Additionally, the curling smoke could indicate that it is autumn or winter and is most probably early morning as the hot breath of the horse mixes with the cold air. “Flinty pebbles” (l. 5) and “clouds of sand” (l. 12) suggest that the horse is probably on a beach. Baillie is Scottish and “glaring south” (l. 9) indicates that the ensuing battle is going to take place either across the border in England or possibly in France. Alternatively, this poem could refer to a medieval scene with a Knight and his steed about to go off on the crusades.
After fourteen lines of admiration for the horse comes the turn in the poem and the mood changes from praise and adulation of the horse to praise and adulation of the rider. After “But lo! ” (l. 15) comes the caesura and a complete change of tone and mood. “What creature”, asks the poet, is good enough to sit on such a magnificent beast as this horse? Eight lines later Baillie tells her reader, in a awed and admiring tone, that “a British soldier, armed for war” (l. 22) is that person.
Described as “godly” (l.15) the reader can picture this mortal, dressed in armour and appearing a much larger than life figure. “Portly stature” (l. 17) could indicate that this man is not used to war and fighting and would be more at home going about his everyday tasks. But he is an Englishman and willing to fight for his country so he adopts a “determined mien” (l. 17). His “dark eye” (l. 18) indicates his anger and concern and his “brow serene” (l. 18) suggests his calm determination. Clearly this man understands the risks and futility involved in war and battle as he “forward looks unmoved to the fields of death” (l.19).
This is also a compassionate man who, despite knowing what lies ahead, feels kindness and pity for his horse as he “gently strokes” (l. 20) the beast. “Smiling” and “gently” (l. 20) enhance the flowing movement of stroking the horse. There is a distinct change of mood in this final octave. Prior to this there is a real feeling of anger and excitement of what lies ahead and this also adds to the pomp and ceremony of battle. The horse, being just an animal, is not capable of seeing the dangers that lie ahead; whereas the man, a “British soldier” (l.22), whilst being proud and courageous like the horse, is also aware of the dangers and horror that the battlefield contains.
Baillie manages to create a picture full of life, action, sound and expectation relating to the horse but subtly changes the feel and tempo of these final eight lines to give a more restrained impression of pride and acceptance when talking about the man. Throughout the poem Baillie’s shares her experience and feelings of the sight she has witnessed by building up a rhythmic pattern of rhyme and imagery to recreate the scene for the reader of her words.
There are different levels at which this poem can be read – and enjoyed – and these are all interwoven. Literally the words tell a basic story – a horse and rider are preparing to go to war. Ethically the poem looks at the moral issues of war and death. Historically it hints at the underlying political influences of fighting for one’s King and Country. On an apocalyptical level it suggests the spiritual aspects of death. Steven Bygrave states that “Romantic texts are more than usually highly politically charged” (Bygrave, 1998, p. 14) and this poem is a good example of this and gives an idea of Baillie’s views.
That she admires both the horse and the rider is evident but whether she supports or condemns war is not clear. What she has done is provide her reader with a lucid picture of ‘The Horse and his Rider’ whilst hinting at underlying issues but leaving the reader to form his or her own opinions. (1,436 words) Bygrave, S. (ed. ) (1998)
Romantic Writings, The Open University Owens, W. R. and Johnson, H. (eds) (1998) Romantic Writings: An Anthology, The Open University Sue Ashbee (ed. ) (2001) Approaching Literature: Approaching Poetry, The Open University.