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 …

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