Like a Silent Clock: Edwin Muir and his Poetry

John Greening

Edwin Muir (1887-1959) has had no lack of distinguished admirers. T.S.Eliot published him and edited a Selected Poems for Faber, noting in his Preface the ‘rare and precious quality’ of Muir’s personality and the ‘unmistakable integrity’ of his poetry, admiring the way that ‘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.’ He was one of the mighty handful of such visionaries championed by that great English mystic Kathleen Raine (David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins were other moderns she found fit to stand by Yeats and Blake). The late John Haines recognised in Edwin Muir – as much as in his beloved John Muir – a kindred spirit, another doughty individualist whose Eden was not Alaska but the tiny isle of Wyre, off the coast of Scotland; Haines provided the introduction to Graywolf’s 1993 edition of Muir’s essays, The Estate of Poetry. Seamus Heaney, too, considered Muir important enough to write about him at length (and not uncritically) in Finders Keepers, while one of the last things that Mick Imlah published before he died of Motor Neurone Disease in 2009 was a new Faber edition of his fellow Scot’s poetry. It hardly raised a ripple. In an age when poets routinely come out from under the shadow of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop or (in the case of UK poets) Edward Thomas, how often do we find anyone claiming the influence of Edwin Muir?

Most readers will have come across the name indirectly, through the translations of Kafka he made for Penguin with his wife, Willa (whose 1968 memoir, Belonging, is well worth seeking out). Their versions of The Trial, The Castle and the short stories are still among the best. Having lived in Prague after the First World War and during the Communist take-over in 1948, Muir knew and fully understood what ‘Kafkaesque’ would come to mean. He has been criticized for missing an opportunity to write from first-hand experience about life under Communism, to analyse the upheavals he lived through, yet it seems to me that this reveals a profound misunderstanding of his art. He was never going dramatise his experiences; he was no Vaclav Havel and certainly no Miłosz. Yet almost everything Muir wrote in his later years bears the mark of his experience of mid-twentieth-century Europe. Read ‘The Good Town’, a longish poem from his most powerful collection, The Labyrinth (1949) for example, which shows how a settled community ‘with streets of friendly neighbours’ can lose what it took for granted, and become a place with ‘a fine new prison,/The house-doors shut and barred, the frightened faces/Peeping round corners, secret police, informers,/And all afraid of all.’

Muir’s achievement as a poet is to have avoided the temptations of propaganda, or direct political pronouncements. When he writes, as he often does, of a way or a road, of a hero or a leader, it is not part of a cry to arms. When he tells us of poverty it is with passive resignation, but with wisdom and sympathy too. Only in his third collection, The Narrow Place, published during the Second World War, does he produce anything that could be called satirical, and even here the blame is turned inward, and the impression is of a disillusioned bitterness. In ‘Scotland, 1941’, it is ‘we’ who are to blame: ‘We were a tribe, a family, a people’ he begins, then adds: ‘Wallace and Bruce guard now a painted field’ (the latter a phrase taken by Scottish poet, Robin Robertson, as title for his 1997 collection). Towards the end of the poem, there is a simmering of outrage, but it is really the kind of thing that Eliot did better:

[...] We, fanatics of the frustrate and the half,
Who once set Purgatory Hill in doubt.
Now smoke and dearth and money everywhere,
Mean heirlooms of each fainter generation,
And mummied housegods in their musty niches,
Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation,
And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,
No pride but pride of pelf

The younger Muir was impressed by Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M.Grieve) and shared his hope that a Scottish Republic might come about. But although he was a passionate convert to Socialism in his twenties, something that took the place of his religious faith and helped him survive emotionally, even that experience had a mystical tinge. During the May Day celebrations when he was twenty-one he suddenly felt that ‘all distinction had fallen away like a burden carried in some other place, and that all substance had been transmuted’. MacDiarmid would hardly have appreciated such transports. It would be many years before he could tap into such feelings, by which time he was on his way back to Christianity. But his faith was not of the evangelising kind, nor was he to be tempted by the openly, angrily political mode of the Thirties Poets. Edwin Muir keeps his passions safely caged. He sees what is wrong but he has eyes on something deeper, something that Jung would have understood.

