‘The Rain Horse’ by Ted Hughes

Hughes, Ted 1960

The Rain Horse by Ted Hughes, 1960

The magic trick:

Bludgeoning the reader with blunt-object symbolism

Some stories sort of dance around the point, maybe they use some very subtle symbolism. Not “The Rain Horse.” This story beats you over the head with its imagery, lets you get up and run away a little, then chases you down and hits you in the face again.

And that is not a criticism. It’s brilliant. The thing is it still plays a little coy. It never comes flat out and tells you what it’s saying. But the symbols and images it uses – a horse running down a prodigal son over and over so that he can’t return to his home – are so obvious that there is no mistaking the message. I especially love the final sentence in which the protagonist “just sat staring at the ground, as if some important part had been cut out of his brain.” Wow. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.

The selection:

All around him the boughs angled down, glistening, black as iron. From their tips and elbows the drops hurried steadily, and the channels of the bark pulsed and gleamed. For a time he amused himself calculating the variation in the rainfall by the variations in a dribble of water from a trembling twig-end two feet in front of his nose. He studied the twig, bringing dwarfs and continents and animals out of its scurfy bark. Beyond the boughs the blue shoal of the town was rising and falling, and darkening and fading again, in the pale, swaying backdrop of rain.

He wanted this rain to go on for ever. Whenever it seemed to be drawing off he listened anxiously until it closed in again. As long as it lasted he was suspended from life and time. He didn’t want to return to his sodden shoes and his possibly ruined suit and the walk back over that land of mud.

All at once he shivered. He hugged his knees to squeeze out the cold and found himself thinking of the horse. The hair on the nape of his neck prickled slightly. He remembered how it had run up to the crest and showed against the sky.


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