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A Poet in Exile

Collected Poems

by Edwin Muir
Oxford, 310 pp., $6.00

Except for one additional poem, “The Two Sisters,” this collected edition of Edwin Muir’s poems is substantially a republication of the volume of the same title which appeared in 1960, the year following his death. Muir was a year-and-a-half older than T. S. Eliot (who was his publisher, and who provided a Preface to this edition) and his particular exile was probably more crucial and certainly more dramatic than Eliot’s. He was born on a farm in the Orkneys and his family stayed in those islands until he was fifteen. As a child, he was inevitably made aware of the household’s increasing economic difficulties as his father was forced to poorer and poorer farms by the exactions of landlords; and he saw his elder brothers leave home and the life on the land for the mainland and jobs in Glasgow. But these facts were not the part of his early years that later seemed most real to him, and eventually provided a setting for much of his poetry. Instead it was the Orkney landscape itself, the farming and fishing life as he had seen them as a child, that came to figure in his imagination as a symbol of a timeless state an image of Eden. His estrangement from that world was to him an enactment of the Fall: one of the recognizable steps in what he called “the fable.” In his autobiography he has described what he meant by the term:

In themselves our conscious lives may not be particularly interesting. But what we are not and can never be, our fable, seems to me inconceivably interesting. I should like to write that fable, but I cannot even live it; and all I could do if I related the outward course of my life would be to show how I have deviated from it; though even that is impossible, since I do not know the fable or anybody who knows it. One or two stages in it I can recognize: the age of innocence and the Fall and all the dramatic consequences that issue from the Fall. But these lie behind experience, not on its surface; they are not historical events; they are stages in the fable.

He had been plunged into the world of time and degradation when his family finally had left farming altogether and moved to Glasgow.

The first few years after we came to Glasgow were so stupidly wretched, such a meaningless waste of inherited virtue, that I cannot write of them even now without grief and anger.

His father had died during the first year in the city, and his mother and two of his brothers in the two years that followed. His own health had failed. “All that time,” he wrote, “seemed to give no return, nothing but loss…” It was a terrible initiation and the contrast between the two apparently incompatible spheres, the timeless fable and the world of historic action and loss, became, years later, the central concern of his poetry, and was implicit in virtually everything else he wrote.

HE PASSED from job to job in Glasgow and Fairport, serving as office boy, as car washer on a big estate, and as a clerk in a series of minor posts; his health continued to be undependable; he had few friends; the bleakness of the modern industrial world seemed to be inescapable; he underwent an ephemeral but depressing religious conversion. He tried to “better himself” and add to his scant formal education by reading what he could find, in particular during bouts of illness. A magazine called Great Thoughts was a favorite for a while, and was replaced eventually by Chambers’s Cyclopedia of English Literature and cheap editions of philosophers and the Victorian novelists. Rossetti attracted him briefly, and later the sentimental ironies of Heine, but he was not tempted to try writing verse. “Thinkers,” on the whole, proved more satisfying than poets during most of his twenties, and for several years he sustained himself desperately on the more extreme contentions of the philosophy of Nietzsche, proclaiming to himself his pitilessness and his independence of good and evil.

When I first began to write, some years later, what I produced was a sort of pinchbeck Nietzschean prose peppered with exclamation marks. I should be astonished at the perversity with which, against my natural inclinations, my judgment, and my everyday experience, I clung to a philosophy so little suited to a clerk in a beer-bottling factory, if I did not realize that it was a “compensation” without which I should have found it hard to face life at all. “Be hard” was one of Nietzsche’s exhortations, but I was not hard enough even to give up Nietzsche.

In fact his first published writings were a series of aphorisms which appeared weekly in The New Age under the title of “We Moderns,” and were afterwards collected and published as a book. Eventually Muir found them merely embarrassing, but they were an important step towards a life as a writer. Another was “the most fortunate event in my life”: his marriage in 1919 to Willa Anderson, a lecturer in a women’s college. The young couple, in a spirit of great daring, moved to London, and there for the first time his livelihood was connected with literature: A. R. Orage, the editor of The New Age, gave Muir a job as his assistant, and Muir also undertook dramatic criticism for The Scotsman, and did reviewing for The Atheneum, then edited by John Middleton Murry.

But it was not until several years later, when he and his wife were living in Germany and he was in his middle thirties, that he began to write poetry “simply because what I wanted to say could not have gone properly into prose.” At the beginning, apart from what he wanted to say, he was chiefly aware of his handicaps in saying it.

I had no training; I was too old to submit myself to contemporary influences; and I had acquired in Scotland a deference towards ideas which made my entry into poetry difficult… There were the rhythms of English poetry on the one hand, the images in my mind on the other. All I could do at the start was to force the one, creaking and complaining, into the mould of the other.

