‘Escaping from the enemy’s hand
Into the enemy’s vast domain,
I sought by many a devious path,
Having got in, to get out again.’
Edwin Muir was born in Deerness, Orkney, on 15 May 1887. His father was a farmer but in 1901 he lost his farm and they left Orkney to live in Glasgow, a move with tragic consequences. Muir’s father, mother and two brothers died in fairly quick succession and the teenage Muir had to find work; he was employed in a series of grindingly awful jobs in offices and factories, the latter including one where charcoal was produced from bones. He was haunted for years to come by this sojourn in an industrial hell.
He taught himself German, read Nietzsche and joined the Independent Labour Party. In 1919 he met and married Willa Anderson, whose parents were from Shetland, and moved to London. Muir later wrote, ‘My marriage was the most fortunate event of my life’. She had graduated with a first-class degree in Classics from St Andrews, and became Muir’s literary partner as well: they collaborated on enormously influential translations, especially of authors who wrote in German – Kafka, Hermann Broch and others. They moved about Europe in the early 1920s: Prague, Dresden, Italy, Salzburg, Vienna.
They returned to Britain in 1924, where Muir underwent Jungian analysis, encouraged by A.R. Orage, to whose radical journal The New Age he was contributing. By now he was writing poetry as well as translating and between 1925 and 1956 published seven volumes of poems. He still led a restless life: in 1935 he was in St Andrews; in 1942 he was working for the British Council in Edinburgh; from 1946 to 1949 he was Director of the British Council in Prague; in 1950 he was appointed Warden of Newbattle Abbey College, where he met the younger George Mackay Brown whose work he was to encourage; from 1955 to 1956 he was Norton Professor of English at Harvard. He died on 3 January 1959 at Swaffham Prior, Cambridge, where he was buried. There is a memorial bench in Swanston, near Edinburgh, to commemorate his time there in the 1950s.
Muir wrote his poems in English, and in his study Scott and Scotland (1936) famously opposed MacDiarmid’s drive to Scots (although he was much influenced by the Scottish ballads), which led to a falling out between the friends, the twin pillars of the Scottish Renaissance movement. Roderick Watson has said, in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century (2007), that his work adopted ‘a calm and neutral tone to meditate on time and the timeless by way of classical allusions or images drawn from the realms of childhood, mythology or dreams.’
As a child he had lived on the Orkney island of Wyre and in later life looked back on this life close to nature as a kind of idyll, innocent and free, a dream of Eden, as in his poem ‘One Foot in Eden’. From that island perspective, he referred to Scotland as his ‘second country’.
His poems often reach for archetypes beneath the everyday, as titles of his poems and collections suggest: The Voyage, The Labyrinth. At its best, his poetry ‘finds a dreamlike world in the heart of the actual’ as Robert Crawford has commented in Scotland’s Books (2007). As Roderick Watson describes it, Muir saw poetry as ‘personal reintegration’, and he wrote that ‘everyone should live his life twice’. In 1939 in St Andrews, Muir had a religious experience and from then onwards thought of himself as Christian, seeing Christianity as revolutionary as socialism.
All these various strands – Christianity, Jungian archetypes, mythology, dreams, socialism, ecology – informed his poetry. His best-known poem is ‘The Horses’. Published in 1956 at the height of the Cold War, it portrays a world after some terrible disaster (possibly nuclear), in whose wasteland appear some horses, ‘new as if they had come from their own Eden’, representing a return to a lost closeness to nature. The plain, matter-of-fact style of the poem just adds to the power of the images.
Muir is not a ‘modernist’ in the sense of being experimental or interested in new techniques – the critic Jay Parini has described him as a ‘master of conventional forms’ – perhaps this and that ‘calm and neutral tone’ has tended to his often being overlooked in the pantheon of Scottish poetry. Apart from a few anthologised poems, he has almost faded from view; time will tell whether the poet Mick Imlah’s strict selection of his poems in 2008 has revived interest. But his publisher T.S. Eliot recognised his greatness. In the introduction to Muir’s Selected Poems (1965) Eliot wrote: ‘He was first and foremost concerned with what he had to say….under the pressure of emotional intensity, and possessed by his vision, he found, almost unconsciously, the right, the inevitable way of saying what he wanted to say.’