The key to this lies in the poet’s early life, described in a remarkable book first published in 1940 as The Story and the Fable, then retitled simply Edwin Muir: An Autobiography. This revised version (1954) is one of the finest memoirs ever written, and used to be set as an exam text in British schools – for the beauty of its prose as well as for the power of the narrative. The autobiography is rich in dream and symbol, but never loses touch with reality and in fact is often quite funny. It features some lively portraiture, a skill which Muir seldom displays in his verse (here he differs from Yeats), as when he describes his cousin Sutherland, ‘the most original character in the house’:

I remember him as a little man in a blue jersey and trousers with a dashing fall. His body swung forward from his hips as if he were always on the point of offering something with his hands. His head was like a battering-ram, and dusty brown hair like an animal’s fell stood stiffly up from it. His sparkling eyes were nautical, his bulbous nose ecclesiastical, his bushy brown moustache military.

On the Orkney island of Wyre at the end of the nineteenth century there was, Muir tells us, ‘no great distinction between the ordinary and the fabulous’ – alighting here on a word which would become very important to him, particularly because of the fable’s association with animals. Animals dominated life on the island and would subsequently haunt Muir’s dreams, nibbling at and nudging into his poetry:

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. [...]
                              (‘The Animals’)

These (in a poem that rather anticipates Les Murray) are the unnamed animals ‘In the unchanging Here/Of the fifth great day of God’ before the sixth day of creation, when (as the poem’s last line reminds us) ‘we came’. Although Revivalist Christianity was strong on Wyre – and Muir himself was touched by it – stories about ‘Auld Nick’ and witches, fairies and ghosts were stronger, and could be turned into a ballad and sung to the family fiddles. Very real too were the bloody pig-sticking and sheep-slaughtering rituals, encounters with mad bulls, and stampeding cattle, terrifying horses. And everywhere lay the sea, its many ghosts (there is one extraordinary account in An Autobiography of a phantom ship), its storms and calms, its unexpected survivors arriving at the cottage door, the drowned sailors in the bay. The book’s shocking climax comes after chapters describing this idyllic, prelapsarian Orkney childhood, days of simple pleasures, of real horsepower (Muir’s father was a horse whisperer) and community in ‘a timeless landscape’.

When Muir was thirteen, the family were evicted from their farm and had to go to live in Glasgow, surrounded by its notoriously squalid tenements where many families occupied single rooms. While on the face of it there appears to be little sense of this period in Muir’s poetry, Peter Butter suggests in Edwin Muir: Man and Poet that ‘’the tall and echoing passages’ of the labyrinth in his poem ‘The Labyrinth’ are on one level the slums of Glasgow’; and surely the Milton of Muir’s sonnet was walking through the Gorbals when ‘he to the dark tower came/Set square in the gate, a mass of blackened stone/Crowned with vermilion fiends’ and heard ‘the steely clamour known too well/On Saturday nights in every street in Hell’.

Within months of each other, Edwin Muir’s father, mother and two brothers all died (‘the family now looked as if it had been swept by a gale’). He himself had to take on a number of soul-destroying jobs, including one in a factory where ‘fresh and decaying bones, gathered from all over Scotland, were flung into furnaces and reduced to charcoal’. Muir describes the heaps of bones ‘decorated with festoons of slowly writhing, fat yellow maggots’ in the railway siding. It is hardly surprising that the myth of Eden became so potent for him, as in the title poem of his final collection, which begins:

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land...

‘One Foot in Eden’ is full of familiar Muir archetypes and abstractions; it feels a very long way, stylistically, from those writhing maggots, though they marked Muir’s own personal Fall. As in a Greek myth, the fields are planted ‘with crops of love and hate’, but the Biblical register is even stronger – ‘corn and tares’, ‘charity and sin’. A single tree inevitably evokes Christ’s cross (Willa Muir wrote that her husband’s island did only contain one tree ‘known as The Tree’). Not religious poetry, but poetry in which the paraphernalia of religion is carefully placed. Interestingly, a weed is described as ’armorial’, which (‘Time’s handiworks by time are haunted’) takes us somewhere faintly Tennysonian, and Browning’s ‘Childe Roland’ is not far off.

[...] But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

A Muir poem can feel like a dream of a labyrinthine medieval castle, its otherwise bare walls hung with heraldic emblems. He had dealt with the trauma of the Glasgow years first by steeping himself in Nietzsche, and then by seeing an analyst, who taught him to interpret dreams, and this feeds into the poems. These he did not start writing seriously until he was thirty-five, by which time he was in and out of Europe (though he was unfit for the trenches) and married to the formidable Willa Anderson. She played a crucial and self-sacrificing role in stabilising Muir and helping him establish himself. Her own account of this is playfully self-deprecating, calling herself in a sketch for American readers ‘a reckless woman from the Shetland Islands’, but there is no doubt that she is an intellectual and emotional dynamo in her husband’s literary life and a writer of real distinction herself. Muir wrote an increasing number of reviews (for H.L.Mencken, Middleton-Murry, Van Wyck Brooks), a Life of John Knox, many translations, some novels, and critical books such as – ‘the first of his books to sell reasonably well’ according to Peter Butter – The Structure of the Novel. He had to make a living; and if this was a time when the man of letters could live by his pen, there were inevitable low points, particularly in the late 1920s, before the Kafka collaboration began and new opportunities with the BBC opened up, then again during the Second World War.