AS A CHILD in the Orkneys he had been exposed to Scottish balladry, and the mark of its influence was permanent, though not always obvious in his poetry. Some of his first published poems were cast in ballad form. In one of them, “The Ballad of Hector in Hades,” he found he was transforming a still painful fragment of his own childish experience—a moment of panic in which he had run away from another boy—into a description of Hector’s flight from Achilles, as Hector remembered it, in death:

I only see that little space To the left and to the right,

And in that space our shadows run, His shadow there and mine,
The little knolls, the tossing weeds, The grasses frail and fine.

The poem is built around the contrast that was later to be central to his poetry: the stillness of the fable, against which the tragic action moves.

The walls of Troy are far away And outward comes no sound.

I wait. On all the empty plain A burnished stillness lies…

The remembered stillness is evoked, emphasized, and brought into unnatural and feverish relief by the poem’s one motion: the two shadows running over the grass. The nearby details of the inviolate world through which they run appear as spectators, to whom the fear of the protagonist is remote and unreal:

The sky with all its clustered eyes Grows still with watching me,
The flowers, the mounds, the flaunting weeds
Wheel slowly round to see.

Two shadows racing on the grass, Silent and so near,
Until his shadow falls on mine. And I am rid of fear.

The world of fear, throughout Muir’s poetry, is simply the world of time.

Before he had left Glasgow Muir had acquired a devotion for Wordsworth, and though he believed that “Wordsworth is not a poet to be imitated, and if the thought had occurred to me then I would have regarded it as a presumption,” both his poetry and his thinking about poetry were indelibly affected by his reading of Wordsworth. It is not a question of imitation; Muir’s poetry, from the time he began writing it, was recognizably his own. But there is more than a chance affinity, for example, between the passages I have quoted from “The Ballad of Hector in Hades” and such lines as these:

My apprehensions come in crowds;
I dread the rustling of the grass;
The very shadows of the clouds
Have power to shake me as they pass.

from Wordsworth’s “The Affliction of Margaret,” a passage which he declared in his autobiography reminded him whenever he read it of his own state of mind, just before he began to write in his twenties: “A jagged stone or a thistle seemed to be bursting with malice…the dashing of breakers on rocks terrified me for I was both the wave and the rock; it was as though I were both too close to things and immeasurably distant from them.” The same poem of Wordsworth’s remained important to him, and he returned to it years later, in his essays, notably in “The Poetic Imagination” and “Wordsworth: Return to the Source,” and each time quoted these same lines.

IF ONE OF his earliest poems contains influences and essential characteristics that were to be permanently his, it may be partly due to his having come late to the writing of poetry, so that he escaped a certain amount of the floundering that is usual in those who come to it young. But it seems evident from the whole of his writing that it was also a result of a sureness about what was necessary to his poetry and what was not. It has become a commonplace in discussing Muir’s poetry to speak of its conservative idiom and its relative independence of the poetic fashions that came and went during his life-time. There are in the earlier poems marks of the influence of Eliot, of Yeats, and perhaps of both Hardy and Graves (and some of the influences were incorporated into Muir’s mature style) but extensive technical experiment never seemed tempting to him. At the beginning “I wrote in baffling ignorance,” he said, but “I was more fortunate than the young poet who knows too much, or thinks he knows too much about poetry, and can solve with ease the technical problems which I could not solve at all. To think of poetry like this makes it a simple and business-like, and may make it almost a clever thing.” For ten years, as he remembered, he wrote “a poetry of symbols drawn from memory without realizing that I was doing so.” Mere verbal efficiency, in this, might not have been a help, for “the task of a poet,” as he conceived it, “is to make his imaginative world clear to himself,” remembering that even the clarity, and the familiarity acquired by practice, might be dangers, “for that world, in becoming clear may grow hard and shallow and obscure the mystery which it once embodied.” This poetic ambition, insofar as one can tell from the poems, never changed and he was faithful to it long before he would have been able to describe it. The style which it led him to evolve was mature and distinct by the time he wrote the poems that were published in the 1937 collection, Journeys and Places:

He all that time among the sewers of Troy
Scouring for scraps. A man so venerable
He might have been Priam’s self, but Priam was dead,
Troy taken. His arms grew meag- er as a boy’s.
And all that flourished in that hol- low famine
Was his long white round beard.

