nature, expressed in dramatic language, so The Horses is something of a contrast to poems such as the title poem The Hawk in the Rain and Pike (which is not in this collection).


The Poem


I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,

Not a leaf, not a bird—
A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood

Where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness

Till the moorline—blackening dregs of the brightening grey—
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:

Huge in the dense grey—ten together—
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,

with draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.

I passed: not one snorted or jerked its head.
Grey silent fragments

Of a grey silent world.

I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging—.
I turned

Stumbling in the fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,

And came to the horses.
                                          There, still they stood,
But now steaming and glistening under the flow of light,

Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them

The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.
Not one snorted or stamped,

Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys in the red levelling rays—

In din of crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place

Between the streams and red clouds, hearing the curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.



The pervading themes of this poem are stillness and silence. The only movements detected are those of the poet and the sun rising, and the only sound is the cry of a curlew. It is worth looking at the techniques Hughes uses to emphasise these themes.

One of the first things to strike the reader is the format Hughes uses. Instead of dividing the poem into stanzas, as that term is generally recognized, we are given a series of double lines, apart from one single line and an instance of two half-lines followed by one full line. The net effect of this arrangement is to break the flow of the poem and make it difficult to read it at speed. Nothing happens quickly – what is described is mainly non-motion, so the format seems to be entirely appropriate.

Hughes also makes considerable use of repetition of certain words and phrases. To emphasise the lack of colour in the early morning he uses the word “grey” four times in the first half of the poem, thus offering a contrast to “orange” “red” and “blue” in the second half as the sun rises.

There is also repetition in “making no move” and “making no sound”, at the first encounter with the horses, and “made no sound” in the second encounter. Another repetition is “tilted hind-hooves” in both encounters; then “not one snorted or jerked its head” (first encounter) and “Not one snorted or stamped” (second encounter). This repetition therefore emphasizes the horses as symbols of stability – whatever else might happen in the world, they stay the same.

There is only one sound that breaks the silence, namely “the curlew’s tear”. Is this tear as in “weep” or in “break open”? The image works whichever one might choose. The cry of the curlew is haunting and melancholy, and many poets down the centuries have used this image for that purpose.

One slightly disturbing note here is that Hughes might have been incorrect is using the curlew in this context. Curlews are far more likely to be seen and heard in the summer than the winter in upland areas, because they tend to migrate to coasts when the weather turns colder and food sources – such as frogs and snails – are far less plentiful.

It is immediately after hearing the curlew that change happens. The sun begins to emerge above the horizon, colours replace grey, and the poet walks back the way he had come. The curlew’s cry is therefore the equivalent of “reveille” – the wake-up call to the world. However, the sleeping horses (horses often sleep standing up) have not done so. They will wake in their own good time, just as their ancestors have done on this bleak moor for many centuries past.

With the line “Their hung heads patient as the horizons” Hughes makes a direct link between the unmoving horses and the world that is now coming into view. They are both symbolic of things that do not change, and Hughes makes the point even more clearly in the poem’s conclusion by relating life away from the moors to what he has witnessed here – expressing a wish to always being able to remember the scene and thus gain a sense of purpose in the confusing “din of crowded streets”.

One wonders if Hughes had recently read Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, which contains a very similar idea:

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet

The final line of the poem – “Hearing the horizons endure” – links his own life both to the horses and to the wider world, not only through the repetition of “horizons” but also to the endurance that the horses symbolize through their unchanging, unmoving stance on the hillside.

© John Welford


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