But Muir made numerous friends during these years and there are plenty of accounts of his gentle, enigmatic personality. He wasn’t tempted by the poetic movements stirring around him, however. At one point, for example, he and Willa were living near the highly influential Geoffrey Grigson, but they had little to do with him. Edwin Muir would always be an outsider. Willa wrote of his ‘detached, aloof, cold eye’, adding in her skittish shorthand style:

Gives a general impression of quietness [...] Witty when at his ease: elegant when he can afford it: sensitive and considerate: horribly shy and silent before strangers, and positively scared by social functions. Among friends, however, becomes completely daft and dances Scottish reels with fervour.

George Barker thought him ‘like a silent clock that showed not the time but the condition, not the hour but the alternative’. I don’t believe that Edwin Muir ever made a vow, as the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins did (whose preoccupations were similar, though his poems lack Muir’s tension), that ‘time would have no power over my work’, but clearly he is not interested in fashion. It is noticeable even in Muir’s very late poetry, when ‘the Movement’ was already scorning the myth-kitty and the Sixties were not so far off, that if an archaic inverted word order suited him, then that was what he would use.

‘The Combat’, from The Labyrinth (1949), is a poem that Eliot did not include in his 1965 selection, but it could have been written by no one but Muir (unless perhaps Robert Graves?). It was fashioned from a vivid dream he had as a boy, described in An Autobiography, and is a splendidly elusive piece of myth-making. Two creatures, one of whom at least might have stepped from an escutcheon, do private battle, an encounter ‘not meant for human eyes’: ‘the crested animal in his pride’, with a leopard’s body and an eagle’s head’ versus the ‘soft round beast as brown as clay’ and resembling ‘a battered bag’. The poem is full of light touches and invigorating rhythms (with here an obsessive pararhyme to suggest something that replays itself unstoppably), an example of Muir’s plainer, more contemporary voice:

For ere the death-stroke he was gone,
Writhed, whirled, huddled into his den,
Safe somehow there. The fight was done,
And he had lost who had almost won.
But oh his deadly fury then.

It also reminds us that Muir does not soften or shy away from violence. There is nothing abstract about the way, as the poem reaches its inconclusive conclusion, ‘the stealthy paw/Slashed out and in’. ‘The Combat’ is allegory of some kind (the Battle of Britain has been proposed!) and this medieval form does appeal to Muir. ‘The Castle’ is a slightly earlier example, part ballad, part monologue from a Morality play, drawing on both Kafka and Bunyan. The smugly metrical confidence of the castle’s inhabitants (‘Our gates were strong, our walls were thick.’) is soon disrupted with equivalent alliterative smugness – halfway through a stanza, indeed:

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true...
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Then the citadel’s vaunted strengths become its weaknesses, ‘our maze of tunnelled stone’ grows ‘thin and treacherous as air’, and all the people of the castle can do is say, feebly:

We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

Muir is working here at considerably more than what Heaney calls his ‘level best’. The poem first appeared in The Voyage, the 1946 collection that so impressed George Mackay Brown: ‘as if a key had been turned in a door, I entered a chamber of pure lyrical meditation.’

But it is ‘The Horses’ from One Foot in Eden (1956, his final collection: Muir got better as he got older) that is the poet’s most widely known and celebrated piece. Usually presented as one of the most effective accounts of the aftermath of nuclear war, and more recently claimed as an early example of ‘eco-awareness’ in verse, this is also a poem that allegorizes Muir’s autobiography: that Edenic horse-powered community, a world ‘that swallowed its children quick/At one great gulp’, the yearning for a ‘long-lost archaic companionship’, the ‘impenetrable sorrow’ at a distance, set against a hope for a new, changed life. It is striking from its very opening half-line. The voice itself catches the ear: it could be a Greek Chorus. ‘The Horses’ is composed in loose blank verse but if Muir leaves dust on the form it is only the dust that his purposes require:

[...] 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. [...]