What appear at first (as doubtless they appeared to him) to be separate though recurring subjects, emerge, as the style matures, as facets of his abiding theme: the contrast between the eternal world of innocence and the fable, and the tragic world of time. The persistence with which this theme possessed him is occasionally responsible for a certain monotony in his less successful poems, and a suspicion that abstractions and symbols are being used in a rather habitual manner, and that their burden is mere exposition, not imagination. I think the latter misgiving is seldom justified in Muir’s later poetry, any more than Yeats’s repeated use of such words as “image” and “gyre”: references to a larger imaginative structure. The underlying unity of Muir’s work makes it possible to arrive at a view of all of it by taking any one of the recurring subjects—such as the opening chapters of Genesis, the Homeric legends, symbolic landscapes, the journey—as a starting point. On re-reading him it is above all the theme of the animals that seems to me, both because of the scope with which he developed it and because of its deepening relevance, most striking.

In his Autobiography (1954) Muir wrote in some detail about the presence of this theme in his own life and in his attitude towards it.

My passion for animals comes partly from being brought up close to them…partly from I know not where. Two hundred years ago the majority of people lived close to the animals by whose labor or flesh they existed. The fact that we live on these animals remains; but the personal relation is gone, and with it the very ideas of necessity and guilt… A rationalist would smile at the thought that there is any guilt at all: there is only necessity, he would say… I do not know whether many people have dreams of animals… But it is certain that people who have been brought up in close contact with animals, including the vast majority of the generations from whom we spring, have dreamed and dream of animals, and my own experience shows that these dreams are often tinged with a guilt of which consciously we are unaware.

Ten or twelve years ago, when I first read that passage, I remember that, if I did not smile like a rationalist, I did at least feel that Muir was exaggerating a bit, that this was a private view. I had no reservations about the poem “The Animals,” written a few years later, in which the guilt is not referred to directly:

They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

But these they never trod
Twice the familiar track,
Never never turned back
Into the memorized day.
All is new and near
In the unchanging Here
Of the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.

On the sixth day we came.

What I had failed to grasp earlier was the close and inevitable relation of the passage in the sum of Muir’s work. The ambiguous power of the animals’ presence in his writing is due in part to the fact that the world beyond time in which Muir’s animals exist is at once the region from which man rose by virtue of his intelligence, and the Eden from which he fell and still falls. The animals also inhabit the fixed world of heraldic symbols, and the archetypal world of the fable, which in its chief details is the same for every life, yet is unique for each individual. It is becoming increasingly difficult, he believed, for modern man to distinguish its outlines, but the fable itself does not change.

FOR MUIR’S own life the prose passage from which I have quoted was certainly no exaggeration, and his waking experiences of flesh-and-blood animals, at times, must have seemed incontestably to be illustrations or glimpses of the fable; certainly they forced him to peruse the sources of human guilt that are revealed by the animal kingdom. In his autobiography Muir tells of nearly two years that he spent, as a young man, working in a factory in Scotland where animal bones were finally freed of their rotting remnants of flesh and fat, and burned to charcoal to be sold for the refining of sugar. The smell of the place filled him with a shame that became obsessive and the feelings of guilt which it nourished eventually projected themselves into his vision of the world. The passages describing the factory seem to contain echoes from another level of consciousness, and it is not surprising that the author of them spent several years, between the wars, in central Europe, pondering at first hand the awesome series of events that were leading to the war, the camps, the gas ovens, nor that he and his wife translated much of Kafka into English.

But time, whose action and limits are disclosed by the animals, embraces fulfillment as well as guilt. Faith, pity, and love, in Muir’s view, are all creations of man’s perception of his mortal imperfection, and animals, while revealing to man’s imagination the complex drama of life in time, have no drama of their own, and so no past and no hope. This is the only sense I can make of Muir’s strange statement that the suffering of animals is without pathos—one which neither experience nor dictionaries permit me to understand otherwise. At all events the relationship between animals and men in Muir’s writing frequently exhibits both drama and pathos. As for example in what Eliot called “that great, that terrifying poem of ‘the atomic age’ ‘The Horses’,” in which mysterious horses return voluntarily, presumably from some part of the fable, “new as if they had come from their own Eden,” to labor for the survivors of an obliterated civilization, who recognize the gift at last, and themselves in their acceptance of it:

…that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Muir examined one or two aspects of the theme, as he thought about it consciously, in the essays (in the brilliant “The Politics of King Lear,” for instance, where he considered the “bestial” part of the “natural” man) but he did so, of course, without this visionary finality, and usually from a more orthodox standpoint. But in the best of his poetry, where the theme occurs it rises from a source beyond argument, and it illumines in ways that may not always have figured in Muir’s own intentions the unique gift and also the perverted hopes, despised birth-rights, and scarcely contained death-wish of contemporary man.

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