Friday, 19 March 2010


Coming back from the corner shop today I heard the leisurely clatter of hooves. It was the mounted police that regularly patrol our corner of Islington. I always get a thrill when I see them (as do the boys, as you can imagine). They were a threesome today and one, a majestic grey mare.

They always seem on a very relaxed sort of hack and I've never witnessed them in action. In fact, I'm not sure what action they are intended for: A cavalry charge of some spray-can-wielding hoodies? A mounted pursuit of shoplifters? But then they're probably not intended for action - rather, they're an equine deterrent.

And they make a tremendously impressive sight - much more comforting to the law-abiding citizen than the sight of a flashing jam sandwich. This feeling of being comfortable in their presence reminded me of one of the poems we 'did' at school, by Edwin Muir. It's spoilt a little by incorporating a measure of political didacticism (I suspect we were introduced to it by a CND-supporting English teacher) but it's nevertheless memorable and quite striking, even moving, in parts.

The Horses 
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll molder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.


worm said...

What a cool (and 70's hippy stylee) poem - I like poems that attempt to tell a fictional story at the same time, don't know why - perhaps it's because you have the extra excitement of not knowing whats going to happen?

Police horses are amazing - they are so huge and strong, I've been in a few protests/raves where we've been charged by mounted police, and I can tell you its pretty bloody scary!

Vern said...

Been donkeys since I read that, but it's a good one.

Vern said...

... I think I read it in an ancient Penguin Book of Scots Verse. Most of the modern stuff was krap, except that one.

zmkc said...

That is beautiful. I wonder if your children are too young for War Horse? If not yet - and there is quite a lot of scary war stuff in it - if it is still on/on again when they are old enough, even though it's quite sentimental and a bit simplistic, it is worth taking them. It is a terrific spectacle, and the way they have captured the horsey movements is breathtaking. You probably know all this already, but the poem made me think of it.

Gaw said...

Worm: Tell us more!

Vern: It must be good as it's still springing to mind about thirty years after I first came across it.

z: Never heard of War Horse! So I shall look into it - thanks for the recommendation.