One of the finest things in Donald Davie's Under Briggflatts is a sustained, learned and densely implicative comparison of two poems about horses: Edwin Muir's well-known, post-Apocalypse poem 'The Horses' and Austin Clarke's much less familiar 'Forget me not', a poem written out of Clarke's angry response to the Irish trade in horse meat in the 1950s. Although generously receptive to both, Davie comes out decisively in favour of the historical rootedness, specificity and consequent stylistic bristle and speed of the Clarke against the ahistorical, symbolist stasis of the Muir, identified as the mode of 'mythopoeia'. As the argument develops, however, Davie reaches a startling conclusion: both poems are dependent on a conception of the 'horse', and therefore on a conception of 'man' (since the domesticated horse has significance only in relation to human beings), which share a 'belief in the sacred'. Muir's horses clearly represent the emergence of the possibility of some new post-holocaust inter-relationship between man and animal (and therefore suggest what an ideal present relationship might be); Clarke's vituperative disgust with Irish mercenariness, and his elaborate poetic campaign of moral re-education, would be pointless if the horse were only a farmyard animal. Even though the poems are as far apart in tone as it is possible to conceive - the Muir all rapt and visionary, the Clarke sardonic and declamatory - both bear witness 'that every poet's task is ultimately and essentially religious; and that it is dangerous for any poet to think otherwise.'
LRB 25 January 1990 | PDF Download