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 –
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 the red clouds, hearing the curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.
At the opening of the poem hughes rises early and begins to walk up the hills behind his childhood home. (Hughes grew up in mythholmroyd, just south of the english lake district. it is a tiny town surrounded by wild countryside).
as he climbs Hughes notices in the half-light before dawn a small group of horses pasturing on the hill-side. he pauses to look at them.
I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
THE CURLEW’S TEAR TURNED ITS EDGE ON THE SILENCE.
Hughes reminds us how very alone one can feel on a mountainside just before sunrise. he hints that this isolation might be like the isolation of a saint before he sees god.
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 –
There is a very short period when the light seems to increase gradually (detail leafed) but then suddenly the sun is above the horizon and light floods into the hillside world (next time you watch a sunrise you will notice exactly this process). once the sun is up light comes suddenly, but even so there is time to notice the sun’s dominant shade turn from orange (as the disk first emerges) to red (when the disk is at half-show). the flood of light in turn heightens hughes’ awareness of the silence around him. the sun seems to tear through the middle of the black night sky, almost as if it were unwrapping the blue skywith clouds underneath. we know this is not what is happening, but this is what it looks like.
What Hughes means by ‘big planets’. is how the consolations change as the years go by.
With sun-up Hughes turns and begins his way down the mountain again, and passes the horses from earlier. now that he can see them in the early morning light he realises just how magical and mythical these creatures are. the light has made them strange in the way that a drug-hallucination of a religious vision is strange. much of Hughes’ greatest poetry is about seeing ordinary things as if they were new and beyond understanding.
THEIR HUNG HEADS PATIENT AS THE HORIZONS,
HIGH OVER VALLEYS IN THE RED LEVELLING RAYS –
The sun’s rays are red because it is early in the morning. they are levelling because they lie low in the sky, but also because they make every part of nature seem equal with every other part (in this case they make the horses seem as massive and permanent as the mountains of the horizon).
In the coda to the poem hughes says that now when he is older and lives in cities most of the time he still remembers his mystical sight of horses on the mountain as a child. that momentary vision he had of the world as huge and holy is the most important part of his awareness. it is a memory now, but it is a memory of a transcendental truth (hughes, like many poets, considers the mundane world he lives in every day as somehow less real than the big religious experience of his poem).
HEARING THE HORIZONS ENDURE.