Only two characters appear in Ted Hughes’s bestknown short story: an unnamed man and a black horse. The man, returning to a rural landscape after a 12-year absence, is attacked inexplicably by the horse but escapes muddy and unharmed. Compared with Hughes’s opaque, enigmatic poems “The Horses” (The Hawk and the Rain, 1957) and “A Dream of Horses” (Lupercal, 1960) the equine references seem straightforward, even simplistic. According to Hughes’s biographer and critic, Keith Sagar, the story was influenced by an incident in Hughes’s childhood at the Don in Old Denady, South Yorkshire. However, Sagar notes that the story is also clearly influenced by characters’ encounters with horses in D. H. Lawrence’s works, particularly The Rainbow and “A Modern Lover.” As the appropriation of Lawrentian antecedents indicates, the horse is figured not just as a protagonist in a naturalistic story but as a symbol in a psychological crux for the unnamed male.
No reason is given for the man’s return to the place he left more than a decade previously. He has no affection for the countryside and is naively dressed in a business suit. He feels only anger and boredom. In other words, there is a void in the man’s interaction with the rugged, rural environment. He is here because he has to be, not because he wants to be. Leonard M. Scigaj has argued that the horse’s attack begins only when the man consciously ignores its unusual behavior. The horse is a symbol of lack. For Scigaj, that lack is sexual: “The horse symbolizes the repressed libidinal energies of the man’s own psyche” (62). Indeed, no mention of a sexual partner is forthcoming at any point, so Scigaj’s insistence that the horse represents an unrealized carnality that rears its head despite the man’s attempts to repress it is convincing. But the horse may be seen as a more generalized symbol of the man’s disenfranchisement from the countryside, as an iconic, zoomorphized signifier of the antagonism between the man and an almost personified countryside.
The horse’s acts of violence—which are thwarted only by the man’s forceful throwing of large stones— may also be seen as representative of the essential violence of the agricultural industry to which the man returns so unenthusiastically. The man remembers a display of foxes’ cadavers, recalling their bloody teeth. Men not only carry out violence against animals but exhibit the carcasses that result. References are made to gates and fences, stressing that the farmlands constitute property, territory marked out by acquisitive human hunters. Indeed, the narrator notes that “A loop of the river bordered all this farmland”—humans have exploited nature’s borders to mark out their territory, making the farm seem almost castlelike with its surrounding moat. Farmers use nature only in order to fight it.
The farm’s shed is packed with tractors, a plough, binders, and an oil drum; the heavy odors are not bucolic but are caused by paraffin, creosote, and fertilizer. Little is natural about farming on this scale. Unusual though the horse’s violence appears, it is linked to the quotidian, nonnatural violence that farmers wreak perpetually on the fauna and fl ora in their fields. The narrator asserts that the landscape “looked lifeless and desolate.” Previously, the sky has repeatedly been described as “grey”—the color of a corpse. Despite the presence of fecund rabbits (that are considered only as a nuisance) and the lonely horse, this is an almost dead landscape, one rendered unrecognizable through farming. The story suggests that Hughes had prescient fears about the impact of intensive agriculture on the countryside, because pastoral biodiversity is as absent in this story as the man’s sexual satisfaction and spiritual contentment.
Hughes, Ted. “The Rain Horse.” In Wodwo. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.
Sagar, Keith. The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
———. Ted Hughes. Windsor: Profi le, 1981. Scigaj, Leonard. Ted Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1981.