It is a little odd now to think that when it was first published back in the early nineteen-fifties this poem probably seemed quite cutting edge and daring in its vision of a world after nuclear war. That was a time when apocalyptic visions were much in vogue, and the poem has a certain kinship with such prose works as Nevil Shute’s ‘On The Beach’, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’ and some of John Wyndham’s books. All worthy stuff and good reads in their day, but now a little dated, a little decorous – it’s not that the future has necessarily got any less apocalyptic, more that visions of it have got a lot nastier, as, for example, in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. I think few now would take the line, as Muir does, ‘OK, that’s the end of civilisation as we knew it, but never mind, we can just go back to horse-drawn ploughs and be the better for it’. But this ties in with Muir’s perpetual yearning for a vanished agrarian Eden such as he knew in his Orkney boyhood. If his vision comes across now as dated and impracticable, and if it seems rather quaint that the humble tractor should be seen as the archetype of the evil Machine (shades of R.S.Thomas!), then I guess that such is the risk poets take when they try to build on the shifting sands of current affairs and current technology. Yet for all that I think the poem is interesting not just as a period piece but for a quality of wistful innocence that still has power to move.
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 moulder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
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 ploughs and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.
Edwin Muir (1952)