This is a lesson I did with a Cambridge IGCSE student for her anthology Songs of Ourselves where we spoke about Edwin Muir’s ‘Horses’ and Alan Curnow’s ‘Continuum’. Scroll down to get the essay on both poems.

This is a horrible pair of poems to analyse together, and at first we couldn’t figure out what ‘Horses’ really meant. Why was Muir getting so worked up about carthorses and seeing ‘seraphim of gold’ and other ‘ecstatic monsters’? We’ve all had a bit of insomnia, like Curnow, but didn’t feel the urge to write a poem about it.

What is ‘Horses’ about? Background
After a bit of research, we discovered that Muir wasn’t frightened of horses; he was frightened of the Apocalypse, and the poem was really an imaginative creation of the aftermath of a third world war.

The two poems felt like they had nothing in common except that they were a bit crazy, so it was tricky to even come up with a title. This is what we used:

Essay title
Explore the ways in which both poets deal with the literal and the metaphorical?

Because it was tricky, I’ve explained this through a series of questions first – to track our thinking. Then there’s the start of the essay.

What is the literal topic of each poem? [1] Continuum is a short narrative poem/moment in time [2] Horses is a man standing in a field looking horses (er…?)

Point of View/Tone. How does the poet put himself in the poem? First, we looked for pronoun use: [1] Continuum ‘my’ ‘myself’, ‘mine’ ‘me’, ‘I am talking about myself’ [effect – self-focussed meditative or metaphysical] [2] Horses uses ‘I’ three times linked to ‘wonder’ [effect – awe] ‘watch’ [effect – the passive observer] ‘must’ [effect – strong sense of duty]

Tone: Mundane vs elegaic (grand): semantic fields [1] Continuum – elegiac: ‘moon’ ‘creation’ ‘night sky’ ‘author’ ‘demiurge’// mundane: ‘barefoot it’, ‘porch’, ‘privet’, ‘back to bed’, ‘tools’. [effect – sharp contrasts day to day and metaphysical]
[2] Horses – this feels like a blurred series or list of imagery, flickering with reality: imagery of ‘apocalyptic’ fear ‘smouldering bodies’ ‘mysterious fire’ [effect – connotations of damnation]; ‘wild’ ‘strange’ ‘magic powers’ [effect – suggests metaphysical, unreal, otherworldly]

Language Used and Tone: [2] Horses – what semantic fields are there?
semantic field of power ‘pistons’, ‘conquering’ ‘gold’
semantic field of war ‘conquering’ ‘march’
semantic field of heaven and hell: ‘seraphim of gold’, ‘ecstatic monsters’


The poet uses the oxymoron, ‘washed out creation’, which links to the semantic field of God and builds up the mystical element of the poem. The oxymoron contrasts ‘creation’ [which suggests magnificence, God and newness] with a surprising mundane image of it being ‘washed out’, as if it’s faded. This builds the theme of duality, the mundane and the profound (deep, philosophical truths) and the unknowable. Literally, the pale light of the moon makes the world look dim. Metaphorically this could mean all of nature is cleaned of meaning, which is why he’s struggling to fix the ideas for the poem he’s trying to write.
Horses is full of metaphorical language. The vision of the horses shifts from bare practical details like ‘lumbering’ ‘steady’ and ‘plough’ to the more otherworldly ‘wild and strange’. The poem shifts through time and into dream: moving from the poet’s memory of horses in the industrial age – with words like ‘piston’ ‘blackening rain ‘ and ‘ancient mill’ to imaginary ‘estatic monsters’ ‘magic’ and ‘seraphim of gold’ where he uses the semantic field of heaven and hell. The mood turns dark. The phrase ‘seraphim of gold’ is almost an oxymoron – gold is earthly, representing the power of the horses, whereas the ‘seraphim’ are heavenly. This technique appears in both poems and is used in slightly different ways. In the first, we shift between reality and dream calmly, in a continuous way, like the title, ‘Continuum’. However, in the second poem, the shifts are violent, biblical and ‘apocalyptic’. 

Both poems use mythical language: ‘Horses’ uses biblical visions of the Apocalypse, as if the horses are ‘monsters’ or on ‘fire’. The horses represent the fall of civilization. In ‘Continuum’, the poet refers to the distant ‘moon’ and ‘creation’ and weather in plain language which is less emotionally charged than in ‘Horses’. Curnow uses the subjunctive ‘may’ to explore possibilities.

Both poets suggest things are happening and not happening at the same time. Curnow says the moon ‘rolls’ and ‘falls’ and ‘does neither of these things’; Muir says the horses legs ‘move up and down and seem as standing still’.