listening to our breathing

Apr 9, 2020 poetry appreciation

There is good stuff in amongst all the strangeness at the moment, as a lot of people are noting. Some are doing so with a vim and perkiness which I find quite annoying—I rarely find Uplift uplifting—but it’s good to hear the quieter, less trumpety tales. And to notice things, too. Driving up to Scotland last week I was moved to see an oystercatcher walking across the M6 in front of me. I’m kinda glad the world is getting a rest from us.

The Horses‘ by Edwin Muir is one of the poems which has been echoing round my mind these last few weeks. Though it offers a post-apocalyptic vision it’s not an unmitigatedly doomy one, and I don’t offer it with a gloomy sense of prophecy. Rather, it’s because I’ve been aware of how strange and lovely I am finding the current silence, or relative silence, on my (rare and legitimate, guv’nor) sorties into the outside world. And silence is what Muir’s poem opens with. (Here are a couple of readings of it, too, one much more fruity and declamatory than the other. See what you think.)

‘The Horses’ offers an eerie and unsettling picture of the end of the world. The archaic language at the beginning, and the references to ‘seven days/… on the second day/…. third day’ and so on, of course point us towards the creation story in Genesis in a kind of ghastly parody: this is not making, but un-making. The repetitions, too—’and still they stand…/ and stand’; ‘if they should speak/ … should speak/ …should speak’; ‘we would not… we would not…// we would not’— have a rhetorical quality, as of an impassioned preacher or leader rallying survivors around some new, urgently-needed creed. The contrast of this with the following lines about ‘the nations lying asleep,/ Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow’ is most effective: these lines have the quiet bewilderment of early grief, when the new facts are just too enormous to apprehend. At such times thoughts do indeed ‘[confound] us with [their] strangeness’. What an elegant way of saying ‘we can’t get our heads round it’—something I’m sure a lot of us are feeling at the moment.

But oh, that glorious “turn” which begins with ‘And then, that evening/ Late in the summer’: nature, in the form of the horses, offering ‘us’ her forgiveness. The language calms here, the repetitions disappearing and an exquisite simplicity emerging, culminating in the quiet poise and balance of the final line. And as a working definition of grace and love ‘free servitude’ may get my prize for best oxymoron ever.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we let the current situation ‘pierce our hearts’ too—not just in some cheesy, uplift meme kind of a way, but really taking stock, really doing some kind of a reset? I’m well aware that this thought appears all over the net at the moment, expressed much more eloquently than I can currently manage. But I wanted to nudge Muir forward to add his voice to the rest of them—hoping that we might listen to the silence, to our breathing, and heed what they have to tell us.

2 thoughts on “listening to our breathing”
  1. Hi Lucy, I missed the one about your Mum. It is good to read a bit more about her which helps me know how you are feeling about things. It brings me closer to you. Today you have left me with thoughts of the oystercatcher and his chance to fully explore the world around him/her.
    Best wishes,
    Phil

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