Poem of the Fortnight: Horse-Feathers

Posted by Rebekah King on Wednesday, February 03, 2016 with No comments
Poem of the Fortnight: Horse-Feathers

This time we take a look at a poem in the Digital Miscellanies Index that deals with death— surely one of the most common themes of literature— but does so through an unusual subject: the demise of an unnamed horse. It reads as follows:

Here lies not in but on Earth’s Womb,
An Horse expos’d without a Tomb:
No Winding-sheet, not his own skin,
Nor laid by any of his Kin.
Yet was no Jade; Death had a Race,
And took him for his sprightly pace.
Now see his funeral Exequies,
Th’Ravens in black do solemnize:
Unto the skies they him Exalt,
Being sepulchred in Airy Vault.
In Living Tombs, he thus out-prides
Mecha and Egypts Pyramides.
Change now his Epitaph; say not, Here lies
A Horse; but rather, Here he flies.
Mourn not his fate, my friend since thus
The Horse is now transform’d to Pegasus.

Certainly, the poem pokes fun at the highfalutin death-lyric. We cannot seriously believe that Nature outperforms the sculpted wonders of the human world with an equine carcass open to the sky. It is far too crass to read a mourning mien in the aspects of the scavenging ravens. Luckily, the poem stops short of trying to convince us that the stench of rotting horse is akin to perfumed incense in this dubious mausoleum.
Nevertheless, there is some touching imagery at the heart of this burlesque. The horse transformed to Pegasus is an efficient metaphor: the soul released from the body, now liberated and at peace.
In the modern imagination, the horse has been stabled, somewhat unfairly, in quarters adjacent to the things of childish fantasy. No longer a necessary fact of life—of transport, toil and weaponry—we tend to associate horses with rotund Thelwell children wearing knee-high boots, chasing fatter ponies through the English countryside. Worse still, the fearsome creatures that haunted the pages of the bestiary—the winged horse and the unicorn—have been tamed and, in an alarming number of cases, dyed pink, by the likes of Barbie and My Little Pony.
Michael Feber’s A Dictionary of Literary Symbols reminds us that, for the early modern reader, Pegasus was a far more imposing and altogether more grown-up character, rich in his poetic resonance. Pegasus was known to have been beloved of the Muses “because he created the spring Hippocrene on Mt. Helicon by stamping the ground with his hooves, after which he flew up to heaven.” (p. 99) When C.S. Lewis adapted the trope—though admittedly, once again, for children—he made sure he revived, for a fleeting moment in modern fiction, this older incarnation. The Magician’s Nephew documents the creation of the first Narnian Pegasus. This is a cab-horse, originally called Strawberry, who is given wings and a new name in reward for his faithful service. The passage is a fitting place to finish. Like our poem, it assumes a tender new significance when we imagine the horse as a human soul released at last through death:

“Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses,” roared Aslan in a voice that shook the ground. “Your name is Fledge.”

The horse shied, just as it might have shied in the old, miserable days when it pulled a hansom. Then it roared. It strained its neck back as if there were a fly biting its shoulders and it wanted to scratch them. And then, just as the beasts had burst out of the earth, there burst out from the shoulders of Fledge wings that spread and grew, larger than eagles’, larger than swans’, larger than angels’ wings in church windows...He gave a great sweep with them and leaped into the air. 

What the DMI tells us so far:
  • The poem appears in one miscellany ‘The Academy of Complements with Many New Additions [ESTC R28041]’, published in 1684.
  • It is included under the title ‘Song 81’ but is also one of the few poems in this miscellany to be given a second, descriptive title, albeit a fairly unimaginative one: ‘On a Horse.’
  • Like all the other ‘songs’ in the collection, it is left unattribtued.
  •  I have catalogued it under four genre labels: ‘Couplet’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Mock-Epitaph’, and ‘Song’.
  • Both ‘Epitaph’, and ‘Mock-Epitaph’ have been listed as genres so that, whatever an individual user of the DMI might make of the poem’s treatment of the epitaph, they will find their way to it here.
  • There are two themes: ‘Animals’ (to which is added the note ‘horse’), and ‘Death’.

Poem ID: 44194

For a more in-depth explanation of how the DMI works, see the FAQ page: http://digitalmiscellaniesindex.org/faqs/