The start of the poem describes a nuclear/chemical or biological war catastrophic enough to ‘put the world to sleep’.
In the beginning the survivors were ‘afraid’ of the ‘silence’ as they had lived for so long in a world full of noise and hustle and bustle.
With the war came a breakdown in communication – ‘the radios failed’ – and technology in general – ‘a plane plunged … into the sea’.
The image of the ‘dead bodies piled on the deck’ is rather gruesome and conveys graphically the scale of the casualties, heaped in undignified mounds as if for waste disposal.
‘But now if they should speak…’ ‘If … they should speak’ … ‘If … a voice should speak’ – The repetition of the words ‘if’ and ‘speak’ conveys their fear and panic at the idea of sound breaking their vale of silence. Moreover the repetition of ‘we would not…’ reinforces their determination not to return to the way things were.
The poet uses personification to create an image of the world as a cannibalistic mother eating her children. That the earth was consumed by the nuclear explosions in such a short space of time is emphasised by the use of ‘swallowed’ and ‘one great gulp’.
Now, in the way that sailors once feared great sea monsters they had never seen, creatures of myth, the survivors imagine the tractors ‘couched and waiting’ like beasts ready to spring out and attack them.
‘We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.’
They have reverted to a simpler and more basic way of life, rejecting the world they inherited and the technology that accompanied it for the more natural world of their ancestors.
The silence is broken, however, by the onomatopoeic ‘a distant tapping’ and alliterative ‘a deepening drumming’ building up to ‘hollow thunder’ with its connotation of a gathering storm. The ‘drumming’, a primal sound, may suggest the idea of a heartbeat, of new life.
Again the survivors are ‘afraid’ but this time it is not a fear of silence brought about by war and death it is a fear of what this ‘wild wave’ noisy and vital may mean for them.
The horses are described as ‘strange’ for they belong to a time before man became dependent upon the technology that almost destroyed the world forever; a time of ‘fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield’. The imagery here is much more positive than the imagery in the first half of the poem.
‘that long-lost archaic companionship’ refers to humanity’s bond with nature that was ‘lost’ through our over-dependence on technology and attempts to subjugate nature to human aims and whims.
The newly born ‘colts’ are symbolic of new life in the ‘wilderness’ of the destroyed world; a suggestion of hope, a new beginning. The coming of the horses means the survivors can move forward, begin again. The difference is that this time they have a clearer understanding of the need to control technological progress rather than become slaves to it.
In stanza one the poet clearly depicts the dangers of technology becoming an end in itself by showing the destruction that might be caused through nuclear war, the nuclear bomb being an ultimate symbol of technology. In the second stanza, however, he suggests that if we learn to live in harmony with nature, represented by the horses, there may still be hope for us.