English literature is an inexhaustible treasure-house, and our poets continue to produce good lyric poetry to this day: it’s a waste of being English not to draw on these riches; and the composer has a particular duty to the poets of his own time.
The Horses sprang from an enthusiasm for Ted Hughes’ early poetry. The work was commissioned by the Darlington Summer School of Music and two of the poems (The Horses and September) were first performed there in August 1967 by Jane Manning and Susan Bradshaw. Pennines in April was completed later: the complete set was performed in London by the same artists in November 1967. The following year, after some revisions, they were offered to Sir William Glock on the occasion of his 60th birthday on 3 May 1968.
They are to do two perennial themes of poetry - nature, and love scena-like setting of The Horses and the narrator comes across a group of these myth-creating creatures.
Huge in the dense grey - ten together
Megalith - still
Dawn breaks violently: but when he descends the hill in the early light of day; they are still just the same - as they will remain in his memory.
Pennines in April evokes this range of hills in heaving movement, like the swell of great sea - perhaps calling up their geological past. Memories of my own north-country childhood and youth drew me strongly to this one, the scherzo of the set.
September is a more straightforwardly romantic lyric, set in dusk at the turn of the year. You hear a silent clock chiming in a timeless time. Imagery of some far off revolution makes vivid memories of the passion of summer.
I climbed through the 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 in the valleys were draining the darkness
Till the moorline - blackening dregs of the brightening
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 his head.
Grey silent fragments
Of a grey world.
I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curfew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.
Slowly detail I 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, showered 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.
They 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 and stamped.
Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys, in the red levelling rays-
In the din of the 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 curfews,
Hearing the horizons endure.