The modern set-dressing – the tractors, the warship, the plane, the knobs on the radios, the kitchens – prepares us for the arrival of those ‘fabulous steeds’, bringing their strange ‘archaic’ note. All this contributes to the poem’s enduring fascination, as do the shifts in narrative technique, the snatches of direct speech, the unaffectedly plain diction, colloquialisms set against moments of anaphoric chant and above all the mastery of syntax.

Naturally, Eliot did include this in his Selected (made in the last year of his life, as Imlah’s was in his own last year, coincidentally). There is no doubt that although Muir benefited in the short term from the attentions of ’the Pope of Russell Square’, the association did him some damage. It was all too easy to take a Muir poem as if it were decaffeinated Eliot. There are superficial similarities, particularly with Four Quartets, but Muir is an altogether different breed. Curiously, he can feel closer to poets such as R.S.Thomas or Ted Hughes, some of whose poems and at least one of whose short stories (‘The Rain Horse’) could not have been written without the example of ‘The Horses’. It would be wrong to say Muir is not a modernist, yet nor is he quite a formalist. Form doesn’t drive the poems. It is a means to an end. In fact, the play of syntax against imagery is just as crucial to a Muir poem as it is in one by Pound or H.D.; it’s only that the Orcadian can never release himself from the power of the beat – time, after all, being the most persistent of his themes. While he couldn’t be called a mellifluous poet, he can use difficult metres with authority. Take the way, in the opening of the late poem, ‘Orpheus’ Dream’, dactylic forces try to take over as Eurydice appears:

And she was there. The little boat
Coasting the perilous isles of sleep,
Zones of oblivion and despair,
Stopped, for Eurydice was there.

But by the end of the poem, as the truth dawns, the metre returns to something more conventional:

The poor ghost of Eurydice
Still sitting in her silver chair,
Alone in Hades’ empty hall.

He does attempt a freer verse, even a species of Imagism, in some of the early poems such as ‘Autumn in Prague’ and in his last books (for example, ‘The Late Wasp’) although he needs rhyme to reinforce it. Most of his writing is metrical, pentameter in the later work, often blank verse, but there is a variety of stanza forms and line-lengths, there are sonnets, and many ballads. Indeed, the spirit of the best work lies in a border country, in the misty, myth-inhabited edgelands, where Muir deploys instinctively the kind of allegorical double vision that Seamus Heaney attempted with limited success in The Haw Lantern. Muir is a true mystic – Eliot was always happier with a church roof over him; Heaney kept one pagan boot in the bogs – and his verse returns obsessively to certain symbols that would have been recognisable to John Bunyan, even to the poets of Chaucer’s day: the labyrinth, the gate, the castle, the warrior...

And undoubtedly there can be a dullness, a sameness that accompanies this, as Heaney reminds us in his brilliant essay on Muir, where he notes the ‘eerie placidity’ to some of the verse, and his tendency to ‘impose the order of art a little too amiably upon the disorders of experience’. For all the metrical variation, Muir does not read well in bulk: so many titles beginning with ‘The’, so many poems about place rather than people, notions rather than happenings. As Willa points out, he is perfectly capable of wit (though nowhere near as witty as she), yet one feels that the lighter shades have sometimes been filtered out, that poems have to be Serious Business. Nor does the heavy dependence on archetypes help. The same words keep cropping up, rather as they do in the work of Kathleen Raine, who so admired Muir for guarding the ‘ancient springs’: star, tree, hill, root, maze... Then there is, inevitably, a good deal of abstraction. This weighs heavily by page 289 of Edwin Muir’s Collected Poems, yet on that page we find a poem titled ‘Petrol Shortage’ to remind us that this poet inhabited the everyday world like the rest of us (it should be added that the Muirs’ house in Swaffham Prior was not far from several USAF and RAF airbases, of which there are many in East Anglia):

[...] The planes are hunted from the sky,
All round me is the natural day.
I watch this empty country road
Roll half a century away.

And looking round me I recall
That here the patient ploughmen came
Long years ago, and so remember
What they were and what I am. [...]

But at the same time, one of the things that is refreshing in Edwin Muir for a reader accustomed to contemporary British poetry (and this may not apply so much to the USA) is the ease with which he can deal with big issues, can wield those same abstractions proscribed by Pound, and finally shows himself capable of looking coolly, unsentimentally at the most impossible of subjects. It is hard to know who else – not even Graves this time – could have written a poem like ‘The Child Dying’ with its arrestingly paradoxical opening:

Unfriendly, friendly universe,
I pack your stars into my purse,
And bid you, bid you so farewell.
That I can leave you, quite go out,
Go out, go out beyond all doubt,<br/ My father says, is the miracle. [...]

