Saturday, 9 February 2013

Edwin Muir (15/5/1887 -3/1/59) - Orkney's Visionary Poet

Edwin Muir described himself thus: " I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time accidents happened to me. Then in 1751, I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751. but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day's journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul the invisible leeway. No longer I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937 -39)
He was born at Deerness on Orkney, Scotland in 1887, and educated at Kirkwall Burgh School. Sadly, his family lost their farm which was known as 'The Bur' a place that he loved dearly, that held special resonance in his heart.
Unfortunately a combination of high rents and poverty forced a move to Glagow. Moving from his beloved  homeland , he was also forced to take on  a number of menial jobs, and became increasingly involved and interested in left wing politics. He taught himself German, read Nietzsch and joined the Independent Labour Party. This was followed by a number of sad events, first his father died, then his two brothers and finally his mother. In 1919 he married Willy Anderson after a peroid of depression and seld doubting,and they subsequently moved to London in search of work, a move he did not take lightly as he viwed his former life in Orkney as a kind of 'Eden, and this transition he thought of as a journey to hell. In 1921, they moved to Prague where he wrote journalism and essays that earned him acclaim in England and America.
He was a relatively late developer with his writing, and only came to real prominence with the publication of his book The  Labyrinth in 1949.Most of his best work was written after the age of fifty. Many of the poems in this book were based on Muir's experiences while working for the British Council in Prague immediately after the war, and the book remains one of the most consistent and serious collections of poems to be published since 1941.He became rather prolific, and his work  marked his reputation as a severe and very Scottish writer whose work sometimes seems marred by an excessive plainess of style, but his best work rises to a massive seriousness.Informed by the Scottish ballads and incidents from his Orkney childhood and Calvinist background, they seem to me to be mystical and visionary, confronting the struggles between  good and evil, life and history as an existential journey. With his wife he was the first to translate the writings of Franz Kafka and Heinrich Mann, and  into English and became increaingly interested by developments in modernist European literature.
Today he is identified as one of the central figures of the modern Scottish literary Renaissance, both for his poems and his book Scott and Scotland (1936) - in which he argued controversially that Scottish literature would have a better chance of international recognition if it were  written in English, a line that brought him into direct opposition to the Lallans movement of Hugh Mac Diarmid, another literary force of this era.
He and his wife travelled extensively to Italy, Prague. Salzburg, Vienna.Spending considerable time on the continent, which allowed him to immerse himself in its culture. He had a long association too with his fellow Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. Whether abroad or at home in London he did all that he could  to keep in touch with Scottish affars, and in his autobiography he expressed his yearning for its independence, and more than likely would have approved of the calls for home rule that are being called for at this moment in time in Scotland.
In 1946 he was appointed Director of the British Council. In 1950 he became warden of Newbattle Abbey College, a college for working class men,  and iin 1955 he was made Norton Professor of English at Harvaed University.Though he had been a staunch socialist in his earlier years, through his experinces of living  and travelling Czechoslavakia, he had witnessed totaltarianism at first hand, and his later poems took on a more cynical air. The influence of his strict Calvinist upbringing and strong religious faith, remained undimmed , but nevertheless he did not let the human spirit go unchallenged.He still had the need to question and probe.Though I personally have no religious faith, I  still respect his poetic pulse and the clarity of his vision. An intriguing writer nevertheless, whatever your beliefs.
He died in 1959 and is buried at Swaffham Priory, near Cambridge.

A particular favourite poem of mine by him is the Horses, which takes him into the realms of science fiction. A terrifying picture of a world after nuclear disaster painted in the opening section, is then beautifully contrasted with the arrival later of the mythical horses. They remind me  a little of the white horses of the Camargue as they appear in a famous French slow-motion film, but in fact they are the farm horses which Muir remembered from his childhood in the Orkneys. This is perhaps the most movingly optimistic poem to have come out of the world of the hydrogen bomb.

The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses  came.
By then we had made our covenance with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north.
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radio dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll moulder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
                                       And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and we were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as  if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companianship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half-a-dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world.
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden,
Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life changed, their coming our beginning.

The White horses of Camargue

The following poem  , clearly draws on one of Kafkas main themes,  conveying the helplessness of civilians in the face of officialdom.

The Interrogation

We could have crossed the road but hesitated,
And then came the patrol:
The leader conscientious and intent,
The men surly, indifferent.
While we stood by and waited
The interrogation began. He says the whole
Must come out now, who what we are,
Where we have come from, with what purpose, whose
Country or camp we plot for or betray,
Question on question
We have stood and answered through the standing day
And watched across the road beyond the hedge
The careless lovers in pairs go by'
Hand linked in hand, wandering another star,
So near we could shout to them. We cannot choose
Answer or action here,
Though still the careless lovers saunter by
And the thougtless field is near.
We are on the very edge,
Endurance almost done,
And still the interrogation is going on.

The following two express his  visionary  religious impulses. His eternal quest so to speak.


O merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day,
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam's finger
Across the memory and the wave?
Or a runner who'll outrun
Man's long shadow driving on,
Break through the gate of memory
And  hang the apple on the tree?
Will your magic ever show
The sleeping bride shut in her bower,
The day wreathed in its mound of snow
and Time locked in his tower.

The Good Man in Hell

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
   By  needful error of the qualities
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
  Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
  Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell's little wicket gate
  In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
 That, uttered, dooms him to rescindles ill,
Forcing his prsying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
  Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And now among the damned the damned doubts of damnation,
  Since here someone could live and could live well?

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
  Open such a gate, all Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
  And love and hate and life and death begin.

and finally this one which I think is rather magificent  with wonderful  powerful imagery.

Scotland's Winter 

Now the ice lays its smooth claws on the sill,
The sun looks from the hill
Helmed in hus winter saket,
And sweeps his artic sword across the sky.
The water at the mill
Sounds more hoarse and dull
The miller's daughter walking by
With frozen fingers soldiered to her basket
Seems to be knocking
Upon a hundred leagues of floor
With her light heels, and mocking
Percy and Douglas dead,
And Bruce on his burial bed,
Where he lies white as may
With wars and leprosy,
And all the kings before
This land was songless,
This land that with its dead and living waits the judgement day.
But they, the powerless dead,
Listening can hear no more
Than a hard tapping on the floor
A little overhead
Of common heels that do not know
Whence they come or where they go
And are content
with their  frozen life and shallow banishment.

Further Reading

An Autobiography :- Faber 1954

Collected Poems 1921-1951 :-Faber 1952

Collected Poems :- Oxford University Press 1965

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