Horses in Poetry
26th Dec 2017 •
We celebrate our love for horses in many ways. Artists have been creating images of horses before the written word was invented. And poets have been creating odes to horses. The ancient Greeks celebrated horses. And their poetry and song is interwoven with horse imagery and legend.
Perhaps the most famous poet is Shakespeare, and he had a lot to say about horses. For many people of his era horses were about as romantic as cars are for many of us. But, just like now, some people saw more that just a mode of transportation or a way to get work done. When Shakespeare wrote about horses, it was with reverence.
In his play Henry V, the constable describes his horse:
When I bestride him, I
soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth
sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his
hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.
And from Venus and Adonis:
Round-hoof'd, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.
Shakespeare understood the passion for horses. In his play The Merchant of Venice, one characters complains of another: ,i>He doth nothing but talk of his horse. Don't we all know someone like that?
Long before Shakespeare however, 3rd Century BC poet Oppian wrote:
To Horses beyond all mortal creatures cunning Nature has given a subtle mind and heart.
Always they know their own dear charioteer and they neigh when they see their glorious rider and greatly mourn their comrade when he falls in war.
War horses, along with their riders were often the subject of poems and other writings. The poet Alexander Pushkin considers the plight of the warhorse with sadness in his poem, The Horse.
"My ardent horse, why are you neighing?
Why are you hanging your neck?
Why do you not shake you mane,
Not nibble your bit?
Do I not care for you?
Or don't you eat enough oats?
Is your harness not beautiful?
Is your rein made not of silk?
Are your shoes not of silver?
Are your stirrups not of gilt?"
The sad horse answers:
"I am so quiet because
I hear the distant trample,
Sound of trumpet and arrow's song;
I am neighing because there is not
Time left for me to walk in the fields,
To live in glory and care
And show my bright harness;
Because soon the cruel enemy
Will take all my harness,
And will tear my silver shoes away
From my weightless feet;
My soul moans because
Instead of the horse-cloth
He will cover my sweaty sides
With your own skin."
And while it’s obvious to sing the praises of war horses and other ‘blood’ horses, some poets celebrated the more mundane of the species. The Old Whim Horse was written by Edward Dyson in 1892. A whim is a horse-powered winch used to pull up loads from mines.
He's an old grey horse, with his head bowed sadly,
And with dim old eyes and a queer roll aft,
With the off-fore sprung and the hind screwed badly,
And he bears all over the brands of graft;
And he lifts his head from the grass to wonder
Why by night and day the whim is still.
Few civilizations are as closely tied to their horses as the Bedu of the Arabian Peninsula. The passion for these horses caught on in England as they added refinement and speed to the native horses. The spirited Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton was a social reformer and writer who was born in the early 1800s. During her lifetime, she would perhaps have seen the many Arabians being imported by her peers, and these were likely the inspiration for the poem The Arab’s Farewell to His Horse. Perhaps it was her separation from her children after a social scandal that helped her understand loss so keenly.
MY beautiful! my beautiful! that standest meekly by
With thy proudly arched and glossy neck, and dark and fiery eye;
Fret not to roam the desert now, with all thy winged speed-
I may not mount on thee again-thou'rt sold, my Arab steed!
Fret not with that impatient hoof-snuff not the breezy wind-
The further that thou fliest now, so far am I behind;
It’s not often a move is made based on the poem, but The Man From Snow River is one. The story isn’t solely about horses, nor is the poem. But the poet A.B. "Banjo" Paterson wrote many poems, capturing the spirit of his time, and the way they rode and lived.
Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black
Resounded to the thunder of their tread,
And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back
From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.
And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their way,
Where mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, "We may bid the mob good day,
No man can hold them down the other side."
Rudyard Kipling was a writer perhaps best known for his story The Jungle Book. But he also wrote poetry. He was more or less a contemporary of Paterson, but lived a very different life in Britain and in colonial India. In his poem White Horses, Kipling sees the foaming water of the ocean as herds of wild white horses.
“Girth-deep in hissing water
Our furious vanguard strains --
Through mist of mighty tramplings
Roll up the fore-blown manes --
A hundred leagues to leeward,
Ere yet the deep is stirred,
The groaning rollers carry
The coming of the herd!”
In a similar poem by John Covernton describes the foaming sea horses as well:
“I saw white horses
And horsemen gathering
Out at sea.
Line upon line,
A thousand pennants streaming,
They showed their strength.
Galloping knee to knee,”
There is an old saying, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And, so many of us feel that wayl sometimes. Sometimes is a poem by Shelia L. Mills from Pony and reprinted in The Horse Lover's’ Treasury by Genevieve Murphy (Souvenir Press/Ryerson Press 1963).
“...You’re a wondrous handsome creature,
With a splendid turn of speed,
In fact, you’ve almost everything
A riding man could need.
So I wouldn’t change you Dobbin--
No,not even if I could,
But sometimes there are moments
When I wish you were not wood.“
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