Ted Hughes: The Horses

The Horses

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 mooring—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—
I turned

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 red clouds, hearing the curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.

—Ted Hughes

Last weekend I made a visit back to my childhood home in Leeds. These fields are part of what Guardian writers would call the ‘edgelands’, but for us it was ‘The Pit Hills’, a former colliery site and farmer’s fields that have been left fallow and undeveloped for decades. I was walking through them in the fading late afternoon light when I saw these two horses, tethered and cropping in the grass. It was a scene straight out of Ted Hughes‘ poetry, specifically ‘The Horses’, which was one of his significant early poems, and one I’ve long hoped to render as a painting. It was over these same fields that I saw the kestrel that inspired my 2018 painting ‘Against The Sky’. This unprepossessing few acres of land has a hold over my imagination in a way I can’t explain, and have long since given up trying to. Something about them, perhaps the lingering traces of the real wildness that was there before the motorway and the housing estates, is important to me, and long may they be left alone, abandoned, wind-haunted and modestly mysterious.


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