Biography of Edwin Muir
Edwin Muir was an Orcadian poet, novelist and noted translator. Remembered for his deeply felt and vivid poetry in plain, unostentatious language with few stylistic preoccupations, Muir is a significant modern poet.
Muir was born in Deerness, where his mother was also born, at Hacco, remembered in his autobiography as "Haco". In 1901, when he was 14, his father lost his farm, and the family moved to Glasgow. In quick succession his father, two brothers, and his mother died within the space of a few years. His life as a young man was a depressing experience, and involved a raft of unpleasant jobs in factories and offices, including working in a factory that turned bones into charcoal. "He suffered psychologically in a most destructive way, although perhaps the poet of later years benefited from these experiences as much as from his Orkney 'Eden'." In 1919, Muir married Willa Anderson, and the two moved to London. About this, Muir wrote simply 'My marriage was the most fortunate event in my life'. They would later collaborate on highly acclaimed English translations of such writers as Franz Kafka, Gerhart Hauptmann, Sholem Asch, Heinrich Mann, and Hermann Broch.
Between 1921 and 1923, Muir lived in Prague, Dresden, Italy, Salzburg and Vienna; he returned to the UK in 1924. Between 1925 and 1956, Muir published seven volumes of poetry which were collected after his death and published in 1991 as The Complete Poems of Edwin Muir. From 1927 to 1932 he published three novels, and in 1935 he came to St Andrews, where he produced his controversial Scott and Scotland (1936). From 1946 to 1949 he was Director of the British Council in Prague and Rome. 1950 saw his appointment as Warden of Newbattle Abbey College (a college for working class men) in Midlothian, where he met fellow Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown. In 1955 he was made Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. He returned to Britain in 1956 but died in 1959 at Swaffham Prior, Cambridge, and was buried there.
A memorial bench was erected in 1962 to Muir in the idyllic village of Swanston, Edinburgh, where he spent time during the 1950s.
His childhood in remote and unspoiled Orkney represented an idyllic Eden to Muir, while his family's move to the city corresponded in his mind to a deeply disturbing encounter with the "fallen" world. The emotional tensions of that dichotomy shaped much of his work and deeply influenced his life. His psychological distress led him to undergo Jungian analysis in London. A vision in which he witnessed the creation strengthened the Edenic myth in his mind, leading him to see his life and career as the working-out of an archetypal fable. In his Autobiography he wrote, "the life of every man is an endlessly repeated performance of the life of man...". He also expressed his feeling that our deeds on Earth constitute "a myth which we act almost without knowing it." Alienation, paradox, the existential dyads of good and evil, life and death, love and hate, and images of journeys, labyrinths, time and places fill his work.
His Scott and Scotland advanced the claim that Scotland can create a national literature only by writing in English, an opinion that placed him in direct opposition to the Lallans movement of Hugh MacDiarmid. He had little sympathy for Scottish nationalism.
In 1965 a volume of his selected poetry was edited and introduced by T. S. Eliot. Many of Edwin and Willa Muir's translations of German novels are still in print.
The following quotation expresses the basic existential dilemma of Edwin Muir's life:
"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 that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937-39.)
Edwin Muir's Works:
We Moderns: Enigmas and Guesses, under the pseudonym Edward Moore, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1918
Latitudes, New York, B. W. Huebsch, 1924
First Poems, London, Hogarth Press, 1925
Chorus of the Newly Dead, London, Hogarth Press, 1926
Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature, London, Hogarth Press, 1926
The Marionette, London, Hogarth Press, 1927
The Structure of the Novel, London, Hogarth Press, 1928
John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist, London, Jonathan Cape, 1929
The Three Brothers, London, Heinemann, 1931
Poor Tom, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1932
Variations on the Time Theme, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1934
Scottish Journey London, Heinemann in association with Victor Gollancz, 1935
Journeys and Places, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1937
The Present Age from 1914, London, Cresset Press, 1939
The Story and the Fable: An Autobiography, London, Harrap, 1940
The Narrow Place, London, Faber, 1943
The Scots and Their Country, London, published for the British Council by Longman, 1946
The Voyage, and Other Poems, London, Faber, 1946
Essays on Literature and Society, London, Hogarth Press, 1949
The Labyrinth, London, Faber, 1949
Collected Poems, 1921-1951, London, Faber, 1952
An Autobiography, London : Hogarth Press, 1954
Prometheus, illustrated by John Piper, London, Faber, 1954
One Foot in Eden, New York, Grove Press, 1956
New Poets, 1959 (edited), London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959
The Estate of Poetry, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1962
Collected Poems, London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1965
The Politics of King Lear, New York, Haskell House, 1970
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Edwin Muir Poems
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 covenant with silence,
Those lumbering horses in the steady plough, On the bare field - I wonder, why, just now, They seemed terrible, so wild and strange,
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,
O Merlin in your crystal cave Deep in the diamond of the day, Will there ever be a singer Whose music will smooth away
All through that summer at ease we lay, And daily from the turret wall We watched the mowers in the hay And the enemy half a mile away
Circle and Square
‘I give you half of me; No more, lest I should make A ground for perjury. For your sake, for my sake,
The Child Dying
Unfriendly friendly universe, I pack your stars into my purse, And bid you so farewell. That I can leave you, quite go out,
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
Now the ice lays its smooth claws on the sill, The sun looks from the hill Helmed in his winter casket, And sweeps his arctic sword across the sky.
It was not meant for human eyes, That combat on the shabby patch Of clods and trampled turf that lies Somewhere beneath the sodden skies
The Incarnate One
The windless northern surge, the sea-gull's scream, And Calvin's kirk crowning the barren brae. I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd's dream, Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
In Love For Long
I've been in love for long With what I cannot tell And will contrive a song For the intangible
We were a tribe, a family, a people. Wallace and Bruce guard now a painted field, And all may read the folio of our fable, Peruse the sword, the sceptre and the shield.
Our fathers all were poor, Poorer our fathers' fathers; Beyond, we dare not look. We, the sons, keep store
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