Those monosyllables in the second and fourth lines are heart-breaking: the full stop at the end of the third somehow reproduces the shock of the death; and the arrival of the longer word ‘miracle’ becomes all the more affecting.

When I recently spent a month at the writers’ retreat, Hawthornden Castle in West Lothian, I found myself only a bus-ride away from Newbattle Abbey, the college of which Muir became Warden in 1950, after his difficult years of ill health and dispiriting turmoil in Prague, where he had been Director of the British Council Institute. At Newbattle he met and encouraged his fellow Orcadian, young George Mackay Brown, for whom the encounter was life-changing. Brown’s biographer, Maggie Fergusson, remarks that ‘it is hard to believe that there was anyone better equipped to help him on his way than Edwin Muir’. Of course, I made the pilgrimage from Hawthornden, and stood in a daze among the trees that must have been growing when they were there together. Muir said once that people from Orkney ‘only feel the real shape of the world’ when there aren’t any such ‘pretty decorations’ as trees, but walking that wooded labyrinth it was hard not to imagine ‘the shape of the world’ being discussed by these two great poets.

In the end, it is not Newbattle or Prague that one thinks of when reading Edwin Muir. It is that lost Eden:

My childhood all a myth
Enacted in a distant isle;
Time with his hourglass and his scythe
Stood dreaming on the dial [...]

Seamus Heaney was right to say that Muir’s is ‘an example that still awaits full appreciation’, but in answer to the question I put at the end of my first paragraph, I would certainly claim Edwin Muir as an influence. I read him avidly when we lived in Arbroath, North-East Scotland in the early 1980s, subsequently enjoying Peter Butter’s excellent biography, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet, his edition of Muir’s Selected Letters and other books about the poet such as George Marshall’s In a Distant Isle, which concentrates on the Orkney background. As it happens, ‘though inland far we be’ in Cambridgeshire now, a very long way from the Orcades, Edwin Muir’s grave lies no distance from where my family and I live. His gravestone (inscribed with lines from one of his finest sonnets) clearly did not come from anywhere in our peaty Fenland district and it stands out from all the others around it at Swaffham Prior. This is the village where the Muirs settled in 1956, until the poet’s death three years later, a curious place with two churches to its name standing side by side in the one churchyard. Nearby, there is a mighty ancient linear earthwork known as the Devil’s Dyke – appropriate for a poet so concerned with labyrinths. Perhaps Muir knew that Auld Nick prefers straight lines, which is why certain villages in England (such as Hilton, a few miles from the grave) have turf mazes, for the purposes of casting him out.

Some years ago, visiting Swaffham Prior, I wrote a tribute in Muir’s own favourite ballad metre, and it seems fitting to end with it.



Here where the Devil’s Dyke runs out
     Your maze begins and ends,
A line from your sonnet, ‘Milton’, carved
     In stone that mocks the Fens.

‘His unblinded eyes saw far and near
     The fields of paradise’ –
The Castle and The Trial torched
     In that metamorphosis.

Did the labyrinth of misery
     You thought would end in Prague
Twist back again to bring you to
     An age we christened ‘dark’?

The Devil moves in straight ruled lines
     And cannot thread a maze.
You stood firm-footed as he marked
     The clear light in your eyes.

His tanks, his missiles, his salute
     Paraded on your stare:
The mirror-hall you laid for him
     Sharp-silvered with our fear.

And what he spoke before he spied
     The heat in your cold glaze
Was not of Eastern Europe, but
     The long-lost Orcades.

Of men who knew what horsepower was,
     Of children who had names,
Of goodness that, like samphire, grows
     On the salt edge of dreams.

The Devil still came on towards
     Your bliss-hoard in the Fens,
But, like a glacier, dropped his snout
     At two blank wintry suns

That lead into your labyrinth,
     Your grave at Swaffham Prior,
Above it, broad blue empty sky,
     And lines that carry power.

For while your life’s unravelled now
     To threads felt through the dark,
The dead straight line solution
     Goes on to poison Prague.

                         first published in The Coastal Path (1996)

JOHN GREENING is recipient of a Cholmondeley Award from the UK Society of Authors and winner of the Bridport and TLS Prizes. He has published over a dozen collections of poetry, most recently To the War Poets from Carcanet, and he has written critical studies of Yeats, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Elizabethan love poets and poets of the First World War. His anthology, Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers and his new edition of Edmund Blunden (Oxford University Press) appeared in 2015. His collaboration with Penelope Shuttle (Heath) will be published in 2016.  He writes for the Times Literary Supplement and is RLF Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge.