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The Horse in Poetry and Prose

Sawrey Gilpin, Gulliver Addressing the Houyhnhnms, 1771.

Sawrey Gilpin, Gulliver Addressing the Houyhnhnms, 1771.

 

Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482.

Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482.

The quick surveys that we have taken so far of horses in painting, memorial sculpture, and theater and film illustrate the sheer ubiquity, historically and geographically, of equine imagery in the visual, plastic, and performing arts.

This is not surprising: equines carry great material, functional, and symbolic value for humans, making them prime subjects for artistic representation; and equines convey extraordinary visual beauty, physical stature, and dynamic movement, making them ideal objects for aesthetic treatment. The status of the equine in literature differs.

Historically significant visual and plastic renditions of horses far outnumber verbal depictions. Horses have played a visible though generally peripheral role, however, in some types of poetry and prose. Given the critical importance of the equine to warfare, hunting, transportation, and other fundamentals of ancient life, horses naturally appear throughout global mythic and epic traditions, whether the Bible, the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar, the Mongolian Epic Cycle of Jangar, or the Iliad. Horses often appear in Western mythology, for example, both as species — monstrously, in the form of centaurs; magically, in the form of unicorns — and as individuals — sometimes supernaturally, such as Pegasus, and sometimes naturally, such as the powerful equines in many Celtic and Norse myths. Finally, the horse gives its name to chivalry and plays an indispensable role in the Western chivalric poetic tradition — from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Le Morte d’Arthur, La Chanson de Roland, and El Cid; to the seminal deconstruction of the genre, Don Quixote; to pop cultural incarnations from 1920s tales of Zorro to the 1950s TV series Have Gun Will Travel, whose aptly named protagonist, Paladin, dispensed calling cards embossed, ambiguously, with what might be a white or black knight.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955.

In addition to myth, epic, and romance, horses less predictably traverse a significant body of lyric poetry that reaches from Sir Philip Sidney, through D.H. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, Edwin Muir, and Carl Sandburg, to Ted Hughes, David Whyte, Louise Gluck, and Donald Hall, to name just a few. The horse can, and often does, serve lyric poetry not only as a theme, icon, and subject, but also, and more profoundly, as a reflection of the human speaker’s subjectivity and as the reader’s point of entry into that subjectivity. Though not many contemporary poets, unlike their predecessors, can bring both poetic and equestrian skill to their work, the Pulitzer Prize poet and Virginia horseman Henry Taylor proves an exception. In the title poem to the collection, The Horse Show at Midnight (1966), for example, Taylor not only captures the calm and tension of the night time stillness of a show still in progress, but he also does so from both rider’s and horse’s points of view; and in the title poem to The Flying Change (1985), Taylor subtly and quite brilliantly infuses the rhythm and flow of the canter and flying change into the rhythm and meter of the poem.

Calling Card, Have Gun Will Travel, 1957-63.

Calling Card, Have Gun Will Travel, 1957-63.

Serious prose literature has proven less accommodating to the horse than has poetry. Occasionally deployed as fully realized allegorical figures, memorably as the equine Houyhnhnms who master the human Yahoos in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), horses too often devolve into neighing metaphors, such as the wounded Pilgrim in Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer (1995). Horses play visible though relatively minor parts in serious contemporary fiction set in the old or new American West — the novels of Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, or Thomas McGuane, for example — and even focal roles in a few collections of literary essays, notably McGuane’s elegant Some Horses (2000). In general, though, serious prose literature pays little attention to the horse, and for a clear reason. In addition to focusing typically on social and psychological subject matter, serious novels, especially modern novels, are built formally and thematically on narrative point of view, and equines (like canines), whatever their other virtues, evidently do not possess a consciousness that novelists find either accessible or interesting. Precious few serious modern novels use equines or canines as protagonists, and even fewer use them as narrators or point of view characters — Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (1999) being a signal canine exception.

Black Beauty, F. M. Lupton Publishing Company, 1877.

Black Beauty, F. M. Lupton Publishing Company, 1877.

Horses (generally ponies), however, do join canines in playing a large, important, and often titular role in the “juvenile” literary canon (I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively), occasionally even as first-person narrators — Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), the sine qua non of pony literature, or Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903), a clunky canine classic with staying power.

Arguably beginning with Black Beauty, the juvenile equine canon in English includes such classics as John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony (1933), Kate Seredy’s The Good Master (1935), Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935), C.W. Anderson’s Billy and Blaze (1936) and his many other works, Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion (1941) and its many sequels, Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka (1941), Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague (1947) and her many other works, and C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy (1954).  These books and others, moreover, gave rise to an equally rich juvenile equine cinema, whose classics range from sentimental favorites like My Friend Flicka (1943), to luminous inspirational dramas like National Velvet (1944) and Black Beauty (1946), to self-conscious artistic studies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Black Stallion (1979).

A robust and varied subgenre of the equine literary genre, finally, focuses on the racetrack. Examples range from serious and accomplished novels, such as Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award Winner Lord of Misrule (2010), to great “beach reads”, such as the many crime novels by former steeplechase jockey Dick Francis. Semi-documentary portraits of famous Thoroughbreds are a staple of the subgenre, exemplified by Laura Hillenbrand’s beautifully conceived and executed Seabiscuit (2003). Here, the titular figure functions not only as cultural symbol, historical personage, and individual personality, but also as the formal device for framing and interweaving the portraits of the human subjects.

While the history of the horse in adult prose literature may be slim, the history of non-fictional literature on the horse and on equine training and usage, particularly military usage, represents an immense body of writing. The tradition dates in the West to Xenophon, the Athenian historian and general, and his principal equestrian treatise, On Horsemanship (c. 360 BC). Following a long hiatus, this body of work has continued unbroken from the Renaissance to the present.  It will be the final topic of this series.

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About the Author

Charles Caramello is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of English at University of Maryland.

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