Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Remembering Edwin Muir

I don’t think anyone can quite account for Edwin Muir. When he was 14, the family lost the farm in the Orkneys. His father, his two brothers, and his mother died in quick succession. He found himself working in (literally) a Glasgow boneyard, and reading Nietzsche while hanging onto a strip on the commuter coach.

Lots of strap-hangers read Nietzsche, but it was Muir’s peculiar fate to move to London; to become a successful poet and (with his wife, Willa Anderson), the principal English translator of Franz Kafka. He published three novels; he became Warden of Newbattle Abbey (a “workingmen’s college” in Scotland) and at last, Norton Professor of English at Harvard.

Muir’s poetry is spare and unadorned, as accessible as Robert Frost. He may have been more or less forgotten today, but he did, perhaps surprisingly, escape the Frostian fate of being underrated for his simplicity. Perhaps it helped that a volume of his selected poems was published in 1965 with the imprimatur of T.S. Eliot.

Muir’s Autobiography (1954) is a delightful read, but it throws almost no light on the question of how he made such a spectacular transition—apparently he did not know himself. There is a shrewd critical assessment here, but this too leaves unimportant questions unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.

Here is a sample of Muir at his most characteristic:

We are a people, race and speech support us,
Ancestral rite and custom, roof and tree,
Our songs that tell of our triumphs and disasters
(Fleeting alike,) continuance of fold and hearth,
Our names and callings, work and rest and sleep,
And something that, defeated, still endures—
These things sustain us. Yet there are times
When name, identity, and our very hands
Senselessly labouring, grow hateful to us,
And we would gladly rid us of these burdens,
Enter our darkness through the doors of wheat
And the light veil of grass (leaving behind
Name, body, country, speech, vocation, faith)
And gather into the secrecy of the earth
Furrowed by broken ploughs lost deep in time.

--From Edwin Muir, A Difficult Land

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